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Pictures and visual literacy | class #5, spring 2017


The next adolescent lit class (February 28, 2017) focuses on visual literacy: pictures in young adult literature, in works of both fiction and nonfiction. The prompts below address the role of these books in the classroom; you might also respond to the interplay of text and pictures (or wordlessness), or to whatever engages you most about these books with pictures.

Two picture books

  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan (Scholastic, 2007)
  • The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís  (Farrar, 2007)

Three graphic novels

  • Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang (First Second, 2013)
  • This One Summer by Mariko Tamiki and Jillian Tamaki (First Second 2014)

Though not the typical purview of adolescents, sophisticated picture books such as The Arrival and The Wall offer rich rewards for readers/viewers with an experienced eye. Consider prior knowledge older students can bring to these works and connections they might draw, as well as new information or perspectives to be gained through their exploration.

While teens have been devouring graphic novels, or comics (as Gene Luen Yang calls all such works) for years, these works are now enjoying a surge of interest and attention from critics and educators, winning awards and finding their way into high school classrooms. 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” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7).  How important is visual literacy for our students?

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. There were no words in this graphic novel. No dialogs. No written sentences. No words. But, as I realized throughout my read, they weren’t needed. The mesmerizing art was enough. It was a fast-read. I don’t think I’ve even spend thirty minutes to get through it. The story was poignant and I loved how realistically it portrayed immigrants and how metaphorically and fantastically the author drew the world-building and settings. Aside for the graphics and settings, what I loved most was the fact that, not only we could see the main character’s experience at traveling and changing completely of surrounding, but also the people that he meets in his way and that give him some support. It was breathtakingly captivating.

  2. Visual literacies are extremely important for students as the world is filled with messages that are entirely visual. Students should be able to make meaning from different types of messaging in literature, whether that be written, both written and visual, or entirely visual. As for the books that we read this week, I loved The Arrival. Although entirely pictures, I found it to be an immensely powerful and detailed portrait of immigration. I think this book would fit well in a high school classroom alongside other texts that center on immigration. While I think graphic novels can have plenty in them to stand alone, I picture this book functioning as part of a larger unit (mostly because I think it’s important for students to have more than one story of immigration). I wonder if anyone thought of any books, short stories, or poems that might pair well with The Arrival? Or clearly saw a lesson plan with this? I’m still thinking through it and would love to hear people’s thoughts if they had any on that.

  3. I devoured Boxers in one sitting, and then Saints the next day. What a terrific pair of books! I like that they only intersected occasionally until the fantastic ending of Saints. I have little exposure to comics and graphic novels, aside from having to read The Watchmen for class (it was too gritty for me). This time around, I saw real value in this mixed medium, where it’s easier to show rather than tell. There’s such power in the visuals, the gods descending on Bao and company, the images of the goddess of compassion and Christ, the reveal that Bao’s brother was shot by the missionary’s daughter.

    I knew absolutely nothing about the Boxer Rebellion, but it’s a fascinating story. The choices you make put you on one side of history or the other. To support the Righteous and Harmonious Fist or not? To support the foreigners or not? The wrong choice at any given moment in the conflict would lead to your death. And that’s the thing, there are choices made out of desire to survive, but then there are choices made out of true conviction. These motives are constantly in conflict in both books, until a profound reversal at the end. One betrays everything he stood for in order to live, while the other finally gains a deeper conviction than she had before and chooses to show compassion before she dies.

    Both books end in bleak sentiment, as if there are no winners, as if both sides of the Boxer Rebellion cannot escape the futility of their choices. But Vibiana’s death, though tragic, is not meaningless, as it ultimately saved the life of her enemy, Bao (there’s a whole lot of Christian symbolism at play here). Bao and Vibiana’s fates are also defined by the differences in their spiritual mentors, Emperor Ch’in and Joan of Arc. In these mentor-mentee dynamics, who stayed true and who abandoned the relationship/cause?

