Exploring Diversity through Graphic Novels

Madeleine Gorges

The graphic novel is a beautiful format for telling stories that can put the reader in someone else’s shoes. I believe graphic novels are powerful learning tools and approachable for non-native English speakers. In my Lifespan Psychology class I use graphic novels about teenagers with non-dominant identities to explore themes of Power, Privilege, and Inequity. The students write essays and create presentations that show how the characters face some identity challenges that are typical in adolescence and also have some additional challenges specific to their non-dominant identities in society. Here are the graphic novels I have used:

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

This beautiful story weaves together a traditional Chinese story of the Monkey King with an element of magical realism that allows a Chinese American adolescent to change his identity. It wrestles with themes of family, peers, and cultural identity. I had a Chinese international student select this book for his project and he did a great job providing additional background about the Monkey King and exploring many interesting metaphors throughout the graphic novel. Although I believe there is value in having the students select a novel that reflects an identity that is different from their own, I also think there is great power in having students select a book that they do identify with, especially if it is not commonly portrayed in the dominant culture. They can also then compare and contrast their experience with the the character’s for more depth exploration of the identity.

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

Like American Born Chinese, the central theme in Pashmina is a conflict between the culture of the family and the culture of peers at school and in the dominant society in the U.S. Pashmina’s mom is from India and the teenage character in this book develops an appreciation for her Indian cultural heritage and her mom’s past with the help of a magical pashmina shawl.

New Kid by Jerry Craft

This graphic novel does an outstanding job illustrating a variety of common microaggressions. A Black teen is sent to a private school and must navigate the daily unintentional microaggressions from his peers and teachers. He makes friends with White and Black students, but is stressed by the assumptions and social implications about his intersecting friend groups. The teachers’ uses of wrong names and assumptions about financial aid expose some of the challenges faced by non-White students in a predominantly White school.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

El Deafo starts when the main character becomes deaf from an infection early in her childhood, but most of the story takes place in her later elementary school years. It illustrates how the accommodations for her deafness impact her self-esteem and her relationships with peers. The main character learns how to accept her situation and help others understand and feel comfortable around her as well.

This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

Although the main character in This One Summer is a White, middle-class girl, the story focuses on her perceptions of an Indigenous teen who becomes pregnant. The comparison of wanted and unwanted pregnancies is a central topic. Other themes include depression/mental health. These deep themes are gently explored through the lens of two preteens who merely witness the adult challenges of their parents and older teen acquaintances.

I chose those books because they focus on the middle childhood and adolescence life stages for my Lifespan Psychology class. Other graphic novels I have read that would be excellent for Diversity and Social Justice content include the graphic novel series March by John Lewis and They Call Us Enemy by George Takei.

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