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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
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.
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Nana Seiwaa Sekyere

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.

Posted : Feb 27, 2017 09:26

Rebecca Hawk

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!

Posted : Feb 27, 2017 08:55

MG Prezioso

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.

Posted : Feb 27, 2017 08:24

Gardenia Xiaoyuan Ye

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.

Posted : Feb 27, 2017 07:54


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.

Posted : Feb 27, 2017 06:54

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