Friday, May 2, 2008

Unpublished Interview about Kids and Comics

Months ago, I did an interview for a book about All Ages comics that has not been published. I recently re-read it and thought it might be of interest because it covers a lot of ground, so here it is.

Please tell me a little about yourself and your role in comics and books.
I came to comics fairly late. As a kid, I can remember reading Asterix at my grandma’s house and a few Donald Duck comics, but not much more than that. About 5 years ago my best friend, who has always been a comics fan, got me started on Fables and I was hooked. I think I’ve been to the comic shop almost every week since then! Once I started bringing home comics, my two daughters wanted to read them too, but most of what I was reading wasn’t suitable for them. So we all went looking for comics and graphic novels that we could read together. The hunt continues to this day. I’m also a teacher and I’ve seen how comics can change a reluctant reader into a rabid reader in a very short time. I’d like to see it happen for more kids.

What are some of the reasons that comics for kidsand "all ages" have made a resurgence in the pastdecade or longer?
In the beginning, comics were seen as only for kids and it was mostly kids who read them. When those kids grew up, they wanted their comics to grow with them, so the cry became, “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” Now, as the folks who grew up reading comics become parents (and grandparents) themselves, they want to share their love of comics with their children. I think the people having the biggest influence are the creators. A lot of people who write and draw comics want to reach a broader audience and want to write for their own kids. Interestingly, librarians are one of the biggest forces at the other end – they’ve seen the way comics draw in reluctant readers and are clamoring for more high-quality all-ages work for their children’s collections. The popularity of manga is certainly another influence. Kids feel like they’ve discovered a whole new type of reading! Once they are comfortable with the manga format, it’s not a far jump to American or European comics and graphic novels.

Do you believe this resurgence will soon peak andfade, or are all-ages comics here to stay?
I think that the comic format is here to stay, but maybe not in the way we are used to. Graphic novels and books that are a hybrid of prose, illustration, and comics will probably be the way this generation gets their comics, not the traditional, serialized, pamphlet-style books that most people think of when they hear “comic books.”

What do you think about the role the Web andwebcomics play in the lives of kids and teenagers?
Webcomics just aren’t on the radar of any of the kids we know. Most kids use their computers to play games, do homework, or keep in contact with friends, but not to read for pleasure.

How do you address concerns over the content ofcertain graphic novels/manga with parents, teachers,kids, etc.?
This is the biggest challenge. At this point the only thing I can say is that adults should read the material first to determine whether it is suitable for kids as there really is no other reliable way to tell. One of the reasons we write our column is to address this issue and let parents, librarians, and teachers know specifically what is contained comics and graphic novels that we believe are all-ages.

Do you believe comics publishers should adopt astandard rating system similar to the one used in thefilm industry? Or are we already overclassifying thesebooks?
Ratings systems only work when they are specific and consistent. Right now, each publisher has its own system, so something that is rated “Youth 7+” by one company might be very different from something rated “All Ages” by another publisher. Archie and DC (the Johnny DC line) are using the Comics Code and those books are certainly suitable for everyone, as are the Disney Gemstone comics. Beyond that, it really varies. I’ve read plenty of books labeled “All Ages” that contained just a few inappropriate words or images which lead me to not recommend them for children’s libraries or classrooms. Some people wonder what the big deal is –prose works don’t have ratings, so why should comics? There are three reasons that a standardized, voluntary rating system would be beneficial to comics and graphic novels. One, it is a visual medium and it’s much easier for a child to be exposed to inappropriate material just by flipping through a comic than a prose novel. Two, many of the creators who are making “all-ages” comics and graphic novels are not children’s book writers and sometimes are not aware of what most parents, librarians, and teachers would consider “inappropriate” for kids. And three, some librarians and teachers are looking for guidance on shelving graphic novels appropriately. Honestly, it’s not the kids that I’m worried about – they hear those words on the playground – but the parents. All it takes is one word in one book to create a lawsuit, a media frenzy, and a bad reputation for comics and graphic novels.

What role does/might the reviewer/critic play inall-ages comics?
At this point, I feel like there are two important roles for the reviewer. One is to bring attention to good books that might otherwise get overlooked by the comics press because they are all-ages. The other is to not only talk about the quality and appeal of a book, but the age-appropriateness as well.

What role does/might the librarian, teacher, andparent play in all-ages comics?
Librarians have been instrumental in the rise in popularity of graphic novels. They’ve seen so many kids come in and get hooked who would otherwise not pick up a book at all. I’m hoping that teachers will be the next to jump on board, but it may take a while. Parents tend to be great supporters if they read comics, but otherwise many are still hesitant and don’t see graphic novels as “real” books because they don’t have enough text. I hope we can get parents and teachers to see that comics can be good for kids.

Do you think reading works in the comics form canbe beneficial -- or even detrimental -- to a child'saquiring verbal and reading comprehension skills?
Wordless comics are wonderful for pre-readers. Kids must learn to track left to right and “read” each panel in order, all while becoming familiar with story structure. Young children must move from concrete to abstract in their interpretations of the world; at first a dog is a furry thing that barks, but then children learn that it can be represented by a photograph of a dog, a drawing of a dog, and finally by the letters “dog.” “Reading” the pictures and symbols of a wordless comic is a good intermediate step between the real world of their experience and the abstract world of reading text, where ink on a page conveys meaning.

The comic format can work magic with beginning, struggling, or reluctant readers. First, the text tends to be in word balloons and captions, which are much less intimidating to beginning readers than pages filled with words. More importantly, in my opinion, kids can read much more complex stories than “See Jane run” because much of the story is told visually. Especially for older kids who are still struggling with decoding and comprehension, graphic novels can provide all the elements of literature while supporting their text reading with visual cues.

Accomplished and fluent readers benefit from the comic format as well. Reading comics sometimes requires the reader to be more actively engaged in decoding the author/illustrator’s message than prose. Readers must not only decode text, but also decode the visual elements and symbols, then synthesize the two to “read” the story.

Certainly, graphic novels should not replace prose in a child’s life, but it can definitely be an added element. It’s another tool that teachers can use, just like film or video, computer programs, or educational games.

Creating comics can also be a great tool for learning. In order to write/draw a comic, the creator must be very clear about the story, break it into panels in a way that conveys meaning to the reader, and tell the story using both visual and text mediums. Many times the experience of creating comics helps kids improve their text writing.


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