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Posted at 02:34 PM ET, 01/07/2014

‘THE TRIAL BALLOON’: Readers react to graphic novels in schools

IF THERE was any doubt that the issue is still divisive, then last week’s comments thread reaffirmed the classroom reality:

Many people simply just don’t see the curricular value of the modern graphic novel. You want educational support for “reluctant readers” — many of whom might more naturally be visual learners? Then read your “funnybooks” outside of class (and off my lawn)! Or so goes some of the, er, “sentiment.”


NEIL GAIMAN, from a 2013 lecture. (Michael Cavna - The Washington Post)
“Research studies be damned!” is often the rigid traditional thought — even though, as my colleague-in-comics Katie Monnin (associate professor of literacy/author of “Teaching Graphic Novels”) points out, graphic lit demands of the reader twin levels of intelligence (verbal/linguistic and visual/spatial). Or, as creator/educator Lynda Barry notes in our video, some people still labor under the simple misconception that because comic pictures are involved, the content must inherently be “childish” — and they miss out because of oft-willful misunderstanding.

Yet in an interesting twist after my essay last week, “THE TRIAL BALLOON: O teachers, after a banner year for graphic novels, don’t ban these books” (which ran online and in the Style section), I haven’t received a single letter (email or snail) that disagrees with the belief that graphic novels have a place in the classroom, with one writer even declaring herself a new convert to the cause.

Here is a selection of letters in response:

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I read with great interest your article in this morning’s Post. I am a retired librarian [who served] in a large intermediate school and high school in Fairfax County, Va., for 26 years — many of those years [specializing in young-adult content]. I love the literature for young people and have read much of it.  I remember when Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” won the Pulitzer Prize.  I had read it and thought it worthy. 

I retired in 1996, but I tried to keep up with literature for young people.  I often visited my public library in Fairfax and I’d peruse those graphic-novel shelves.  Much of what I looked at there I did not like, and I had come to the conclusion that I was glad I had retired before I would have been obliged to spend some of my library budget on graphic novels. 

However, after reading your column this morning, I have changed my mind.  Getting our young people to read is of utmost importance, and surely if graphic novels will help, I’m all for them.  I just hope that the bulk of them are of the same quality as “Maus” and “Stitches.”

LYN KNAPP

Ashburn, Va.

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I'm a 70-year-old retired schoolteacher.

Reading was the most important goal in my life as I started kindergarten. The first day I couldn't wait to start. Unfortunately, I was in the afternoon class. Almost all my cousins and friends from the neighborhood were in the morning class.

The second day I cried, screamed and fussed that I didn't want to go to school and I wasn't going. Needless to say, Mom walked me to school.That night I was asked why I didn't want to go.

I told Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa that I didn't want to go to school because they “were bad people.” “You told me not to go with bad people!” Asked why they were bad people, I explained that “they lied to me. They told me I would learn to read. I came home and got Grandpa's paper. I couldn't read.”

After a bunch of explaining that I still don't really understand, I quit fussing and returned to school the next day without all the drama.

By the beginning of the second grade, reading was a joy.

Then, my favorite uncle gave us (10 or so cousins and friends ) three large boxes of comic books. Over the next couple years, we read and reread them all summer while waiting an hour after lunch before going  swimming. Rainy days were gathered on the front porch and read them again. As pages were lost, the books were slowly discarded.

All of us learned to read on Superman, Batman, Archie, Little Lulu and other comics.

As an eighth-grade teacher, often I had a student who brought comics to school for reading time or to hide in their textbook during lessons. When other teachers confiscated them, I retrieved them. When I had enough for a class set, I had them read them in class and make lists of the words they didn't know. It was amazing, the number “big words” they found. They often understood the context, even if they didn't really know the word.

Calling them graphic novels doesn't make them worth less than comic books. If kids will read them, people need to quit complaining. As long as the kids read other things as well, at least they doing something worse.

 

RICHARD KRIEGER

Stillwater, Okla.

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I can't remember the last time I wrote to a paper. However, your article is so magnificent I just had to tell you how much I appreciated it. I still have my copy of “Maus.” I have been an avid reader of WW2 history. Still, Maus had an impact in a very personal way. 

Thank you for publishing the other graphic novels. The history of these books, especially the story of the Egyptian woman and John Lewis is remarkable. I fully intend to add these to my library. A great way to start the new year.

LINDA NEHME

San Diego

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Viva the graphic novel ... and especially in the classroom!

Bravo, Michael!

JESSICA Z. BROWN

Educator, Gateway Media Literacy Partners,

St. Louis

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I remember joyously reading funny books, which we called them, as does Edward P. Jones. The characters, like Tarzan, Dick Tracy, Plastic Man and others were so realistic, but with fantasy, too. The paper quality was rather poor and easily torn, but the colors were so engaging.

