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Pictures / Visual literacy | Class #5, 2018

This week’s class (Feb. 28) focuses on visual literacy: pictures in young adult literature, in works of both fiction and nonfiction. Students will read two picture books and a choice of graphic novels.

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
  • Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan

Three Graphic Novels

  • Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
  • March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin; illus. by Nate Powell

Though not the typical purview of adolescents, sophisticated picture books such as The Arrival and Freedom Over Me 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 them) 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 (four teachers share their experience and expertise in “Graphic Novels in the Classroom: A Teacher RoundtableCult of Pedagogy, October 9, 2016).

Boxers and Saints is a 2-volume work of historical fiction, and March: Book Three is the 3rd volume in John Lewis’s autobiographical account of his role in the Civil Rights Movement. Should these books be taught in conjunction with other historical sources, or can they stand alone? What do they offer young readers that traditional texts may not?

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. Catherine K says:

    The Arrival and Freedom Over Me are not your everyday “picture books,” or anything analogous to the children’s literature I remember from growing up. The Arrival was a challenging book to grapple with—the beginning was fairly straightforward as we saw a father leaving his wife and child and setting out for a new land. However, when the man arrives in Destination X (it remains unclear where he settles), it is a disorienting location—the language expressed on signs and in writing is incomprehensible to an average English speaker.

    As a classroom activity, The Arrival feels like a timely selection in our current debates over immigration—who can stay and who must go. I would ask students to perform a creative writing exercise by putting themselves into the man’s shoes and describing what life is like in a new country, culture, and language (of their choice) where they are an outsider for the first time.

    Freedom Over Me offers a frank portrayal of the lack of identity afforded to black slaves in the American South. We saw an herb doctor, carpenter, laundress, and seamstress who all took incredible pride in their talents, trades, and crafts. In a similar vein to the immigrant man in The Arrival, the African slaves in Freedom Over Me are also expected to reckon with a foreign language and otherworldly customs. Even though we don’t normally think of African slaves in the U.S. as “immigrants,” per se, they are the textbook definition of an immigrant, a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.

    I would ask students to do another creative writing exercise. They would imagine themselves in the shoes of one of the slaves and write a journal or diary entry for this person. What are they feeling? What are they struggling with? What are they dreaming about? What do they miss about their homeland? How do they feel in their new “home”?

    Both of these creative writing exercises ask students to “extend the story” and reflect on the respective perspectives of the books’ characters.

  2. I like Catherine’s idea of having students connect to this week’s picture books/graphic novels through perspective taking and creative writing exercises. Even though students would have to understand intellectually key aspect of the texts (i.e. In Tan’s novel, the father is leaving for some place and in Bryan’s book, people were considered property), they also would have to understand the text viscerally. It is this aspect of having to imagine and connect on an emotional level, that I think would make these readings accessible and engaging to most students. In addition, I think many students, especially those who like creative writing, would enjoy Catherine’s assignment of adding words (e.g. through a letter, monologue, or diary entry) to the visuals in the books in order to “extend the story”.

    To address Lauren’s question, though, about whether these texts could stand alone, my answer is no, if you’re using them to teach historical content. This is not because of their quality, but because of my own bias in teaching history. I always teach historical content through primary sources. In this case, my core texts would be primary sources, and these picture books/graphic novels would be supplementary texts. (I did love how both Bryan and Tan used primary sources as the inspiration for their books and how Bryan used them as the background of his illustrations.)

    As a high school humanities teacher, I found myself challenged to figure out how I would address the “visual literacy” aspects of these texts. I first noticed this when I was reading Gene Yang’s graphic novel Boxer’s and Saints. I was reading right along, and then on page 16, I came across a panel that took up half the page and had no words. It was then that, for the first time, I was “consciously” reading the picture to figure out “what it was saying” and “how it was saying” it. At that point, I also realized that I had really not paid much attention to any of the visuals up until that point; I had been reading “consciously” just the words and letting the graphics “subconsciously” inform my experience and understanding. For me, this meant that I was probably missing much of the meaning, enjoyment, and appreciation of the story, as I was “ignoring” (or rather, not intentionally attending to) the main medium through which the story was being conveyed. (There is a popular argument that the power of images is in their ability to communicate on a subconscious level, but I’m not sure that should apply in the case of graphic novels.)

