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The Twelve Best Comic Books for the Classroom

Today we offer our recommendations as to the best comics for teachers to explore the concept in their own classrooms. We have pounded the Internet pavement and read the reviews of sellers and independent critics alike to try to find a list that is unequivocally strong.

To be sure of academic support for the concept as well as to create a literature focus we have gone a bit more with traditional tales set to graphic formats. The obvious key is that such comics share the basics of a famous tale and set the stage for reading the real text later in school. Our approach may upset the real proponents of the movement but we believe that administrative buy-in for the concept is critical.

The choices we made that are not quite the traditional famed story line truly teach students about the world around them. We went with five choices at grades 2-6 and seven at grades 7-12 thinking that the choice for middle school and high school would be far more challenging.

Lastly it should be noted that many of these tales are actually enjoyable for all age levels and operate at various levels of sophistication simultaneously. Without further ado.

Five for grades 2-6:

The comic heading up our list is an absolute no-brainer. The immensely popular Bone Series is one of the most critically acclaimed as well as one of the most beloved by children. Jeff Smith’s Bone series has been described as a group of “Looney Tune type characters dropped into a Tolkien-esque landscape with neither a map nor a friend.” The lovely Thorn is considered one of the great fantasy heroine’s of all time. The series creates the classic tension of all good stories, humor balanced against the serious demands of adventure.

Chris Wilson selects Beowulf (Wilson recommends the Storrie or Hinds versions as well as Petrucha) as a perfect choice for youngsters 8-11 years of age. Of course the comic introduces the epic story of Beowulf, one of the most powerful story’s of all time, yet seeks to get past the archaic language and into a more modern translation. The comic obviously brings the basics of the epic tale yet sets a perfect stage for one day approaching the original text.

A third comic that hits most experts list is Clan Apis. Though the story is of the birth, life and death of bees, they of course can talk and also have human like feelings. Otherwise the tale is described as “strictly an informational book about bees and their habits and behaviors.” The author, Jay Hosler, is a neurobiologist; this comic teaches children how the bees construct a hive, the design principles utilized and the different roles members of the hive play. The story even features a dung-beetle by the name of Sisyphus.

Another on Chris Wilson’s list is the group of comics called Amelia Rules. The Jimmy Gownley series offers an extremely like-able yet flawed character. In addition, life is never easy for the characters yet they are always happy with life (a strong message given the emotional difficulties many youth experience today). Readers will see characters who laugh, fight, and most importantly have fun. The ability to relate to those issues is clearly a high point for kids. Wilson notes the series even tackles the subject of Santa Claus and calls the Amelia Santa tale one of the most poignant Christmas stories he’s ever read.

Another popular adventure series is Alison Dare, a set of tales about a twelve year-old described as the Indiana Jones of comics. Her mother is an archaeologist and her dad a librarian who moonlights as an Egyptian superhero; their work/life creates a wealth of opportunities for Allison to get into trouble. Somehow, someway she always manages to get away from the various villains even if she finds herself in hot water with the supportive adults in her life, her parents and teachers.

Middle School/High School (Grades 7-12)

We agree with Chris Wilson who sites the 9/11 Report in graphic form as a must have as it presents an unusual opportunity for teachers. Though some may see this as older than middle school it can certainly be used at that level to introduce students to the tragic date in US history. The Commission enlisted the talents of comic book creators Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón to create the graphic text format. This is a great option to begin the exploration of non-fiction materials with older readers.

The graphic story of Dracula from Bram Stoker is a great way to introduce a classic to today’s readers. Featuring revenge in huge quantities, the gory story may not be welcomed by all middle schoolers yet many others will find that aspect mesmerizing. As with many others we have selected, this seems to be a great way to introduce younger readers to the classic tale with the idea that later in high school students could gain a better appreciation of the traditional tale in text form. Of course, an interesting approach would be to parallel the two texts at that time to ensure complete understanding.


Pedro and Me by Judd Winick will be familiar to those students who have followed MTV’s Real World. Winick was a cast member of MTV’s The Real World 3: San Francisco. The professional cartoonist’s tale is a tribute to his Real World house-mate Pedro Zamora. A close friend of Winick, Zamora was an AIDS activist and educator who died in 1994. The book strikes a great emotional balance and is never tawdry nor distant. The recommendation for the text is for ages 14 and up.

Maus by Art Speigelman is considered the quintessential comic to win over skeptics. Another memoir regarding the Holocaust, the book has won the Pulitzer Prize. Fully titled, Maus:A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History/Here My Troubles Began, the book recreates the tale of Spiegelman’s father’s life. Though mice represent Jews, cats represents the Nazis, et al, the pain is real and the subject matter intense. Such a book again leads to the possibility of reading more in depth text-based novels as follow ups later on in school.