My hometown in Middle Tennessee had neither library nor bookstore, so comic books were a real treat which were bought in Nashville. Perhaps, you know the Dick Tracy character who was too fat for his dress shirts with the buttons popping off into the mouth of a chicken who followed him everywhere. This was so funny, since I knew chickens to be not too smart. I chuckle now.

I agree that graphic novels have a place for young readers like myself who was not interested in long paragraphs. ...  

The character conversations and actions melded so well to tell the story in few words. I think you are right that they should be included in schools. Last year, the director of a District Shaw youth program told me that teenage boys chose graphic-novel topics and pictures over just word novels. He thought there should be more in schools and more readily available. Imagination helps. ...

Interest and reading skills know no boundaries. Please, follow up with these situations and let us know. I am a voracious reader and I know that I began with funny books.

Keep thinking and writing. The box sides keep getting thicker and we must make windows.

 

LUCY NORMAN SPENCER

Arlington, Va.

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Many thanks for, and congratulations on, your article “Trial balloon.” It's great advocacy for the use of graphic novels in schools — a subject I'm extremely passionate about. It's just disappointing that we still need to be having the discussion, given the literature that has been written on the topic, and the research that has been conducted. I guess we just have to keep watering the rocks and hope they will eventually grow! 

DI LAYCOCK

Sydney, Australia

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I really enjoyed your eloquent and forceful article championing the use of graphic novels in education. I rarely encounter any resistance to my [illustrated classics] books [like “Beowulf”] in the classroom anymore, but I know there are still some people out there who think of comics as a lesser medium, and I appreciate your attempt to spread the word that it isn't so.

GARETH HINDS

graphic novelist,

Takoma Park, Md.

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Thank you very much for writing this brilliant article! You obviously took great pains to thoughtfully lay out clear arguments, examples, evidence and video interviews (covering most of the learning styles!) to help convert not only the average unconvinced reader to understand the untapped potential of graphic novels in the classroom, [but] hopefully teachers and principals as well.

KISHARI SING

Zombie-Based Learning,

Seattle

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I read with interest your essay in this morning’s Style section. As a cartoonist-turned-writer-without-irony, I’d like to suggest a different, perhaps less combative approach to introducing graphic novels — which I prefer to call “graphic literature,” since they’re not all novels, much less all fiction — into curricula everywhere.

The first step is to acknowledge that graphic literature is a pretty much completely new medium. ...

Graphic literature is simply not dialogue with pictures, but shares a greater kinship with cinematic storyboards or legitimate theater. Not only does the writer create the story line, boxed commentary, and dialogue, but the illustrator manufactures the environment, blocks every scene, and creates every “camera” angle. It is the one nexus at which the literary, dramatic and graphic arts meet on equal and equally dependent footing. In fact, I’d argue that a graphic novel is no more nor less a unique work of art as an original film. Their essential elements are pretty much identical: dialogue, environment, blocking, camera angles, and so on. And I don’t think anyone any more challenges film as a legitimate art form.

The second step is to acknowledge what the reader, especially the young reader, loses with graphic literature. With rare exceptions, you lose imagery, simile, and metaphor — word pictures that a graphic representation can do only a small measure of justice. You lose the exercise of imagination, the creation of that uniquely personal world — no two remotely alike — we all manufacture when we read. You lose the sense of the English language as this immense quarter-million-implement tool box that can be combined and recombined to create images, indeed whole scenes, of ineffable beauty and raw power. For that matter, try to convey the notion of “ineffability” in a graphic novel. Good luck.

Finally, I think graphic literature needs to shed the notion that the fiction is just comic books for adults. Frankly, I think this is the highest hurdle, especially among the generation (mine) that learned how to read from comic books, spent university with one foot in Shakespeare and the other in Zap Comix, and were taught that comic books were the meanest, basest form of expression. You have to establish graphic literature’s literary and cultural value. You have to demonstrate how they — and only one is enough to begin with — contribute to humankind in the same manner as good literature, revealing a unique corner of what it means to be alive or to die. For example, for all that a work as monumental as The Watchmen was, which was and is considerable, I don’t think it found that secret niche in the human soul that we want the best of our art to nurture. This calls for erudite criticism as much as advocacy.

In the end I believe your cause will prevail, and graphic literature will ultimately find a place in our canon of literature for this and future cultures to regard with pride.

 

KEVIN EAST

Herndon, Va..

By  |  02:34 PM ET, 01/07/2014

Tags:  graphic novels, schools, classroom education

 
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