Graphic Novels: A New Boon to Reading
A Mini-Reading Miracle
I grew up in the world of Dick and Jane from the 1950s, reading in my class at Peeple's Street School on the western part of Atlanta (cattywampus from the Joel Chandler Harris home of Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Fox fame). The book was immense; I mean, physically enormous next to us kids! It was taller than me, propped up on a large easel before which we, the young wanna-be readers, perched on tiny stools to take a look.
It seemed to be more of a struggle for me to read the Dick and Jane book than it did for my peers.
Born three months premature, my eyesight had been diminished by a procedure whereby air was blown into a newborn's eyes to help their vision improve. It did the opposite. After this procedure, I saw life through a glass, like peering through the bottom of a Coca-Cola bottle. My sight was so poor that I couldn't see the hands and numbers on the giant clock that the teacher held in her hands while walking around the classroom to show us up close. I had the same problem with Dick and Jane. It was big and in my face, but the words were so blurry that even the individual letters were indistinguishable by me. However, I could see the pictures!
Each day in class, I was held back after every session because I could not read aloud the simple words: "See Spot. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run." Although the lovely watercolor drawings mesmerized me, I still could not distinguish the words on the pages. But somehow, focusing on the art, my mind eventually translated their actions into words. I did learn to read (much to the relief of my flummoxed yet determined teacher) by learning in reverse: illustrations first, meaningful words second. In other words, Dick and Jane was my first graphic novel!
Through their captivating illustrations from that Dick and Jane book, I managed to piece together their adventures and slowly unlock the magic of reading. My early experiences with this oversized book marked the beginning of a unique journey with visual storytelling. Despite my visual impairment, I found solace in the vivid pictures, using them as a bridge to understand the accompanying words. This unorthodox learning method eventually paved the way for my ability to read at a twelfth-grade level by the time I was in fourth grade, even before I had access to proper eyeglasses. I did not get my glasses until the ninth grade, but I still loved reading the way that I did. The local library became a place I loved, and I began to favor adult fiction and National Geographic books!
Point of View is Everything
Years later, I witnessed a similar phenomenon when my sister-in-law's three-year-old successfully identified "helicopter" from the written word, a testament to the power of associating visuals with language. "It's too hard a word," she protested. "He doesn't even know his letters yet." I insisted that that didn't matter. I told my sister, "He sees that whirlybird on the page. He knows what it is. He associates that unit of letters with the word helicopter because the art confirms that's what it is." My personal struggles and experiences have reinforced my belief in the efficacy of visual learning and its profound impact on reading skills development.
Having learned to read from art to words, I knew he considered that word a unit, and you must admit the word "helicopter" is very distinguishable with its ascender and descender and the "O" in the center. My sister-in-law argued that a three-year-old could not read such a "hard" word, but he could!
Only a reading teacher over my pay grade can say how this reading magic works. However, as a professional writer for young readers for 40+ years, I can say that we have long been coming full circle through a myriad of reading teaching styles back to the future, so to speak, of lots of pictures and fewer words being highly effective in helping non-readers come to begin to eventually read.
The Graphic Novel
When you think about it, we have been reading graphically all our lives. Campbell's soup can labels are a great example. If there's a picture of a big, red tomato with the word "tomato" underneath, why, that word MUST say "tomato," right?
I taught my own kids when they were very young to read long before first grade (or Sesame Street) by reading all kinds of graphics: billboards, cereal boxes, STOP signs, and such. One time, it backfired on me. I took my preschool daughter to pick up her father from his night college class. We parked in a small strip mall across from the school. It was well-lit by the store signs, and Michele was enthralled with the neon lights. She'd sound out the letters as we waited. One day in church, an elderly woman asked, "Little girl, can you spell yet?" Michele quickly responded by saying, "Yes, ma'am! L-I-Q-U-O-R!" Perhaps the moral of that story is that big, brightly colored neon letters positively facilitate reading?
While I am no expert in the history of teaching reading, I receive a constant flow of statistics showing that reading levels have diminished. While there are myriad reasons for this, I'll focus on what brought me from 40+ years of writing books with my passion for visual storytelling into my work, gravitating towards books enriched with vibrant illustrations and limited text.