    Now with Tan’s The Arrival, this was not possible, as I had to “read” the illustrations to create the narrative. While I found myself moved by the story overall, and in AWE of Tan’s talent –there’s an illustration in chapter 3 that extends across both pages, that I is stunning to me!–, I struggled reading at first. I kept wondering if I was spending too much or too little time on this or that picture, or paying too much or too little attention to this or that detail. Eventually, I stopped asking myself these questions and just let myself experience the story visually, without all that metacognitive angst.

    However, in order to teach a graphic novel as a class text, I realized that I would have to teach visual literacy, and for that I am woefully ill-prepared. (Ironically, this did not stop me from assigning the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, Maus by Art Spiegelman, as independent reading for honors students over our February break.) Visual literacy objectives are increasingly making their way into high school and college standards—as they should given our visual-media saturated world–but I have very little training in, for example, how “to express meaning, artists use line, shape, texture, color and value” (Horning, 1997, p.99) or how to analyze “choices in the production of an image to construct meaning or influence interpretation (e.g. framing, composition, included or excluded elements, staging)” (ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, 2011).

    While I am especially encouraged by the teachers in the Cult of Pedagogy article who, for myriad reasons, had successful experiences using graphic novels with students, I agree with Todd Finley (2014) in Edutopia: “On their own–without explicit, intentional and systematic instruction–students will not develop VL skills because the language for talking about images is so foreign. Ever heard kids debate the object salience and shot angles of a Ryan Gosling meme? To add to the instructional complexity, visuals come in an assortment of formats.”

    So, not only do I need a “crash course” in visual literacy instruction as he suggests, but ideally, extended professional development. I’m going to start with his article, “Common Core in Action: 10 Visual Literacy Strategies”. It has links to additional resources. Here it is, just in case, anyone else feels eager, but underprepared, to teach visual literacy as well:

    ACRL visual literacy competency standards for higher education (2011, October).
    Association of College and Research Libraries. Retrieved from
    Finley, T. (2014, February 19). Common core in action 10 visual literacy strategies.
    Edutopia. Retrieved from
    Horning, K. (1997). From cover to cover: Evaluating and reviewing children’s books.
    New York, NY: HarpersCollins Publishers.

  3. While I see literary value in graphic novels, I still get the impression that this viewpoint is far from commonplace in most circles. I’m imagining myself as an English teacher, and thinking about how I can convince students, parents, and administration that these stories are worth teaching, and not some below-grade-level picture book or gimmicky kitsch.

    The exercises mentioned in Jennifer Gonzalez’s blog sound like great ways to help students engage with the images. I see this working especially well for The Arrival and Freedom Over Me, in a history class just as well as a literature class. If I were having difficulty convincing my administration of the book’s standalone value, perhaps a case could be made for it as a supplementary social studies text. Given the brevity of these stories, either one would be a great add-on to a history unit, while raising little concern from those who would complain if it was treated as a major class text.

    Gonzalez’s blog brings in some great points that can be used while advocating for graphic novels. The contributing teachers mention treating the frames like a film. Each panel is a work of art, not just a picture. Each one tells a piece of the larger story, no different than a paragraph in a traditional novel. This is useful not only for students with reading anxieties or other challenges. Visual analysis skills are an important part of anyone’s life, just as reading is. Reading a graphic novel is a study in visual arts as well as literature.

  4. The Arrival is the first book I have ever read without words. While I thought that it would be easy to finish and I would breeze through it, I found myself lingering over each page, looking at them again and again. I was also able to watch a short video (about fifteen minutes long) that animated the pages and set them to music. Each time I went through the book, I saw something new. I also felt what the main character was feeling: his joy, his pain, and even his loneliness.

