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Babe To Teens, Past
A YOuth Column
By Beverly Rowe

    Let the Girls (and Boys) Read Comics!
    By guest columnist, Louanne Clayton Jacobs, Ed.D.

    I spend a great deal of my time in schools helping teachers to build great classroom libraries and learn to successfully match books to children and teens. When I suggest adding comic books and graphic novels to a classroom collection, teachers inevitably respond, “Oh, yes, those books are so good for introducing struggling male readers to real books.” And while I never scream and pull my hair, this response always makes me want to do so. Comics and graphic novels are not just for struggling readers, not just for boys, and they are real books – books that have too often been either marginalized or maligned by parents, teachers, and librarians, but books that have a legitimate and valuable place in any home or classroom library.

    A Few Brief Definitions
    While experts disagree on any one definition for comics, comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels, I offer the following sketchy definitions to distinguish between and among them:

    Comics: A graphic medium using words and illustrations to convey a narrative

    Comic Strip: A comic usually consisting of four or more panels (a strip)

    Comic Book: A magazine or short book containing sequential art which tells an extended narrative. These magazines or books are often serialized over weeks, months, or years building and sustaining the narrative.

    Graphic Novel: The term for this book-length format of the comic genre was popularized by Will Eisner to describe his Contract with God trilogy.

    Manga: Japanese comic books. Shonen refers to manga for boys. Shojo refers to manga for girls. There is also manga for men and women – be careful when selecting. These are often housed in the same section as manga for young readers and can be quite violent and sexually explicit.

    Visual Literacy

    Most adults ignore comics as a legitimate form of literature because they contain more pictures than words; however, this aspect of comics can be good for readers. Readers who have the ability to attend to and glean information from a variety of types of illustrative materials are said to be visually literate, and this visual literacy can enhance reading of classroom texts. Several research studies have revealed that illustrations (photographs, graphs, maps, drawings) account for at least 50% of all material found in instructional textbooks. In addition, learners who know how to “read” illustrations perform significantly better than learners who do not know how to utilize illustrations. Since comics and graphic novels consist of mostly illustrations, knowing how to read those texts and the graphics that accompany them can actually increase reading achievement.

    Multiple Literacies

    I was hanging out in the children’s and young adult section of my local Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago (something I do so often many people think I actually work there) when I overheard a girl trying to talk her mother into buying one of a series of graphic novels. The mother wanted her daughter to choose something hard to read since she perceived comics to be easy reading. I quickly jumped to the defense of the girl and the comic itself, introducing myself to the mother as a reading specialist and showing the mom the often-overlooked reading skills associated with reading graphic texts. In a world in which much of what constitutes daily reading for many people is found on computer screens, her daughter was – through effective comic reading – becoming a more astute consumer of real-world literacy. Think of our computer screens and our computer-dominated reading tasks. The screen is not a linear exercise – it is not “read” left-to-right top-to-bottom. Internet reading demands an attention to those things which take visual precedence. Reading comics and graphic novels, particularly forms such as manga, demand that the reader understand the language of visual precedence – how to at the very least “read” colors, directionality, symbolism, and facial attributes in order to comprehend the story. Any adult who thinks that comics are easy reading hasn’t read a comic since Archie. I also pointed out that the Printz Award for adolescent literature went to a graphic novel in 2007 which seemed to lend a great deal of credibility to my arguments. Fortunately, her mom bought my spiel and the girl left with an armload of the entire graphic novel series.

    Comics for Girls

    Comics have long been mainly a male-dominated genre – guys wrote them, most of the lead characters where male, and they were directed toward a mostly-male readership. However, in recent years a growing female readership has emerged causing publishing houses to cater to this new and vocal consumer group. For girls looking for comics and parents and teachers interested in matching female readers to comics and graphic novels, I offer to you a few of my favorites:

    The Babymouse Series by Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm
    (All Ages)

    This graphic novel series written and illustrated by a sister-brother team includes Babymouse #1 : Queen of the World (2005), Babymouse #2: Our Hero (2005), Babymouse #3: Beach Babe (2006), Babymouse #4: Rockstar (2006), Babymouse #5: Heartbreaker (2006), Babymouse #6: Camp Babymouse (2005)7, Babymouse #7: Skater Girl (2007), and Babymouse #8: Puppy Love (2007). The series follows the hilarious antics of Babymouse who is a typical middle school girl mouse navigating the typically treacherous waters of adolescence. She is attacked constantly by her not-just-uncooperative-but-deadly locker and thwarted by her nemesis, Felicia Furrypaws, the most popular girl – and meanest – in the school. Babymouse daydreams herself away from her real world and into a fantasy one in which she is popular and talented and victorious over Felicia Furrypaws and her minions. Each daydream sequence is washed in pink and is, for anyone who has ever had, been, or taught a middle school child poignantly accurate and uproarious.

    The Oddly Normal Series by Otis Frampton
    (Ages 10 and up)

    This graphic novel series (volumes 1 – 4) follows the adventures of a 10-year-old girl named Oddly Normal who is half-witch/half-human. On her 10th birthday her parents mysteriously disappear and Oddly is left in the care of her great aunt. Since her new guardian is a full-witch and lives in an alternate universe known as Fignation, that is where Oddly’s adventures and her quest to learn about the fate of her parents take place. She enrolls at the local school, gains new friends and enemies, and learns that the trials of growing up “just a little different” are much the same in any universe.

