Exploring Girl Power in Multicultural Graphic Novels

This project was completed as part of course requirements for EDCI 5404: Multicultural Children’s Literature. 

Below you’ll find a collection of graphic novels featuring diverse female protagonists. From an abolitionist to a superhero, these characters are not just about girl power;  they also represent the audacity of spirit, the courage of souls, and the humanity within us all.  

Graphic novels can be a powerful teaching tool in the classroom.  Graphic novels also present a unique opportunity to engage readers with strong narratives and visually stimulating depictions of story and character. What’s more, initiatives like We Need Diverse Books have illuminated the importance of providing books to children that are mirrors, windows, sliding doors and maps!

Each of these middle grade/adolescent graphic novels below was chosen based on the quality of the text, reviews, and criteria for choosing quality multicultural literature from the Anti-Defamation League. You’ll find below contain a summary with resources that can be explored with students. For more on how this project came to be, continue reading. Ready to see the list? Click here!

Graphic novels have exploded in popularity in the last decade. This may be largely due to powerful narratives that visually depict worlds where readers can become wholly immersed. For visual learners, graphic novels are often easier to relate to by providing a richer representation of contextual elements such as setting, facial expression, and other visual cues that help to motivate and engage even the most dormant readers.

In “Not your Mom’s Graphic Novel” (2013), Jorgensen and Lechan explore how graphic novels, similar to comic books, often stereotypically “bring to mind the male superhero swooping in and saving the damsel in distress. This perception of graphic novels is due, in part, to a history of male authors writing specifically for a male audience” (p. 267). In “Let Them Read Comics: Some Graphic Novels for Younger and Older Readers (2008),” Carol Fox advocates for graphic novels not being the exclusive domain for men. She posits that graphic novels can be powerful and challenging in their representation of women’s lives. In “Aren’t These Boy Books?”: High school Students’ Readings of Gender in Graphic Novels (2011),” Robin Moeller’s study brought revealed that indeed, graphic novels are not just for boys, that they are “edgy,” and can be highly impactful despite gender if they depict characters with whom teens easily identify. 

While graphic novels are a genre with clearly a lot to offer, the gender lines still exist. According to often-cited research by Graphic Policy, a popular source for demographic statistics related to comics and graphic novels, although market research shows a growing fan base, the genre is still dominated by males.  And while that same trend continues in authorship, things may be changing, especially with the 2014 announcement of Comics Industry Person of the Year, Raina Telgemeier, author of the popular Roller Girl and Sisters graphic novels.   More graphic novels by and about females are receiving notable awards from Kirkus, National Book Award, and the MacArthur Foundation

The readership for graphic novels is definitely expanding across gender lines and representation of people from diverse backgrounds has slowly been expanding as well. Gene Luen Yang explores the challenges of growing up Chinese in America in a several of his highly praised graphic novels. Dwayne Harris recounts the legend of African-American folk hero John Henry in John Henry: The Steam Age Original Graphic Novel.  Art Spiegelman tells the story of a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe in Maus: A Survivors Tale. Although in book publishing graphic novels are one of the biggest trends in recent years, the list of graphic novels with diverse characters is relatively short and with diverse female characters, shorter still.

The Wall Street Journal stated that “publishers are targeting women readers with the next generation of book-length comics,” and while we did have some success finding graphic novels targeted to female readers, we didn’t find many with diverse female characters, especially graphic novels that would be appropriate for middle grade and teen readers. As educators, we feel it is essential that books become the windows, mirrors, sliding doors, and maps for students. So, we decided to make a list that teachers, students, parents . . . readers of all levels, can use to explore diverse literature featuring strong female protagonists.

From an abolitionist to a superhero, the characters in these graphic novels are not just about girl power;  they also represent the audacity of spirit, the courage of souls, and the humanity within us all.  

Each middle grade/young adult graphic novel contains a summary with resources that can be explored with students. Scroll down to get started! 