    I told my mom that I was reading a book with no words, and her first response was, “Well, that’s not really a book then, is it?” and I had an interesting conversation with her about the story I created around the book, the characters’ names I made up, and the weird little creature-pets that seemed to be all around town. My imagination was at its peak. At the same time, however, I was blown away by the facts; the author created a timeless representation of a discussion that will always be relevant and is particularly salient in our current political landscape.

    I did a little research about the author and the book because I was a little confused by the creatures that were ever-present and the symbols and drawings on the walls in the new country. While I was not able to find one answer, I did find several theories. People believe that the author created the images like this to avoid tying the new location to any real city or country. I like the universality of this approach and I also like that it adds to the surrealism of the character’s experiences in the new location. It looks hectic and busy and scary, and I think that was exactly the author’s intention!

  5. Zheala Qayyum says:

    I found this modality of delivery extremely effective. I see so many kids huddled in their corners with their Manga and comic books. At times if I ask them about other books they like to read I get a shrug and answer that they don’t like to. This is such a wonderful way of getting though to them because they are so visually engaging, and I can tell them they’re just like the comic books they read anyway.
    I think the messages in the books were poignant and yet masterfully delivered through pictures. There were wonderful nuances in the images as well, for example in Saints, when the four girl is making faces in the water and looking at her reflection her actual face is blank and has no features drawn.
    Freedom over me, was great portrayal of how people and their stories can come to life with great graphic representations that breathe depth and life into these personalities.

  6. Nicholas Kelly says:

    One of the aspects of March that most impressed me was the level of detail, especially regarding the organization and leadership of SNCC and its relationships with the SCLC and the NAACP. It includes a great deal of information that as a future history teacher I would want students to know about the Civil Rights movement and conveys it in an engaging way. I imagine that many students might not be aware of how multifaceted the Civil Rights movement was, but I can picture eyes glazing over at a lecture about the different organizations and how they related to each other. Yet, March makes these inter-organizational relations personal by conveying Congressman Lewis’ feelings about Dr. King, the SCLC, the NAACP, and Malcolm X, not to mention LBJ and George Wallace. The visuals help to make it engaging, but the personal quality makes it even more engaging than a great documentary like Eyes on the Prize, which is commonly used in history classrooms. The quality of first-person testimony from a participant might also lend it greater value in a history classroom than the movie Selma, which is great, but would have to be a supplement to other historical sources. I do think it would be best to teach March in conjunction with other sources, but it does provide a wonderfully complex and detailed view of the movement.

  7. Sabrina Alicea says:

    I wish that we had more opportunities in education to explore teaching and learning with graphic novels and comics. This weeks readings were amazing explorations into world of imagery and words for adolescent readers. Even the book “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan provided a unique opportunity for deep comprehension without words. As I worked through the text, I found myself telling the story and checking for understanding with the pictures. By utilizing the pictures, students are able to practice visualization within the words. This is something I find that is often missing in adolescent literacy. The expansion of words should not equate the absence of imagery. This is especially important with English Language Learners and struggling readers.
    I believe that historical books like March by John Lewis could be great in conjunction with other historical text and resources. As educators, we should work to provide our students with well rounded educational experiences. These books can provide exactly that.

  8. Katelyn Natale says:

    I am so happy to be teaching at a time when comics or graphic novels are being revived and growing in popularity. I have seen graphic novels engage even my most reluctant readers. Beyond, the engagement factor, we live in a media saturated world where I believe that being literate extends beyond reading and writing to the visual as well. Our brains think in images and media taps into this, so it is critical that students have the skills to “integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7). Graphic novels are an opportunity to explore a text through a new lens or through multiple modalities. As Kate Monnin says in her book “Teaching Graphic Novels: Practical Strategies for the Secondary ELA Classroom” (which I highly recommend) “comic strip is analyzing a set of universal symbols and bringing into play all of a readers’ skills: inference, deduction, projection, interpretation” (2010).
    This is especially poignant in “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan where the reader must rely on many of the skills one traditionally thinks of in an English class, while expanding our ability to explore deeper into images. As I was reading, the feeling of being confused or lost within the images mirrors what an immigrant may feel in a new land. I think the text could be an accessible addition to a historical unit that can help students form a fuller picture of history. However, in most cases, I would imagine texts being paired with other historical documents, such as primary sources to ensure that there is no danger of a single story.

