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Three graphic novels

boxers     saints     Yummy

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang (First Second, 2013)

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke (Lee & Low, 2010)

Graphic novels are enjoying a surge of interest and critical attention. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award and was the winner of the 2007 Printz Award. In the two volumes Boxers and Saints, Yang depicts the Boxer Rebellion in China from two very different perspectives. Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, written by G. Neri and illustrated by Randy DuBurke, is a fictionalized account of a very young gang member on the run for murder. Graphic novels have been welcomed into high school classrooms (notably Gareth Hinds’s masterful retellings of literary classics, such as Romeo and Juliet and Beowulf), and many teens already devour comics (as Yang calls all such works).

How might students learn from these texts? Should they be paired with more traditional texts to be meaningful, or can a graphic novel study stand alone? Common Core Standards require students to be able to “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats, including visually, quantitatively.”* How important is visual literacy for our students?

* From College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading #7


Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.



  1. Meredith Morrison says:

    In my own personal experience, graphic novels can provide a unique access point for students. I’ve used Gareth Hinds’ Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet graphic novels in my classroom as supplemental texts primarily for my struggling readers, and I have seen how the visual representations can help illuminate the complexities of Shakespearean and Homeric language. Prior to engaging with the graphic novels and picture books for this week’s class, I hadn’t necessarily thought about the possibility of using a graphic novel or picture book as a core text; I always viewed them as wonderful supplemental materials that can assist in comprehending the actual text.

    Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints, in my opinion, is a historical fiction in the form of a graphic novel. I found myself following Little Bao’s quest to regain his country from the “foreign devils.” The illustrations enhanced the strong religious aspect of the Boxer Rebellion. When Little Bao, his brothers, Mei-wen, and other members of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists fought, they suddenly transformed into these powerful and beautiful gods. The graphic novel form allows the reader to see the people’s religious conviction. These people truly felt as though they were fighting for a greater cause, a greater purpose, as though their bodies were the vessels from a higher power, and the illustrations speak to that vividly. The pages are filled with these beautifully decorated and costumed gods slaying unarmed people, covering the ground with blood. Page after page I began to question Little Bao’s quest to reclaim China from the “foreign devils” as he burnt down churches filled with Chinese citizens who practiced Christianity, and the library he and Mei-wen spent time reading in. The visual depictions, I think, reinforce the hypocrisies of war, and the dialogue between the characters provide is by no means basic or devoid of literary merit. The words of Little Bao’s second brother are always tinged with subtle misogyny and disregard for the edicts. The character of Lu Pai is particularly interesting to analyze. A former magistrate who was briefly captured by the “foreign devils” becomes an advisor-like figure for Little Bao despite his utter exaggerations and fallacies he concocts about the enemy. Initially Little Bao finds Lu Pai’s stories to be light and amusing, but then we see as he takes his opinions, stories, and theories to heart.

    A big question still remains for me: Could a graphic novel like Boxers and Saints stand alone as a core text? For me, I can see this graphic novel being used as a supplemental text in a history classroom. Perhaps whilst studying the Boxer Rebellion during the Xing Dynasty, students are asked to engage with the graphic novel to reinforce the historical accounts in textbooks or nonfiction articles. I could also see students reading this graphic novel after completing the unit of study surrounding the Boxer Rebellion and being asked to analyze it for its validity. They could answer questions about the authorial choice to create a graphic novel instead of a historical fiction, and they could discuss the effects of providing two opposing perspectives. It might even be interesting to, later on during the year, have students create their own graphic novel of another conflict or war.

  2. Nicole Shelpman says:

    Like Meredith, I have used graphic novels as supplemental texts for my students. When paired with a core text, graphic novels can provide another perspective on the story and highlight themes through the illustrations. For example, I have used excerpts from Maus with I Have Lived a Thousand Years; some of the images in Maus capture the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that words cannot always fully depict.