Graphic Novels featured in this collection: 

General Resources for using Graphic Novels in the classroom

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian TamakiSkim

Themes Explored: Gender identity, sexual orientation, first love, depression

Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s first collaboration, Skim, is the story of a 16-year-old girl and her adolescent experience as a Asian-American, gothic “outsider” at a private Catholic school. This book seeks to challenge gender norms as Skim resists traditional femininity. She herself is not thin and that is that. She has a matter-of-fact and clever personality but her vulnerable side is exposed through her diary entries.  The novel makes no reference to Skim’s sexual orientation so the reader has space to interpret her process of self awareness. Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki are also the author and illustrator for This One Summer, a Caldecott Honor Book and Printz Honor Book. 

Skim offers “intimate insights into the lives of adolescents who identify themselves as outsiders for reasons of sexuality or race.” ~Shaun Tan, author illustrator (from “The Accidental Graphic Novelist”)

Resources for students, teachers and parents:

Zita the Spacegirl Series by Ben Hatke

Themes Explored: Bravery, identity, indepenence

Ben Hatke brings middle grade readers an exciting graphic novel triology featuring the zita the spacegirlspace adventures of young hero, Zita. In the first book, Zita the Space Girl, Hatke develops Zita’s character, she is an adventourous, brave, and opened-mined adolescent determined to get back to earth. The story begins as Zita and her friend, Joseph find a button inside of a meteoroid. Much to the dismay of her timid buddy Joseph, she fearlessly presses the button. Suddenly she find herself lost and alone in a strange world with aliens and giant mice. Guided by her own moral compass, Zita takes care of herself. She makes many new friends and quickly finds herself to be a local hero. She is on a mission, and while Joseph is mostly concerned with getting home, Zita, seems to enjoy her quest.

In the second book, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, concerns idenitity. The leasson she learns legends of zitais that some are afforded priviledge and choices while others are not. Tired of being paraded around as the local superhero, Zita finds herself on the run. When Zita’s choices catch up to her she goes from hero to criminal; the victim of a robot trying to steal her identity. After being captured by the Doom Squad readers are left wondering what she will do now.  We know she will handle this herself, but how.

In the third book, The Return of Zita the Space Girl, readers find out that return of zitaZita has been taken prisoner; forced to work in a mine. The quirky and entertaining alien friends from the first book make a return to help Zita but things aren’t quite that simple. Zita always focuses on doing the right thing. She is idealistic and refuses to leave anyone behind, even if it cost her.

Resources for students, teachers and parents:

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor (An Abolitionist Tale about Harriet Tubman) by Nathan Hale

Themes Explored: Slavery, freedom, bravery, activismTubman

Araminta Ross was born a slave in Delaware in the early 19th century. Slavery meant that her family could be ripped apart at any time, and that she could be put to work in dangerous places and for abusive people. But north of the Mason-Dixon line, slavery was illegal. If she could run away and make it north without being caught or killed, she’d be free. Facing enormous danger, Araminta made it, and once free, she changed her name to Harriet Tubman. Tubman spent the rest of her life helping slaves run away like she did, every time taking her life in her hands. Nathan Hale tells her incredible true-life story with the humor and sensitivity he’s shown in every one of the Hazardous Tales—perfect for reluctant readers and classroom discussions.

Resources for students, teachers and parents:

 Color Trilogy Series

In a turn-of-the-century rural village in southern Korea, a girl falls in love for the first time as her widowed mother falls in love again.

Themes Explored: Coming-of-age, love, relationships

The Color of Earth by Kim Dong HwaColor of Earth

Ehwa and her mother live alone in a tavern at the edge of their village.They have a quiet, wistful life together until Ehwa starts to notice boys, and her mother falls in love with a traveling pictographer who supports himself as a salesman. Over the next several years, Ehwa begins to learn about love as her mother cherishes the occasional visit from her“picture man.”

The Color of Water  by Kim Dong HwaColor of Water

As Ehwa grows older, her feelings for the boys she meets change from
crushes and vague longing to love. It is through her relationship with
Duksam—and through having that relationship challenged by Master
Cho—that Ehwa learns what it truly is to love. Meanwhile, Ehwa’s
mother contemplates what her life will be like, alone, once Ehwa marries.

The Color of Heaven  by Kim Dong Hwa

Color of Heaven

The third and final volume of this series, The Color of Heaven, will see Ehwa rediscover love and embark upon marriage as her mother and the traveling pictographer decide to settle down together.

