Kids who read comics are kids who read

Anyone else have reluctant readers at home?

Let me rephrase that. I’m not entirely convinced I do have reluctant readers. I think that developing early literacy skills is very different from pushing independent reading, and I think that there’s a broader range for the emergence of those skills than is often permitted in the curriculum-packed mainstream school system.

My oldest child had the alphabet memorized before he was 2. He could recall the text of complex story books, word for word, from about the same age. His auditory memory was (and continues to be) phenomenal. He loved being read to, but his attention to the book itself was entirely dependent upon the illustrations. When he started school, he was flagged as possibly at risk for reading challenges. He just wasn’t interested. AT ALL. The fact that reading and writing skills were taught in tandem likely made him tune out, as his struggle with printing was monumental. To their credit, his teachers didn’t push too hard, and suddenly, overnight, something happened. It’s like he just woke up 3/4 of the way through second grade, totally hooked. He went from barely being able to read a sentence to scoring close to a fifth grade reading level on a psycho-educational test at the end of the school year. Everything clicked for him at close to age 8. What pushed him over the edge?

Captain Underpants.

This graphic novel series has done for many what it did for my boy. It’s pretty incredible how reviled this series has been by some educators, given how successful it’s been in promoting and developing literacy in boys especially. The Captain Underpants books are by no means alone in the criticisms around what counts as “real” books. There’s been an arbitrary division made between “literature” and “comics,” and the graphic format has long been discounted.

This is unfortunate, especially for those of us who have kids who are extremely visual in their learning style. It’s not a universal trait, but a great number of individuals on the autism spectrum are visual thinkers (See Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures for more on this).

If a child is reading, a child is READING.

Bone. Amulet. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Marvel Adventures. Graphic novelizations of popular kids’ books (Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, and Anthony Horowitz’ Alex Rider books). He has devoured everything put in his path.

(He’s also read through Marvel’s Runaways and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 8, but they contain some more mature themes and parents may want to read them before passing them onto younger children.)

My son is a well-established reader, and goes back and forth between text-based and graphic books. His teacher silently uses him a role model in a class filled with students with low motivation around reading. This kid of mine has actually made reading COOL in his class, and kids are regularly swapping books with each other (Goosebumps, some of which are also available in graphic format) , where other kids swap cards.

Some of you might be thinking, “Well that’s fine and good, and I’ve heard that boys sometimes need a different kind of motivator to get them reading, but what about my daughter, a reluctant reader who may not have the same interests as the examples listed above?”

My daughter just turned 8 a couple of weeks ago. She’s more than halfway through Grade 2, and was assessed at just below grade level on a recent reading assessment. She loves having people read to her, but has performance anxiety around a lot of academic skills. She prints beautifully, and pushes some of the boundaries of her Waldorf-inspired school by insisting on printing while holding a ruler down on the unlined pages. She already journals her feelings (complete with illustrations, often with text bubbles!), and her creative spelling is almost always comprehensible. She GETS the craft of storytelling. She understands the power of words. She just wasn’t ready to read without support.

Again. Light switch. Enter Spiderman Loves Mary Jane. She found a copy of the collected story at the library a couple of weeks ago. Snuck it into her backpack the next morning before we left for school. And read, IN HER HEAD, for the entire 1/2 hour streetcar ride. She would occasionally pause to ask me about a specific word, or explain a funny frame to me, but she needed almost no assistance at all.

I’m telling you, I think I heard angels singing that morning.

Other “girly” graphic options include Scholastic’s reprinting of several issues of The Baby-Sitters’ Club, Nancy Drew graphic novels, and Baby Mouse. I’m still learning the girly side of age-appropriate comics, so if anyone wants to give me some more options in the comments section, I would love that.

I’m pretty excited about the release of Comic Book Literacy, a documentary that “showcases the utilization of comic books to promote literacy and education.” Go here to see the trailer. I just hope the film gets a wide enough distribution that it’s not just preaching to the converted.

If you’ve got a child who’s struggling with reading, pick up a comic. It just might change the world.



  1. Carolyn said,

    March 23, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    As you already know, reading graphic novels (manga, specifically) is how Maia really started reading.

  2. Carolyn said,

    March 28, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Oh wait…don’t forget about um, what was that series called? With that little girl?
    Oh yeah, Franny K. Stein!

  3. Kitty said,

    February 18, 2011 at 12:12 am

    I had the same angels singing when my crew picked up Spiderman loves Mary Jane. It comes home from the library regularly. Love it.
    My eldest went from non reader to grade level 2 in a couple of weeks. Once it clicks, it clicks.

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