by Jason Sansbury
Recently, I shared some ideas on using young adult (or YA) fiction in your youth ministry and some of the ways that can be beneficial to your ministry and outreach. Click here to read “6 Tips for Using YA Literature in Your Youth Ministry.”
Now I want to discuss another YA avenue that is likely unexplored even by most local libraries: graphic novels. Most people equate the term “graphic novels” with comic books and superheroes, which makes sense as most of what is bought and sold under that term are collections of comic books that are sold in bound books. But to limit the idea of graphic novels to just those is a disservice.
Original graphic novels are stories that use the visual storytelling of comic books to be the driving storytelling force of original stories and ideas. And the kinds of graphic novels that are out there are as diverse as the kinds of stories that exist. Nearly every form of story has been made into a graphic novel. And especially for visual centered learners, graphic novels may connect and tell a story in a way that has more impact or resonance with them.
So Where to Start?
First, like YA fiction, an annual “best of” list is published that can point you to some books that are worth investigating. Oftentimes, because these books make these lists, they can be available through your local library or interlibrary loan list. And because of the graphic nature of the works, you can often find Kindle versions of the books or through the comic book app Comixology, which works on nearly all smartphone and tablet operating systems. Here is the list of books for 2014. (And it should be noted, this list will always contain some superhero books on the list.)
Below are some highly acclaimed graphic novels that are great entry points and ideas to use as discussion starters in your ministry. And as with books, read and decide on your own which works can be used in your context; there are parts of many works that may be objectionable enough to pass on them, or at least handle with care.
Looking Beyond Marvel and DC
First up, let’s look at the coming of age story Peanut, by author Ayun Halliday and illustrator Paul Hoppe. This is a very funny, sassy story in which the main character, in an effort to gain attention and feel unique, decides to fake a peanut allergy. That basic premise sets up some great discussions about peer pressure, the intense desire to both fit in and be unique, and the consequences of our actions. It is at times both funny and poignant. This book would be especially meaningful for early and young adolescents as they navigate their middle school world.
Second, Drama is a wonderful graphic novel by Raina Teigemeier. I love this book because of great storytelling that works on different levels, much like its title. In that case, Drama stands for the drama department of a middle school where the main character Callie is working to create a wonderful production, and it also stands for the drama of normal teenage life. This would be an excellent book for a group of early adolescents to talk through how they manage stress and deal with the struggles of day to day life.
Third, look at the magnificent work I Kill Giants to pass on to any youth who is dealing with loss. To say much more would give away a sudden plot twist that I think would ruin the book; just trust that the first layer of the story, about a young adolescent girl who wields a hammer to kill giants in our modern day world, is an extended metaphor that goes deeper. Because of that depth, I have used this book to help students have discussions about the sense of loss and hurt they feel in the midst of struggles, despite some language that normally wouldn’t fly inside the church that is contained in the book. I’ve personally given this book to several dozen youth and youth workers who have all agreed it is excellent.
Lastly, if you want to spark an interesting discussion about race, religion, and faith being acted out, look at the historical autobiographical books March Vol. 1 and March Vol. 2. These two works are the story of Georgia congressman John Lewis, and it intertwines his presence at President Obama’s inauguration with his memories of being a teenager at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. His story is especially poignant now to youth because Representative Lewis is a prominent character in the film Selma.
Like YA fiction prose books, YA graphic novels can be used to create discussions, encourage youth to have deeper thoughts, and potentially provide an outreach that your church and youth group might not otherwise have and may be worth pursuing.