Thursday, 6 March 2014

World Book Day - do comics count?

Today is world book day - and, nationwide, children went to school dressed as characters from their favourite books. 

Some parents carefully hand crafted costumes of characters like the Cat in the Hat, or the Tiger who came to tea, some sent twins as Thing 1 and Thing 2, some spent hours of their time carefully stitching, painting, glueing and making these visions by hand. 

Some (like me) bought costumes because the short notice, lack of organisation and stunning lack of actual costume making skill meant that no child from this house was EVER going to be going anywhere dressed as Thomas the Tank, however much Mummy wished she could deliver on that particular request. (Any rumours that I was spotted, wild eyed and frantic, in Tesco at eleven last night looking at their sparse costume selection are, unfortunately, totally accurate!) and we opted for Peter Pan, because I loved the book as a child, I still count Hook as my favourite film (ok, second, but only because Total Recall is so totally awesome) and I love the story behind the story...and it was either that or Batman last night, and I didn't want to go for a superhero costume! 

Then I wondered WHY I didn't want to opt for a Superhero costume, knowing that Jellybean (and Midget Gem) like them, and other kids at school do, too. I knew there would be a few kids dressed as Spiderman and Batman there today and wondered why I wasn't keen on Jellybean being one of them.

Is it because it just seemed a bit too easy? Too obvious? Kids like superheroes, and most families have those costumes, if they have any, so was I worried he'd just be one of seven Spidermen? 

Well, partly!

Is it because I don't think comics are 'proper' books? No, I don't think that. 

They aren't things I'd often choose to read, and they weren't when I was a kid - but is that because it's just not really my thing, or is it because I found reading easy, and enjoyed it, and thought it looked like a grown up thing to do - and so progressed to chapter books quickly then spent most of my childhood camped there, reading as much as I humanly could. 

Once I could read well I didn't want picture books - I thought they were childish, and that big, clever girls like me didn't need pictures - because the book gave you the story, and that gave you the pictures, your own pictures, in your mind - similar to but not exactly the same as the images in the mind of the author. Books without pictures gave me my OWN world, let me interpret it myself...and comics don't do that in the same way. Is that it? 

Then I thought more about comics. And the way they cater to a very adult market, in a lot of ways. 

Would I buy my kids a Batman comic? Nope. Why? Because it's really dark - and violent - and quite brutal! But there are age appropriate versions, as well as these wholly inappropriate comics. So comics aren't just for kids. 

Nor do they simplify stories. Back to Batman; the comics tell a dark story of a man very damaged by childhood trauma, with anger issues, bitterness, it tells stories of betrayal, brutality, the darker side of human nature, intimate relationships, the way people can play off each other - it's in depth, multi faceted, it covers a wide range of topics, and challenges these dark ideas and difficult issues with the protection of being in another world, an imagined place, a place we can distance ourselves from to look at these issues with a little distance that makes them easier to process. And they aren't for children. Nor are they 'bubblegum' or nonsense, they are complex literature presented in a very visual way, rather than just as prose, involving the reader in a world they can see, as well as embellish with their own interpretations. 

When children are learning to read schools have a very structured and rigid and there are books that they work their way through. Some kids understand reading easily - I did, and Jellybean seems to - and are happy to plough through those books. Some kids (Jellybean) think the books are boring and don't really care what's happening in them, or engage with the characters in them. Some kids not only have no interest in the characters or stories, but also find reading more difficult, and just don't get it.

Some kids, in this traditional learning model, don't begin reading for pleasure, to themselves, because the books don't capture them - so reading doesn't capture them. 

There are children leaving primary school and heading to secondary school who have never really learned to read. Who still find it difficult and alien. Who have no love - or who have strong dislike - for books and reading. 

There are children who have learning difficulties, for whom reading is an alien process, for them the written word swims and changes, confuses, tricks. 

So can comics help?

I asked Twitter and Facebook what they thought and I got a great range of responses, from "I just don't think comics are books" to "Comics were a gateway drug to Dickens". 

You can see a lot of the discussion on my facebook page if you want to see what people's views are. 

Tattooed Mummy was concerned that kids could get hooked on the 'easy read' comics offer - and miss out on creating their own world with the harder work of books. 

Niki @ncw_ thinks comics are a step up from basic picture books for kids

Farnie @Farnie recommended @RaintreePub who have created some more traditional books based on comic book characters that she says more reluctant readers have been very keen on at the school her kids go to. 

@Me_Andthe_tiny3 pointed out that comic book characters star in a range of different books now, not just graphic novels.

@Fingle just doesn't think comics count as books.

Hannah @thebearcametoo said  it's like saying only literary fiction counts as reading and not crime or fantasy or romance.

@MissAmanda77 isn't sure whether comics are books (ie should be included in world book day) but does count them as part of literature for kids these days

@Richarevans1 thinks comics are a great way to get boys, in particular, into reading and that some comics are better than some books. 

Jax @liveotherwise has offered comics to her more reluctant readers and it wasn't for them - but she still thinks comics have value as literature and should be explored. 

@Mummyglitzer thinks all and any reading is important and, however kids get into it, reading should be encouraged. 

And there were a LOT more comments that I can't even begin to cover here! 

My absolute favourite came from @RichieStone who said;

"Comics are literature. As a child I learnt to read thanks to Marvel and Tolkien. They were my gateway drug to Hardy, Gaskell and Dickens. Reading is about what you put in more than what's there - although studying literature isn't."

And I think that pretty much sums up my support of comics.

I know that for a family member who is dyslexic comics were key to him growing into an adult who reads for pleasure.

He is from a family of people who are passionate about books and reading, but who found reading difficult and confusing, and didn't understand the pleasure his family were getting from books when they just made him cross.

Then in his teens he found comics, and realised how much story there was in the words around the pictures - and he moved from those to graphic novels, which are like comics on steroids. He loved the stories and the words and still felt that there was another level he hadn't reached. So he moved onto books. Short stories first, then novels. Now he reads books as much as any of the rest of the family, and enjoys them, and though it takes him longer than it might take people who find reading easy he sticks with it because he gets it now, and can fully immerse himself in a story and work through the frustrations.

I think comics can be brilliant to engage reluctant readers. I think they can be - as Richie said - a stepping stone into different kinds of literature. I think they can be enjoyed in their own right without being any kind of tool or step because the artwork is incredible and the story lines are so varied and wide reaching.

The superhero comics are the most obvious and well known kinds of comic - but there are comics on just about every subject with all kinds of characters, covering an incredible range of issues, topics, situations - and I think there are comics out there that anyone, everyone, could enjoy - they don't have to be about super powers or good versus evil - they can be about anything.

And should they 'count' on world book day? Heck yes, they should!

Or at least I think so...

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