Comics Make You Smart

August 11, 2011 @ 1:51 pm | Filed under: ,

A friend pointed me toward a conversation in which a 6th-grade teacher explains why he “reflexively cringe[s]” when he sees his students head for the comics and graphic novel section of the school library. His first post, which suggests that graphic novels are “nothing more than the literary equivalent of Jersey Shore for our kids,” drew an impassioned response from comics advocates. (The entire comment thread is worth reading.) In his follow-up post, the blogger acknowledges that he is, as a result of the discussion, reevaluating his stance on graphic novels, but he’s still not entirely convinced of their merits—not without informed guidance from a teacher, that is.

He wrote:

Just like iPads, graphic novels AREN’T magical tools. One of the things that blows my mind is the blind faith that many people seem to put in the ability of graphic novels to save struggling readers.

My favorite comment of this entire conversation came in my email inbox from a teacher who described graphic novels as a “fanciful dance” that:

  1. Encouraged visual literacy skills.
  2. Taught students to interpret and analyze at a deep and meaningful level.
  3. Introduced students to video production skills.
  4. Engaged readers in critical self-analysis.

Listen to those words, y’all:  encouraged, taught, introduced and engaged.  Books don’t do those things.

Teachers do.

(His post continues here.)

I chimed in with this response:

Teachers *may* do those things, but books certainly can and do “encourage, teach, introduce, and engage.” I’m sure you could find examples in your own life, both as a kid and an adult, when you learned something from a book without the intercession of a teacher. I can certainly point to many examples in my own life and my kids’ lives.

Here’s one: I bought a book on weaving and learned to weave by following the instructions in the book. I made hand towels and scarves without ever speaking to a weaving teacher or expert. The book taught me how.

I have certainly been “engaged” by hundreds upon hundreds of books.

A quick list of topics to which I was “introduced” by a book would include beekeeping, westward expansion, political strife in Burma, candymaking, English gardening, Greek mythology, the Salem witch trials, and–this list could go on for days! I’m sure your own list would be a mile long. 🙂

Raina Telgemeier’s excellent middle-grade graphic novel, SMILE, has proved a source of great encouragement to my 12yo daughter as she copes with orthodontic work. SMILE, incidentally, is an example of a smart, literary graphic novel that engages readers and gets them excited about reading, sending them hunting for more great books.

Another of my children made a huge leap in reading fluency and comprehension at age six when she jumped from the Bob books (beginning reader series) to Tintin comics. Her older sisters were Tintin fans, and the 6yo would pore over the pictures and puzzle out the words, wanting to read just like the big girls. The art is what drew her in, but she desperately wanted to know what was going on in those word balloons. The vocabulary, as is often the case in graphic novels and comics, was quite sophisticated. The stories introduced her (to borrow your word) to countries and cultures all over the world. At the time, I was reading aloud to her from various children’s novels, but she read Tintin by herself, asking for help only occasionally. That child is now 10 years old and an avid reader–of prose and comics. Her favorite authors are Roald Dahl, Emily Rodda, and Brian Jacques–all prose novelists.

I know this is but one anecdotal example of a kid whose door to reading was a comic book. I have heard many, many similar stories. At the recent San Diego Comic-Con, I attended a panel on Comics in the Library in which four public librarians talked about (among other things) the ways they see kids reading and learning from comics. I was particularly struck by a comment from one of the panelists, who said he read comics almost exclusively as a kid–and went on to major in English, get his MLS, and become a librarian.

I’m glad you’re reassessing your thoughts on graphic novels—the Jersey Shore comparison was seriously off base—but it seems like you’re caught on the notion that books require teachers as intermediaries, and that too seems off base and contrary to the experience of, well, millions of kids and adults who have learned incredible things alone with a book.