    The Jellaby Series by Kean Soo
    (Ages 10 and up)

    The first in this graphic novel series is slated for a February, 2008 release. I am already addicted to the adventures of ten-year-old Portia Bennett and her purple monster, Jellaby. Portia wakes one night and follows a noise into the woods next to her house. In them she finds a gigantic lost purple creature who she befriends, takes home, and names Jellaby. When Jellaby follows her to school the next day, the two hide on the roof of the school where they spy a boy being picked on by two other playground bullies. Portia intercedes and she and Jellaby find a new friend, Jason. When the three friends see a photograph of a mysterious door in the newspaper which they believe may lead to Jellaby’s home, they decide to take a Halloween trip to Toronto to investigate. A secondary mystery, that of Portia’s missing and possibly dead father forms a serious undercurrent to the light adventures of Portia, Jason, and Jellaby.

    The Avalon High Series by Meg Cabot
    (Ages 12 and up)

    Perhaps best known for The Princess Diary books, Meg Cabot has recently begun a series of graphic novel adaptations of her Avalon High novel (2005). Drawn in rich black and white illustrations and in panels closely resembling Japanese manga, this series tells the tale of an ordinary teenage girl who just might be the incarnation of the Lady of the Lake and just might be dating the incarnation of King Arthur. Of course the modern-day retelling of the story (or reliving of the story) wouldn’t be complete without Merlin, Mordred, and Lancelot. And aren’t all popular-yet-evil high school girls just a little like Morgan le Fay?

    The Miki Falls Series by Mark Crilley
    (Ages 13 and up)

    The Miki Falls series includes four books: Miki Falls: Spring (May, 2007), Miki Falls: Summer (June, 2007), Miki Falls: Autumn (September, 2007), and Miki Falls: Winter (Slated for January, 2008). This series is an American version of Japanese Manga which looks and feels close to the original tradition complete with Manga-styled facial features and a story set in Japan. Miki Yoshida, the heroine of the series, meets and is infatuated with her high school’s new handsome student. While he at first seems to be tantalizingly unattainable, she soon learns that his aloof manner hides a mysterious double life. Their forbidden young love leads them into danger and adventure as the series unfolds. The artwork in this series is breathtakingly beautiful and the panel layouts serve to heighten the tempo and tension of the text.

    The Minx Imprint - DC Comics
    (Ages 14 and up)

    In response to a growing young female readership, D C Comics has recently launched the Minx imprint. Titles include Re-Gifters (2007), Clubbing (2007), Confessions of a Blabbermouth (2007), Good as Lily (2007), The Plain Janes (2007), and kimmee66 (2007). A sixth title, Water Baby is slated for release in May, 2008. These titles are not part of a series, rather they are part of an imprint directed at a high-school-age female market. They involve high school female lead characters and typical high school social dramas often mixed with a bit of the supernatural. While I admit that this series is among my most favorite and can tell you that I waited dearly for the release of each volume, be aware that with typical teenage drama comes typical teenage language – the kind teens say among themselves that adults wish to believe they never utter! This series is definitely for a high school reader.

    The Mouse Guard Series by David Petersen
    (Ages 10 and up)

    This series, reminiscent of a cross between The Rats of Nimh, and Watership Down with a little Knights of the Round Table in the mix, includes Mouse Guard Volume 1: Fall 1152 (2007), Mouse Guard Volume 2: Winter 1152 (2007), Mouse Guard Volume 3: Rise of the Axe (2006), Mouse Guard Volume 4: The Dark Ghost (2006), Mouse Guard Volume 5: Midnight’s Dawn (2006), and Mouse Guard Volume 6: A Return to Honor (2007). The series follows a group of mouse guards including very strong female warriors as lead characters as they journey across mouse territory and battle enemies to uncover and thwart a plan to destroy the Mouse Guard. The richly color-saturated illustrations convey a deeper understanding of the story than that told by the text alone.

    The Persepolis Series by Marjane Satrapi
    (Ages High School to Adult)

    The two volumes in this series, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2004), and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (2005) have most recently been released in comic form as a major motion picture. The series tells the autobiographical story of a young girl living in Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which ushered in a new religious state. In 1984 her parents sent her to safety in Europe where she tests the boundaries of her new freedom, experiments with drugs and boys and eventually is forced home to Tehran where her liberalism and freedom collide with the religious police. Readers of these texts experience war and turmoil from the inside-out. Themes of sex and drugs make this book one for high school to adult.

    Additional Recommendations

    To Dance by Siena Cherson Siegel (2006) tells the author’s autobiographical story of growing up in Puerto Rico, moving with her family to Boston, and later being accepted to The School of American Ballet in New York. When an ankle injury ends her professional career, Siegel attends college and later returns to dance. This tale does not glamorize a dancer’s life; rather it reveals the hard work, pains, and disillusionment of injury as well as the triumph of the human spirit. Recommended for ages 8 and up.

    Biker Girl by Misako Rocks (2006). In this manga-style comic Aki becomes a reluctant superhero when a motorbike in her garage comes to life. The heroine discovers that she is descended from a long line of biker heroes like her cousin Toru who once owned the bike and was killed by the leader of a rival biker gang. The gang leader challenges her to a race which she wins with the help of the magical bike. Recommended for ages 10 and up.

    In addition, new graphic adaptations of The Babysitters Club by Ann Martin and Coraline by Neil Gaiman have recently been released which will delight new readers as well as those familiar with the original texts.

    To Learn More about the History of Comics

    For adults and young readers alike, I recommend Comic Book Century: The History of American Comic Books (2008) by Stephen Krensky. It is a concise and truly interesting look into the history of American comic books from the golden age of comics through modern graphic novels.


    Comics and graphic novels are not only entertaining for readers of all ages, they can actually increase reading achievement. So for the boys and girls in your lives (and for adults as well)…let them read comics!

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