Anakana Schofield – Award Winning Author of Bina, Martin John and Malarky

Young readers: Can’t get your kid to read? Graphic novels for young readers

High school English teacher Guy Demers doesn’t hesitate to recommend graphic novels for young readers. “Comics are an art form, much like the novel or poetry,” he says. “They offer us new ways to read and to put together meaning.

“The richness in subject matter and approach has given us a body of work that we can see as something truly rich and worth celebrating.”

Demers, who teaches English at Sir Charles Tupper secondary school in Vancouver, says his goal with graphic novels is no different than with a novel or short story: He wants to challenge his students to expand and develop their literacy.

“When I suggest students read graphic novels, I don’t hand them a stack of Archies or a standard superhero story. I give them a copy of a Tale of One Bad Rat, Palestine or American Born Chinese — all amazing works (by Bryan Talbot, Joe Sacco and Gene Luen Yang, respectively) and all completely different.”

Perhaps you recognize this drill: Your child enters the library and races to rummage the Tin Tin, Asterix, Garfield baskets or Bone shelf and returns either satisfied or dejected based on what the rummage produces. Increasingly, the demand exhausts the supply and it’s time to look farther afield for graphic novels to satisfy insatiable young appetites.

In my quest to unearth diverse graphic titles, I discovered there are plenty for teenagers but not quite the same plethora for boys below the age of 12.

Fortunately, I got some help from the approachable lads at RX Comics and Lucky’s Comics, both in Vancouver, who also reminded me that many vintage comic titles (pre-1985) are suitable for all ages.

Basic reading level

The best place to commence — if your child is an emerging reader — is with a wordless graphic novel. Together you can discuss the pictures. This will ignite interest in the format and build vocabulary.

Matthew Forsythe’s Ojingogo (Drawn & Quarterly) may look simple, but the possibilities are delightful in this funny adventure of a young girl, a squid and her walking camera.

If your child is struggling with reading or not wildly interested in books, the Marvel Comics Collectible Pop-Up series (Scholastic Canada), which include titles like X-Men, may appeal. The high attraction of the pop-up format and the visual drama of the presentation will produce an instant attraction. The text is not particularly simple, though, so you may need to read these books to your child.

The DK (Dorling Kindersley) Graphic Readers books have historical themes and a very low word count, with an emphasis on bright pictures and engaging themes. The Spy-Catcher Gang, a short tale set during the Second World War, has both literacy and historical merit. At the bottom of each page, descriptive prompts reinforce the storyline factually and the final pages contain a glossary of the words highlighted in bold throughout. The series covers everything from Martin Luther King to hockey.

Into the Volcano, by Don Wood (Blue Sky Press/Scholastic), is another strong choice to help readers seven and up progress to more challenging texts. It’s the dramatic story of two brothers who end up lost in the lava tube of an erupting volcano.

Basic proficient readers

Sardine in Outer Space, written by Emmanuel Guibert and illustrated by Joann Sfar, and Sfar’s Little Vampire (both published by First Second) are collections of short tales ideal for kids who’ve bonded with the graphic format. The accessible language and humorous stories, with Sfar’s vivid, high-energy illustrations, highlight the quality of what’s now available in this format.

Sardine tells the story of a little girl aboard a spaceship who, with her cousin Louie and Uncle Yellow, must take on Supermuscleman. Little Vampire is spooky, with themes that will appeal to boys.

Lewis Trondheim is another prolific French animator. My nearly nine-year-old son and I chortled our way through his Tiny Tyrant, illustrated by Fabrice Parme (First Second). This book, about a king who rules like a six-year-old, has a theme with which kids can relate.

Trondheim’s other well-known title is Kaput and Zosky (First Second). The interplanetary box-ups of this alien duo, who look like a bat and ball, offer a commentary on the state of the world. Most important, they’re energetic and hilarious.

My son Cuan, my test reader, gave his overall victory card, surprisingly, to Ramp Rats, by Liam O’Donnell (illustrations by Mike Deas), from Orca’s Graphic Guide Adventures series. Not only did he read it 143 times, but he expressed amazement that a novel could teach you how to do skateboard tricks.

The story concerns the politics and tussles of a group of young skateboarders, both in and out of the park. We’re already looking forward to Soccer Sabotage, due out next spring.

The most endearing tale I discovered — Jellaby, by Kean Soo (Hyperion) — began life as a web comic and is printed in a lavender hue. It tracks a secret friendship between Portia Bennett and a dinosaur-cum-Gummi-bear called Jellaby, as Portia tries to find his home. While so many graphic novels are scary and dark, there’s something heartwarming about the Jellaby creature. You wouldn’t mind looking out the window to find his donkey nose looking back at you.

The good news is that it’s to be continued, so there will be more Jellaby titles.

Confident proficient readers

My belief that graphic novels can bridge literacy gaps was strengthened when I discovered Classical Comics, a British publisher with North American distribution. Their graphic-novel adaptations of literary classics are faithful to the authors’ original vision. This concept will convert even the most ardent anti-graphica parent, and Shakespeare need never elicit a teenage groan again.

Each Shakespeare play is published in three different formats based on the language: original text, plain text and quick text.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (Tundra Books) was another revelation because my son, generally a classics fiend, has always had an inexplicable aversion to this work. Yet in this bold format, we read the entire book in one sitting. If I now reintroduce the original novel, I’m sure his resistance will have abated.

Fortunately, the third volume of Tove Jansson’s adorable Moomin (Drawn & Quarterly) — Finland’s answer to Peanuts — has just been released. Volume Two, my favourite, includes the appropriately-themed-for-2010 Moomin Winter Follies, in which the Moomins must deal with the over-enthusiastic and emotional organizer of the Moomin Valley Winter Games, Mr. Brisk.

Tove Jansson died in 2001. These three volumes celebrate her extraordinary talents and are sure to become family favourites.

Non-fiction graphica

Don’t dismiss the role graphic works can play in the acquisition of general knowledge. One of my favourite series is Horrible Histories, written by Terry Deary and illustrated by Martin Brown (Scholastic), described as “history with the nasty bits left in.” Titles such as Rotten Romans and Frightful First World War tackle history in a fun yet informative tone.

Scholastic has now added a Horrible Science series, which similarly gives kids “science with the squishy bits left in.” The books exploit the yuck and goofy factor while building up interest in important basic science facts.

Dorling Kindersley continues its pioneering visual output for young folk with Take Me Back: A Trip Through History from the Stone Age to the Digital Age. Like all DK titles, it’s high on visuals and design, giving kids the history of everything from Mesopotamia to the moon in small, manageable bursts. Reading it is like taking a subway ride through world history. Later, when education demands more from them, they’ll have some familiarity with the stations.

I leave the last word on the debate over the value of graphic novels to teacher Guy Demers. “There are too many startlingly good pieces being created today to ignore,” he says. “Our kids deserve the best and so we, as teachers, need to be open to finding it for them, even if it means going against a bias.”

Hear, hear.

Anakana Schofield, Canwest News Service
Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009