I had grown up reading as many comic books as I could get my hands on, then devoured Mad Magazine in its heyday. Later, I fell in love with Calvin and Hobbes. Far more recently, my daughter (yes, the liquor speller) introduced me to a then-new book—The Secret Life of Hugo Cabret. Wow, did I love the visual opening of that book, page after page of visual delight before the first word ever appeared!
Not long after this, I created an imprint called "Bluffton Books" and wrote books illustrated by talented graduates from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Poetry to Read to the Unborn Baby, A Little Potty Never Hurt Nobody, The Ghost Ship, Wild Things in the Classroom, The Day the Books Cried, and more. Before that, I created informational, programmed learning books for fast food employees on safely using a meat cutter. There was another one for retail managers explaining annual reports. These both were more visual-based rather than lengthy paragraphs that were easier to understand with some imagery. It was several years before I realized that I had been writing what we call graphic novels today.
While "high interest/low vocabulary" books were popular for a while, I had little faith in them. I believed it disrespectful to write down to, for example, young prisoners serving jail terms. They might want to read about NASCAR, but low, lame vocabulary seemed insulting and insufficient to motivate anyone to read. If I was bored writing the books, I was sure readers were bored reading them and weren't advancing their vocabulary.
Visual Appeal, Multi-challenge, Real Life Vocabulary, or as the comics used to say:
BLAM! WHAM! POW!
The first "graphic novels" were serialized comic strips printed in 1930s newspapers after publishers found adding them to the dreadful news of the day increased circulation. The boxes containing visuals and words were deemed, in simplistic essence, graphic novels. We loved them, of course.
In 1992, Maus (first published in 1980) became the first (and only) graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Sharing author Art Spiegleman's experience growing up as the son of a Holocaust survivor certainly brought a less "comic" dimension to the concept of a graphic novel.
Graphic novels were moving up in the world, but were they helping kids learn to read? You be the judge of that. Captain Underpants (considered a graphic novel in chapter book form) certainly boosted reading interest and ability. Today, even the wordy and vocabulary-rich Harry Potter series is going graphic novel.
I didn't originally intend to write a graphic novel, but I absolutely did set out to help non-readers, struggling readers, English as a second language readers, and others to enjoy a "looking and reading what you can" experience. It was certainly an "old writer dog learns new tricks" experience for me!
BONE, James Bone… An Experiment
"The Readermaker"—that's what I wanted to be, using all my experience as a once-challenged non-reader, a professional writer, a mother, and a creative teacher. Now that I deemed minimum words with maximum art as my formula for success, I was scared. How do you "write" a book that is mostly pictures? I quickly learned that I had to write a few words and give a lot of detail for maximum images so the artist would know what to draw.
The magic was that this was not a book at all; it was a mini-movie in book format. From the beginning, the illustrator and I abandoned book words for cinematic terms. We only referred to words for a short time and never specified what would go in a panel or dialogue balloon. It was much more: "Here's the backstory of each character [after all, we could no longer put that in words] so you know their attitude, facial expressions, body posture, etc." It was a close-up, long shot, reaction shot, and such.
I had to do something I did not have to do when writing a traditional book: pay attention and visualize what was happening (invisibly but virtually) off the top, bottom, and sides of my storyboard. Life doesn't happen in little boxes, so I had to think multi-dimensional. I soon realized that a graphic novel captured a physical "slice of life" format to culminate in a dramatic conclusion. Yes, it was a lot like simultaneously patting your head, rubbing your tummy, and standing on one foot, something I'm not good at.
Once the storyboard was done (a rather hilarious-looking affair since I am no artist), I had to write not the words of the story yet but the story's visuals. After all, the artist could not read my mind. Many more words were spent writing the scenes, colors, costumes, sound effects, actions, reactions, transitions, and more so that the artist would know what to create based on what I was trying to express. For today's kids' book market, the new requirements of purpose, friendship, educational facts, definitions, diversity, humor, and, well, you get my drift—there was a whole lotta artistic shakin' goin' on— yet still no words.
But even that is not enough. Paper, or film for that matter, is just real estate. The artist and I are determined to fill every nook and cranny of the pages with fun and charm, puns, riddles, teases, and surprises to reward readers for sticking with the story. (We call them "Mad Maggies" after Mad Magazine's marvelous marginalia.)
