Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 30, 2009

Graphic novels for reluctant readers

By JODEE TAYLOR

TRAVERSE CITY -- Penny Colenso knows the good graphic novels can do and she's frustrated Traverse City High School doesn't have any.

"I'm going to write a grant," she said. "These type of kids would really enjoy them."

Colenso is a long-term substitute at the alternative high school and has 25 years' experience working in school and public libraries, including a stint at Silver Lake Elementary before she retired in 2007.

"The pictures capture their attention. You can get them with the pictures," she said.

Area educators, librarians and readers are split on the effectiveness of using graphic novels as a way to get reluctant readers enthusiastic -- but all agree that reading what some call glorified comic books is better than reading nothing at all.

Linda Smith, the public computer center coordinator at the Traverse Area District Library, says one of the good things about graphic novels is how quickly they can be read.

"A regular reader can read one in 20 minutes to a half-hour," said Smith, who also coordinates the library's manga (see sidebar) collection. "A reluctant reader can probably read one in an evening, so they get to the end and feel some accomplishment."

Steven Miller, 21, a first-year student at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, says it's the action in graphic novels that hooks him.

"They have good stories," he said. He admitted there were about 10 years earlier in his life that all he did was "read graphic novels and play video games," until his 10th-grade English teacher introduced him to "The Count of Monte Cristo." Now he reads both "regular books" and graphic novels and says the graphic novels are a "great escape from the huge words" and technical memorization of his textbooks.

As an elementary librarian, Colenso steered hesitant readers towards the "Michigan Chillers" and "Captain Underpants" series, she said. "You let them read whatever they want and they eventually come looking for more."

At that point, Colenso said, when a love of books had begun, she'd steer them towards what she calls "the elementary classics" -- "My Side of the Mountain" by Jean Craighead George or something by Gary Paulsen.

Cheri Riccardo, of Buckley, picked up five installments of the "Berserk" series that her 13-year-old son Zeb had requested at the Traverse Area District Library on a recent afternoon. She said he would probably finish all five books that night.

"He likes to read and he likes these and comic books," Cheri Riccardo said. "But really, he'll read anything. He wants me to get him a copy of 'Animal Farm' soon because they just read it in school."

She thinks he was probably influenced by video games to start reading graphic novels, but whatever happened, it's fine with her.

She admits that some of the stories are violent, but that's not a problem either.

"I'm never going to shelter my kid from that," she said. "I want him to be able to go out in the world and know how to react."

Helen MacArthur, library media paraprofessional at Cherry Knoll, isn't sure if graphic novels lead to other books.

"We only have a few," she said, and "as to whether it inspires other reading ... I don't think so."

She did say that a new series that turns Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books into graphic novels might have potential.

"The old collections look kind of dated," she said. "When a student comes back after reading one of the new ones and asks whether there are any more, then they will go to the (regular) series."

MacArthur thinks the kids checking out copies of "Captain Underpants" or "SpongeBob SquarePants" are probably "already readers who pick it up for a piece of fluff."

Andrew Roake, 21, a Great Lakes Maritime Academy student, started with "Calvin and Hobbes" and the Sunday comics "as soon as I could read." In fact, he was looking for "Garfield" collections when he found the graphic novels on a nearby shelf.

He still reads "anything and everything" he can get his hands on, but appreciates both the stories and the art of graphic novels.

"The artist wants to show you a particular scene or a particular way and not leave it up to your imagination," he said. He cited "Maus," by Art Spiegelman, as an example of a serious topic (the Holocaust) dealt with in a way that shed new light because of the drawings.

"The Jews were mice and the Germans were cats," Roake said, "and you could just feel the terror when you saw the drawings of the mice after they'd been in hiding for months."

Susan Shafer, a 20-year veteran teacher of the New York Public Schools who now serves as a consultant for a children's literacy group, said it really matters how graphic novels are taught.

An effective teacher will help the students learn what it means to visualize and show them the parallels between graphic novels and standard books, she said.

She said one of the most effective lessons she's heard of is having the kids read a graphic novel -- for instance, "Meanwhile" by Jules Feiffer -- then read a standard book -- for instance, "My Father's Dragon" by Ruth Stiles Gannett.

The students then turn "My Father's Dragon" into a graphic novel.

"They have to think, what is the overarching problem," Shafer said. "They actually use that phrase. And they develop higher-level thinking skills without even realizing they're doing it."

Manga

Manga (pronounced "mahn-ghah") is a Japanese graphic novel. "Mostly manga comes before anime," said Linda Smith of the Traverse Area District Library. She means the books come before the cartoons.

Many of the book series you'll find also have accompanying cartoon series, but the "novels are always much more gritty, much darker than cartoons," Smith said.

"TV is sterilized for America," she said.

The manga books typically open opposite of what we're used to, i.e., the binding is on the right.

The Manga Book Club meets at the Traverse Area District Library's Story Room the second and fourth Thursday of each month, usually at 7 p.m. It's free, open to ages 13 and older and it's not necessary to have read the series to attend the discussion. Call 932-8500.

Recommended reading

Some recommendations from area librarians, teachers and readers:

Young readers:

-- The "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series by Jeff Kinney

-- "Cardcaptor Sakura" by Clamp and Carol Fox -- heroine is a fourth-grader; good for girls in junior high or younger.

Middle readers:

-- "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick -- this winner of the Caldecott Award and finalist for the National Book Award is heavy on the pictures, but also features regular story text.

-- "Fruits Baskets" by Natsuki Takaya -- series (manga) for girls, probably junior high and older.

-- The "Maximum Ride" series by James Patterson

-- The "Naruto" series by Masashi Kishimoto; manga for older teens, good for reluctant readers.

-- "Bleach" manga series by Tite Kubo.

Teen readers and older:

-- "Maus," by Art Spiegelman

-- Anything by Will Eisner

For superhero fans:

-- "Batman: Year One," Frank Miller

-- "The Dark Knight Returns," Frank Miller

For literate types:

-- "Persepolis," by Marjane Satrapi -- maybe a little more accessible than "Maus"

-- The "Sandman" series, by Neil Gaiman

For fantasy/sci-fi fans:

-- "Y: The Last Man" series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra

-- The "Fables" series, by Bill Willingham

About comics:

-- "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art," by Scott McCloud