    As for the question of whether a graphic novel can be used as a core text, I would say that it depends on the text. If the graphic novel is a retelling of a classic, then I would most likely use the graphic novel as a supplemental text; probably, it would be difficult to justify teaching only the graphic novel version of Romeo and Juliet without also engaging students in the original play. However, I think that a graphic novel with an original story, like Yummy, could absolutely be used as a core text. Because Yummy is based on a true story, it could be an excellent core text in a unit that also includes news articles about the events that are depicted. Yummy is an especially effective story to be told through a graphic novel because the illustrations allow readers to see Yummy’s face and force readers to view him as a person. In news articles, too often people are reduced just to their name or to a brief description, like “gang member,” and reading the graphic novel along with the news articles could raise thought-provoking questions about how society views people involved in gang activity or crime.

  3. Pook Panyarachun says:

    As someone who grew up with reading difficulties, I truly appreciate the power of graphic novels as a way to hook students into reading. I hated reading as a child and found thick novels with small type very intimidating. Just the thought of having to read a whole book would already make want to give up before I even started. As part of my academic intervention around 4th grade, teachers introduced me to graphic novels. Art was my favorite subject so I was drawn to the incredible graphics immediately. I would look through the pictures at first, and eventually, I realized if I wanted the full story I must read the text. As Robert C. Harvey notes in “In Graphic Novels, the Pictures Are the Story”, Graphic novels differ from books with illustration, the words and pictures are not separate in terms of illustration and text because in graphic novels the word cannot stand alone likewise the images cannot exist by itsself. Both text and images are intertwined. It is because of this aspect that I began to read and enjoy the full narrative. For the first time, I enjoyed reading.
    I really loved reading Yummy and truly appreciated that it was tied to an actual event. The story of Robert Sandifer is truly powerful, and alerted the country to the effects of gang violence in Chicago at the time. Conveying the narrative in a graphic novel form is a great way to draw younger readers. I can see this graphic novel being used as part of a history class as an addition to news articles and text books that explore gang violence in the United States. I certainly felt like I came away with new knowledge after reading Yummy as I was unaware of the law concerning minors who commit murder. I would definitely recommend this graphic novel to teachers and adolescents.

  4. I found Gene Luen Yang’s “Boxers” engrossing. The illustrations were amazing, especially during the scenes of recognition whereby a character realizes a truth about another character. The paucity of words at those moments allows the reader to only focus on the images and wrestle with what the characters must be going through in learning that something new and large has just presented itself to them. When Little Bao’s father returns from his journey, for example, and the sons see their father’s battered condition, their shock and horror is conveyed in only three wordless panels. Or like when Bao realizes that Mei-wen is killed in the fire, narration and speech cease as still panels are left to convey the heavy silence of grief and anger that must be welling up inside him. These moments in the book work because the story is well narrated and they occur sparingly but purposefully.

    I was also absorbed in the mystery of trying to figure out who that mysterious figure was who seemed to be haunting Bao, leading me to suddenly recognize elements of a detective story in the graphic novel as well. Images of ancient China were refreshing and illuminating. Meredith’s description of the transformations that Bao and his followers take into these powerful beings is spot on. It’s the reader who sees these transformations and must link it to the fact that their fervent religious convictions are so strong that they bring about these changes in self.

    I also agree with Nicole that the book could be used as a core text because like Meredith pointed out, there is so much THERE there. Themes of self-sacrifice, self-evolution, family, nationality, justice, love, and an array of other richly sophisticated ideas make the story exceptional. Sure, some context is needed for what is happening, but what story of the past doesn’t need supportive background information? Loved the book. Loved it.

  5. Kara Brennan says:

    I said this is my post about picture books (because I did not read this question before answering that one, oops) but I absolutely think that graphic novels can be great in a classroom. Again, I’m not a teacher, but I would think that they should probably be paired with a traditional text, for those students that struggle to understand how to read graphic novels in the most productive way. I once had a professor that wrote her dissertation on graphic novels, and she gave us a seminar on the technically “correct” way to read them, which involved going through the book once just letting your eyes just take in the illustrations, and then reading it again to take in the text. And different books want you to read in different directions, and many are designed so that you can read in any direction that you choose. I would assume that most high school students do not know about this unique reading style, so a traditional text would probably be useful to supplement the information. But they are clearly great for kids with reading disabilities, because this same professor was also severely dyslexic, and graphic novels changed the whole way that she read. And for kids that have different learning styles I would think that having the option of learning things visually would be a huge advantage, especially with heavy subjects that are addressed in novels like these novels, or American Born Chinese or Maus.