Resources for students, teachers and parents:

Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal (Kamala Khan) by G. Willow Wilson; Adrian Alphona (artist)

Themes Explored: Assimilation, religion, independence, teenage experience

Kamala Khan is Marvel’s first Muslim superhero to headline her own comic book series. Kamala Khan The creators of the comic book hoped to explore the experience of a Muslim American from an authentic perspective, and from this desire came Kamala’s character, a second generation Pakistani American who discovers her powers and fighting villains, all while navigating conflicts of cultural and religious duties.  Her identity as a Muslim, desi girl from New Jersey and the labels imposed on her by her family and society are central to her identity formation and the narrative that develops.  For example, the book Generation Why depicts a conversation between Kamala and a religious leader at her family’s masjid, in which they discuss how she might continue her work “helping people” while also remaining true to her religious beliefs and the expectations of her family.  Later in the book, themes of the immigrant experience are explored as her parents express fear over the dangerous events happening at Kamala’s school, saying “We came here so our children would be safe– safe from the chaos and corruption and bombings back home.” Kamala has the ability to shapeshift, and in earlier books, she experiments with altering her appearance to look more like her idol Captain Marvel, taking on her blond hair and white skin.  She discovers, however, that she is more powerful when she looks more like herself, and she keeps her dark hair and skin when she shape shifts.

In an interview with the BBC in November 2013, Willow made it clear that Kamala was going to be a Muslim superhero, saying that, “I wanted to make a story in which the Muslim woman narrates her own life.” So much so has Wilson done that, that Kamala doesn’t just get her powers, she actively questions and struggles with whether or not she truly wanted them. From The Mary Sue

Resources for students, teachers and parents:

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Themes Explored: Perseverance, friendship, disability, difference, isolation

In her graphic novel El Deafo, Cece Bell pulls from her own personal experiences of living el Deafowith a hearing disability as a child to tell the story of Cece, a bunny whose hearing aid both gives her “super hearing powers” and distances her from others.  In the story, Cece moves from a school for the deaf, to a new school where she is the only one with a hearing aid.  She feels isolated and lonely, but then she discovers that she can hear her teacher through the hearing aid when she is in other parts of the building.  The story tells her struggles to make friends who accept her for who she is and to advocate for herself when others treat her differently because of her disability.    

The main reason that I believed the graphic novel format was the best format for my story is: SPEECH BALLOONS. They are awesome. They let me show the reader exactly what my character is hearing, or not hearing—a very important thing to show in a story about deafness. ~ Cece Bell (from The Guardian)

Resources for students, teachers and parents:

Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Themes ExploredRebellion, religion, justice, tragedy, identity

Saints follows the story of Four Girl, a rebellious Chinese girl who wishes to become a devil Saintsand accidentally converts to Christianity along the way. During her conversion to Catholicism, she believe she sees the angel of Joan of Arc appear to her in the woods, and dreams to have the same glory and honor as Joan. When the Boxer rebellion begins, Four Girl is eventually killed for refusing to recant her beliefs. Boxers serves as the companion novel to Saints, and follows Little Bao, a boy who becomes a leader in the rebellion and kills Four Girl. In interviews, Yang has comment on how he wanted to show two different perspectives in order to tease out the nuances in this complex historical narrative.

Fast fact: Did you know Gene Luen Yang was a high school teacher? 

Resources for students, teachers and parents:

Amulet by Kazu KibuishiAmulet

Themes Explored: Friendship, adventure, loss, bravery

Amulet follows the life of a girl named Emily and her younger brother Navin. After their father is killed in a car crash, their mother moves them to her grandfather’s old house where Emily discovers a powerful amulet. Their mother is kidnapped by a strange creature and dragged into an alternative world filled with monsters and robots that the sibling duo must manage with in order to find her. Throughout their journey, Navin and Emily make friends and enemies, problem-solve, and cope with loss. The first part of a seven-volume series, the fantastical images create a culture and world all their own in order to address emotions and situations that middle grade readers will readily relate to. 