Who was having more fun? The writer, the artist, the reader? I only have one litmus test for writing success: If it makes you laugh, that's great. If it makes you cry, that's wonderful. If it makes you laugh and cry simultaneously, that's a success. (And I don't care if you are a kid or an adult.)
As for teaching reluctant, challenged, unmotivated readers to read, I once watched a young boy open my first graphic novel. The pages fell to a center spread. He looked down and pointed to something he thought was hilarious. He looked up and gave me a snotty-nose giggle and a grin. He "got it." And then he flipped the book back to page one and started to read.
Which brings me to some of the key values of graphic novels:
1. They’re complex. Words, pictures, space, sound effects, dialogue, and more; they
make reading fun because it’s a bit like a puzzle and less like boring blocks of type.
2. They’re usually colorful, inviting, eye-catching, invigorating, interesting, intriguing…and
3. There aren’t so many rules: it doesn’t really matter what you look at first, or second,
you—the reader—are in control!
4. It’s shorter. Everything shorter is easier. Ever read a really, really, really long recipe
without a pretty picture…and bailed?
5. Dialogue is so wonderful! People speak real words. Often just one word. You know,
“Arrrgggggg!” “Bang!” “Shazammmm!” “Dadgummit!” It brings any story to life; it
engages. The back and forth banter is often the most fun thing in a graphic novel. In the
James Bone books, there are two stuffed dinos, Pink and Green, and they get the best
dialogue! Even my artist would say, “I can’t wait to see what Pink and Green are going to
say next!” We still speak in Pink and Green sometimes…
6. In a graphic novel, words look different. Some are “slam” and “bang” sounds. Others
are made out of clouds or lightning. A word balloon made out of balloons is easy to read!
7. The story moves along faster; you can actually get to the end. So you learn that you
can read a whole book…even if you don't know every word, get the gist of the story,
enjoy it and/or reap the reward of finishing a book. Have you ever read a legal
document? Or an insurance policy? Or a last will and testament? If they would “graphic
novel” those, it might go better.
8. Images help! Once, I wrote an annual report based on teddy bears who made “Honey
for Money.” It had all the serious elements of an annual report, but with humorous art
added. It worked! These new, young managers of fast food restaurants actually
understood something they would never have deciphered in “just print.” Actually, the
comptroller swore it was the first time he really understood an annual report himself. I
later was assigned to write a virtual graphic novel to tell fast food employees how not to
cut off their fingers with the meat cutter, which they were doing! They did not understand
it by just reading the print, but the graphics were very convincing, especially the
amputated finger in a plastic bag!
9. A good graphic novel has literary merit. You do not need to scrimp on quality
vocabulary and neat turns of phrase. In fact, you owe such things to your readers. There
is nothing simple-minded about a graphic novel.
10. Lastly, you owe your readers “treats.” That’s what I call them: puns, wordplay,
alliteration, in-line definitions, pronunciations where they are needed. Why not? Spit it
out! Spell it out!
So, embrace graphic novels in all their many forms before they morph into the next thing, and we continue to ask:
Will kids read this?
Can kids read this?
How do we help them amazingly and organically read this…
Whatever “this” turns out to be.
If graphic novels can help new, budding, struggling, or any other readers read and read better, I am all for it.
In James Bone, we employed every aid we could think of... fonts, pronunciations, definitions, repetition, and more. A kid who can read Helicopter or Apatosaurus can learn to read and read well and want to read and read a lot and read ever more challenging texts – not just read at “grade level.”
It’s like that “no crying in baseball” thing. There should be “no reading at grade level.” Let’s pull a switcheroo and let it become “reading far above grade level.”
To me, librarians are the keys to unlocking all reading doors! So let’s have a story hour for the unborn, and let kids come to school reading Shakespeare, and we adults figure out what to do about that “problem.”
Thank you for all that you do!
Please watch for my new “Watch Me Write” blog that will start in January!
Carole Marsh is the creator of James Bone, 007-Years-Old, Licensed to Dig! and the author of the eight books in the series: “The Awesome Allosaurus Adventure,” “The Tremendous Triceratops Trek,” “The Roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex Romp,” “The Vicious Velociraptor Venture,” “The Sticky Stegosaurus Saga,” “The Slippery Spinosaurus Splat,” “The Amazing Apatosaurus Affair,” “The Titanic Titanosaurs Quest.”