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April 5, 2011

Feature Story: Why Comics Make Reading Fun


“Wak!” “Crunch!” and “Glom!” taught Vicky Smith how to read. “For end-of-the-day snuggling with my mother,” she relates, “Uncle Scrooge comics were our stories of choice. When I was about four, she started me out reading the sound effects to give me practice in phonetics as well as an opportunity to participate. One magical night, I apparently turned to her and said, ‘Now, I will read Huey, Louie, and Dewey, and you read Uncle Scrooge and Donald.’ And from that moment on, I was a reader, and she proselytized the Gospel of Uncle Scrooge to all of her friends!” As for Vicky, it was a fine literary beginning for the future Children’s Editor of Kirkus Reviews.

Comics Teaching Words
Other adult word professionals boast similar “origin stories” for reading. “You’d be surprised,” Diamond Comics’ John Shableski told GNR last August in his Op Ed on Kids, Graphic Novels and Publishing, “at how many mainstream authors fell in love with reading books because of comics. I see them at comics conferences, where they recall...their favorite comic characters with warmth, passion, and enthusiasm.” Cartoonist Phil Yeh, dyslexic himself, says, "Ray Bradbury and many others have told me that they themselves fell in love with comics, especially comic strips, when they were young and then found themselves checking out other books in the library, becoming life-long readers."
Some of these young comics readers became teachers. James “Bucky” Carter, assistant professor of English education at the University of Texas and a comics advocate, describes his mom voice-acting Defenders comics with him at age four while they both snuggled up in a rocking chair. For Chris Wilson, a comic book provided “the moment I fell in love with the art of reading.” Wilson is editor-in-geek of The Graphic Classroom website, where the teacher puts his training and personal experience with comics to work with a broader audience. Interestingly, Wilson caught the comics bug as an adult searching for a compelling fantasy story role model to draw his daughter into reading. Father and daughter both found it in Sojourn from CrossGen Comics.
Certainly quite a few comics industry folks single out comics as an early key to their own reading skill and enjoyment. Former Marvel Comics editor Jim Shooter [1] has reported learning to read from comic books long before starting school and winning a spelling bee with the word bouillabaisse, first seen in a Donald Duck story. Comics writer Josh Elder taught himself to read at age four with an issue of The Transformers. “Comics not only made reading easy – it made it fun! So much so that by the time I was in middle school, I was already reading at the college level.” Françoise Mouly [2], New Yorker art director, and Art Spiegelman, award-winning creator of Maus and other graphic novels, used French comics (bande dessinée) to teach their son Dash to read.
Many accounts about kids/comics synergy have, in fact, come from parents who witnessed the connection. When Wilson suggested Trickster for a Native American boy, his mother reported afterward that now she and her son read it together to celebrate family and culture and reading. In his affiliation with Garfield, the crabby tabby cartoon cat, Bob Levy [3] has reported seeing dozens of letters from parents explaining that they routinely use comics strips to teach children to read. Levy is director of educational and online initiatives for the Garfield organization Paws, Inc., and its “Professor Garfield” website promoting learning and literacy. Texas literacy coach Terry Thompson, author of Adventures in Graphica, says that one parent shared with him a story about her dyslexic daughter who wouldn’t read anything but comics. “She gave comics credit for turning her daughter’s attitude about reading around.”
Other parents tell their stories on the TOON Books blog, like Hollywood set decorator Karin McGaughey. “My son Roy,” she told me later, “makes amazing connections between abstract concepts, and his vocabulary is incredible. But he was having a really rough time with actual reading. Meanwhile, I got the Stinky graphic novel and a few comic books. I read Stinky first as a bedtime story, but soon he wanted to try it for afterschool reading. For the first time the whole year, he laughed with his homework…. The comic format helps him decode the meaning of the words when he is stuck on something.”
Bucky Carter, Josh Elder, Terry Thompson, Chris Wilson, and Phil Yeh, interviewed for this article, all report watching countless unmotivated or struggling students find reading fun and interesting when they pick up comics. And all have heard story after story from adults about learning to read with comics years earlier. Some, as Wilson says, cannot wait to tell about how the only thing that saved them from reading hell was comics.
Who knows how many stories like this are out there? They turn up all over the web, from comics and non-comics websites. On-air technology analyst and Harvard graduate student Omar Wasow [4] demonstrated the iPad to Oprah last April and told that he learned to read from comics. In a web-posted handout from the 2010 San Diego Comic Con, San Diego school librarian Deborah Ford [5] told of Sammy, a nonreader who comes from a family that does not read. When she sent Sammy’s mom home from the library with the Coraline graphic novel, Sammy read it twice and moved on to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, becoming the first reader in the family. And, hopefully, not the last.
