Okay, so it wasn’t really Superman (although I have had a lifelong crush on 1978 Christopher Reeve). That was just a tease to hide a much more embarrassing secret: my love affair was actually with Sonic the Hedgehog, and Garfield the Cat.
Twice in the past two weeks, I’ve heard well-meaning adults say something about “REAL books, not graphic novels or comics!” In one case, it was a teacher telling me what books she lets her students check out in her school’s library. The second time, it was a parent. In both cases, I was privately horrified.
As a parent, I read to my son constantly throughout his preschool years, bringing him books on whatever his current obsession was: deep sea fish, reptiles, creepy crawly things, Star Wars. I read him all my favorite childhood picture books, and many of my favorite chapter books too. He was always an eager listener, but it was Sonic, the obnoxious speedy blue hedgehog from the planet Mobius, who made him want to READ.
My son got his first Sonic comic at Coastside Comics on Free Comic Book Day when he was six. We read it together that night. Personally, I found it challenging. There was a lot of back story I didn’t know, and the characters were mostly new to me (although I knew Sonic and Tails from the old Sega video games). But my son was hooked. He worked at reading the comic on his own until he mastered it.
It wasn’t an easy read. Comic books, on average, have about 53 rare words per 1000, as opposed to 30 rare words in a children’s chapter book (and 52 in an adult novel). That means comics challenge kids with vocabulary they may never have heard, much less seen, before. Luckily, the pictures help them decipher the meaning.
Once my son got hold of that Sonic comic, he had to have more. Soon he was reading Scooby Doo, Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, and then racing through chapter books in school. Yes, Garfield isn’t the best role model, and we had to explain why it’s probably for the best that no one else can hear what that cat is thinking, or why we shouldn’t refer to Daddy as “Captain Obvious” (although kudos to Garfield for teaching him the word “obvious.”) I was happy when he discovered Baby Blues because they sometimes let him see things from a parents’ point of view (plus they are hilarious!).
Three years later, my son is now hooked on the newest craze in children’s publishing: the hybrid cartoon/chapter books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Stick Dog, and Big Nate. He still loves Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes, but he’ll read almost anything that comes his way. Meanwhile, my four-year-old daughter and I are enjoying the My Little Pony comics, and I’m happy to see the ways that comics and graphic novels are growing and changing.
At the library where I work, we now have graphic novels for every level of reader, from preschool through adult. And teachers are now exploring the benefits of using comics in the classroom, finding that they make information more memorable and easier to understand: http://www.readingwithpictures.org/2012/04/why-teach-with-comics/
Personally, I will always be grateful to comics for making my son want to read. Reading is such a powerful tool for understanding the world and other people, and finding out what you need to know. But it’s also so much fun.