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December 4, 2009

Graphic Novel Workshops for Teens


Jordan Boaz is a librarian at the Sam Garcia Western Avenue Library in Avondale, Arizona.

The library where I work is a destination for many teens after their school releases them for the day. Being in close proximity to the high school, we often take over where the teachers left off with tutoring and discipline as well as providing educational programs. The majority of our teens are 15-year-old boys who have a hard time believing me when I tell them that reading can be fun. In an attempt to change this, I set out to find what the teens were interested in. A great deal of them read manga and expressed an interest in storytelling. The teens are simply overwhelmed and uninterested by novels, even those geared toward their age group. It isn’t the story that makes the teens in my library shy away from books—it’s the format. Because many of them don’t feel confident in their reading abilities, they absorb themselves in other pursuits that don’t involve reading. This hesitancy to pick up a book was something I needed to target.
I knew the teens were creative and enjoyed telling stories. I thought the best way to get them interested would be to introduce them to the wide world of graphic novels. While the thought of writing a novel may be boring to them, there’s no way they couldn’t get excited about telling a story in pictures. By having the teens create their own graphic novels, the teens were embracing an entirely different method of reading and writing. A big thing with many teens is the “cool” factor. They don’t want to be embarrassed because they’re seen with a book and their peers have deemed that “uncool.” The graphic-novel format breaks that barrier. It doesn’t exactly resemble a traditional book, and the illustrators are skilled in creating images that are compelling.
Starting with a small workshop, I had the teens create stories and characters that were all their own. Some of them chose to depict real-life situations, while others created pure fiction. One of the most unexpected parts of the workshop was the team dynamics that formed. Not everyone’s an artist and not everyone’s a writer, so teens started working together to tell one story with one person illustrating and another narrating. Far beyond my expectation of encouraging literacy in a new format, the teens found a way to use their strengths in a mutually beneficial manner. The teens quickly embraced the idea of writing and the workshop was a huge success.
Graphic novels have always been a favorite of mine. Their ability to tell a story through words and pictures encourages a bond between the reader and the author that often leaves the reader so wrapped up in the story that they don’t want it to end. Graphic novels just strike me as the perfect genre for reluctant readers. Those who are not enamored with or are overwhelmed by novels are left very few options in a library and quickly get turned off the idea of reading for pleasure. But now, many of the teens at my library create short stories in the graphic-novel format and ask me to showcase them for their peers so that others can read them. This was another surprise benefit of the program, because the teens were previously very reserved about how much of themselves they shared. It seems that the program inspired them to try their hand at something new and with that experience came the confidence to show it to others.
Many adults are quick to write off graphic novels as child’s play without considering that William Shakespeare, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, and numerous other authors of classics have all had their works adapted to the graphic-novel format. These stories are quick to gain fans that would have never considered the stories otherwise. In my library, the classics that have been turned into graphic novels are some of our highest circulating materials.

I found that graphic novels also work as great transition books for young readers. They’re able to read more mature material in a format that is familiar to them. This creates a situation that fosters literacy instead of scaring readers away. The whole goal of the graphic-novel program was to expose the teens to something new and give them a chance to try it. The teens took that and ran with it, farther than I ever could have imagined, making the graphic-novel program a wild success.