One of the most spirited conversations in Radical history started with a simple argument: Graphic novels — which were the hot new genre back in 2011 — don’t require students to think as rigorously as more traditional forms of text.
From the moment that post went live, I was buried in comments from angry media specialists and graphic novel enthusiasts.
People talked passionately about “reading between the panes,” suggesting that the content in graphic novels was just as complex as the content in more traditional forms of text because it forced readers to build — instead of simply consume — a story. They talked passionately about the fact that graphic novels made challenging topics more approachable to students. And they talked passionately about the fact that any text that was engaging to students had value regardless of format and complexity.
I walked away from that conversation (see here and here) just as skeptical as I entered it, convinced that graphic novels had the potential to turn kids into lazy readers who rarely tackled more complicated text simply because there was an entire shelf of easy reads waiting for them in the local library.
But something interesting is happening in my own family right now: My beautiful eight year old daughter Reece has fallen in love with graphic novels!
That’s GOT to be Karma, right?!
She’s already churned through Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters — and she’s asked for Ghost and Drama for Christmas. She’s in love with Phoebe and her Unicorn. She begged me to buy her Roller Girl the other day while we were in Target. And she’s just learned about Sunny Side Up from a friend in her class.
What’s really cool is that she’s CONSTANTLY telling me about how much reading she’s getting done. “Dad, I read for two hours last night so I might be tired at school today,” she’ll say when I call to check in on her in the morning. Or, “Can you BELIEVE that I finished an entire book in one day?!”
Here’s why that’s important: Reece has NEVER been a confident reader.
Letter sounds never came easy to her. Fluency is a chore. She’s constantly in the lowest reading group at school — and she knows it. Meanwhile, her friends are all rock solid readers. They read fluently and with the kind of emotion and passion that Reece can’t possibly pull off.
That leaves her embarrassed all the time. Kids read out loud and she can see that she’s not as good as they are. She reads out loud and the entire room has to wait while she slowly picks her way through pages worth of phonetic landmines just waiting to blow up her esteem in front of everyone she’s trying to impress.
Knowing full well that fluency is often a function of repeated practice, I’ve nudged and prodded Reece to read as much as possible.
I read with her every night. I’ve tried to find high interest nonfiction for her — things like The True Tales of the Presidents as Kids or the Who Was _____ ? series have always caught her attention. And I’ve fed her a steady stream of Kate DiCamillo books simply because they are full of odd ball characters that Reece can relate to.
But all of that reading has been side-by-side. Reece has NEVER wanted to sit down and read silently before — and I think that’s because she knows full well that it will take her twenty or thirty minutes to battle through two or three pages. Finishing an entire book will be a month-long grind, reinforcing the notion that she’s just “a bad reader.”
With graphic novels, however, she’s finishing “entire books” on her own in just a few days.
Now don’t get me wrong: I still have my doubts about graphic novels.
I’m not convinced that they are all that complex and I don’t buy the notion that there are all kinds of “visual literacy demands” that students can only learn by reading graphic novels. I also think that graphic novels leave kids convinced that reading is always quick and easy — a dangerous take in a world where mental stamina matters more and more every year. As a result, I’m going to work hard to smuggle more traditional texts into Reece’s reading routine over the next few months and years.
But right now, my kid is a proud reader for the first time in her life.
Graphic novels have left her convinced that reading IS something that she can do. She’s curling up in her bed with books. She’s leaving her iPad home on long drives, jazzed instead that she has time to read her newest books. She’s talking to friends about the books that she’s finished, joining conversations that she was previously left out of simply because she was never a reader.
All of that matters. And all of it is thanks to a genre that I’ve never believed in.
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