In Praise of Graphic Novels
The impulse to ‘get kids reading’ is a strong one: it is felt with urgency by many parents and teachers, and frequently supported by nationwide campaigns in the media. But the actual task of encouraging reluctant readers is not straightforward. In the first place, not everyone likes reading. That goes for children and grown ups. It’s a bit like going to the gym: some people love the buzz and will do it for the sheer pleasure as well as the health gain - others find it entirely uninspiring. We can’t expect to change such inclinations easily, and badgering and nagging rarely work.
However, one thing worth considering is the type of books you suggest to your child or teenager. I am a great one for telling parents that in terms of comprehension and writing skills, some reading is better than none. This means footballer biographies or spin-off books from fantasy films should not necessarily be rejected as trash if they’re the only things that excite your young reader. Such books still contain new words, structured paragraphs, characters and emotional journeys, after all.
Another piece of advice I would give to parents who want to motivate young readers is to try graphic novels.
My husband is a huge fan of graphic novels. Up until recently, I'd never read any. Like many people I expect, I saw them as less serious or 'deep', less angled towards someone like me.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
I've read two graphic novels now, and while that hardly qualifies me as an expert, I have found them to be two of the most exceptionally rich and moving works of fiction that I've ever come across. The titles in question are 'Persepolis' by Marjane Satrapi and the Pulitzer prize winning 'Maus' by Art Spiegelman. Both tell the story of disturbing periods in recent history, via family memoirs. 'Persepolis' is about growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution, and 'Maus' chronicles the story of the cartoonist’s parents, who survived Auschwitz.
On the back cover of Persepolis, Mark Haddon extols the fact that it 'will teach you more about Iran, about being and outsider, about being human, than you could learn from a thousand hours of television documentaries and newspaper articles'. It's true: I knew nothing, really, about Iranian history and this book opened my eyes. I did know a fair amount about the Holocaust, having studied it at school and devoured books from 'The Diary of Anne Frank', to 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' to 'The Book Thief' and countless others - but 'Maus' was possibly the most powerful and memorable tale of all these.
Far from being simplified, in many ways I thought these books could offer something deeper and more complex than straightforward prose. Both cartoonists manage to juxtapose humour and tragedy with an incredible poignancy. Both manage to capture the distinct voices in the story with perfect precision. The images themselves contain metaphors and symbolism. It may seem simple to characterise the Jews as mice and the Nazi's as cats, but it speaks of the dehumanization in the camps, and movingly captures the heart-stopping fear that pervaded the era. In Persepolis, parents and policemen loom over Marjane like giants as she navigates the moral ambiguities of the Iranian Revolution. The books play with form too. Given that iconic representations of Islam are forbidden, the black and white panels of Persepolis are an act of protest as well as an act of story-telling. In Maus, on occasion, the artist shows himself struggling to write, struggling to live up to his parents' heroic past, struggling to put up with his old dad's mood-swings and neediness. In these sections, Spiegelman draws himself as a human wearing a mouse mask.
All of which is to say that such books deserve to be read, and indeed to be studied. Don’t be fooled into thinking that so-called ‘comics’ are not proper reading.
For kids who have a more visual than verbal imagination, and perhaps even those who suffer from dyslexia or visual stress, graphic novels might well unlock something. The value of reading is not only in the absorption of vocabulary and sentence structure, but also in the emotional intelligence, cultural understanding, narrative skills, interpretive ability and empathy that can be soaked up from stories. If you're looking for a holiday-read to inspire a teenager, one of these would be a very good choice.