My 7-year-old daughter, nose deep in her book, just asked me for the definitions of “surveillance,” “eccentric” and “forfeit,” and why “insomnia” is a bad thing. What could she be reading? Perhaps a little Jane Austen or The New Yorker? Nope. She’s reading Garfield. Not the president’s biography — the comic strip.
Comics concern some parents and teachers, who are worried about the strips’ lowbrow connotations and lack of challenge. And the words “graphic novel” probably cause many parents to raise their eyebrows, imagining stories told in a most unsavory style.
But children love ‘em. Plus, graphic novels can potentially make children who were once reluctant readers get excited about reading in general. Multiple studies indicate that comic book and graphic novel (full-length books in illustrated format) fans are just as proficient as text-only readers, often read above grade level, and have vocabularies that are more comprehensive. To top it off, comic hounds truly enjoy a good book.
No longer the sullen kids in the back of the literary classroom, modern-day comics and graphic novels are a well-respected, innovative genre. Skeptical adults can check out the award-winning titles Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Maus by Art Spiegelman.
Need more convincing? Here’s how comics do more than make kids laugh:
Claudia McVicker, Ph.D., professor of language and literacy at the Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, studied how comics boost inference skills for struggling elementary-school readers. Inference is “reading between the lines” and critical to comprehension. For example, if it’s 9 a.m. and Henry’s stomach is growling, he probably didn’t eat breakfast. “With Garfield, there’s not that much text,” says McVicker. “So you have to infer meaning from pictures.” When kids miss a punch line, they can seek clues in the cartoons.
Jim Davis, creator of Garfield, intentionally introduces “big words” for readers to mull over. Kids can add to their personal word bank through inference, asking a parent for help or cracking open a dictionary. The word “gluttonous” probably wouldn’t show up in a second-grader’s reader, but its meaning seems obvious when Garfield eats an entire plate of doughnuts.
Whether using a phonics-based or whole-word approach, pictures build kids’ confidence. Rather than an overwhelming page of text, comics typically provide one-line sentences and lots of emotional cues (characters blush, sigh, etc.). “Instead of having to be a perfect independent reader, children can look at comics and see visual context,” says McVicker.
Nothing brings generations together like a case of the giggles. Rediscover favorite childhood funnies, sharing a good joke from Peanuts. Alternately, choose a graphic novel such as The Baby Sitters Club to talk about common childhood issues and complaints. Parents can also use comics’ illustrations to increase emotional IQ, asking questions about characters’ depicted emotions. How does Charlie feel after Lucy yanks away the football … yet again?
Not ready for Oliver Twist? Kids will probably say “more, please” to a graphic-novel version. Pictures explain period details and differences, and a simpler structure makes storylines clear. For capable kids, other high-concept ideas (such as political or social issues) can be explained through editorial comics.
McVicker says that Gen Z needs to develop a new skill, not taught through textbooks. Visual literacy is the ability to integrate text and visual input simultaneously. Melding words and illustrations together, kids get the big picture. By causing the brain’s synapses to multitask while reading Bone, kids will comprehend CNN’s screen effortlessly.
Learn new language
If a child is already fluent in English, try Calvin y Hobbes. Available from large booksellers and at libraries, comics in other languages help children practice their language chops. After all, laughter needs no translation.
Reinvigorate reluctant readers
Kids who think they hate reading often enjoy comics like Astro Boy or TV tie-ins like The Simpsons. Kari Koszdin lives in Seattle with her daughter LaDonne. LaDonne only wanted to read Archie comics for years, before delving into full-length novels. “I was happy that she would read,” says Koszdin. “I didn’t really care what it was.” Today, LaDonne is an avid reader.
Graphic novels demonstrate larger literary themes, despite their simple approach. They’re a great choice for proficient readers who want to expand understanding. Protagonist, antagonist, story arc and resolution are all there, even when the title work uses no words at all, such as Owly.
‘Toons for every taste
Whether children are looking for a funny, sad, sci-fi, fantasy, realistic, Japanese-inspired or stateside strip, there’s a comic to meet that need. Often stereotyped as a boys-only medium, comics targeted at girls — such as Babymouse — are hot picks nationwide. Check out the list in the sidebar to start, and ask your librarian or a comic-book shop owner for more suggestions.
Lora Shinn is a Seattle-based children’s librarian and writer who specializes in literacy and parenting topics. She still reads the Sunday funnies with her kids.