  9. This week was the first time I ever read a graphic novel (Boxers and Saints) or a book without words (The Arrival). One of my lasting takeaways is how different the types of literacy needed to make sense of these books are from that which helps me comprehend traditional books.

    When reading The Arrival, I found myself scripting dialogue and description in my head. I had trouble just letting the pictures wash over me and create an “un-worded” story — I kept wanting to put words to the visual narrative. It made me wonder about other people’s experience of “reading” this book and what techniques or mechanisms others used to make sense of it. It also made me wonder about the utility of a book like this for students who read far below grade level, or who are as-of-yet non-readers, or who struggle with making sense of written words. I believe a book like this could engage these students, draw them into the world of narrative, and help them engage with concepts like setting, plot, theme, and characterization even without traditional “reading.”

    For Saints and Boxers, my experience of reading was less about putting words to pictures and more about making sense of the “rules” of a graphic novel. How did I know which panel to read first? (Yes, there is a basic rule of left-to-right and up-to-down, but I was momentarily stumped by a panel that took up two rows but only one column!) How did the author signify shifts in time and space? (I noticed dreams the characters had and stories they told were outlined in a different way than the main narrative). This was a really rewarding experience for me, and one that made me, a newcomer to graphic novels, appreciate that they have a complexity and a “language” that I had not previously expected or known.

  10. Sedef Seker says:

    I loved Boxers and Saints! I didn’t have a lot of background knowledge about the Boxer Rebellion – I had very briefly read about it for a World History class. I don’t think you need to have a lot of background knowledge to understand and enjoy Boxers and Saints. I loved the way it was composed of two volumes that told two versions of the same story from different points of view that had intersections. The blending of reality, history, mythology, religion, and folklore was incredible. Elements of magical realism in the story and the beautiful visuals made me feel like I was watching a well-made animation/movie. I would be curious to see how this book has been used in the classroom before, or how people would think about using this. As a person who studied World History in high school that completely consisted of memorization and textbook reading, I feel like I would love to have a book like Boxers and Saints as a part of a history/social studies curriculum. Overall, Boxers and Saints had a lot of action, emotion, and deep characters that opened up discussions of complicated themes.

  11. I enjoy reading Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang a lot. As a Chinese, I especially appreciate the window to see my own culture through a different lens and language. The historical background is familiar and the perception of family obligation is common, but stories of the characters bring out their individuality and really push the readers to think beyond what is taken for granted. The graphics add a humorous touch to a topic that would otherwise be too heavy and unbearable. The topic of Christianity in a Chinese classroom is unthinkable, but the package of graphics and texts make the sensitive topic mild and less alerting. I did not know graphic books could be so profound. Almost toward the end of the book the protagonist asked, “What is China if it’s not people and its stories?” That is a great rhetorical question worth discussing, not just for the students, but for adults as well.

  12. I agree with Sabrina that we should have more opportunities in schools to read graphic novels and comic books. I think graphic novels and the like provide an excellent opportunity for students to find new entry points to the text. Like Sonya said, visual literacy allows students a new way to observe what the text is saying and how it is saying it. We’re already asking students to decipher written text in this way, having them decipher vocabulary terms and acclimating to more difficult levels of academic language. However, I’ve found that this can be very overwhelming for struggling readers. Visual literacy provides an opportunity for students to become comfortable with that whole process while removing the barrier of potentially inaccessible text. A lot of the teachers in Gonzalez’s blog post talked about this. However, I agree with them that just because graphic novels are more accessible does not mean that they are “softer” or easier. I remember when I was growing up, my brother read a lot of graphic novels and enjoyed them precisely because of the interplay between the visual and text and how they combined to convey the various themes, symbols, and motifs. Symbolism in particular is an excellent literary device to teach through graphic novels, because the visual makes it a lot more concrete and therefore comprehensible for students.

