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Can the X-Men Make You Smarter?

By Drego Little
It has taken the Literacy Establishment 30 years to figure out what kids have known for at least as long. Comic books are good for your brain. What’s good for comics, and good for readers, is that comics have never been better or more diverse. If you’ve ever thought twice about buying your child the X-Men because it didn’t seem “rigorous”, think again. Comics are one of the most powerful tools we have in the fight against illiteracy, low-literacy and aliteracy (being able to read, but not doing it). Many people are starting to take notice, you should too.

Last year, the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) selected graphic novels as their theme for Teen Read Week. YALSA is the organization that selects authors for the Printz Award, which is much like the Pulitzer for adult books, and the Newbery for childrens books. That YALSA should select graphic novels as a focus is important because they recommend policies for librarians all the across the country. Another important cultural indicator that comics in general, and graphic novels in particular are taken seriously is their growing presence in book reviews. Both Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times now review graphic novels.

Comics are one of the most powerful tools we have in the fight against illiteracy, low-literacy, and aliteracy.There are generally two kinds of graphic novels. The “collected” editions, which are just that; a number of single issues bound together in book form. And, graphic novels, long comic stories told in book form. Both have their advantages: fairly cheap, average price being around $15.95. But collected editions being what they are can cost more because they are often just large portions on an ongoing serial. Complete one volume graphic novels have the benefit ( or weakness, depending on what you want) of being over once you finish that one book. These days, some comics publishers have gone back and collected early issues of popular series in order to bring newer readers up to speed.

Even with all the attention comics are getting they are still a hard sell for some parents and educators. So, to put the skeptics at ease, I offer the following story.

When my son was eight, and making the switch from short chapter books with pictures, to short novels, he was often anxious staring at “all those words.” I’d started reading long chapter books like Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone to him that same year. I thought that by reading The Big Books, it would help him with the little ones. I was wrong, sort of. No matter what kind of short novels I bought, it was the same story. He would read the first third or so and then I’d find the book on the floor or back on his bookshelf unread. His teacher told me he did fine when they discussed stories in class. This was because I’d always read to him. Listening to stories wasn’t the worry spot, it was getting him to read them.

While studying the Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease I came across the section on comics. There was the suggestion that comics could be used to “bridge” the leap from picture books to short novels. I started thinking about my own development as a reader. For as long as I could remember I’d been a strong reader. There had never been a time when I wasn’t reading. Comics were what I read the most of from about age 8 to 15. I went back and re-read the Trelease chapter again. It said that comics made good “bridges” because the language was just as complex as that in regular books but comics broke the text up into manageable bite-size chunks. This makes dealing with big words and long sentences less intimidating to some reluctant readers. I knew this to be true from my own experience. Many of the “hard” words I knew as a kid came from comics. I got nebula from the X-Men, radiation from The Amazing Spider Man, and mead from The Mighty Thor. I was given a vocabulary/comprehension test in the sixth grade, the vocabulary score came back at the 13/14th grade level. To this day I believe comics played a significant part in me beating that test. So, after some reflection and no small amount of discovery, I decided to get my boy a graphic novel.

My son’s reading biography can be divided into two eras: Pre Ironfist and Post Ironfist. Ironfist is a manga about a boy kung fu prodigy who travels around china beating adults in tournaments. Manga are short, compact, Japanese style graphic novels that are read right to left. I gave him volume I to read for fifteen minutes after I put him to bed one night around nine o’clock. When I walked past his room at ten thirty he was still reading the book with his bed lamp on. Only the threat of losing the book made him turn off his lamp and go to sleep, this was around eleven. He’s thirteen now and reads three skateboarding magazines, three music magazines, a bi-weekly teen news magazine, the occasional New York Times…and graphic novels.

Let’s be clear about one thing. I don’t think graphic novels caused my boy to read better. As far as I know there is no research saying that comics will magically help any child become a more proficient rear. However there is research that strongly suggests that the pictures in comics aid comprehension and that the countries that have high youth literacy rates are those countries where children read a variety of materials, including comics.

Like anything else, graphic novels must be chosen with discretion. Many of the best graphic novels are not ones I would give to kids under the age of fifteen. Luckily, there are quite a few graphic novel series that are suitable for all ages. The list below is not at all comprehensive, it’s limited to titles I’ve personally read and recommend as good starting points. For more information I’d contact your local comic shop.

Bone Vol 1. Out From BonevilleBone Vol 1., Out From Boneville
By Jeff Smith

If Shakespeare were writing comics today, he’d be writing Bone. I don’t mean this in the highbrow you-don’t-know-what-most-of-the-words-mean sense but in the sense that Shakespeare wrote works that had something for everyone in them. Bone is the story of three cousins who have been exiled from their hometown of Boneville for unscrupulous behavior. If you are looking for books that are kid-friendly, funny, and combine all the mythic elements of the best storytelling, look no further than Bone.

Akiko Vol One
By Mark Crilley

The Akiko series of graphic novels now compete the series of short novels of the same name, and by the same author. Both are good, the comics came first. Akiko tells the story of a fourth grade girl (named Akiko) who is asked to save a distant planet from the forces of evil. I love these books for the humor and warmth Crilley uses to portray his characters. Also because the hero and main character of the story is a girl, something you don’t see a lot of in stories for younger readers.

Usagi Yojimbo
By Stan Sakai

Better than any other adventure comic I’ve ever read outside of those intended for adult audiences. Usagi Yojimbo is the story of a ronin (masterless samurai) rabbit. All the things you’d expect in a book about medieval Japan take place. Great sword fights. Cool ninja, from every animal species; the mogura (mole) ninja clan burrow under the ground to surprise their enemies. The honor code governing samurai is intelligently rendered and Japanese culture is explored in a way that does not demean the stories. One word of advice, there are sword fights in these books. Any honest exploration of the samurai era would not shy away from the violent elements. Stan Sakai does not go overboard with it, but if you are sensitive about violence I’d give these books to a thirteen year old first. Even though there’s no blood in these books, I’m tempted to give them a PG-13 rating. I say tempted because my own child read them at eleven and loved them.

Special Mention

Understanding ComicsUnderstanding Comics
By Scott McCloud

This is the only book you’ll ever need if you doubt the seriousness or intelligence of the comics medium. It is a graphic novel about the history, structure, and impact of comics. It is one of those rare classics that can be given to a thirteen year old and assigned as a text in a graduate level class. If I had my way, every teacher and librarian would be required to read this book. Not just because it’s about comics, but because it’s an example of a rigorous comic. Parent and education professionals need to know that “rigorous comic” is not an oxymoron.

The Cartoon History of the Universe, Vol IIIThe Cartoon History of The Universe, Vols I-III
By Larry Gonick

The only book that explained the Big Bang in a way that I could understand. No kid friendly book I’ve read covers the history of early man, the Greeks, and the rise of the Roman Empire with an eye toward the status of women at every stage with more intelligence than these books. From John the Baptist to classical Chinese civilization, The Cartoon History covers it all, and well. I often call this series the only $60.00 Harvard humanities course you’ll ever take. Have a look and judge for yourself.

Drego Little is a graduate student in the Language, Literacy, and Culture program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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