I had to chuckle a bit when a guy named Shane stopped by to lob a few digital bombs my way today. A staunch advocate of the role that graphic novels can play in teaching and learning, Shane wrote:
You are coming across as very pompous and honestly sir as quite unwilling to actually use the most important tool my greatest teachers had…their sense of hearing.
He also wrote:
You have a closed mind, in my view, when it comes to the sequential form of storytelling.
I mean, geez: I reflected on and responded to and interacted with and considered a TON of all y’all’s thoughts and opinions about graphic novels in the classroom.
More importantly, I set aside time this week to read two books that y’all recommended: The Pulitzer Prize Winning graphic novel series Maus and the often-described “bible” of graphic novel enthusiasts Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.
Here are my reactions.
Maus is an approachable look at a nonfiction topic that many kids may never tackle outside of the graphic novel genre.
Essentially the complete story of a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, Maus was a title right up my ally.
Not only do I teach the Holocaust when I’m in a sixth grade social studies classroom, I saw Maus as a potentially nice parallel with one of my favorite nonfiction titles, Hitler Youth.
That had me thinking about the ways that I could systematically use graphic novels as hooks to more traditional texts on the same topics.
I can actually see myself working up a collection of “book tandems” that pair graphic novels with nonfiction titles on the same theme that students could read together.
Kind of a “If you liked Maus, try Hitler Youth next” kind of thing.
That would be responsible practice that I could easily embrace.
Maus did not require much mental stamina to read, however.
I think one of my key concerns with graphic novels was articulated well by John Spencer in a Twitter conversation over the weekend.
When talking about his own concerns with graphic novels, John wrote:
“I want them to be exposed to longer works to build up the stamina of a story or a concept.”
Think about that for a minute: So much of the formal reading that students will do in schools requires real stamina. It doesn’t matter what class they’re taking, nonfiction can be a grind.
But whether we like it or not, it is absolutely essential to master the grind—to be confident that you can work through a piece no matter how text-heavy it really is.
So while I was reading Maus, I was paying attention to how much mental stamina it took to work through—and the answer was, “not much.”
Because the text in a graphic novel is broken into such small chunks and because it eliminates almost everything except dialogue, it IS possible to breeze through a graphic novel without really taxing oneself mentally.
Maybe that’s what the students who started this whole strand of conversation—the ones who said they were drawn to graphic novels because “they didn’t have to think”—were referring to.
And before y’all start leaving me comments about the work that kids have to do to “read the pictures,” I paid close attention to that as well.
In Maus at least—a book everyone holds up as a model for the genre—there’s not much interpretation necessary. The “between the panels” reading that McCloud refers to just isn’t necessary.
Sure, you could have conversations with kids about the symbolism that Spiegelman uses—mice for Jewish people, cats for Germans—but that’s a pretty small example of high level thinking for an entire series of books that is 300 pages long.
Long story short: If Maus is an example of the best in the graphic novel world, my fears for the futures of struggling readers who embrace the genre without guidance from skilled teachers—the only group I’m concerned about—haven’t been allayed.
I’ve also got to admit that I was a little let down by McCloud’s book.
Not only was it recommended by almost every graphic novel supporter who stopped by the Radical this weekend, it was literally checked out and sent to my room unexpectedly by my school’s librarian today.
“Enjoying the conversation on the blog,” she wrote, “This is the book that helped me to learn to read between the panes.”
So I churned through it—between silent reading and skipping the gym, I found 3 hours of reading time—hoping to be convinced.
What I read was, I think, a GREAT description of what graphic novels CAN BE.
In addition to a neat overview of the actual structure of comic books, McCloud goes into several examples of the kinds of interpretation that graphic novels require of readers.
Here’s the thing, though: INCLUDING Maus, I haven’t seen a single graphic novel that has required the most sophisticated levels of visual interpretation that McCloud describes.
His book, then, seems to detail a set of best practices that really aren’t being implemented all that well in the graphic novels being written for middle schoolers.
If graphic novels DID incorporate the sophisticated behaviors he describes, I think I’d be far more willing to embrace the genre than I currently am.
As a side note that I’m trying not to dwell too long on, McCloud makes what seem to be some unsupported claims in his text that were hard for me to believe.
One in particular comes early in the text when he argues that the simple nature of cartoon drawings literally enables readers to “become” the cartoon.
The reasoning was interesting—in the physical world, we have strong visual cues for what others look like and only vague visual cues for what we look like.
Essentially, we are an abstract concept in our own minds.
Therefore, the simple images in a cartoon come closer to our own approximations of ourselves than our impressions of others.
But that kind of claim really needs some supporting evidence before I’m ready to buy into it. Until then, it strikes me as an enthusiastic stretch at best and a fanciful dance at worst.
In the end, I’ve enjoyed this conversation. I certainly didn’t expect to have spent so much time on it, that’s for sure. I’ve got a tech bit that I’m literally dying to write.
And contrary to Shane’s impressions, I’ve listened and learned a ton. You’ve forced me to reconsider my own positions on graphic novels—and that’s cool.
I’m not ready to believe that the genre is the saving grace of children’s literature yet—a passionate pill that many seem to have swallowed.
But I am open to finding a carefully selected and tailored role for graphic novels in my middle grades classroom.