  4. AHHH I loved everything we read this time around.

    The Arrival is one of my top favorite books, and I agree with Annie that it is incredible how much emotion and narrative and story he conveys without any words whatsoever. The small details are also amazing — how an immigrant might not know how to cook the food, or recognize what’s in stores, the weird small things that new countries have that are so different from home, and so on. I loved every panel, and it was such a pleasure to read it again.

    Like Phil, I also loved Boxers and Saints. I don’t have much to add — but will say that Gene Luen Yang is actually Christian (as many Taiwanese Americans seem to be…), so I think some aspects of that might’ve made it into the books. He also changed Buddha to a Christian deity in his retelling of the Monkey King myth for American Born Chinese, so there’s that too.

  5. Stone Dawson says:

    The readings this week were, as usual, all wonderful, with two books even making it onto my list of potential books for my bibliography! I have very little experience with graphic novels, but I’m constantly amazed at what even the simplest of illustrations can add to a text. I particularly loved The Arrival and its ability to capture many of the experiences of immigrants without using a single word. I agree with what others have said in that I believe it could be of great benefit even in high school classrooms that are studying immigration.

    I also loved the concept behind Boxers/Saints. In reading, especially history, we almost invariably get to see only a single side of an issue, which contaminates our understanding of the complexity of most history. I believe many more topics could benefit from this two-sided approach, and it may even be possible to use this as a model for teaching students to examine issues and events from different perspectives.

  6. Sarah Mintz says:

    Of the books this week, The Arrival was by far my favorite. Like Alice, I was initially surprised to discover that there was no dialogue at all in The Arrival, but I thought the beautiful and fantastical images were powerful enough to speak for themselves. I especially loved how everything from the alphabet to the animals to the vegetables were made to look strange, unfamiliar, and even a little magical. I truly felt like I was experiencing this new land through the protagonist’s eyes. Kaci, in response to your question about how to teach The Arrival in the classroom, I think it would pair well with any text that explores issues of immigration and culture shock. I also think there could be ways to teach the book as a stand-alone text. Students could write their own stories explaining what happened in each scene. This could be an especially powerful exercise or English language learners or students who are newcomers to the U.S.

    I had read This One Summer before, and I continue to be impressed by the way it so beautifully and quietly articulates the tenderness of growing into adolescence. I thought The Wall was also a fascinating read, and I definitely learned new things about daily life under Soviet control during the Cold War. I absolutely think visual literacy is an important skill for our students to learn and practice. Just like theater, music, or any other artistic medium – pictures can uniquely express particular experiences and emotions in a way other forms cannot.

  7. This One Summer depicted a coming of age story through beautiful artwork about two young pre-teens. Both Rose and Windy explore their interest in boys and all that happens between relationships within their own families. Tamaki and Tamaki truly portray a story that explores the reality of pre-teens as they begin a new transition in their life with their own body, their friends, and their family. I think many teens could identify with the characters and how other teens view the adult world and come to terms with real life issues. The graphics were stunning and detailed—they included truthful facial expressions and expressive action moves. Definitely worth the read…especially because of the artwork.

    Like many, I loved The Arrival—the pictures were breathtaking! I loved how they carried the reader through the text without any words and expressed the deep emotion around immigration. I could see this book being used within in a classroom to foster rich discussion. Like Kaci, I would love to see if others have any ideas of other texts to pair with The Arrival to enhance the students experience with this text.

  8. Analiese Reigstad says:

    Reading this week’s books was such an experience. Like Stone, I too was very new to graphic novels and was a little skeptical about their ability to pull an audience in emotionally. My favorite was, far and away, The Arrival. I was absolutely absorbed in the narrative. Similar to Kaci, I am curious about how to incorporate the book into a cohesive lesson. I did a little searching and found an animation (you can find it here: of the book that includes background sound. As I watched the animation, I was struck by how adding one more sense to the mix amplified the emotions I felt throughout the story. I am not sure if I would teach using this animation, as I wonder if adding sound threatens the integrity of the book. However, I can see myself extending this book into a project with students where they are asked to create their own visual narratives. When I was teaching Spanish and Spanish for Native Speakers in a high school last year, I found that my students were always the most invested in projects that incorporated a visual component (posters/comics/etc) and I think that The Arrival could be a powerful model of how visuals can serve as incredibly moving pieces of literature.

