Our oldest daughter, Thea, has been in intense reading intervention since she was in Kindergarten. This creative, vivacious, book-loving child just could not seem to find the right words when she looked at the letters. And yet she persisted through it all, continually going back to books even if the words proved to be elusive. Like many parents whose children do not come naturally to reading, we have seemingly tried it all. More read aloud, more quiet reading, more strategies, more conversation, more intervention, more of anything we could think of and yet, I will never forget that day in 2nd grade when Thea came home and declared, “Mom, I don’t think I am a reader because reading is just too hard….”
I think you could have heard my heart break a mile away.
Because here was a child who had grown up surrounded by books. A child who had grown up being read to. A child who had grown up being surrounded by readers. A child who had seemingly been given every opportunity to be a reader and yet, the foundational skills of reading, the decoding of actual letters to form words, that seemed like it would never happen for her.
So we did the only thing we knew how; we handed her more books, more reading for pleasure, less pressure, more time. And so did her teachers.
A few months later, Thea once again had a declaration to make. “Mom, I’m a reader because I can read this book!” I came to the front door where she stood clutching a book to her chest. She said, “I can’t read all the words but the pictures help me figure it out. I have to go read it now to Ida and Oskar…” and she did, and they sat together huddled around this book that had shown my daughter that she was a reader despite her struggles, and she repeated her reading, and she carried that book hugging it to her chest. She placed that under her pillow at night, every day checking to see if it was still there so she could read it one more time. Carried it back and forth to school as she got braver and found more books just like it that also made her believe she was a reader. We still have that book; it is Dogman by Dav Pilkey. Her teacher recommended it to her and our daughter’s reading life has never been the same since then.
So when I hear teacher’s tell students that graphic novels are too easy. That comic books are not real reading. That it is time to pick a “real” book. That they can read books like that for fun but not for learning, I tend to get a bit upset. You see, comics are what kept me reading long into the night as a child when books seemed like too much work. Graphic novels are what make my students who declare they hate reading actually give it a try. Dog Man and all of the other books by Dav Pilkey are what made Thea believe she was a reader. How can we just dismiss that?
You think graphic novels are easy? Read March by Senator John Lewis. You think comics are just for fun? Read Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates. You think graphic novels don’t have substance? Read Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. And then tell me that graphic novels don’t belong in our classrooms. That they don’t count as real books. That they are just dessert books, or filler, or vacation books or whatever other terms we use to tell kids that that book they just selected is simply “too easy” for them despite their obvious excitement.
Because when you tell a child that the book they have chosen is too easy you may be dismissing the first book they have ever connected with.
You may be dismissing the first book they have ever actually enjoyed.
You may be dismissing the first book they have ever seen themselves in.
You may be dismissing the first book that made them finally believe that they, too, are a reader.
Because you see when we tell kids that a book is too easy we are dismissing their entire reading journey. We are dismissing who they are as readers and just how much work it may have been to get there. We are telling them that their reading journey only has value if they read books that we deem appropriate and that is never okay. Have we gotten so lost in our reading instruction that we cannot see the harm we can do?
So it is time for us all to realize that while comic books, graphic novels, or any other medium that has pictures in it may seem “easy” at first glance, I think the word we are really looking for is enticing, not easy. Is inviting, not fluff. Gives courage, not a cop out of reading. And that these masterful pieces of literature are, indeed, full-fledged members of the book family. Are, indeed, full-fledged literary components that deserve not just to be placed into the hands of our students, but also taught alongside other books. To be held up as shining examples of literary greatness that we should appreciate, promote, and celebrate alongside all of the other books we have.
Thea is still a reader and she still loves Dog Man. She loves Captain Underpants – Tralala! She loves Bad Kitty, Smile, Lunch Lady, Baby Mouse, Bad Guys, Cleopatra in Space, Lowriders in Space, and any graphic novel that comes her way. But she also loves Wishtree, The One and Only Ivan, Aru Shah and the End of Time, George and all of the other books she has read since then. Books she would have never had the courage or gumption to try if she had not found Dog Man. If Dav Pilkey had not had the heart and courage to continue to write books that kids would love even if the adults didn’t. I owe our daughter’s reading life to him and to her teacher that saw a child who desperately needed to feel like a reader and was smart enough to hand her a graphic novel. Not because she thought it would be easy for her, but because she thought that it was just what Thea needed. And boy, was she ever right.
If you need more information or ideas of why graphic novels and comics belong in our libraries and schools, here are just a few resources shared with me:
If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child. This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block. If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.