No response yet, but I appreciate that he’s been open to the discussion with the commenters on his blog, and I hope he’ll read some of the excellent books they have recommended, including one of my own favorites, Gene Yang’s American Born Chinesea rather brilliant and deeply moving graphic novel about a Chinese-American boy struggling with identity and acceptance. I think this teacher’s negative feelings about comics are quite common among adults, especially those who sincerely wish to cultivate in students a love for reading and a nuanced engagement with literature. Comics may strike these adults as fluff, twaddle, mental junk food. In my experience, this negative stance nearly always means the adult hasn’t read many comics—or is possibly repeating disparaging things said by adults in his life when he was a kid immersed in the exploits of Metamorpho and Adam Strange, so enchanted by story and pictures that he didn’t notice he was acquiring an impressive vocabulary and a sophisticated grasp of story structure, character development, and setting.

Amusing side note: today’s mail brought a review copy of The Manga Guide to the Universe by No Starch Press. Jane has learned a ton about electricity, relativity, and statistics from previous Manga Guides. I would be so much smarter if I read more comics…

Related: Comics in the Library: SDCC panel recap

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24 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Michele says:

    Love this! I have bookmarked it. We love our library and found the gn section a few years ago. Amazed at the quality and selection. Our faves are Owly (I know, no words, but aren’t those sometimes even better – your mind at work figuring out the story?) Odyssey and Iliad and Nancy Drew. I appreciate your recommendations – especially the ones highlighting science. Thanks again!!

    xoxo michele

  2. Melissa H says:

    Once again good timing. I got United States Constitution and Smile from the library for our summer reading program requirement (based on your suggestions). Started reading Smile but 1 page in the kid grabbed it and is enjoying very much. It’s good timing for her having just lost her two front teeth, been to the dentist yesterday and anticipating a cavity filling soon. I’m reading the Constitution one and brushing up on my American history. Thanks for the recommendations!

  3. Stephanie says:

    Some more anecdotes…my oldest was a “late” reader and one of the first series that really grabbed him was the graphic novel series Bone. I know many a “reluctant reader” who were completely won over by Bone.

    My youngest is more of a “reluctant” reader but he recently just asked for a copy of the Amulet of Samarkand graphic novel (the first book ever he has asked for.) We had just finished listening to the same series on audio and he was really excited to find it in graphic novel form because he loves Bartimaeus and finds the graphic novel much less intimidating. He has started reading it before bedtime (something he has never done before).

    I also recently found the Guinea Pig Pet Shop Private Eye graphic novels which are perfect for him, my “small cute animal with an attitude” lover. Just yesterday, he picked one up and started reading with his head in my lap, wanting to use me as a pillow. I picked up my own book (Ender’s Game) and we read cuddled up together. You will never convince me that graphic novels are not a good thing, *especially* for reluctant readers. :o)

    “Listen to those words, y’all: encouraged, taught, introduced and engaged. Books don’t do those things. Teachers do.”

    I think my jaw dropped open at this one…he is telling us that he has never been taught or been engaged or encouraged by anything from a book without a teacher involved? Really? I have to say that his reading experience is incredibly different than mine.

    Not to mention my experience with kids and learning…I, as their teacher, definitely have a role and influence, but I certainly don’t take credit for everything they know or learn.

  4. msouth says:

    I would also add:

    teachers *may* do those things…but *life* does do those things. And one of the biggest ways life does that is through our interactions with people. And a book of any form is just another interaction with people. So is a movie, a news report, etc. I reflexively cringe to see people watching network news broadcasts. They are absolutely awful–dumbed down, grossly over-acted, sound as if someone said “I know–let’s invent Barney for adults!”. But people can learn valuable things from them that *those particular people* might not otherwise have been exposed to. And they do address substantive issues even if they do it from a heavily biased monoviewpoint. Comics are way, way more intelligent (the ones I read, anyway) than network news, that I can assure you of.

    Sounds like this teacher thinks teachers are the principal source of introduction, encouragement, exposure, etc, but that’s hardly a natural situation. Without the artificial environment imposed on children by school, there would be the infinite kaleidoscope of interactions with other human beings, whether that is by chance meeting, a book, a play, a graphic novel…it would be the height of arrogance to think one particular medium of idea-exchange has an advantage over all the others for all learners.