  9. Bobby Dorigo Jones says:

    I’ll echo the feelings that Alice and Kaci have towards The Arrival – the author did a truly impeccable job creating a purely visual world that mirrored not only the kind of confusion that immigrants to new societies face but also the love for and commitment to family that drives the decisions that we all make. This would definitely be a great tool to use with younger students when discussing immigration.

    I, like Phil, was totally blown away by Boxers and Saints. Like Shaina points out, there may be some areas for improvement around the portrayal of the different religions, but I appreciated the twist on the stigmata near the end of Saints and the idea that the author was probably hinting at. The lessons imbued in the two books (and you have to read them together) remind me of my reading of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Mainly, our political actions are rarely influenced by “rational self-interest” – they are strongly influenced by a conflict between the way we uniquely perceive and interact with the world and the tendencies and perceptions that make up cultural worldviews into which we are born. Politics is far more personal than many would like to admit. I’ll be recommending all these books to friends

  10. Caryn Howell says:

    So interesting to hear everyone’s thoughts so far! It was fascinating how these authors used images, text, and the absence of text to tell stories in really different ways.

    Boxers & Saints was my favorite read this week. I thought the pictures conveyed the experiences and the isolation of both the main characters (Bao at the beginning and Vibiana throughout) really nicely, and I was immediately drawn into the story. This is history that is new to me, and I got really absorbed in it and had to read fast in order to find out what would happen next. Though most of the illustrations had text, there were some scenes that had no words, and I thought this all flowed and the narrative continued smoothly. For me, this contrasted with The Wall. I really enjoyed the concept of this book, and loved the incorporation of art, but the journal entry pages interrupted the story for me. I also wished he had gone deeper into his personal story while he retold what happened to his country.

    I’m really excited to discuss The Arrival with you all, because I’m seeing that many people loved it, and I had a really hard time getting into it at the beginning, and therefore didn’t invest in following the story via the beautiful illustrations. I’m sure you’ll all convince me of its merits and I’ll be ready to give it another try!

  11. I don’t usually read graphic novels–I don’t think I’ve read one since “Watchmen” about eight years ago–so this week was really interesting for me, and I had few preconceived notions. Obviously we read many picture books in the Children’s Literature module last semester; that really opened my eyes to the interplay between text and image, and how they can enrich and deepen each other’s meaning while still having unique capabilities. Other people have mentioned things I enjoyed about each of the other books, so I’ll say that I thought “This One Summer” was absolutely lovely. I was particularly struck by how much the illustrations contributed to mood–so many shades were possible in the gloomy, wistful monochromatic blue of each panel. I thought this choice of color perfectly expressed the specific nostalgia of childhood summers in a special place on the verge of adolescence–being lonesome and sad for the loss of a moment you’re still in even while desperately trying to hurtle toward the nebulous desires of boyfriends and horror movies. The variation of panel sizes also gave the book a lot of visual interest, and everything from the expressions on parents’ faces to the strewn-about trash in the seedy part of town was so detailed and evocative.

    Finally, related to our discussion of Titus and Violet in Feed, I also liked that Rose was imperfect (in her treatment of the teenage girls she’s jealous of); it felt realistic rather than preachy.

  12. Similar to many others, I was not very familiar with graphic novels prior to reading this week’s texts, but now I have an appreciation for them and want to find one for my bibliography! I was struck by how illustrations could convey meaning more effectively than words. Also, I work with a few students who have expressed interest in graphic novels, so I am appreciative that I can connect with them about the experience of reading graphic novels.

