One of the biggest changes within children’s publishing since I became a teacher and a parent has been the explosion of graphic novels onto the market. While comics have long been mainstream in the home, and many of us grew up devouring comics, the power of the graphic novel to excite readers and keep them reading is tangible. So much so that if you looked at my own classroom collection, you wouldn’t just see a bin or two but instead 16 of them and growing. It is a format that is growing significantly not just in my classroom, but also my home, with my kids crowding around every book delivery asking whether there is a graphic novel in there and fighting over it if there is. In fact, graphic novels are the biggest reason our oldest daughter believes she can actually read and be a reader.
Graphic novels are nothing new, the first one was published in 1842, but the way they have captured the imagination of readers everywhere is nothing less than amazing. And why not? Combining powerful illustrations with, at times, the sparse text is sure to keep many readers reading. And yet, one of the biggest push backs in reading also happens to surround graphic novels with many parents and educators lamenting their “easiness.” Within these missives lies a movement to then steer kids away from these “dessert” books and into “harder” reading, or outright banning the reading of graphic novels, telling kids that these books are just for fun, don’t count toward whatever set goal or points, or even confiscating them from kids seen reading them.
No wonder, our kids are confused when we tell them to read more but then tell them not that!
As parents, it is important that we do not become part of the groups of adults who dismiss the value of graphic novels, who effectively stop our own children from these meaningful reading experiences, all in the name of “harder” reading. We must also become advocates for these incredible books that are giving many children a way back into reading that wasn’t there before. And while fantastic organizations like the CBLDF – Comic Book Legal Defense Fund – have been heading the charge for many years, we know that knowledge is power and so I think it helps to also break down some of the ideas surrounding graphic novels and the stigma that is often attached to them.
So what do we know about graphic novels and their readability? Their enticing nature? And their place in not just our schools but also in our homes?
It is easy to see why many people, adults especially, would like to dismiss all graphic novels as being too easy to read, thus not challenging a reader enough. Many adults seem to be very stuck on what a challenging reading experience looks like; it must have this many pages, it must have dense wording, it must center around a deep topic, and the institutionally ingrained notion that it would be best if it were a “classic” book, so that the reader will not only have an exciting reading experience but an enriching one as well. And while there is the need for a balance within what we read, this idea of what is easy to a reader is something worth discussing.
While there are many nuances to what makes a book easy for someone, common traits are that the reader can easily access all of the information on the page, read and understand all of the words, visualize all of the story in order to fill in the gaps between story and reader, as well as follow the story and complete it within whatever timely manner would be sensible for that reader. An easy book, therefore, seems to be used interchangeably with what we expect a good fit book to be for all of our readers. So why is it that graphic novels as a whole are seen as easier than most chapter books?
The pictures or illustrations, of course, seem to be the most common answer.
Yet, in my own experience with my children and students, it is the pictures that actually add to the sophistication and difficulty of graphic novels because of the skills required to read the images. Think of it this way, when a reader is translating symbols into meaning such as what we do when we read, they are being asked to not only read the symbols but also decode it and create meaning behind the words, or translating those words into images. As a reader, they are then tasked with inferring and visualizing what is happening in the story in their own mind leading to a full understanding. In a graphic novel, readers are still expected to decode and understand all of the words, but at the same time as this complex process is happening, they are also asked to decode and interpret the images that go along with the words. And then they have to combine that through synthesis in their brain otherwise the book will make no sense. That is not an easy process. The visual complexity of many graphic novels convey a story that would take ages to convey, yet are being presented within one panel or page. It takes time to dive into a graphic novel, much as it does with a text-only book. To read more about what process the brain must go through when reading a graphic novel, read this blog post by Leslie Morrison
In fact, I have noticed throughout my years as a teacher that it is most often my readers who read very quickly who find graphic novels hard to read. They simply do not slow down enough to fully decode the images, mostly focusing on the words, and thus missing outright the subtleties that the images themselves provide, thus losing out on a deeper meaning. So while the illustrations may be what is enticing to the reader in the first place, the illustrations also add a layer of complexity onto the text that the words themselves would not have provided.
One can argue that the illustrations mean that the reader no longer has to visualize the story on their own, yet when asking my readers of graphic novels to describe scenes it is clear that many of them go beyond the page in their understanding of what a scene looks like and once again are “filling in the gaps” between the page and themselves, inferring beyond the story and adding the nuances we would expect any reader to add.
And sure, some of my kids rush through graphic novels so quickly that I know as their mom that they did not engage in close reading of the pages and illustrations, similar to what happens when a reader skims through the pages of a non-illustrated book just to find out what happens next. However, here there is one distinction in the habit of many readers of graphic novels; while they may read the graphic novel quickly on the first try, what often happens then is the re-reads of the same graphic novel as they pore over the pages more closely once they have navigated the story once. This process is one that only adds value as their understanding deepens with each re-read.
Yet the words “It’s too easy” continue to haunt our graphic novel committed readers. And as a parent, I do understand the hesitation and perhaps even fear that because your child is not doing the hard work of visualizing a story independently, and not practicing these skills without images attached to them, that they are somehow developing less than a child that doesn’t get to read graphic novels or stays clear of them. But here is the thing; those skills are being practiced, it just might not be within their independent reading choice. If you look at a broad swath of a child’s reading day in school, most of the text they are given is image-free. They are asked to navigate complex texts within literacy classes, science classes, and social studies. They are asked to pull out the meaning from texts that are often above their comprehension and background level and working on the skills to sustain attention. What schools have started to add more of is actual visual literacy as dictated by the Common Core and other education reform initiatives. The same skills being honed within visual literacy, or the reading of everything that surrounds the words (color, layout, texture et al) can and should be transferred to reading regular text. With the onslaught of images within our day, being able to critically analyze them is a vital component of comprehension of our world.
Another aspect of the “too easy” notion is that kids will only want to read “easy” books if that is all they are allowed to read. For this argument, I encourage us, adults, to look back at our own reading journeys and visualize the books that have shaped us. If we do this we should notice not a smooth diagonal line where each book increased in complexity but rather stages and stops on a reading journey that has probably been bumpy yet still helped us grow. How many of us still read the same books we read as children because that is all we care to read – well, if you are an educator this may be you, but still, the books I gravitated toward as a child don’t hold the same value or intrigue as they did when I was younger. When I was ready, I moved on to something else, and this is exactly what research also shows us: That graphic novel reading will not lead to less challenging reading, but instead to more challenging as kids mature and naturally gravitate toward harder texts whether illustrated or not. As Krashen, Lee, and Lao say in their book Comprehensible and Compelling: The Causes and Effects of Free Voluntary Reading, “Children in a print-rich environment in which they are free to select their own reading do not stay with easy books. They not only read more as they mature, but they also select, on their own, books that are harder to read and have more complicated plots.”
So what is it we mean by easy? I think that the word we are looking for instead is enticing. That graphic novels offer readers of many skills different points to enter into a text through. That the abundance of images offers readers a way to anchor their thinking and sink deeper into a text that they might not have been able to access in a regular text-only form. That readers with or without reading difficulties can find success within graphic novels, not just in a comprehension aspect, but also in a reading identity aspect. They can be readers that love reading. They can be readers who feel at home within the pages of a book, for some this may be for the first time ever.
This is why we need to review our own adult reactions when it comes to a child who embraces graphic novels. Rather than worry that somehow the reading experience they are engaged in is somehow less-than, we should be jumping in with both feet, finding more graphic novels for them to explore and also reading some ourselves. After all, as parents and caregivers, we often have an immense sense of power when it comes to what our children deem proper reading. Why not show our children just how much these books matter? Why not change the conversation?
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.