The Surprising Benefits of Student-Created Graphic Novels

By Shveta Miller, published on Cult of Pedagogy, 2019

Graphic novels are wonderful for reading, but when students use this form for their own writing, incredible stories can emerge.

There is no shortage of ways we all can benefit from teaching graphic novels. They engage reluctant or struggling readers, they are gateway texts for more complex literature, they build necessary background knowledge, and they develop visual literacy skills. 

But another important reason to teach students to read, analyze, and create a graphic novel is that the form invites them to express hard truths about themselves and their experiences in a way that is different from what they can do with pure prose. 

And perhaps a more surprising reason is for the impact it can have on a teacher’s relationship with students. Teaching the graphic novel to my high school English students wasa way for me to see that there was pain in my classroom and the role I might be playing in students’ difficult experiences. 


I taught my first unit on the graphic novel in my high school World Literature classes. We read Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis, in which a young Marji describes her experience growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. For their culminating project, students created their own graphic memoirs about a significant experience in their lives, using Persepolis as their mentor text. 

As I turned page after page of each student’s story, I discovered that this unit had accomplished a goal I never intended. I didn’t expect so many students to delve into deeply personal, often traumatic, experiences from their past. I had read engaging personal narratives from students before, but this was different. Some used the project to announce an aspect of their identity they had kept secret. Others revealed the reasons behind certain challenging behaviors they exhibited in class. They created stories that would be healing for them and, in some cases, for their relationships with me. 

What is it about the graphic novel form that made this possible?

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When Your Child Reads New Kid Over Your Shoulder

By Shveta Miller, published on Book Riot, Februray 2020

Last year, I picked up Jerry Craft’s New Kid from the library. I had heard on a podcast that Craft uses inventive graphic novel devices to tell a story about middle schooler Jordan Banks transferring to a prestigious private school where he is one of the few students of color. Craft mentions that the story was influenced by his own experiences growing up.

I have taught my students how to critically read and analyze graphic novels, and how to incorporate unique elements and devices to tell their own compelling stories in graphic form, so I was particularly excited to check out New Kid for its potential as a classroom mentor text. And, having been witness to the experiences of students like Jordan as a classroom teacher, I imagined that reading New Kid would open students’ eyes to the possibilities of stories they could narrate in graphic form. I knew this was a book I wanted to read.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, was how reading this graphic novel to myself, on the couch next to my 2nd grade child, would spontaneously spark conversations about racial bias, stereotyping, and microaggressions.

Jordan, the narrator of New Kid, bonds with Drew, a fellow student of color at his new and mostly white private school. They commiserate about the assumptions that teachers and librarians have made about books they would connect with—books about slavery, struggle, and street life. I was so engrossed in the images of several book covers with increasingly dire titles that I barely noticed my daughter hovering over my shoulder, equally captivated.

“That’s like how a lot of books with brown girls I see are about how hard it is to be brown.” Now, this is a conversation we’ve had before—I’m a brown educator raising a biracial reader—but this impromptu communal reading experience of New Kid stretched our conversation in new directions. “Why did the teachers give him those books?” she wondered aloud. We talked more about how Jordan and Drew might’ve felt when they were given those books and why. She had a lot to say about the limited range of topics covered in the books she’s read with main characters of color.

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