It’s that time of year again—summer reading list time.
While I do not have any offspring of my own, I know people who do, and there’s usually several internet posts on the subject of summer reading lists which filter into my assorted timelines one way or another. Sometimes the stories are pleasant, but most often they detail a memo sent home from a teacher or school outlining what the children are not allowed to read during their summer break. These ‘banned’ genres and publication styles are most frequently (surprise, surprise) fantasy, science fiction…and comics and graphic novels.
::cue much rioting in the streets with blazing torches and pitchforks here::
Comics and their kin have long been sidelined from mainstream literature for several reasons, chief amongst them being the (completely unfounded) belief that they are in some way inferior to “proper books”. As we of the comics community are aware, this is nonsense. Teachers who disallow comics, graphic novels, and certain other genres seem to do so because they feel that their content cannot possibly be in any way as formative as other age-appropriate works of prose. One can only assume that these poor, unfortunate educators are exceedingly misinformed, and possibly (::GASP::) implementing these policies based purely on assumptions about the material in question rather than any firsthand knowledge thereof.
It’s a sorry state of affairs, to be sure.
I’m sure we can all agree that Reading Is Important. It is, in its most basic form, a fundamental skill, and beyond that it becomes a means through which we can learn and explore and escape. It opens up worlds to us (real and fictional) that we may never experience in any other way than by reading about them. We encourage literacy from an early age in order to give children the tools they need to succeed in life, but also to entertain themselves. (C’mon, who doesn’t love it when rather than arguing with her older brother about who gets the last red popsicle, a contrary seven year old simply retreats to her room to commiserate about the trials of being the younger sibling with Ramona Quimby instead?*) We try to encourage the behavior of reading for reading’s sake in an attempt to broaden the minds of the generations to come. “Go forth, small humans, and relish the written word!”
Here’s the thing; there’s going to be plenty of required reading in a child’s educational career. There should be. Required reading is an education vegetable—you may not love it, but it’s good for you, so you put up with it. But summertime is meant to be a break from the rigidity of the classroom. Kids are supposed to play and have adventures and (if they’ve had a good model in a parent or teacher or other adult) find ways to learn about the things that interest them the most. Maybe that’s the War of 1812 or physics or dragons, but by reading about any of those things allows children to lean research skills—even if the subject doesn’t actually exist. Where there’s a desire to know more, there’s a drive to read, and that drive is what needs to be nurtured.
That said, let’s return to the idea that comics and graphic novels aren’t “real books”. I would like the people who subscribe to this antiquated notion to take it, put it in a box, tape the box closed, go to Cape Canaveral, an let that box be burnt to a crisp beneath the rocket boosters of the next supply flight to the International Space Station. Now, I want those same people to go to their local comic shop and pick up any book in the children’s section. If any of you can read it from cover to cover and then tell the rest of us that you couldn’t find any instance of material translatable to social, political, economic, scientific, mathematical, or historical themes, events, or ideologies, well…you’ll be wrong. All of those things are just as present in comics and graphic novels as they are in prose novels. And not only are comics and graphic novels perfectly valid reading material, there are benefits that they can offer to students with disabilities or learning difficulties that prose novels can’t. Also, in this day and age of diversity, there is much more of it to be found in contemporary fiction—including comics and graphic novels—than in most of the generic reading lists full of ‘classic children’s literature’. If those reasons aren’t enough to encourage incorporation of comics and graphic novels into the mainstream curriculum, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The small humans will not relish the written word if it is being forced upon them by the agenda of someone who ‘thinks they know best’, no matter how well intentioned they may think themselves to be. Studies have shown that children who choose their own books are more likely to develop the habit of reading for fun. So what if they’d rather read Teen Titans than Tom Sawyer**? The point is that they’re reading, and Reading Is Important.
*This is pure speculation on my part, as I grew up with neither a brother nor an affinity for red popsicles.
**Here is a handy list of classic novels (For kiddies and grownups, too!) that have been adapted into graphic novel format.