How Early Graphic Novels Create Lifelong Readers

by Miranda Rosbach

Photo credit: Tatyana Tomsickova Photography, Moment Collection/Getty Images

Do you remember the book that made you a reader? What about the book that made your kid(s) love reading?

When my girls were still small, we took a trip to the Eric Carle Museum in Western Massachusetts. We explored the expansive on-site library, took in the exhibits (Peter Sis and William Steig at the time), and made some process art in their vibrant, hands-on workspace.

As a souvenir, we chose a beloved board book that my then 19-month-old couldn’t get enough of. It was about large trucks (i.e., cranes, dump trucks, excavators, street sweepers, etc.). That book felt like a breakthrough for my youngest, who, unlike my oldest, hadn’t been enamored with books from birth.

Fast forward a few years, and seek-and-find books became the go-to for this then-mercurial three-year-old. Most recently, a few weeks before her fifth birthday, she hit another book milestone. A shift to something between picture books and chapter books: graphic novels.

What are graphic novels? In short, they are long-form, fictional works of sequential art. Think of detailed comic strips lasting the duration of a book.

Graphic novels have long been hailed as the treatment to induce reluctant readers (generally older elementary kids) to delve headlong into a love affair with books. But what about children who are still learning to read? Young children between the ages of 4-7 rely on pictures for clues about what transpires in a story. Graphic novels help transition these emerging readers from shorter picture books to more long-form stories.

How does it work? First, reading together is part of this process. If you don’t already have a habit of reading together, this is the first step! Make the time consistent. We have had success with some of these strategies:

1. Read after school

I sit and read with the kids while they indulge in snack time. Add some coloring sheets or paint-by-sticker activity books to keep their hands busy while they listen.

2. After dinner storytime

This time is excellent in the winter months when it gets dark early.

3. Read before school

Sometimes I read aloud to my kids while they eat breakfast. This strategy has the added benefit of eliminating mealtime bickering. We can typically squeeze in 10-15 minutes of reading time before heading out the door.

4. Read at bedtime

This can be a tricky time, especially if parents and kids are exhausted. However, reading can be a soothing way to end the day and is a wonderful bonding experience. I cannot emphasize this enough: whatever time you choose, be consistent. Things may get off schedule during holiday breaks or vacations, but overall, make reading aloud part of your daily routine.

What do I read? Graphic novels come in all formats. If you are new to the genre and have young ones under the age of eight, try the popular Narwhal and Jelly books as a starting point. My kids love this underwater duo! Similarly, Mika Song’s Norma and Belly books (with their wonderfully punny titles) run about 100 pages and take approximately 15 minutes to read. Both series use panels to move action through the story, often going from a macro to a micro level.

Pro tip: Because graphic novels feature several images on one spread, you may need to slow down when reading to allow the reader to notice facial expressions and subtle changes between panels.

What else can I read? I am a firm believer in reading what you/your kids like. If it isn’t a hit, don’t read it again. If you don’t like a book when you’re 15-30 pages in, skip it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with not finishing a book. Move on to something more rewarding. I guarantee you’ll enjoy your reading life better with this strategy.

Another thing, while I’ve got your ear: try not to lump categories of books (ahem: graphic novels) into less than other genres. I’ve heard parents in bookstores and, even worse, librarians suggest graphic novels aren’t “real” books. This simply isn’t true.

Graphic novels are a beautiful gateway to becoming lifelong readers. They allow me to connect with my now five-year-old in a format longer than a picture book. Also, they help strengthen her memory recall and ability to tell a story, especially if we are working through a longer book.

In summary, graphic novels are an excellent bridge from picture books to full-fledged chapter books with little to no images. They can engage young readers and keep read-aloud sessions fresh.

Have you tried reading graphic novels with your kids? If not, I encourage you to give it a go!