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Graphic Help For Reluctant Readers

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Ever heard of graphic novels? If you’re thinking of 400 page pocket books with embossed covers of buxom maidens, you’ve got the wrong idea. I’m talking about a different kind of graphic!

Perhaps you know them as extra-long comic books. Either way, there has been a rebirth in pages of carefully inked cartoon characters with speech bubbles—and many educational experts say they may be the best things to happen for kids who resist the written word.

Many parents have had the experience of trying to motivate a “reluctant reader.” While some children are happy to find a book and a quiet corner, others struggle with the idea of tackling page after page of finely set print. For the latter, graphic novels may be the answer to motivating good reading habits.

Junior high school teacher Jennifer Fay is one of those converted to using the picture-laden texts in the classroom. Researching the topic for her master’s program, this Canadian educator says the volumes provide many enticements for a student who is bored or overwhelmed by regular books.

“One of the big attractions of graphic novels is that they appeal to all kinds of learning styles,” claims Fay, adding the attractive artwork is an additional motivator.

If you are of a similar opinion to mine, prior to researching this subject, you may be thinking these overweight “comic books” were more likely to stunt reading abilities than increase them.

Not so, say the experts.

Fay asserts, “Most people assume a comic book is very cartoony and an easy read. But that’s not the case. It still has the plot structure of a typical novel and you still have characters, structure, setting, and rising action.”

Even librarians are getting on the bandwagon, recognizing all types of students enjoy these “easier” reads.

Philip Charles Crawford, the Library Director at Essex Junction High School in Vermont says, “Young people enjoy reading a wide range of materials, including periodicals, series fiction, and comic books—materials some librarians have shunned.”

In his article Using Graphic Novels to Attract Reluctant Readers, Crawford asserts that most comic books and graphic novels are written at a fourth to sixth grade reading level. If you’re thinking that’s a waste of time for a junior high student, you may be surprised to know that popular periodicals, like Time, for instance, are written at a similar level. So are many young adult novels and even some adult best sellers.

To back up his claims, Crawford quotes USC education professor Stephen Krashen, who was one of the first to recognize the positive effects of what he calls “light reading.” Krashen says this is “a kind of reading that schools pretend does not exist and a kind of reading that many children, for economic or ideological reasons, are deprived of. I suspect that light reading is the way that nearly all of us learned to read.”

On his web site [http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/comicbook/menu.html ], Krashen provides convincing statistics gathered from a study he completed in the Los Angeles area.

Selecting two schools, one populated by youngsters from middle-class families (including a large percentage of students identified as “gifted”) and the other serving children from less affluent neighborhoods (the school qualified for Chapter 1 funding with over 80% of the students considered eligible for free or reduced price meals), Krashen found that comic readers from both sides of the tracks shared similar traits.

Most notably, they are far more likely to “read for pleasure” on a daily basis than non-comic readers—over three times more likely for the lower economic students and twice as likely for the middle-class group.

But if a child begins reading comics, will he ever graduate to more sophisticated texts? On page one of his study, Krashen quotes other authorities that believe comic books do not replace other kinds of reading.

By this point, you may be ready to hop in the car and head for the nearest bookstore or comic shack and bring home a bundle for your child.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this reading euphoria.

After a trip to my local library led me to a hastily stacked shelf of about thirty selections (the librarian says the circulation of these books eclipses that of the “best sellers”), I discovered the wordplay on the term “graphic” is still an issue here. A flip through the pages revealed many of the stories tended to feature dark “superhero” themes, and some images were explicitly violent.

Then there is the common concern of heavily endowed women drawn in skimpy attire. Skin-tight still seems to be the costume of choice when fighting bad guys! Reports from Fay and others indicate some specimens even include nudity, although I didn’t come across any in my library’s collection. (However, I was surprised to find a Star Trek compilation containing a futuristic “single-breasted” swimsuit that employed clever artwork to cover what would otherwise be topless nudity).

In summary, if you are considering using these books to encourage reading, you must select them carefully. I wouldn’t recommend using mail order or on-line bookstores unless you have actually had an opportunity to look through the title to ensure it meets your family’s standards.

Yet, with a little careful searching, I’m convinced you can find something to motivate your children to turn off the TV and video games, and pick up a book. And that’s a happy ending to any story.

While researching this, I found a couple of titles I enjoyed:

Clan Apis by Jay Hosler is a black and white 160-page book that uses humor and artwork to chronicle the life of a honeybee. It’s a very educational read that also entertains and contains no objectionable content. It may also have more appeal to girls who are less likely to bond to comic books and graphic novels.

Groo the Wanderer by Sergio Aragonés – I found two of these compilations in my library. Marel/Epic originally published Groo in the 1980’s as individual comics. The main character is a guy who lives to slay people. As violent as that sounds, he never really gets a chance to kill anyone because he’s too much of a buffoon, and brings bad luck wherever he goes. The violence is slapstick silliness, but what makes Groo so loveable in my books is his innocence, and the author’s ability to weave strong lessons about teamwork, ecology, and conflict resolution.

Go Girl! By Trina Robbins and Anne Timmons – Another title with obvious female appeal, Go Girl! is a basic superhero story following the daughter of a former flying superhero now turned super-mom. While not the most imaginative writing, it is a rare graphic novel offering aimed at young females with modestly dressed characters.

Finally, these links will lead to additional resources:

From the Duluth Public Library, A Parents' Guide to Graphic Novels for Teens
[http://www.duluth.lib.mn.us/YouthServices/GraphicNovelsParents.html]

From the Scholastic web site, Choosing Books for a Reluctant Reader by Maureen P. Hegarty
http://www.scholastic.com/familymatters/read/reluctant/choosebooks.htm

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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