I just finished a wonderful class on Comics: Advising Adult and Young Readers. During the past year, beginning with a Media Literacy class, I’ve thought about comics much more. Plus, my own life circumstances have led me to give them more consideration. Specifically, watching my children learn how to read.
One of my three boys learned to read before attending school. The other two learned in kindergarten and first grade, at a more traditional pace. One son’s kindergarten year happened to be the year that Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books were making their debut — what great timing! These books are simply the best early readers I’ve ever seen. They are true early readers, with limited text (careful word choice), very simple illustrations and usually blank backgrounds (less distractions that way). Plus, the stories are funny and clever, with loads of child appeal. The illustrations are cartoon style and the characters speak and think in balloons — just like comic strips use. The background colors of the balloons correspond to the color of the character (pink for Piggie, gray for Elephant). This is simply brilliant – it makes is so clear to a young reader who is saying what. The typeface is large and larger or expressive when needed to convey emotion. Motion lines and emanata are frequently used. It seems so obvious when I review these books, but yes, they are comics. And if it wasn’t clear enough, when searching for an appropriate illustration to demonstrate this revelation, I found an Elephant and Piggie comic in comic strip form from Mo Willems’ blog:
Post Mo Willems, where does a young reader turn? I don’t think there is only one path, but probably several variations. I’m not sure yet if my children are typical or unusual. It’s something I’d like to investigate more. But here’s how it has gone for us. Pokemon was allowed in our house because it was a game my son could play with his older brother and they did play it together for extended periods of time. To play the game, one has to be able to read. On a car trip over Christmas break in first grade, my son read the Pokemon Handbook for several hours. I mean total absorption. I’m pretty convinced that Pokemon was a major step on his way to literacy. Peer pressure was a great motivator as well. He was aware that others were reading the Magic Tree House books and really wanted to try them. Yet his speed of decoding didn’t always allow for full comprehension. So we checked out the audio version and the print version and he listened first (something you can do in the dark of those early winter days stuck in a car) and then read the books. This repetition wasn’t boring for him, but rather facilitated his reading them on his own.
In second grade he discovered Jeff Smith’s Bone books, probably his favorite books of that year. The elementary school library carries them, though in the public library he has to go to the YA section two floors up from the children’s section to get them. He knows he can’t just pick up any books from the YA Graphic Novel section though! This interest led me to start searching for graphic novels and comics for younger readers. My Neighbor Totoro was a wonderful discovery – accessible, enjoyable, age-appropriate and it keeps the Japanese format – reading from back to front, right to left. This feature only added to the appeal for my son and is great at raising an awareness of another culture, another way of doing things.
My recent comics course was incredibly valuable to me both personally and professionally. I know have an ever-growing list of great graphic novels and comics for elementary age children, including Long Tail Kitty, The Secret Science Alliance, Zita the Space Girl, Smile, Rapunzel’s Revenge, Hereville, and MouseGuard. A current favorite in our household is “Calvin and Hobbes” and fortunately I already had plenty of those on the shelves!
If you know of great graphic novels for the elementary age, I’m still looking for titles and always welcome suggestions. I have found two great websites for educators/teachers/librarians on graphic novels and comic books. One is The Graphic Classroom, which is created by a teacher and is all about incorporating graphic novels into the classroom. Another is the Good Comics for Kids blog from School Library Journal.