Literacy Statistics and Comics
Nonreading is a serious problem in the United States. According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ “To Read or Not to Read” report [6], Americans and especially younger Americans read less and they read less well. Indeed, reading less correlates to reading less well, and the habit of daily reading correlates with better reading skills and higher academic achievement. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed, from scholarship and job success to voting and playing sports.
But only 54% of 9-year-olds read almost every day for fun, a number that drops to 22% by age 17–down from 31% in 1984. From 1992 to 2005, the percentage of 12th graders reading at or above the proficient level dropped from the not-very-promising 40% to 35%. Moreover, the reading gap is widening by gender. For boys in the 12th grade, average reading scores now trail those of girls by 13 points as compared to 10 points earlier. Moreover, adult reading at a level considered proficient has decreased from a low 15% in 1992 to a lower 13% in 2003. When analyzed by gender, the 2% drop relates all to male readers, whose average reading scores lag behind those of women by 13%. And even though higher educational levels do score more often as proficient readers, prose literacy scores have been declining among all educational levels.
Comics can nudge children toward reading for fun and reading more often, and thus to higher reading proficiency. In one study of seventh grade boys [7], 54% of heavy comics readers in lower income families and 65% of heavy comics readers in middle-class families read daily for pleasure, percentages that dropped to 40%/35% for occasional comics readers who read for pleasure, and dropped further to 16%/33% for non-comics readers. Another study [8] of common and uncommon words in speech and writing showed that comic books contain more “rare words” than average books, adult-adult conversations, adult television shows, and children’s literature. Therefore, comics reading can help children develop their literacy vocabularies, and Jim Shooter’s “bouillabaisse” story is probably not unusual.
Certainly comics appeal to young people, especially boys. In results of a worldwide survey of children reported by the OECD Observer [9] in 2002, more girls than boys spend at least 30 minutes a day reading for pleasure; magazines and newspapers top the list for both boys and girls, with fiction the second most popular choice for girls and comic books for boys. Libraries stocking manga and comics for children and young adults routinely report circulation increases, and Christian Zabriskie [10] of the Queens Library determined at one point that 52% of manga tracked were checked out at any given time. At the 2008 New York Comic Con, I overheard a librarian exclaiming, “I have kids in a piranha pack coming upstairs, clawing their way to the [graphic novel] collection!”
Librarians and Educators
Thankfully, librarians and teachers have picked up on the fact that kids will often read comics when they won’t read anything else. Since a 2002 preconference about graphic novels in the library, the American Library Association’s coverage of graphic novels at its annual meeting swelled to more than 30 events in 2010. Just this year, ALA members established a Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries Member Initiative Group, and the ALA magazine Booklist holds regular webinars about graphic novels as “superbooks” for the library. Nearly 20 guidebooks for librarians about graphic novels have been published since the 1990s.
For its part, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published comics-advocate Bucky Carter’s Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels in 2007, and the organization held nine educational events related to graphic novels at its 2010 annual conference. Nearly a dozen recent books present different perspectives about teaching the graphic novel in classrooms, kindergarten to graduate school. Due partly to the library/educator market, graphic novel literary adaptations and nonfiction titles have ranked high on comics bestseller charts this past year. Publishers big and small are pumping these out, from giant Marvel’s Oz and Jane Austen revisions to the tiny Throwaway Horse’s digital Ulysses “Seen.” [11]
Josh Elder, who learned to read from comics at age four, founded Reading With Pictures, which advocates using comics in the classroom to promote literacy and collaborates with researchers and educators. Says Elder, “Reading With Pictures is working with the Learning Sciences Department at Northwestern University to develop a massive and groundbreaking study on the effectiveness of comics in the educational process.” RWP is also collating existing lesson plans and research about teaching with comics and will soon be merging with (of the National Association of Comics Art Educators) as well as partnering with (a project of libraries and media from Western New York State) to draw on the resources of both organizations. “The goal is to provide a revolutionary resource for parents and educators on how–and why–comics can revolutionize the learning process.” Elder [12] reports that hundreds of educators have “come out of the closet” as comic fans to him since RWP launched, having seen the educational value of comics firsthand. Another comics creator working to push the kids/comics connection is Phil Yeh, who created the Dinosaurs Across America cartoon books to make learning enjoyable.
Last July, the Canadian Council on Learning released the results of a study [13] revealing how comic books help develop a child’s ability to handle narrative in numerous ways, and that boys who read comics also read more text-based material and enjoy reading more than boys who do not read comics. With the Reading With Pictures research, we expect that additional systematic documentation about the benefits of comics for learning will be coming soon.
How About Most Parents?