    I’d like to expand this concept of visual literacy to film and other media as well. I remember how taking a film class in high school actually deepened my understanding of literary elements/ artistic choices and how they’re used to tell a story. This is why I think (despite some administrators’ weariness) it’s important to bring film into the English classroom as well. Visual literacy and media literacy can be taught together. It’s important for students to understand and decipher all of the messages they’re receiving from society, the media, and the world around them.

  13. Caroline Glaenzer says:

    I was particularly interested by Freedom Over Me, which does a remarkable job of offering humanity to an indelible part of our history. The artwork, which is intricate and colorful, absorbs the reader into individual stories. Bryan, who can’t have known too much of the actual life behind the names he found on the estate’s appraisal, makes the stories more universal.

    When teaching slavery to students who have little understanding of its significance, I have struggled to convey its horror and cruelty in a way that does it justice. I have often left my classes thinking I came up short. Bryan’s book does a masterful job of giving students a window through which students can access the people who lived and died under those conditions. They may be able to understand with greater acuity the hopes, dreams, fears, and lives of the oppressed. This would be an invaluable book to anyone teaching about this era in American history.

  14. This week, The Arrival in particular gave me chills, and it had me thinking not just about literacy or visual literacy, but the broader category of art and creativity. One of the conversations about education that I have most often with my mom (a second grade teacher in a low-income school district) is the lack of access to arts education. My mom always tries to insert art lessons into what she does, but it gets harder and harder with district budget cuts that remove arts programs and teacher prep time. Students right now don’t have as many opportunities to see and discuss art, which I think makes books like The Arrival and graphic novels valuable in the classroom. They provide opportunities to discuss the meaning of language and communication, but they also allow them the chance to experience visual art, which can be especially enriching when they’re not getting that opportunity anywhere else.

  15. Rose Connelly says:

    I am struck by Sonya’s comments about how to use these books as historical sources.

    I agree that primary sources should reign supreme in every history investigation. But I found myself so inspired by the creativity Freedom Over Me used in addressing a gap in the records. Because of the oppression and denial of slavery as a system, so few reliable primary sources about enslaved people in the U.S. exist, and so many of them are written from the perspective of the enslavers (such as the sale record Freedom Over Me is based on).

    It creates a constant conundrum in learning this history — do you rely on “accurate” primary records that are told from an abusive point of view? Is it right to loosen the rigor of historical inquiry, to give more space for creative interpretation, rather than let an oppressed group’s story fade away. Or does that just do a disservice to the legitimacy of those people’s experience?

    Ultimately, I think your point of combining sources is a good one, Sonya. And actually, I quite admired how Freedom Over Me did this within the book itself, blending the stark historical record with a lush imagined depiction of the actual human lives the record represented. Pairing the two accounts made them both stronger.

    I notice that though Freedom Over Me was frank about some of slavery’s abuses, those stories were not the focus of each profile. Instead, the profiles were uplifting, hopeful, full of the passions and home memories of the individual personalities.

    This is another thing I have struggled with in teaching about slavery to U.S. American students. Obviously, it is vital to tell the story of the horrors of slavery—to never forget how awful and inexcusable the legacy slavery was and is. At the same time, I sometimes feel unease reducing the histories of Black Americans to the story of their oppression. I had a black student once tell me he didn’t want to do a museum tour about slavery, because it was depressing—I get that. But I also had a young black museum visitor once ask me point-blank if slavery was good or bad—when I said bad, and asked him why he asked that, in puzzlement he said he read a book in class that said that enslaved people had built incredible buildings like the white house. That is true, but also missing a huge part of the story. Freedom Over Me does a wonderful job balancing humanity, hope, resistance and resilience, with the grim reality of this group of people.

    To that point, I really appreciated the choice to END the book with the actual sale record, not begin with it. It ended the book on an important, sobering note, but also foregrounded the human stories.

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