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

Themes Explored: Family, customs, traditions, duty, freedom
Undertaking Lily Chen

There exists a burgeoning market for corpse brides in rural China. Drawing on her cultural heritage and research, Danica Novgorodoff tells the story of Deshi, a young man who accidentally kills his brother. Deshi’s traditional parents refuse to send his brother into the afterlife alone and send him on a quest to find a “fresh” corpse with whom to wed and bury the brother. Almost immediately on his quest, Deshi crosses paths with Lily Chen, an outspoken runaway fleeing an arranged marriage and controlling father. Readers quickly realize that Lily holds the power in this relationship, and it is she who ultimately finds a way to subvert both families, allowing the young people to pursue their futures freely.

Resources for students, teachers, and parents:

Tomboy: A Graphic Memior by Liz Prince

Themes Explored: gender stereotypes, bullying, fitting inTomboy

Tomboy is Liz Prince’s story about not being like other girls growing up. She wasn’t into princesses or pink, but she wasn’t really into boy stuff either. She existed in that in-between space. When you’re not exactly sure where you fit in, school can be a tough place, and don’t even bring up romance! Each anecdote, from a dress from grandma to reimagined fairy tales, is perfectly rendered within the illustrations. Prince tells a timely story with grace, humility, and humor.  She challenges stereotypes, deconstructs culture, and delivers an important message about being yourself. *Best Books of 2014 (Kirkus Reviews), ALA Rainbow list, YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens

Resources for students, teachers, and parents:

Princeless: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley, M. Goodwin (artist) 

Themes Explored: Independence, bravery, stereotypes, self-empowerment

PrincelessIn Book One of this Eisner-nominated series, we meet our protagonist Princess Adrienne who is locked away in a tower. She is fed up with waiting to be saved and finally decides she’s going to have to save herself and her five sisters. After securing the assistance of her former guard, Sparky the dragon, she sets off to rescue her sisters.  There is enough humor to engage readers of all ages, but adults will especially appreciate the satire of veteran comic book writer and artist, Jeremy Whitley.

“My daughter is black and while I encourage her to look for role models of all colors, girls need to be able to see girls that are like themselves in media. They need it even more when it comes to seeing them portrayed with strength. And, unfortunately, I think that’s sort of a symptom of this exclusionary tendency in the self-professed nerd culture circles. I would love nothing more than to change that culture, but barring that, I’ll help create another one.” Jeremy Whitley from (Women Write About Comics)

Resources for students, teachers, and parents:

Additional Resources:

Finding Diverse Books:

Teaching Diverse Books:

Research and Reading about Diverse Books:


Allison, M. C..”(Not) Lost in the Margins: Gender and Identity in Graphic Texts.” Mosaic: a journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature 47.4 (2014): 73-97.

Dennys, Harriet. “Girl Power: Graphic Novels and Manga Are Attracting Increasing Numbers of Female Readers. But Which Titles Do Young Women and Teenage Girls Most Enjoy?(FEMALE APPEAL: GRAPHIC NOVELS & MANGA).” The Bookseller 5253 (2006): S6. Web.

Fox, Carol. “Let Them Read Comics: Some Graphic Novels for Younger and Older Readers: Carol Fox Argues That Graphic Novels Can Offer a Profound Literary Experience, and Introduces Some Powerful and Challenging Texts Which Tackle Multicultural Themes.” English Drama Media 11 (2008): 17. Web.

Gravett, Paul. “Literature’s Mutant Sister: Graphic Literature Is Achieving Critical Mass and Acclaim, and Is Growing in Popularity among Young, Culturally Alert and Adventurous Readers, Both Male and Female.” The Bookseller 5204 (2005): S8. Print.

Jorgensen, Anna, and Arianna Lechan. “Not Your Mom’s Graphic Novels: Giving Girls a Choice Beyond Wonder Woman.”Technical Services Quarterly 30.3 (2013): 266-84. Web.

Karp, Jesse. “Multicultural Graphic Novels: As a Highly Visual Medium, Graphic Novels Can Put Stories with Diverse, Multicultural Elements into a New Perspective for Young Readers.” 112.9-10 (2016): S24. Web.

Moeller, Robin A. “”Aren’t These Boy Books?”: High School Students’ Readings of Gender in Graphic Novels.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 54.7 (2011): 476-84. Print.

Tan, S..”The accidental graphic novelist.” Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature 49.4 (2011): 1-9.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s