So learning professionals are themselves learning about the benefits of comics–with a bit of heavy-duty input from organizations like the ALA and the NCTE. But I wonder if parents are getting the message with the same emphasis. Sure, plenty of moms and dads, such as in the stories above, happened into this approach by chance or figured it out for themselves. And parents who themselves learned to read through comics–like Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes [14], who create the librarian webcomic Unshelved–know to use comics with their kids. But probably large groups of parents don’t read many comics or only glance at the “funny pages.” Or–with the most reluctant reader kids–may not have any print in the home at all, or even a computer. How to get out the message to these parents? And what to tell them?
I suggest that all comics-friendly professionals can reach out in the course of their normal lives. Teachers and school librarians can stop in to PTA meetings, share stories about kids and comics, and display recommended titles. In addition, school librarians can sit in on individual parent-teacher conferences about nonreading students and bring samples of kid-friendly comics. Comics vendors, bookstores, and librarians can display kids’ comics prominently, with eye-catching displays appealing to parents as well as children. Comics-friendly health professionals can put youth-friendly comics in waiting rooms and clinics where all ages congregate.
Reading With Comics and other comics advocacy organizations can send press releases periodically about kids and literacy to magazines and websites popular with parents and parents-to-be. Surely these publications and editors are looking for story ideas just like elsewhere in the media. Authors who learned to read via comics, especially those with their own work adapted into comics, can talk about comics and kids at their signings and fan events. All comics-friendly folks can bring special presents to that baby shower or kids birthday party: early-reader comics that parents and the little one can enjoy together. See the resource list below for sources of reviews and lists.
Matchmaking Kids and Comics
As for the how-tos of bringing comics and kids together, the following suggestions for parents are based on advice from Bucky Carter, Josh Elder, and Chris Wilson:
1.         Find comics related to your child’s interests. Interests could involve a subject like robots or a favorite animal, or a movie or TV show, or a genre like humor or scary stories. Librarians and comic shop staff can help you locate age-appropriate comics of different types. Or start with newspaper comic strips like Garfield, or collections of classic comics for all ages, like Peanuts or Calvin & Hobbes. As with any reading selection, parents should always read the material beforehand.
2.         Let the child select the particular comics that attract them most. When kids are given a choice in what they read, their reading motivation increases significantly.
3.         Read the comics to and with your child, especially for younger, pre-reading children.
4.         As you read, point to the speech balloons as you say the words, and then to the character talking, particularly when a child is new to comics or new to reading. Point out interesting things in the panel, also. This guided reading will help your child match letters and written words to sounds as well as learn the “grammar” of comics and narrative, panel by panel.
5.         Encourage the child to ask questions, and ask questions yourself based on what is being read. “What’s that?” “What do you think she will do with that?” “What do you think will happen next?” Ask the child to draw conclusions and to predict, using a finger to point out clues and important elements.
6.         Invite the child to participate by doing the sound effects or voice-acting some of the characters while you voice-act other characters. Ham it up! Comics conventions sometimes hold what’s called “the Live Strip Show”: events where voice actors enthusiastically perform the parts for comics projected onto a screen, to a standing-room-only audience.
7.         Keep it enjoyable. If the child doesn’t seem to like the comics form, or has interest that comes and goes, don’t force comics on them. Try other formats like picture books or whatever literacy materials the child seems drawn to. But if the child like only comics, that’s fine too. Try other materials based on commonalities with favorite comics, but don’t push it. Learning to enjoy reading in different formats can take time.
8.         Reading comics together as a family can be a fantastic bonding experience. Parents can assign “roles” to various family members, giving everyone a chance to flex their acting muscles as well as improve their reading.
9.         Do not “replace” anything with comics. Let them be an additional source of reading. The important thing is to have comics and books of many subjects and formats freely available at home.
See also an excellent list of 10 strategies [15] posted on the TOON Books website by Peter Gutiérrez, NCTE spokesperson on graphic novels. Using such approaches will keep family members happily learning from the power of words and pictures together.
Kids remember–and remember fondly–when parents turn them on to comics. Last year, I went to a funeral service for a neighbor I didn’t know very well. Turns out he loved comics, and visitors to his office had to run a gauntlet of Donald and Daffy Duck figures lining the hallway. The most moving moment at the service, though, came when his grown son tearfully described how dad used to read the Sunday comics together with him every week when he was a kid. Now that’s quality parenting time!
Resources: Books and Articles
Cornog, Martha. Literacy Short Takes. School Library Journal. Part 1: December 15, 2010, Part 2: January 5, 2011, Part 3: January 19, 2011,
Annotated resource lists of books and websites relating to graphic novels and education.
Elder, Josh, ed. Reading With Pictures. Vol. 1. Chicago: Reading With Pictures, 2010.
Colorful, kid-friendly anthology of nearly 40 short-short comics stories from various creators, many well-known in the industry. The wide variety of plots and art offers something for everyone.
Kibuishi, Kazu, ed. Flight Explorer 1. New York: Villard, 2008.
