Tween Book Club: Graphic Novel edition

You don’t need me to tell you that tweens are nuts for graphic novels. And who can blame them? Graphic novels are currently some of the funniest, most innovative, and most authentic middle grade books being published today. If you need to reinvigorate your Tween Book Club, try a graphic novel.

Why use graphic novels in book club?

You might have parents and caregivers who are anti-graphic novels. They might think that reading a graphic novel isn’t really reading, or that their child should be reading something “harder,” or “more serious.” I hear this all the time at my library, and I try to gently push back. Here are some reasons why graphic novels aren’t just candy for the brain:

  • They allow you to include a wider range of reading levels in your book club. Because the story is told through a mixture of words and art, developing readers can understand more of the story by following the pictures, and strong readers will still find appeal in the emotional depth these stories provide.
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Motion and feeling can be captured in something as seemingly simple as “AAAAAAH!” which helps developing readers keep up with the action.
  • They attract hibernating readers. There’s a reason that the children’s fiction best seller list is often dominated by Dav Pilkey and Raina Telgemeier. Even kids who don’t identify as readers love these books, because they’re genuinely enjoyable to read for pleasure and often hilarious.
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A little bathroom humor goes a long way!
  • They can be sneakily deep. Don’t be fooled by the bright colors and speech bubbles – graphic novels are often tackling tough topics, fascinating history, and asking the deep questions that have no clear answers, like “How can I fit in, and do I even want to?” and “How do we fight for what’s right in an oppressive society?” The bright colors and speech bubbles don’t cover up these topics – instead, they make them palatable and help kids really grapple with thorny issues.
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Slavery and racism are important to talk about, but they can feel overwhelming. Graphic novels can help kids dig deep into these topics without getting stuck in the darkness.
  • They let you talk about art! Writing is not the only important mode of self-expression. When you discuss a graphic novel with kids, you can talk about the story and the characters but also how the art is used. How can you tell how this character is feeling just by the way the artist drew them? What colors is the artist using, and how do they make you feel? The skill to look critically at images is just as important as the skill of looking critically at text, but it’s often overlooked in school curriculums.
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What can we tell about these characters, just from the way the artist drew their expressions?
  • Kids love them! In my book club, we read a range of genres – fantasy, realistic fiction, nonfiction, mysteries, poetry and graphic novels. The kids feel like the months we read graphic novels are special, reward months, and I’m happy to lean in to that feeling because it keeps them coming back!

Graphic novels I’ve used for Tween Book Club:

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The Underground Abductor, by Nathan Hale

Genre: Nonfiction

Part of a series?: Yes – Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales

In this biography of Harriet Tubman, Hale balances out the seriously dark topic of slavery and injustice by using extremely funny narrators who comment on Tubman’s story and include asides to help give kids some context in case they haven’t learned about the Civil War yet in history class.

My tweens loved this book – one of my fourth graders burst into book club and immediately started ranting about John Brown (whom she had previously never heard of), which goes to show you how strongly she had engaged with the topic! The tweens were fascinated by Tubman’s life and we got to have a good conversation about slavery and racism.

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The Nameless City, by Faith Erin Hicks.

Genre: Fantasy

Part of a Series?: Yes, this is the first book in a trilogy

I was unsure about how my book club would receive this one – although my book club is for 4th-6th graders, at the time I also had some 3rd graders who had snuck in, and The Nameless City is a more complex read than a lot of the other books we’ve tackled. The vocabulary, visual storytelling, and complex plot about conquered peoples and invading nations make it a fascinating read, but not necessarily an easy one for your average eight-year-old.

However, I was blown away by how my kids engaged with this material. We did have to talk through a few of the plot points, but that’s actually a good thing, because it allows the kids to help one another as they explain. Our activity for this meeting was a mock United Nations-style debate. I divided the kids up at random, half representing the native people, and half representing the invaders, and had them see if they could negotiate a peace. They really got into it, arguing about whether being powerful and fully armed made it okay for a nation to take over a peaceful people. This activity really demonstrated their understanding of the story!

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Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson

Genre: Realistic fiction

Part of a series?: No

This book is all about the hazards of growing up. In this case, the main character, Astrid, is growing apart from her best friend when Astrid becomes devoted to her new roller derby class and is surprised that her best friend doesn’t want to join her. In addition to being a great story about friendship and middle school, watching Astrid work hard to learn this incredibly tough sport is inspiring!

For our activity, we watched some of a roller derby match and came up with our own roller derby names and helmet designs. If I did it again, I would love to invited some actual roller derby players in to visit (and if I had the space, maybe even give a demonstration!).

I also have to say that, despite the common misconceptions about “boy books” and “girl books,” the boys and girls in my book club enjoyed this book equally. No gendered books here!

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El Deafo, by Cece Bell

Genre: Fiction, but influenced by the author’s experience

Part of a series?: No

This book takes Bell’s experience growing up with hearing loss and struggling to fit in with her hearing peers, and recasts it with adorable bunny rabbits in 70s clothing. In addition to being a positive portrayal of a character with a disability, it’s just funny as heck.

For this book, I invited a mom I knew from storytime who is Deaf to come and share her experiences with us. It was a time and a half getting my city to provide an interpreter for her (a story for another time! But we can all agree that this should be a no-brainer, right?) but for most of my book club she was the first Deaf person they had ever met, and really helped them connect the story with the real world.

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Cardboard Kingom, by Chad Sell

Genre: Realistic fiction in the frame story, but featuring lots of smaller, fantasy stories of what the kids imagine as they play and build.

Part of a series?: Not yet, but there’s always hope!

This is the only one on my list that I haven’t used with my book club yet, but I’m looking forward to it when we do! Because each of the kids gets a chance to share their own story in the book, it has a lot of diversity and different types of stories shown, so if a reader doesn’t connect with one story, they have several more chances to find a character that speaks to them.

I’m thinking that for this one, I’m going to need to hoard an awful lot of cardboard and maybe schedule our book club meeting to be extra long (we usually meet for an hour, but maybe an hour and a half might be better) so that my kids have plenty of time to build. I might do this one as our end-of-the-year celebratory book.

Am I missing any of your favorite graphic novels? Tell me in the comments!

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