Welcome back to Comic Book Wednesday, gals and pals! This week, I'd like to change things up from the usual recommendations and spotlights and instead have some good old fashioned musings. Today, I want to talk about something that matters a lot to me: kids learning to read through comic books.
First, a little story. About five years ago, when I was relatively new to the comic shop I work at, a mom and her daughter came in to the store. The girl was about six and, like most six year olds who walk in, immediately started running around looking at the toys. She started begging her mother to buy her a whole bunch of them. Her mother, completely unfazed, said "Okay. You can have one small toy or you can have as many comic books as you want."
It was like a switch had been hit in the little girl. She did an about face and made a beeline towards the comic book racks. Her mother saw me watching and smiled at me. "I'm not spending a lot of money on toys," she told me. "But if she's reading? That I don't mind spending money on."
I ended up helping them find a big stack of books, and both mom and daughter left happy.
This story has always stuck with me, how this mom didn't care so much what her daughter was reading but that she was reading. Comics have often gotten a bad rep in terms of literacy. Parents and teachers alike have considered them not "real" books, and have dismissed them, or worse have been adamantly against them. Type into google search "comics are bad". The first auto-filled results are "comics are bad for children" and "comics are bad for kids." Why is that? Why do we consider comic books to be so harmful?
The idea of comics being bad for kids is not anything new. One of the earliest examples is the psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham whose crusade against comic books resulted in the book The Seduction of the Innocent, a text that is full of wild accusations about comics causing all of societies "ills". Jamie Coville writes about this in a series of articles he did for Penn State:
Dr. Wertham stated that in his studies with children, he found comic books to be a major cause of juvenile delinquency. This assertion was based mostly on guilt by association. The vast majority of kids in those days read comic books, including the ones who became delinquents. But according to Dr. Wertham, comic books caused the children to become delinquents.
But comics went much further than just turning kids into juvenile delinquents. According to Wertham, comic books were giving kids wrong ideas about the laws of physics, because Superman could fly! He also charged that comic books were implementing and re-enforcing homosexual thoughts because Robin was drawn with bare legs, that were often wide open, and that Robin seemed devoted and attached to only Batman. Dr. Wertham also stated that Wonder Woman was giving little girls the "wrong ideas" about a woman's place in society.
Now, obviously most people don't think like this anymore, but I would argue that a lot of the anti-comic frenzy that got whipped up in the late 40's and in the 50's has had a lasting effect on how people view comics and the way that kids read comics. We as a culture haven't quite managed to shake this idea that comics aren't "real books". Sure, it's easy to say that comics have violence and scary things and some sexuality, but isn't it true that that stuff is contained in a lot of the prose-books that kids read? Just thinking back to my own childhood, teachers never seemed to scoff when a kid was reading a Goosebumps book in the library or a Star Wars novel. So let's take the content stuff completely out of the equation when discussing literacy.
As far as I can see, there's no good reason to stop kids from reading comics. In fact, comic books can often be used as an amazing tool to motivate kids who don't like reading or who just struggle with reading.
Meet the Tiny Titans. These guys made a huge difference for me when I was an elementary school tutor. I was working with a fantastic program that tutored ESL students after school (since they would miss some of class for ESL lessons). I was assigned to a wonderful group of boys, with whom I worked starting in Kindergarten and going through First Grade. They were all smart kids, but none of them had really any interest in reading.
They always wanted to talk about cartoons or video games. Reading didn't really hold much of an appeal for them, and they all seemed to struggle with it. Now, I'll be the first to admit that a lot of this has to do with that this is the age in which kids are often learning how to read, but I noticed that there also wasn't any real desire to read. It wasn't fun for them. It was homework. I ended up going to the head of my program and asking if it was alright if I bought some comic books to bring in. She said okay, and a few weeks later I brought in a whole stack of Tiny Titans.
It really was the first time I had seen them interested in some kind of written material. After we finished working on homework, instead of begging to play with their toys or wanting to run around the room, the boys were happy to flip through the comics. For the most part, they didn't really read them that first time. It was a lot of looking through the pages and going "That's Robin! That's Batgirl! That's Flash! Who is that?" but they were engaging with material, and it didn't feel like work.
At the end of the year, all of them were far more interested in reading, and I had, more than once, needed to staple the comics back together as they had been read so many times that they were falling apart. Again, this is not to say that comics were entirely responsible for their interest in reading or was what taught them to read, but I like to think that those Tiny Titans books helped. It showed my boys that there was material that they could engage with, that they liked, and in some ways was already familiar to them because they had some idea of who the characters were.
This experience is absolutely not unique to me and the boys that I worked with. In a New York Times article about comic books and education, the author sat down at an after-school comics making program and spoke with some of the kids:
Gabriel Cid, 10, agreed that “reading is kind of boring,” but said comics were different.
“Superheroes, comics, that’s when it gets interesting because you get to see all the cool stuff,” he said.
In the same article, several educators agree that comics are something that is good for literacy. Lisa Von Drasek, a children's librarian, says:
“Not a semester goes by that not a parent or a teacher expresses a concern about a comic-format book that their child has taken out or is using for their reading time.” Usually, she said, the critics come around. “What we say is, ‘Whatever works.’”
And the then-superintendent of the Maryland schools, Nancy S. Grasmick, adds:
“We’re trying to open the eyes of teachers and educators to this as a possibility, this as something that might really help children and is good education.”
Comics can be a useful literacy tool for a lot of reasons, not just because comics are something that kids like to read. Comics are written in a way that it is easy for kids to comprehend elements like pacing, the movement of time, and other story factors that may go over their heads in a piece of traditional prose.
Andrew Miller, from the site Edutopia, talks about how comics can be used in the classroom and how comics can be used to develop Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS), which are skills that much of standardized testing is based on. He writes:
Reading standards ... can be built through the complex analysis and evaluation of graphic novels and comics. Have students look at how the authors and illustrators use colors, textures, words, text boxes, frames and camera angles; then make connections between these elements and evaluated their effectiveness.
Because of the accessibility of the medium, it's easy for kids to view and understand the different elements of a story, and even better: it's easy for them to replicate that kind of storytelling. I know that I loved making comics when I was a kid. I would staple a bunch of printer paper together into a little book and fill it up with comics. I came up with characters that I used over and over. I learned how to develop a character without even realizing that I was doing it! Many schools and libraries now have comic book clubs, where students are encouraged to make their own comics, which means they get to practice their writing skills and storytelling skills at the same time that they're practicing their reading skills.
Literacy is not just about learning how to read, it's about writing too. And using comics as a literacy tool isn't just about learning how to read and learning to love reading, it's also a great tool to learn what storytelling is, how it works, and how it can be used. Comics are good for kids and they are good for literacy. I hope as time goes forward we see more and more comics in the library and in the classroom.
So, what stories do you guys have about comics and literacy? Have you ever thought that comics were bad for people? Do you still think that? What do you think about how some people classify books as "real books" and others as "not real"?
As always, I look forward to your comments! Also a sincere thank you to everyone who understood why there was no CBW last week. Your support means a lot.
See you next Wednesday!
Header photo found on this wordpress blog.
Tiny Titans art done by Art Baltazar.
Kid reading a comic in the classroom from Comics Beat.