Age of Bronze: A Thousand Ships is Eric Shanower’s incredible recreation of the Trojan War. The attention to historical detail is considered exemplary and adding to its appeal is that the supernatural tendencies of the classic story are understated in favor of an approach the emphasizes the human element. The art work fleshes out the personal attributes of each character making this work a great example of how the graphic format can actually be an inspiration to the written word.

The Tale of One Bad Rat explores an abused girl’s attempt to reclaim her life. Written by Bryan Talbot, the story features a teenage runaway by the name of Helen Potter who takes refuge in the works of children’s author Beatrix Potter. As is typical with most abuse victims, Potter tends to blame herself. The book features symbolism galore though the subject matter may make this text inappropriate for middle schoolers.

Blankets is described by experts as a classic young man’s coming-of-age tale. Written by Craig Thompson, realism is the theme and Thompson is the protagonist of the story. There are religious issues as well as a number of the challenges any young man faces growing up. Its level of sophistication and story line render it a work for older high school students who have truly matured along the spectrum of life.

20 comments

1 Marek Bennett { 01.28.08 at 10:47 pm }

Great choices… and some I’d never heard of!

As with all graphic novels, especially the ones for middle- and high-school, teachers should definitely READ THE WHOLE BOOK before assigning it to students. Some of these works might require some prepping of students (and parents) for the themes or situations in the books.

2 Jeff { 01.29.08 at 10:35 am }

A great list, and I’d add Herobear and the Kid, the Marvel Adventures line, Mouse Guard, and Castle Waiting.

3 Thomas { 01.29.08 at 2:07 pm }

Thanks Jeff, we gave careful consideration to both Mouse Guard and Castle Waiting as they are both highly supported by many other sites as being of exception quality. We will need to take a peek at Herobear and the Kid.
Tom Hanson

4 Kirk Warren { 01.29.08 at 5:46 pm }

I’m not sure what grade level these would fall, possibly high school or college, but here’s a few I feel are required reading:

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman and Various Artists

Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Kim Deitch

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (Yes, a ‘superhero’ book, but this book, along with Watchmen, revolutionized the way people perceived comic books with its social and political commentary and it’s pulling the comic industry kicking and screaming out of the campy Adam West-like era of Silver Age stories into the much more dark and gritty realism. It’s affects are felt even to this day and it is still the measuring stick for most all comic books)

Fables by Bill Willingham

Most all Vertigo books, an imprint from DC Comics, are listed as Mature Readers and feature creator owned projects that are universally praised. Not every book in the line is perfect, but there are very few that aren’t worth reading and none deal with super heroes or other conventional themes.

Of note, I’m not a teacher, but I see most of the books listed in the article and I’ve read or at least know about every single one of them. While I don’t know if the ones I have listed are suitable for the above age groups, I do believe they are all books people should be introduced to throughout their learning experiences.

5 Thomas { 01.29.08 at 8:06 pm }

Kirk,
Thanks for the suggestions – perhaps someone could comment on the age levels of each of these for us. From my research I can attest to Watchmen, The Sandman and Fables as being rated very highly by many others in the field.
Tom Hanson

6 troy { 02.15.08 at 10:10 am }

For science, Solar Man of the Atom. For Social Sudies, The Eternal Warrior. Boh are gold key books and retold by Valient Comics in the 90′s. Also, there is a book, he science of the X-men that I would reccomend.

7 Thomas { 02.15.08 at 11:29 am }

Thanks Troy for the additional recommendations.
Tom Hanson

8 Gavin Lees { 02.18.08 at 12:45 pm }

Thanks for these recommendations! One that I would suggest that is great for High School students is “We3″ by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. It not only provides fertile ground for deconstructing themes, social issues, language, characterisation and structure, but is also the only comic that never fails to move me to tears – a very, very engaging and emotional read. The kids love it, too!

9 Thomas { 02.18.08 at 8:42 pm }

Gavin,
Thanks for the additional recommendation – sounds like we need to take a peek at that one.
Tom Hanson

10 Lionel { 03.04.08 at 5:15 am }

Great post! I am almost finished my 3rd year B. of Ed., and being a long time comic reader, I read graphic novels all the time. As for anything by Alan Moore, I’d suggest holding off until Grade 10, 11, and 12, as Moore packs a lot of literary allusions that might be missed at a younger age. That said, I think graphic novels have an enormous capacity for igniting the love of reading. Thanks for this post! I’ll pass it along to my classmates that believe that comic books ‘don’t count as reading’!

11 Tracy Edmunds { 03.10.08 at 5:24 pm }

My daughters (ages 9 and 12) and I review comics and graphic novels for Newsarama. All our reviews are archived at allagesreads.blogspot.com. You’ll find lots of great titles there for younger kids.

I just finished reading the first Age of Bronze book. It is really fabulous, but does contain some fairly explicit sex scenes. I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving that book to students in middle school or even high school.