    Nell, thank you for that beautifully worded description of how the visual elements in This One Summer relate to nostalgia. I was also taking note of the colors, use of line, and various panel sizes while reading and really appreciating how the authors’ artistic choices impacted my experience as a reader. For example, some full bleed pages had only a single image but the size heightened the importance of the subject matter. Also, the interactions of the characters were relatable and reminded me of those pre-teen years when, despite being on the cusp of entering a more mature stage, adults still treat you as a child. These coming of age themes were well-portrayed.

    Lastly, Ana, that video was an interesting juxtaposition to reading to the book. Something I learned to appreciate about graphic novels this week was how the reader can linger on a particular panel, extracting details or thinking about the story. With the video, the “reader” is pushed through the narrative at a quick pace, which I think detracts from the experience. On the other hand, I appreciated the inclusion of sounds, such as the wind or clacking metal spoons, since they were simple, familiar sounds of everyday life, but I agree with your concern about the book’s integrity.

  13. Lauren Adams says:

    Analiese–Thank you for sharing the video adaptation of The Arrival–it is terrific! The pacing and perspective is so well done, and the music is a perfect accompaniment. While it doesn’t contain all the content of the book, I think it would be a great introduction to draw students into the story. I’ve been wanting to use this with my high school ELLs, and now plan to begin by showing them the video first, pausing for response and certain spots. We’ll then go on to look more deeply at the book. Thanks again!

  14. Uttara Pant says:

    Like several people have already said, I too loved Boxers & Saints. I read them both in one sitting. As Phil mentioned, the way the books intersected only briefly was so effective. Obviously the two stories are connected, but still stand as two separate tales. I didn’t know that Gene Luen Yang was Christian (thanks Shaina). I did really love the ending still. Maybe that’s because of slight bias from many Sundays spent in church and Sunday school and that the Lord’s Prayer has a special place in my heart (though I’m not a Christian). I thought it was particularly beautiful how he combined the story of Guan Yin, the goddess of compassion and Jesus. It was so touching. Tears.

    Arrival’s lack of words was so effective. As Katie mentioned, I enjoyed just staying on several pages and looking at all the amazing details in Tan’s work. Shaina also talked about these details- what is in the stores, what is on the streets. I absolutely love books with no words- but I mostly ever read children’s books with no words so it’s really great to know that there are some in the YA category as well!

  15. I have to admit I was not very familiar with graphic novels, in particular YA ones, but I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed all the books this week, and agree with the sentiment of nearly everyone regarding The Arrival. The images are very powerful, and I enjoyed the lack of dialogue. As an adult ESL instructor, I have used some graphic readers that are geared towards reading fluency and incorporate everyday life themes or tell the story of a single character in an unexpected situation, although students enjoy them, I find the stories and in particular the graphics they feel very generic. I am excited about figuring out some lessons and incorporating The Arrival into some of my classes. I think it could be used many ways for writing, discussion, vocabulary not only for newcomers but also immigrants who have been here a long time. Analise, thank you for the video. I really enjoyed it and although it is a different experience from looking through the book, I agree it could be an effective teaching tool and a great way to introduce and engage readers to the book, or it could also be used after using the book in class, to see if or how the visual adaptation and sound changed the experience or impacted the story for students.
    At first glance, I didn’t think I would enjoy The Wall by Peter Sis, but again I was pleasantly surprised. When I first flipped through the book, it seemed too busy, but when I stared from the beginning I was immediately drawn into his childhood, being a young pioneer, the scattering of the color red, the large statues of Stalin how he loved to draw and believed everything he was told. As he gets older, and the cracks in the wall appear the annotated illustrations, the maps the journals all helped create his journey full of memories and history. Also, a great book to discuss parts of world history or just the idea of “a wall” what it meant then and what it means today. I feel the title alone is so relevant today and could be a great discussion topic for young adults, in particular how the art referencing the US is so strong and colorful and so obviously wall free.

