Poetry and Graphic Novel Pairings
Poetry and graphic novels may be on a similar trajectory. The popularity of poetry continues to rise—with readership doubling between 2012 and 2018, according to the National Endowment of the Arts—and graphic novels are also seeing increased interest. Sales of graphic novels jumped 171% between 2020 and 2021, accounting for 24 million books sold.
Like poetry collections, graphic novels are wide-ranging, diverse, and often difficult to categorize, but they’re most commonly defined as “novels in a comic-strip format.” This means there’s representation in almost every subgenre, with graphic novels delving into serious nonfiction issues, making readers swoon with cute depictions of romance, and transporting audiences to fantastical or sci-fi worlds. No matter what subjects fascinate you, there’s likely a graphic novel that explores them. And if one of your interests is poetry, you’re in luck—not only do graphic novels mirror the genre, with their focus on imagery, form, and creative use of white space, but we’ve also rounded up the best pairings to get you started.
1. Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke and Inward by Yung Pueblo
In Kristen Radtke’s Seek You, which was longlisted for the PEN Book Award, she raises awareness of what she calls a “silent epidemic”—Americans’ complex and intensifying relationship with loneliness. The sprawling graphic novel covers everyone from cowboys to radio DJs to Princess Diana, making the argument that loneliness affects us all and illustrating its many different yet relatable faces.
Like Seek You, Yung Pueblo’s Inward shows the striking connection between individuals and the world around them. The collection illustrates that looking inward during times of solitude can lead to developing empathy and unconditional love for others.
2. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden and Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
Named one of the best books of 2018 by both Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal, Tillie Walden’s immersive and enchanting On a Sunbeam drew audiences into the intricate, starry skies of space. The story takes place in two distinct time periods. In the present day, main character Mia works on a spaceship and charts a literal journey through the universe to reunite with her first love. Meanwhile, readers also harken back to Mia and Grace’s relationship in boarding school, as Walden showcases the ways in which these two events are interconnected and inseparable.
Poetry can also transport readers to space, with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Life on Mars standing out as an otherworldly example. Like Walden, Smith uses this creative and engrossing setting to make larger points about love, connection, loneliness, and grief, as space metaphors serve as a way for Smith to discuss the death of her father, an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope. And just as On a Sunbeam shifts from past to present, Smith’s beloved collection gravitates between two universes—an imagined existence in space and the real, nuanced, often painful life on Earth.
3. Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob and Hybridia by Tina Chang
Graphic novels can be a way of exploring the genre of memoir. That’s Mira Jacob’s approach in Good Talk, which chronicles Jacob’s wide-ranging conversations with her inquisitive son, as well as how they prompt her to reflect on her own life. As Jacob reckons with her half-Indian, half-Jewish son’s questions about race, religion, prejudice, and more, she goes back to her childhood to confront her own education about these topics. Little Fires Everywhere author Celeste Ng called the graphic novel both “heart-rending” and “hilarious.”
As the title of Tina Chang’s Hybridia suggests, the collection also addresses interracial heritage and history. Like Jacob, Chang accesses these difficult and fascinating questions through the lens of motherhood, considering how having a child has caused her to contemplate these concepts in entirely new, emotionally charged ways.
4. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel and Butcher by Natasha T. Miller
Though it was published in just 2006, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home quickly became a classic in the graphic novel genre, even going on to inspire a Tony Award-winning musical of the same name. In the book, Bechdel weaves together the experience of understanding and expressing her lesbian identity and the experience of grieving her father. This coming-of-age story raises questions about sexuality, loss, and how well we can really know our own families. Underlying it all is the funeral home that Bechdel and her family lived in throughout her adolescence, which the title riffs on, and the way that this becomes an illustration of grief: Funerals, corpses, and morgues play an eerie, central role, with Bechdel marveling at how death always played a central role in her funeral director father’s life.
If Bechdel discusses grief through the language of the funeral business, Natasha T. Miller does so through the language of the meat industry. Miller begins to see her life as a cow cut into five parts, each severance illustrating her ties to family members or the outside world. The collection, which has been praised by Jericho Brown, is also about the ways that silence, mystery, and secrets can be central during the grieving process. Like Bechdel, Miller finds inspiration in her queer identity and writes about how it affects her family relationships.
Bonus writing prompt: Use graphics and illustrations as a jumping- off point for your poems. Consider reinventing these classic comics with your own words to add a modern twist, or write a poem inspired by the scenarios that play out in them. If you want to take a multimodal approach, and try your hand at design as well as writing, learn how to build your own comic strips with tools like Canva and Adobe Express.