Anthology of 10 kid-appealing short comics stories in full color, from different creators. Many derive from longer books or series, allowing readers to sample characters and plots and then move to full-length works.
Krashen, Stephen. The Power of Reading. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004.
Summarizes a large number of academic studies on the benefits of reading and how to encourage reading, especially in connection with “free voluntary reading” (FVR), that is, reading for pleasure. Krashen argues that FVR improves second-language learning, vocabulary acquisition, and cognitive development. One section discusses effects and benefits of reading comics.
Wilson, Jack C. “A Causal Comparative Study of Students’ Reading Motivation After Reading Comics in the Classroom.” Seminar paper, Missouri State University, 2009.
Chris Wilson’s research used as a sample a small group of children who most all already loved to read, and so did not find a great increase in their reading motivation after they spent time with comics. However, his bibliography includes many studies and guides about comics and education published before 2009.
Resources: Websites
While some of these sites are designed for professionals, parents as well can mine them for titles, reviews, and lists of comics suitable for their children.
Cartoonists Across America & the World
A grassroots organization of artists, led by cartoonist Phil Yeh, that publishes humor/cartoon books for all ages, paints murals promoting literacy and the arts, and speaks at schools and conventions around the world. Yeh’s award-winning Dinosaurs Across America titles plus other all-ages comics can be ordered through this website. The original Dinosaurs Across America has been recently turned into an interactive iPad app by publisher NBM.
Diamond BookShelf for Educators and Librarians
Diamond Book Distributors is part of Diamond Comic Distributors, the largest comic book distributor serving North America. The site includes a variety of resources: reviews, lesson plans, news, and links to articles in the media. See the bar at the left for graphic novel reviews, new releases, upcoming releases, and core titles, which all include a kids category. At the right is a link for the most recent DBD Kids catalog.
Good Comics for Kids
Reviews, previews, news, discussions, and lists relating to comics for ages roughly kindergarten through tween. Bloggers are librarians and professional writers with expertise in children’s literature. An excellent and comprehensive blog with postings every day or two.
The Graphic Classroom
Chris Wilson’s blog to help teachers and librarians “stock high quality, educational-worthy graphic novels and comics in their classroom or school library” to help young people learn to read and enjoy reading. Included “recommended” lists for emerging readers through older teen. Wilson is a teacher affiliated with Mathews Elementary School, in Missouri.
Kids Comic Con
Organized by comics writer and advocate Alex Simmons, the one-day Kids Comic Con is held yearly in the spring at Bronx Community College and features panels, workshops, demonstrations, gaming, and exhibits all for kids and families. The website includes interviews, kids art gallery, and cartoons.
Professor Garfield
An interactive online learning portal where children at levels kindergarten to eighth grade can explore, learn, and creatively express themselves. Professor Garfield and the Professor Garfield Foundation originate in a partnership between Paws, Inc., the world headquarters of Jim Davis’ Garfield the Cat cartoon character, and Ball State University. Content ranges from traditional subjects, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, to career goal exploration and art as well as activities created for kids with learning disabilities. All content has been reviewed by educational experts and tested in classrooms.
Reading With Pictures
A nonprofit organization founded by Josh Elder that advocates the use of comics in the classroom to promote literacy and improved educational outcomes. Collaborates with academics to cultivate research into the role of comics in education, with cartoonists to produce quality graphic novels for scholastic use, and with educators to develop a system of best practices for integrating comics into the curriculum. “We get comics into schools and get schools into comics.”
TOON Books
An imprint of Candlewick Press founded by Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman that publishes high-quality comics for children age four and up, that is, designed for emerging readers to read themselves. Contents are vetted by educators for reading level and suitability. Free lesson plans, games for children, and a special blog with kid activities are also offered on this website. All TOON books are free online and have a read-aloud feature in multiple languages.
Sources for information/quotes from the web
1.         Shooter: []
2.         Mouly & Spiegelman: [] also []
3.         Bob Levy: [] See also
4.         Omar Wasow:
5.         Deborah Ford: []
6.         To Read or Not to Read: []
7.         J. Ujiie & S. Krashen, “Comic Book Reading, Reading Enjoyment, and Pleasure Reading Among Middle Class and Chapter I Middle School Students. Reading Improvement 33(1): 51-54, 1996.
8.         D. Hayes & M. Ahrens, “Vocabulary Simplification for Children: A Special Case of ‘Motherese’?” Journal of Child Language 15: 395-410, 1988.
9.         “Girls Read More Than Boys,” OECD Observer, March 2002. []
10.       Christian Zabriskie, “Graphics Let Teens OWN the Library.” In Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010, pp. 167-176.
11.       Ulysses “Seen”: []
12.       Another Elder interview: []
13.       Canadian Council on Learning: []
14.       Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes: []
15.       Gutierrez: []