  16. Min Hyun Oh says:

    Ana, I agree with you that The Arrival can be an excellent text for immigrant students. I think there’s something special about the absence of words. Pedagogically, I think using The Arrival could be a unique way to incorporate target vocabulary, while inviting students to share personal experiences with immigration and build connection with new peers, school, and home. I think The Arrival can be a valuable introductory text for recent immigrant students and a great supplemental text for classroom lessons about immigration or graphic arts as well. The sephia tone and fantastical ambience of the book really brings out how immigration is literally an alien experience. At first, I was confused about the odd-looking fruits, eerie buildings with legs, and the juxtaposition of realistic characters in surreal places–but they all contributed to building the story to which readers can connect. Interestingly, I was also drawn to the characters that help the protagonist navigate his way–both directly and indirectly–in an alien land. So, even if not all of us can empathize with the immigrant experience, The Arrival invites readers to reflect on what role they may be playing, even in the brief moments we engage with immigrant neighbors, students, and coworkers.

  17. Bonnie Tynes says:

    As many others before me have said, the books for this week were refreshing, thought-provoking, and inviting. After months of reading research articles, I didn’t quite realize how long it’s been since I activated the creative sectors of my brain in order to comprehend and make sense of the images used in these graphic novels.

    As Nell and Katie both mentioned, “This One Summer” took me on a nostalgic trek through my pre-teen years as well. I was surprised to find that the images and overall artistic choices made by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki provided me with more opportunity to relate and connect to than words do in typical novels. This surprised me because I would have thought that words would be more open to interpretation and visualizing opportunities. Instead, I found that I could picture myself standing with the characters within the panels of the book. I found the full two-page spreads of images (like on pages 278 and 279) to be especially captivating. No words at all. Just space to imagine, envision, and create within my own mind.

    I also deeply loved “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan. Immigration, a topic that is even more powerful and pertinent in today’s world than ever before, illustrated only through pictures. It was a moving and flexible story, and it carried so much purpose and voice. I can picture this book spanning multiple lessons within many different classrooms. The resulting dialogue and opportunities for interpretation would provide students with rich space to reflect upon their own journeys and the journey of others.

  18. Sophia Pompilus says:

    I definitely think educators should be incorporating more graphic novels for their young adult fiction courses. In reflecting back on my old childhood, my love for reading began with graphic novels. As I got older and the books got less visual, it was initially difficult to transition into imagining the story visually versus seeing it directly on the pages. In addition, with the rise of social media, adolescents are bombarded with imagery on a minute-by-minute basis, so inviting this into the classroom could actually be a benefit. The Arrival, particularly, would be fantastic not only for immigrant students, but for non-immigrant students who maybe need a visual to understand the depth of what it means to leave your native country to become a foreigner in another. Moreover, given the rampant xenophobia in our society today, a book like The Arrival could do good to mitigate gaps in empathy to help students who are not experiencing such a drastic life event learn to empathize well.

  19. I share everyone’s enthusiasm for The Arrival. I first discovered it last semester during Children’s Literature and used it on my immigration bibliography for that class. Tan says the book was inspired by “migrants of many different countries and historical periods.” I love this. I think the wordlessness of the book is part of its power, part of what enables the book to tap into the fundamental commonalities of the immigrant experience. We don’t know where the characters are, or what language they are speaking. We don’t even have language to “root” us in the book, but must find our own way through the images at our own pace (as Katie says, unlike a film, where someone else is setting the pace). So, like the protagonist, we are wandering, finding our way in a place that—at least at first—feels different and strange.

    I read This One Summer, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Unaccustomed to reading graphics, I have noticed that I have to consciously make myself move beyond the text. Often, it is the boxes without words that really force me out of the habit of just looking for the next block of text, force me to step back and look at the bigger story as told by both the text and the illustrations. Like others, I appreciated the authors’ use of light and dark and of variously sized panels. I especially liked the pages where a whole day was narrated wordlessly by means of a time stamp in each panel box. I also found it interesting how the illustrations are so important to the characterizations of Rose and Windy. I found it to be a sad, painfully realistic book, but an enjoyable read nevertheless.

