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Between the Panels: Graphic Education
By Lance Victor Eaton (June 2007)

More and more comic art - or the combination of image and word - are being utilized to educate. Graphic novels find their way into high school and college curriculums, but they are also being targeted at elementary and middle school children. The pieces discussed here aim to bring the classics to life in a manner that youth can understand, introducing children to the essential storylines of classic tales they are sure to encounter later in life.

These graphic novels serve multiple purposes. They can be purchased in bulk for classes to enjoy and for teachers to employ in a variety of manners. However, they can also be used to entice individual children into reading. Few realize it, but the average comic book page has upwards of a hundred words on it. Now parents can make use of these educational graphic novels to provide kids with classic stories and at the same time enhance their reading abilities.

HerculesThe Graphic Universe series from the Lerner Publishing Group tackles mostly myths and epics in their line of products - such as Hercules: The Twelve Labors by Paul D. Storrie and Steve Kurth. This 48-page graphic novel explores Hercules' life and how he came to accomplish the famous deeds. This and Beowulf: Monster Slayer (by Paul D. Storrie and Ron Randall) are action-packed adventures where few panels transpire without something exciting happening. Graphic Universe uses typical comic art format in its action, exposition boxes, and talking balloons. They are rich in colors and onomatopoeic spellings. They include a brief preface contextualizing the story as well as a geographical map of the world region the tale comes from. Additionally, they include a small glossary, further reading, source information, author/artist bios, and index sections at each story's end.

Barron's Graphic Classics on the other hand, tackle literary classics such as Dicken's Oliver Twist (adapted by John Malam), Melville's Moby Dick (adapted by Sophie Furse), and Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (adapted by Michael Ford) - all illustrated by Penko Gelev. These differ significantly from the Graphic Universe series. Rather than colorful pages with shifting panels from page to page, these graphic novels keep panels set to mostly standard sizes. While speaking balloons can be found in a panel or on its borders, exposition is always located directly under the panel. Though this detracts from the graphic element of these stories, it also improves the number of words per page. Particularly, when trying to tell the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in forty-five pages or less, more text can only help. Readers will also notice that the color scheme is much more thematic than in the case of Graphic Universe, maintaining consistency with certain hues and lighting.

Oliver TwistBut where Barron's Graphic Classics really shine is in their extra features. Before starting the story, readers are introduced to the cast of characters and their pictures. At the end of each book, several sections offer further information about the work and the author. They give a moderate biography on the author and then go on to include additional relevant information about the work such as maps, other details (such as film and theatre performances of the work), and random facts about the book or its historical context. These (if read) really broaden the child's horizon with an understanding of the texts in a larger picture.

Both series offer not only the story itself but directions to encourage a child to further learn and read. These graphic novels are not escapism or further proof of the dumbing-down of education, but rather additional tools to help children foster a care and desire for reading. In an age of digital dominance, books such as these are an essential tool.
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