    But traditional school kind of has to do that–that is, decide what ” ‘the’ best” medium of idea-transfer is–because they are set up to force everyone through the same experience at the same time.

  5. MacBeth says:

    Heh…yeah. Comic books, to The True Meaning of Smekday (combo novel and graphic novel), to The Art of War. And not a hint of Snooki. 😉

  6. sarah says:

    I love your response. When I first read this post on my Reader, I was a little confused; because the quote highlighting didn’t show, I thought *you* wrote, “Listen to those words, y’all: encouraged, taught, introduced and engaged. Books don’t do those things. Teachers do.” I was momentarily surprised and disappointed … until I realised that was not your opinion! I loved your response.

    Another anecdote,for what it’s worth: I was an early and very advanced reader, but I had a wonderful collection of comics which served their own purpose of education and entertainment. They also immersed me in the culture of my time – Donald Duck when I was younger, Batman and Green Lantern (swoon) and Wonder Woman and Archie when I was older. Maybe they weren’t great intellectual fodder (although I don’t know about that – the Donald Duck & Scrooge stories were extremely witty and smart) but I still remember the smell of them, the feel of the pages, the sunlit childhood days spent reading them, the fun we kids would have collecting & swapping amongst ourselves … Comics are hangers for precious memories, even more than beloved books were because they were such a childhood thing. (I’m not sure if that makes sense?)

    My whole family would get excited when we lived on an island and our monthly gift from grandmother of Asterix comics arrived by boat. We all adored those comics and learned so much history, not to mention language and the workings of fabulous humour, from them. Being able to share Asterix and Tintin with my own daughter was one of the special little joys of motherhood.

    My brother, like many boys, hated reading. Never picked up a book. But read comics happily. And is now a highly intelligent man and a great success in the business world. Comics didn’t harm either him or me – I went on to study international literature at uni.

    I will say though that I was left to read comics and whatever books happened to float my way, and no one introduced me to the wonderful classic novels for children. I do regret that. I suspect that some people worry that comic reading is a sign of no one caring particularly about what the child is reading nor ensuring that they are introduced to material which challenges and extends them (be it novels or quality comics). I do understand that dismay.

    Oh, and how could someone not think an iPad was a magic tool??!

  7. sarah says:

    ps, do I win for longest comment?

  8. kort says:

    graphic novels have come to our house of late…our almost five year old, who can’t read yet, found the graphic novel version of the Tempest in my library pile. she immediately claimed it.

    this girl “reads” all kinds of picture books. that is, she carefully looks at the art and figures out what’s going on. with graphic novels, she doesn’t have just a handful of pictures, she has hundreds! what she could figure out grew so much! she was so excited.

    when we went to see the production, she brought the graphic novel and followed along with the action.

  9. sashwee says:

    This confirms my impression of your approach to education, non-dogmatic, open to what’s good in whichever vessel it is borne. I hope you will write more explicitly about this–I would like to know more about your reflections and conclusions.

  10. Christine says:

    I found this post very interesting and timely as I have a 14 yo son who loves to read and has read extensively but now is being drawn to the graphic novel/manga style. His interests and experience with this genre have been rather limited, and I’m so unfamiliar with the titles out there that I’m unable to steer him in new directions. I do feel that there must be value in them, but as I’m so unfamiliar with this type of writing, I have a hard time knowing what is quality and what is more twaddle (because I’d imagine that both exist just as in regular fiction). I’d love to see a list of great titles/series (of graphic novels and manga) for teens.

    I’d also love to hear your opinions on the Shakespeare graphic novels out there. I know there is a series done by No Fear Shakespeare. Is it worth using in tandem with the original plays? Are there other Shakespeare graphic novels that are better? Or are none recommended?

    Thank you for any suggestions you might be able to give!

  11. Amy C. says:

    Thanks for the link. I also loved your response: spot-on challenging, yet not confrontational at all, That’s a gift.

