How to Talk about Identity: Graphic Novels

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I started reading graphic novels to increase the selection of books in my classroom library. Let me say, I could not keep the graphic novel section of my classroom full because students loved to check them out! I also incorporated many of these titles for our class Book Clubs during an Identity Unit. They helped contribute to students’ understanding and exploration of identity and is by no means an exhaustive list of graphic novels related to identity. 

Below you’ll find, in no particular order, brief summaries (and my commentary) of twelve graphic novels and the kinds of conversations and questions you might use to begin or continue exploring identity with your students. Whether it be in a book club, book study, or as a class read aloud, make sure you’ve established a safe space to start these important conversations in your classroom!

You’ll also find five additional graphic novels that I haven’t yet read, that I think can contribute to an identity unit depending on your students.

The characters and experiences in these novels may resonate across grades 4-7, but it’s hard to say what grade these books are best suited for. All of these books were suitable for my middle school classes. What is a “younger audience” to me, might not be the same for you, so please check out Common Sense Media or other online reviews to better acquaint yourself with these books. 

El Deafo by Cece Bell

This one was a must-read for my fifth graders–there was a constant chain of who wanted to read, or re-read this one. 

This graphic novel memoir shares the stories and experiences of a young girl’s hearing loss. Cece renames herself El Deafo because for her, the Phonic Ear gives her superpowers. Throughout the story, readers may learn about the challenges faced by the deaf or hard of hearing community. They may also learn both problematic and helpful communication styles when interacting with others.

This could be a starting point for talking about aspects of identities based on our abilities. It can also lend to conversation about the way aspects of identity can cause inclusion or exclusion. How can we show acceptance of other identities? How can aspects of identity contribute to privilege?

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If you’ve read the original, yes this is just as amazing. The graphics really bring this already great novel to life. 

As if finding and creating a separate identity from your twin brother isn’t already hard enough, Josh Bell has to figure out who he is beyond his family and basketball.  Through a series of changes and challenges, Josh grows up faster than he might have expected over the course of a very short time.

This is a great book to talk with your students about how your interests and appearance can be part of your identity, but your values and (re)actions are also a large part of who you are. What parts of your identity make you either proud of embarrassed? What do you think contributes to that?

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Though largely a story about friendship and roller derby, this has some important lessons about identity too!

Astrid has to figure out what it takes to be herself even if that means she finds interests that are different from her best friend. 

I used this book to encourage my students to think about gender norms and stereotypes, and the way they can impact one’s identity development.  Do gender norms exist? How do you know? Who has the power to shape our identity? This can start great conversations on how we can have multiple identities that don’t have to be exactly the same as the people we love to be around. 

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Add this to the list of books I wished I had growing up. Centered around a friendship, I like how this book shows two different experiences among Chinese American families and even Chinese American girls, reminding readers (and the character) that even within a shared identity, everyone is not the same.

When main characters Christine and Moon first meet, Christine is skeptical–and surely you can guess how that part of the story goes. The more surprising part (to me) of the story involves Moon’s visions and communication with the stars in space. 

Have discussions with your students about embracing your identities and the identities of those around you. How do you embrace your own identity? What parts of your identity (or someone else’s identity) can you learn more about?

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When Jordan’s parents want him to attend a new school, he starts to navigate an entirely new space…with a lot more white people than his neighborhood, and previous school. 

Much of the book, being the new kid, Jordan Banks is trying to figure out who he can find a friend in. While he is exploring his own identity, he is also exploring who he identifies with.

While reading New Kid, there are opportunities to start and/or continue possible conversations with students about how identity is dynamic. What causes our identity to change? Do we have control over identity? Because Jordan experiences microaggressions at his new school, this book can also provide an opportunity to discuss how to identify and stop microaggressions that students in your class have experienced.

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Jump into a magical community that lives aside one that seems quite realistic.

Aster is interested in the practices of witchcraft, but boys in his community are expected to learn how to shapeshift. And you guessed it, learning witchcraft is meant for girls in his society. 

This book really pushed my students to re-evaluate gender norms and what it is like to be caught in the middle of family and societal expectations while discovering and asserting one’s own identity. Start conversations about gender identities as well as nonconformity. How can others be more accepting of different identities? How can a society harm one’s identity?

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The students that read this book really enjoyed it! Yes, it revolves around a crush between protagonists Jorge and Jazmine. Personally, I liked that it also included relevant topics peer pressure and digital citizenship.

