Welcome to Top Grade: CanLit for the Classroom, a blog and preview video series that features new releases from Canadian book publishers ideal for use in K-12 classrooms and school library collections. Throughout the year, we dive into new titles, highlighting relevant curriculum links and themes.
Written by secondary school teacher Spencer Miller
Kids love reading graphic novels! And I love teaching with them. From expanding visual literacy and vocabulary to building empathy and confidence in readers, the benefits of reading graphic novels are endless.
Comics and graphics novels are great tools to practice close reading. When I read a graphic novel with my students, I highlight the way authors and illustrators make specific choices when crafting stories and characters. I like having a digital copy that I can display using a screen or projector so I can zoom in and draw my student’s focus to a single panel or a small detail. Together we examine the way authors and illustrators use words, colours, composition, shading, and other techniques to make a story come alive on the page.
Here are some other techniques and details to look for as you read with your students:
As a visual medium, comics have the benefit of being able to show the way a character is feeling. Ask your students to identify how a character is feeling in a panel and back up their responses with details in the art. They may point out details from a character’s body language or facial expression or they might notice colours or shading that reflect the way the character feels.
Invite your students to visualize the movement or action within a specific panel or page. Then ask them to describe what they pictured in their minds. Discuss how the details in the art determine how an image moves in our imaginations.
Comic creators have a unique way of creating speech, sound effects, and even music within a silent medium. They use symbols, font styles, onomatopoeia, and other techniques to help readers “hear” what is happening on the page. Ask your students what sounds they “hear” coming from a panel.
You can find these techniques in almost every graphic novel. The more I study graphic novels with my students, the more impressed I am with their ability to notice and break down the little details. I like to ask, “Did you notice any other details that I may have missed?” I’m always surprised by what my students pick up on!
We are lucky to have tremendously talented Canadian artists and storytellers crafting incredible comics for kids. Here are five brand-new Canadian graphic novels that young readers will devour!
Bellwether Riggwelter is a loveable sheep who just wants to go out and pick blackberries without being eaten by wolves! Bellwether comes up with a plan to keep himself safe by blending in. He creates a wolf suit disguise that works perfectly… until it doesn’t. The Wolf Suit is a touching graphic novel with folkloric storytelling that explores themes of loneliness and masking, relatable to anyone who feels they need to act differently to fit in and make friends.
In Class: As you read, encourage young readers to track Bellwether’s feelings and how they change. How can you tell when Bellwether is feeling lonely, frightened or satisfied? After reading, students can craft paper wolf or sheep masks with various expressions. Great for ages 6-11 (grades 1-6).
Awale, a cab driver in Yellowknife, is working hard to provide for his family back home in Somalia. To help his son Afrah deal with the separation, he tells him stories set in an epic fantasy world inspired by the wonders of his new Arctic home. For Afrah, who is trying to escape feelings of loneliness, the real world and fantasy start to blend. King Warrior is a heartwarming and action-packed adventure with unforgettable characters and wondrous landscapes.
In Class: Pay attention to the colours in this story. How do the colours help distinguish characters and settings? How do the colours change between the real and fantasy world? Students can explore the effect of colour by using pencils, markers, or paints to create two differently coloured versions of the same image. Great for ages 9-12 (grades 3-7).
Leah is feeling left behind when her mother leaves for training and her best friend’s family is reassigned. Leah is left at home to navigate the ups and downs of making new friends while avoiding her father’s unpredictable mood swings. AWOL is a sincere and hopeful graphic novel about a military family coping with the effects of PTSD.
In Class: This graphic novel explores the realities of mental health from a kid’s perspective. How might the story change if it were told from the point of view of Leah’s mother, father, or friend? After reading, have a conversation about how your students can support their friends and family who may be experiencing mental health challenges. Great for ages 9-12 (grades 3-7).
Ahiahia is attacked by enemies in his camp, the same enemies who murdered his parents. He must use his agility, hunting skills, and the protection imparted by his grandmother to stay alive. Ahiahia the Orphan is a blending of traditional storytelling with comic book style art that will capture the attention of a new generation of readers while introducing them an ancient story.
In Class: This graphic novel could inspire a similar project where students select a familiar fairytale, myth, or fable and adapt it to create their own comic book or graphic novel. Great for ages 12-18 (grades 8-12).
A Tłı̨chǫ Dene boy and his grandmother help a Japanese man reclaim his grandfather’s samurai armour after it is stolen. Background information provides context and explains the intersection between Indigenous and Japanese Canadian experiences during the Second World War. A Blanket of Butterflies is a powerful tribute to the ways that different peoples’ cultures and histories have crossed and become connected throughout history.
In Class: This book has stunning and intricately crafted action sequences. Challenge students to create a 4-panel action sequence using stick figures. What details can they add to help their stick figures “move” across the page? Great for ages 15-18 (grades 9-12).
Spencer Miller graduated from the University of Calgary with degrees in English and Education. He participated in various projects examining the potential of children’s literature in the classroom as an undergraduate researcher. He is currently a secondary school teacher in Montréal/Tiohtià:ke. You can follow more of Spencer’s passion for books on Instagram @YACanadaBooks.
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