  20. Gardenia Xiaoyuan Ye says:

    I also like The Arrival best out of all the books assigned for this week. I like the way the author always zooms in and then zooms out. I can feel the magnitude at the bigger picture, and the accompanied uneasiness or fear of an immigrant. I also found it inclusive. For those who have the similar experience of immigration, they can resonate with the story; for those who are not immigrants of any kind, they have actually experienced it by following the graphs. In the book, everything is new, the letters, the country, the magic, and the world, with everything well pointed out by other folks. I thought it was a realistic novel when I first looked at the title and read the first few pages, and was a little bit confused about the imagined world in the middle, but closed the book with inspirations and deep thoughts in mind. I do agree with what others have said that this book would be a great fit for classroom teaching immigration, or an ESL classroom and so on. I believe every student would find a safe place in this book and make something out of it. I also think Min’s idea of giving students some vocab to let them tell their stories would be a good class activity.
    I read through the Saints. I was constantly checking the Chinese history during that time period. I think what I appreciate about this book is that it tries to portray the Boxer Rebellion from different perspectives. I really enjoyed reading Phil’s and Shaina’s comments on Boxers and Saints, and all the context about the Christian elements in it. That makes me consider about the lens of this book again.
    I agree with Caryn that the journals in The Wall were somehow interrupting the flow of graphics. But I do see those as an alternative way to make sense of the events, and also an extra source of some context and background knowledge. I think the journal entry would work better for older students. Besides all these, however, I should say that I am uncomfortable reading this book. It’s very personal, but at the same time super ideological. I won’t say it is a good source for history classroom, unless accompanied by books from other perspectives, such as books about those who have even since lived in Czech Republic and haven’t moved to other places after the Cold War, or those who did not feel so attached to the “western culture”. It’s up to individual students to think differently, but we need to incorporate different points of views and encourage students to think critically in the classroom.

  21. MG Prezioso says:

    I loved Arrival. I was blown away by the intricacies in each picture, and how so much can be said and so many emotions can be conveyed by a single image. I never really read graphic novels or picture-based books as an adolescent, and I was amazed by how much room there is for interpretation and creativity within each picture.

    In general, as an educator, I was thinking of ways to incorporate a book like Arrival into the curriculum, particularly to teach argumentation or analytic skills of a different nature. It made me think about how emotion and visual images can be leveraged to encourage tolerance and empathy, almost even more so than just words on a page, and I would love to include that concept/skill set into a curriculum at some point in my career.

  22. Rebecca Hawk says:

    I, like many others, loved Arrival. I think that the graphic only portrayal was incredibly effective and might bring struggling readers or ELL students more into class if it was used as a class text. I appreciate what Kaci said and agree that students need more than one immigration story. I feel like Arrival might be a strong text to use with ELL students to encourage conversation about immigration and personal experiences. Additionally, students could read the book in pairs and explain to each other what is happening (this would practice inference making, language skills, etc.) I also though the video that Analiese shared would be a strong addition!

    The Wall taught me so much! it made me realize that there is so much more I need to learn about the Eastern block. I wonder if this text might work well to help teach students how to ask questions and conduct their own research regarding a text or era.

    In response to Lauren’s question, I definitely think that visual literacy is crucial especially in a time in which images and graphics are taking the places of texts. I wish I was taught to read graphic texts in school and am definitely interested in incorporating them into my teaching!

  23. Nana Seiwaa Sekyere says:

    Reading through everyone’s comments, I’m picking up on how much most people loved The Arrival. To be honest, I don’t think I understood the book. The pictures were captivating and showed a lot of emotion but I was having a hard time understanding the story. I’m looking forward hearing people’s interpretations of the story.
    I think I had a little more success with The Wall because of the captions that went with the pictures.

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