    I was also floored by the weight he puts on the teacher. I wonder if he really believes it, or if it was just a good sound bite. 🙂

    Here’s my comment to his post:

    Fascinating conversation both here and in the previous post. I’m glad to have read it, and glad to see that you’re willing to give some serious time and thought, and a real chance, to graphic novels and their place in your classroom. It sounds like you’ve got material for some exciting conversations with your students!

    But what I find most interesting in these posts is your apparent view of the teacher’s role in the process. You seem to put a lot of weight on the teacher as the interpreter for the students. (Please correct me if I’m misreading you.)

    I couldn’t agree with you more when you said, “We’ve got to stop believing that ANY tool . . . can singlehandedly save our students.” But it seems to me that the teacher is one of the tools. Granted, sometimes he’s a lifeline, but sometimes he’s just not all that essential . . . a nice resource maybe, but not the key to all understanding.

    All needs must be met, but not all needs must be met by the teacher. Students can meet some (often many) needs on their own using the other tools at their disposal, tools that they often understand far better than any of their teachers ever will. And thank goodness, I say.

  12. Lindsay says:

    I know I’m dating myself, but when I was in high school and college the phrase “graphic novel” was synonymous with “dirty book.” I always made sure to steer clear of that section at Borders when my son was younger! I wonder why that phrase was chosen. Maybe because prurient interest is a great sales tool. Also wondering if remnants of the old meaning are coloring peoples’ perceptions of today’s books.

  13. Jane says:

    My grandmother raised seven children and taught school from around 1915 through the 1950’s, teaching literally every grade and every subject from elementary through high school except the agriculture classes. She was a highly loved and lauded teacher.

    And she believed in comics. She always kept a huge stack on her porch for grandchildren, students and any neighborhood children who wanted to read them. Her point? They got kids interested in reading, and once they were interested, they tended to branch out.

    These were the days when the number of comic book publishers was more limited, and our modern graphic novels were yet to appear on the scene, but she had everything from Donald Duck and Richie Rich to comic book classics to Superman and some ghost-story type comics that used to scare the pants off me – the whole gamut available at the time.

    Parents would look at her and quite a few expressed shock, but when she explained and they saw the kids reading, many of them came around, too.

    So comic books and kids? Oh, yes. Definitely. Even my grandmother said so.

  14. KC says:

    My almost 13 year old autistic son finished his very first long book. Yes, a graphic novel. He often gave up reading other types of chapter books because it was so difficult to follow. Now, he has picked up a chapter book on his own. ON HIS OWN. That’s never happened before. You were the first to suggest these to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    My girls also LOVE graphic novels. My youngest did what your 6 year old did. She read the Warrior series graphic novels and had serious discussions about the cats with my middle daughter who is a big fan of the books.

  15. MelanieB says:

    This is sort of off topic, but I was curious if anyone else shared my experience. While I have absolutely no prejudice against graphic novels and comics and believe they can be great art and wonderful storytelling, I just can’t seem to get into them. I haven’t tried to read many, I’ll confess, but I’ve encountered a few which friends have urged on me as the best of the best. Honestly, they kind of hurt my head. For some reason I have a very hard time following and processing both pictures and words in the comic format. They kind of overwhelm me. I find in general when reading comics I ignore the pictures and focus on the words but feel I’m missing out and eventually I just gave up. So if someone were to introduce them to my kids I wouldn’t object but I’d also feel they were entering a world where I couldn’t really follow.

  16. Ellie says:

    Melanie, I can understand what you’re talking about, a bit, because my visual acuity has changed so radically since the brain tumor. I like graphic novels, grew up loving the Tintin books, for example. But now, there are certain types I can’t read: black and white one’s, specifically. My eyes and brain get overwhelmed trying to discern what’s on the page and I can’t follow the story or dialogue. So I am guessing that you’re not alone, that there are any number of people who, for whatever reason, have a hard time sorting the visual cues from a format like a graphic novel page.