My students started conversations about how your identity can be shaped by your body type/size, your interests, and who you associate with. Plus, the choices you make. Throughout the novel, Jorge has to find a balance between what he wants and what others expect of him.

Some questions to consider with your students: How can you use aspects of your identity to help others? Does your understanding of your identity match the way others understand it? This book can surely make you think about the similarities, differences, and the overlap between a reputation and an identity.

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I love the graphics and use of color in this one, especially because they contribute to the special story line.

Multiple parts of Priyanka’s identity begin to weave together as she searches for her mother’s past and learns more about the culture and beliefs of her mother’s birthplace, India. This story travels across time and space when Priyanka wraps herself in her mother’s special pashmina and helps our main character, and reader dive into thoughts about everyday life, immigrant experiences, and similarities and differences among cultures and societies.

Students can reflect on how Priyanka’s culture impacted her identity and how their culture(s) impact their identities. Can parts of one’s identity be separated from each other? What ways might parts of identity overlap with one another?

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Of course this book is important to a list of graphic novels related to identity. In fact, I could probably incorporate it in countless different units of study because it’s a time in history I’ve thought a lot about. 

In short, this memoir depicts George Takei and his family’s experiences before, during, and after the forced incarceration of Japanese & Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II. 

Students can begin to question the ways in which governments and their policies can impact identities. Tie this one into a 5th grade social studies unit on the Constitution and students can begin to discuss questions such as: How are identities validated or invalidated based on laws? How does language used by those in power impact our identities? Who determines what your identity means? What can you do when someone’s identity isn’t valued?

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Recommended for Grades 8+, but you know your students best! These books cover important topics and themes that all students deserve to have. With that said, these books may require deeper conversations or context for students and/or contain language or details that can be seen as inappropriate for all ages. Again, you can use Common Sense Media or other online reviews to help you decide what is best for your students.

Much larger than the standard book, this book is about the size of printer paper–and the graphics and stories fill the pages! This is definitely full of action and adventure, but will also take the reader on a journey of cultural differences and self-discovery.

When a biracial teenage boy from New York takes a trip to Japan with his mother, he explores Japanese folklore along with the stories his grandfather shares with him. Whether learning about his 

Ichiro struggles to find his place–caught between two worlds, or maybe even two grandfathers with very different outlooks on the world. Take a sneak peak of how the book presents the opportunity to discuss the expected and unexpected places one can find parts of their identity. How does can identities shift across multiple spaces? Why might that occur?

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I came across this graphic novel as an audio book. My first thought? “That defeats the purpose of a graphic novel!” Part of the magic of the graphic novel is, the graphics! Yet, I listened anyway out of curiosity, and didn’t regret it. You can take a sneak peak of Tomboy, which helped me to see the style and better imagine what was going on.

This memoir style graphic novel shares Liz’s experiences with identity through all stages of life (including adulthood), reminding young adults that finding yourself is a life long process.

With your students, consider the ways in which one can express their identity. Can one’s clothing choices tell you something about their identity? Can their interests and actions? What ways does or can someone try to communicate their identity with others? 

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Let me start by saying, no quick summary I could write about this graphic memoir will do it justice. In addition to that, there are so many layers to this beautiful book (as with many of the others too).

Set in the present and past, Thi Bui documents her family’s experiences living in and escaping Vietnam before and after the Fall of Saigon in the 1970s. In short, finding yourself sometimes means uncovering a painful past.

A great graphic novel to continue to dive into conversations about searching for your identity. How do the experiences of others help you understand your own? How do your experience, or maybe even the experiences of others, shape one’s identity? Whose perspectives can influence one’s identity? How can perspectives different from one’s own perspectives affect one’s identity?

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What's Next?

As teachers, we always have a TBR, or a “To Be Read” list, right? So, here are the next five books I have on the list to potentially add to a future unit on identity, or even just to my classroom library!

What’s Next Titles:

Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol – Amazon affiliate link

I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina; Illustrated by Stacey Robinson and John Jennings – Amazon affiliate link

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang – Amazon affiliate link

Persepolis by Marjane Sarjapi – Amazon affiliate link

Check Please: #Hockey by Ngozi Ukazu – Amazon affiliate link

What other graphic novels have you read that could contribute to conversations about identity?

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