  6. Amy Lipton says:

    Personally, I struggle with visual literacy, and I find it hard to connect with picture books or graphic novels. That being said, I fully appreciate what they have to offer in terms of learning and education. Pook perfectly summarized the value that graphic novels hold for students who are less engaged in reading (for whatever reason that may be). Graphic novels have the power to captivate students in a different way than normal books; I believe the surge of interest in graphic novels as a genre reflects the increasing understanding and appreciation of the various ways in which students learn.

    Despite the fact that I am usually uninterested in graphic novels, I truly enjoyed reading Yummy. The story was gut-wrenching, and brutally honest. And, while I normally find the illustrations in graphic novels to be distracting, I thought these pictures heightened the emotion of the story in a really effective way.

  7. I’m so glad to have found Boxers by Gene Luen Yang. His book American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel I’ve read, from a recommendation by a high school librarian. I remember not knowing whether to approach it lightly like for a comic or whether to be in the same mindset as reading a traditional novel. I love Yang’s style of art – not too overly detailed or decorated, bold lines, at times minimalist, a style adapted to disappear while carrying along the narrative, rather than a style too self-consciously “illustrated” that it jerks the reader out of the story to inspect artistic merits.

    I agree that graphic novels serve very well as core texts and are capable of standing alone. As well the many advantages listed by others, graphic novels offer a powerful way of exploring perspective and point of view in story telling.

  8. Catherine Healy says:

    When I was growing up, I thought that all “comics” were about superheroes (except the Archie comics), and that none of them were worth my time. Only in adulthood did I discover Maus, Persepolis, and Dykes to Watch Out For and find out what I had been missing!

    I absolutely believe that graphic novels can stand alone in the classroom — in addition to their capacity for greatness based on their own merits, they put readers in a mental space different from that triggered by traditional texts, making them open to learning about otherwise frightening or off-putting topics. An English-teacher friend of mine has had great success in teaching Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home to high-school seniors; while students might initially be hesitant about Bechdel’s frank discussion of sexuality, or bored by her heavy introspection about herself and her father, the graphic-novel format helps them let down their guard and relax into the story.

    As our society orients us more and more toward the visual, and advertising becomes more and more sophisticated (topics we addressed in our class discussion of Feed), visual literacy is becoming more important than ever. Because they are so easy to engage with at a variety of levels, graphic novels are a great tool for talking about visual literacy with students who might not think of themselves as interested in art.

    I read Yummy for this week’s assignment. I’m not sure I would use it as the “core text” for a unit, but I could imagine a million ways to use it in the classroom — especially in talking about how the “Hero’s Journey” can break down along the way, and how a hero (if we can consider Yummy a hero … ?) can come to a not-so-heroic end.

  9. Emily Sapienza says:

    Reading and reflecting on Yummy, I am reminded of our discussion on the first day of class about whether characters in YA literature should model good values and behavior. Yummy is a complex character. A scared kid who loves his teddy bear (that part slayed me) and a kid who acts out so fiercely that he’s committing a felony a week. And then murder. I have had students who could related personally to Yummy; who’ve done their own bad stuff not because they were bad kids, but because they were in really bad situations. I feel like it would be really powerful to read this book with students and then talk about empathy, and sympathy, and relating. But also talk about choices and agency. To this end, I certainly think the work could stand alone as a teaching text for students.

    While I believe that visual literacy is important, I don’t think it’s a question so much of teaching it; kids get SO MUCH visual information today. More, I think it’s a question of helping students filter and discern the plethora and myriad of images they are flooded with daily.

    As a verbal, not visual, learner, graphic novels are tough for me. But I appreciated this the book a lot; I think it was artfully crafted and was effective as verbal AND visual story.

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