  17. kort says:

    Christine, we are reading from this series of Shakespeare graphic novels and really, really loving them.

    each play (only 5 so far) is available in three different text editions: the original text, a plain text version, and a quick text version.

    happy reading!

  18. Melissa Wiley says:

    Thanks, all of you who chimed into this discussion both here and on the teacher’s blog. And on Google+, for that matter. I’ve loved reading these posts. Between continued (maddening) internet outages and some tumbled travel adventures for my Jane, I haven’t had a chance to respond until now. 🙂

    “I’d also love to hear your opinions on the Shakespeare graphic novels out there. I know there is a series done by No Fear Shakespeare. Is it worth using in tandem with the original plays? Are there other Shakespeare graphic novels that are better? Or are none recommended?

    Scott could probably answer this better than I could; I haven’t read any of the Shakespeare graphic novels but I think he has. I can say that I quite liked the look of the Stone Arch versions I saw at SDCC—they use the original text, and the art was striking and clear.

    In principle I’m in favor of Shakespeare GNs—theater is a visual medium, after all, and if a vivid visual format helps make the text more clear and real for kids, that’s a big plus.

    @Melanie, I’m actually not a fluid ‘reader’ of the art in comics myself—I read GNs so much more slowly than I do prose, which bemuses Scott who is exactly the opposite. I have to translate the visual action, basically, the same way I can’t read music without translating. But I love it just the same, and often the visceral magic of the art is more compelling to me than the text—I would say Mouseguard is an example of this for me, unlike, say, Alan Moore’s comics which blow me away with the gorgeous lyricism of the narrative and the crisp, potent dialogue.

  19. Christine says:

    Thank you both, Melissa and Kort, for the suggestions about Shakespeare GN’s! I’ll have to look into those…

  20. kimberlee says:

    I really enjoyed this as I currently have a houseful of kids obsessed with Zita the Spacegirl. It was so fun to watch my five year old read it- the alternating pensive, concerned and amused looks on her face as her eyes darted across the pages taking it all in and figuring things out. Now she’s generating fan art and helping her big sibs with an audio adaptation, all sans teacher, of course. 😉

  21. Pentimento says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. A similar debate was played out in the combox at Touchstone a few years ago, and, when I chimed in that my older brothers’ comics had helped me learn to read (at three years old), other commenters treated me with pity. There was also some related horror being expressed at having to go to the library and contend with giant cardboard cut-outs of Captain Underpants, and I happened to mention that I thought the Captain Underpants books were pretty good, which I do, which occasioned more pity and suggestions that my childhood must have been deprived. I started to wonder what the source of all this horror and pity might be, At first I thought it was a class issue, but I abandoned that notion; in spite of my love for comics, I have a doctorate in the humanities, and have published in scholarly journals and taught at the university level, and few of the anti-comics people were writing as scholars, intellectuals, or pedagogues. To be honest, I think the horror of comics and popular children’s fiction has to do with a romanticized way of looking at the past and an equally romantic attempt to recreate it. Some of the anti-Captain-Underpants faction were homeschoolers who had to shepherd their children through such symbols of western moral decline to get them over to the children’s section of the library, where they were no doubt checking out beautiful books and not what Charlotte Mason calls “twaddle,” and they seemed to be grieving for a way of life and learning that had been lost, when everything was beautiful, nothing was twaddle, and nothing, conversely, was tainted with what we thing of modern or contemporary culture.

  22. patricia says:

    I’m so late to the party!

    My nine-year-old is a huge comics fan. (And a fan of other books as well, but comics definitely came first.) Recently he started reading A Cartoon History of the Universe, and he kept saying aloud while he read, “This is *so* interesting!” And after reading the book for a few hours he exclaimed, ” I learned so much today!”

    I dare anyone to tell me that comics aren’t making him smart!

  23. Lori says:

    i was at the public library not long ago and two young boys (about age 8) in school uniforms were asking the children’s librarian for help finding books that would interest them. she offered up a graphic novel and one of the boys said glumly, “we’re not allowed to pick one of these.” :^/