Graphic Novels and Comics

My 7-year-old daughter, nose-deep in her book, just asked for the definitions of “forfeit” and “eccentric” … and why “insomnia” is a bad thing. But the work sitting in her lap isn’t “The Great Gatsby” or even The New Yorker. She’s flipping through “Garfield” – a compilation of the Sunday comic strip.

Comics concern some parents and teachers who worry about the popular Panels’ lowbrow connotations and lack of challenge. Plus, the words “graphic novel” (full-length books in illustrated format) cause many parents to raise an eyebrow or two, imagining stories told in a most unsavory style.

But children love ’em. Plus, studies indicate that by high-school age, comic book and graphic novel fans are just as proficient as text-only readers – often reading above grade level with comprehensive vocabularies.

No longer just for the sullen kids in the back of the classroom, modern-day comics and graphic novels now are respected. Skeptical adults can check out the award-winning titles “Maus,” by Art Spiegelman, and “Persepolis,” by Marjane Satrapi.

Need more convincing? Here’s how comics do more than just make kids laugh:
Increase inference. Claudia McVicker, a professor of language and literacy at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, studied how comics boost inference skills for struggling elementary-school readers. Inference is “reading between the lines” and critical to comprehension. For example, if it’s 9 a.m. and Henry’s stomach is growling, he probably didn’t eat breakfast.

“With ‘Garfield,’ there’s not that much text,” says McVicker. “So you have to infer meaning from pictures.” When kids miss a punch line, they can seek clues in the cartoons.

Add vocab. Jim Davis, creator of “Garfield,” intentionally introduces big words for readers to mull over. Kids can add to their personal word bank through inference, asking a parent for help or cracking open a dictionary. The word “gluttonous” probably wouldn’t show up in a second-grader’s reader, but the meaning seems obvious when Garfield eats an entire plate of doughnuts.

Create confidence. Whether using a phonics-based or whole-word approach, pictures build kids’ confidence. Rather than an overwhelming page of text, comics typically provide one-line sentences and many emotional cues (characters blush, sigh, etc.). “Instead of being a perfect independent reader, children can look at comics and see visual context,” says McVicker.

Boost bonding. Nothing brings generations together like a case of the giggles. Re-discover favorite childhood funnies, sharing a good joke from “Peanuts.” Alternately, choose a graphic novel, such as “The Baby-sitters Club” to talk about common childhood issues and complaints. Parents also can use comics’ illustrations to increase emotional IQ, asking questions about characters’ depicted emotions. How does Charlie feel after Lucy yanks away the football … yet again?

Comprehend Classics. Not ready for Oliver Twist? Kids will say “more, please” to a graphic-novel version. Pictures explain period details and differences, and a simpler structure makes storylines clear. For capable kids, editorial comics in the daily paper help explain high-concept ideas (such as political or social issues).

Get literate. McVicker says Gen Z needs to develop a new skill not taught through textbooks. Visual literacy is the ability to integrate text and visual input simultaneously. Melding words and illustrations together, kids get the big picture. By causing the brain’s synapses to multitask while
reading “Bone,” kids get prepped for comprehending CNNs busy screen. Learn a new language. If a child is already fluent in English, try “Calvin y Hobbes.” Available from large booksellers and at libraries, comics in other languages help children practice their language chops. After all, laughter needs no translation.

Accelerate appreciation. Graphic novels demonstrate larger literary themes, despite their simple approach. They’re a great choice for proficient readers who want to expand understanding. Protagonist, antagonist, story arc and resolution are all there, even when the title uses no words at all, as in “Owly.”

‘Toons for every taste. Whether children are looking for a funny or sad, sci-fi or realistic, Japanese-inspired or stateside strip, there’s a comic to meet their need. Often stereotyped as a boys-only medium, comics targeted at girls – such as “Babymouse”- are hot picks nationwide.

Kid-Size Comics and Graphic Novels
Comics and graphic novels are great ways to rev up your kids’ reading this summer. Here’s a list of some popular ones to get you started. Be sure to ask at the children’s reference desk at your local library, or find a comic store near you.

For All Ages
Adventures of Tintin series – Herge
“Astro Boy” – Osamu Tezuka
Charlie Brown series – Charles Schulz
Garfield series – Jim Davis
Little Lulu series – Marjorie Henderson Buell
“Monkey Vs. Robot” – James Kolchalka
“Owly” – Andy Runton
Phonics Comics Levels 1-3 – Various Authors
Ages 8 and Older
Archie Comics series – Various Authors
Babymouse series – Jennifer Holm
“Bone” – Jeff Smith
“The Bab-sitters Club: Kristy’s Great Idea” – Ann M. Martin
“Calvin and Hobbes” – Bill Watterson
“Fashion Kitty” – Charise Mericle Harper
“Oliver Twist” (graphic classics series) – Charles Dickens
Simpsons Comics series – Matt Groening

A former children’s librarian, Lora Shinn is a freelance writer for publications like “Parenting,” “Mothering” and “KIWI.” She still likes to read the Sunday funnies with her kids.