12 Eric King { 03.31.08 at 12:36 pm }

This is a great building list, but I think you must include some foreign language books (translated to English) here to show teens and younger that people in other countries are just like them. Something akin to Yoshihiro Tatsumi would be good, but he is a little too explicit.

13 Armen { 07.05.08 at 6:56 am }

This may be a tangential point to the discussion but I would say that any graphic novel content short of obscenity should be considered for a high school audience. When I was in high school I was assigned (and loved) such books as 1984, Death of a Salesman, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Slaughterhouse Five, and Of Mice and Men among others, all of which dealt with mature themes such as depression, child abuse, racism, rape, and suicide. Novels and plays including these topics are part of high school curricula nationwide. It is important that lovers of comics and graphic novels who are using them to reach out to children and foster a love of reading not use the same double standard that comic book critics use by treating exploration of mature themes as sensationalistic pandering when done in comics while calling the same exploration insightful in novels. I hesitate to even bring this up because I think there is an important place for comics in our schools and I wouldn’t want to discourage teachers from using them by taking my criticism personally. On the other hand, it would be a shame for a student to miss out on literary classics such as The Watchmen or the Lone Wolf and Cub series because they contain drawings of people bleeding and having sex.

14 K { 09.16.08 at 11:22 pm }

I graduated high school two years ago, and I think there are some really important or just plain excellent comics that were sadly missed on this list. True, ‘educational’ comics are important and appropriate for a middle/high school library, however for students to get a broader scope of comics, I think quick judgement about which comics to keep off the shelves would be a mistake. A quick list of comics that I found in my own high school library (grades 8-12- no middle school in my city!) as well as a couple additional titles:

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Epileptic by David B

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Buddha (series) by Osamu Tezuka

Flight (series) by Various (compiled stories)

Sshhhh!/Meow, baby/Hey, Wait!…/The Iron Wagon by Jason

Demo by Brian Wood (and Becky Cloonan)

Tin tin (series) by Herge

The Last Call by Vasilis Lolos

Scott Pilgrim (series) by Brian Lee O’Malley

Street Angel by Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca

East Coast Rising by Becky Cloonan

Also recommended would be more ‘textbook’ comics, specifically, Scot McCloud’s work such as:

Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art and

Making Comics: Story Telling Secrets….

These are comics that all either autobiographical, historical, diverse, or simply campy adventurous. If you can have youth who read Shakespeare (and don’t argue about it, there is some messed up stuff that happens in those stories of his) then these graphic novels/manga/cartoons, aka comics are more than appropriate. In addition, other comics such as Sandman or Watchmen or A Conversation with God (by Will Eisner) are also recommended, because in the comic book world, they are ground breaking.

Hope it helps!

15 Thomas { 09.20.08 at 9:18 am }

K,

Thanks for adding to the list – it is clear that the comic genre, like all of literature, has many superb works to choose from. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

Tom Hanson
Editor

16 Corbin Supak { 03.10.09 at 1:45 pm }

I taught comic arts to middle and high school students this Fall. I did a unit that specifically focused on using comics works to depict cultural situations, as there are so many examples of this lately. We looked at “Maus” and “In The Shadow of No Towers”(9-11 story) by Art Spiegelmann, “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi which is amazing for its portrayal of regular Iranian citizens and the whole backstory there, “Louis Riel” by Chester Brown which tells a great story depicting the 1800′s western territory/influence battles in N. America (Canada and N. USA specifically), and “Palestine” by Joe Sacco which is a journalistic account of that situation.

17 nancy { 04.06.09 at 10:46 am }

I would like to know if you have the graphic novel Frankenstein online for my 12th grade students.

18 Betsy { 08.12.09 at 11:22 am }

Thanks so much! I really appreciate the information you have here. I am a lover of graphic novels and began to loan some of them out to a student last year who shared my interest. He has since asked me to head up a comic club at school. I would be interested to hear a bit more of your opinion regarding appropriateness-level of certain comics. I made the mistake of giving this student some books I had not read in years, and I had forgotten some of the explicit content. I do not think high schoolers should have a problem with the blood, it was the sexuality…I remember some of the books were from Y: The Last Man, the Walking Dead and Sandman. I am mostly concerned with getting in trouble with the school system, or parents. Does a permission slip cover me if a parent complains? Where do you think the line should be set for 16 year olds? I would personally allow my own children to read them, but I am more open minded than others. I appreciate any advice you might share!

19 DV { 04.02.10 at 1:11 pm }

It continually amazes me that our society finds violence and brutality more appropriate for children than nudity and sexuality.

20 ruchir shah { 06.29.10 at 2:49 am }

hi what would you suggest about these 4 comics books from ezcomics.com – on benjamin franklin, american civil war, james baker and martin luther king jr. ? these are highly educational focused.
Thanks
Ezcomics

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