First published on 23rd February, 2014 in The Star
SHOULD children read comics? This is an old question but one that is worth raising again as evinced by a recent, badly-researched local television news report, which showed that there are many misconceptions about the subject.I am personally all for children reading comics, never mind whether or not the activity yields any educational benefits. I think children (and everyone else) should read for fun. That’s always my chief aim when waving a book under someone’s nose. You like it, you read it. If you get anything extra out of it, great, but the main thing is that you enjoy yourself.
Now, let’s start by clearing up some things. I know there are those who make the distinction between comics and graphic novels. I know there are some parents who have decided that graphic novels are acceptable reading material, but comics aren’t.
Actually, there is no difference between the two. Comics are basically stories that are told through a sequence of (usually) drawn pictures, with accompanying text (although there are also textless comics). Some comics are humorous, and many of us probably identify most readily with the comic strips found in newspapers. However, there are also feature action/adventure comic strips. Remember Brenda Starr and Modesty Blaise, Spider-Man and the Phantom? In fact, comics cover all genres.
What about graphic novels? Well, these are simply comics in book-form. The term first came about in the 1960s, but only became widely used in the late 1980s following the success of works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
Although, the term graphic novel often refers to a stand-alone, novel-length story in sequential art form, it is also used for anthologies of comic work and even non-fiction comics presented in this manner.
My graphic novel collection (I don’t own periodicals) almost directly reflects my catholic reading tastes. Most genres covered by the text-only books on my shelves are what you can find in the graphic novel section of my library: Romance, fantasy, historical fiction, YA, crime, horror, biography … no superheroes though. I do not like superheroes, no matter how they’re presented. However, many kids love them and might be encouraged to read books that feature their favourite muscle-bound saviour of the world.
Education ministries around the world (Malaysia included) have acknowledged the benefits of comics in promoting literacy. In 2010, the Malaysian ministry of education announced that graphic novels were to be part of the literature component for lower secondary students. I believe, however, the titles comprised classic like Black Beauty and Journey to the Centre of the Earth (in comic format), not Superman or The Dark Knight Returns. I believe, there’s still a stigma attached to the latter type of comics. You probably wouldn’t get The Diary of a Wimpy Kid used in reading programmes either, but that series is popular for the same reason why graphic novels are said to be promote literacy.
Reluctant readers are more likely to want to read stories they find accessible and interesting. If a 13-year-old boy were given the choice between Batman and Black Beauty, which do you think he’d pick?
Of course, I agree that the reading matter has to be age-appropriate, but having ruled out stories with sex and excessive violence, there then needs to be more openness about the sorts of comics deemed suitable for kids. The best approach, I feel, is to provide a wide variety of styles and content so the kids can choose based on individual interest.
Now, why are graphic novels a great classroom/literacy tool? Let’s go back to The Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s not a graphic novel, but if you’ve read the book, you might have noted that it contains a lot of pictures and that the pictures are used to break up the text. So, there are no ‘walls’ of words – pages filled with nothing but text. These are intimidating – they make kids want to slam the book shut and run for the hills.
The whole idea is to encourage a child to read, and studies have shown that comics get the job done more effectively than ‘traditional’ books do. I believe that when a reluctant reader is handed a comic, she immediately feels less defensive, less anxious and less intimidated. Comics are immediately associated with ‘fun’ and ‘relaxation’, and this motivates the reader to get stuck in immediately!
For a comprehensive guide visit the Young Adult Library Services Association’s site.