CBLDF kicked off the 2013 Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco on Saturday, October 12, welcoming a diverse audience of parents and children to discuss the importance of raising a reader. CBLDF’s Betsy Gomez moderated a panel of experts including Raina Telgemeier (Smile), Dave Roman (Astronaut Academy), Alexis Fajardo (Kid Beowulf), and Jack Baur (Teen Services Librarian at the Berkeley Public Library).
The goal of the panel was to discuss ways that comics can be used to inspire children and young adults to cultivate a passion for reading. The panel was well-attended for first thing Saturday morning, and many adults had young persons in tow. Gomez opened the panel by asking each guest to talk about their origin story in the comic book world.
Baur shared that his first exposure to comic books was a Christmas present from his mother: a pre-selected long box of Marvel Comics, popular in the late 80s. “I think they sold it at Toys R’ Us, it was an orange long box with the X-Men printed on the side. It came with a set of twenty random comics. My mom had no idea what she was getting herself into with that present!”
Gomez asked the panel to speak to the misconception that all comic books are for kids and how each panelist perceived the changing history of intended audiences for comic books.
“I appreciate working in the library because we have clearly demarcated sections where materials for kids can go and material for adults can go. It gives me the freedom to buy and collect really widely for my patrons, and it’s reassuring for parents to know that we’ve done some of the work upfront. If comics reading isn’t an area that parents are ready to go, they know they can take their kids to the library and be safe. As far as the history is concerned, I do feel some leftover stereotypes from the comics code as far ask people outside bringing their preconceived notions to what they’re looking for and assuming that every book is a dumbed down, four-color morality tale in tights,” Baur said.
Telgemeier came to comics from the alternative point of view, with shows like APE indoctrinating her. While she noticed the attendees and creators were primarily adults, her interest wasn’t diminished. “I constantly have people come up to me and ask if my comic is safe for them to share with their children,” she said. “That was ten years ago, and comics were perceived for being more adult friendly, and titles in comic book stores were swayed toward kids who were reading comics in the ’70s and ’80s but had grown up. It’s like comics grew up with them, and we have to remind people that there is still stuff for kids to read.”
Roman weighed in, discussing a discrepancy he frequently sees in various articles examining the intended audiences of comic books. “There are alternating positions: Comics are for kids and there are now some really great ones for adults, OR comics have completely alienated kids and we need to get back to making books for kids, or we’re going to destroy this industry. Both are true, depending on what side of the fence you’re on.”
Fajardo brought up that this point of view seems to be US-centric, based on the course-correction in the 1950s due to the comics code. “Materials that were intended to be for all audiences have been chopped up into subsets, and they are for adults and kids. When I started selling books, my stuff was for all-ages, and to me, that means that anyone can pick it up and enjoy it.”
Gomez turned the discussion to the correlation between comic books and literacy, and asked the panel what skills they felt kids could acquire by reading comics.
“I don’t do studies about this,” Telgemeier began, “but I do get a lot of emails from kids, and those kids tell me things like they’ve never finished a book before, but they finished my book. I get grateful emails from parents on a weekly basis saying the same thing, about how hard they’ve tried to get their kids interested in reading anything and it ended up being a graphic novel that pushed them into being readers. Once they finish one book, they feel more empowered than they were before, and they read another one. It’s a wonderful upward spiral that can happen.”
Baur shared his experience in developing a graphic novel book club at a local middle school. With ten copies of thirty different titles, he and the school librarian have the tools to run a book club every single week of the school year. “What I’ve noticed with the club is that we reach kids that I never reach with other book clubs. A lot of that means boys, it means kids learning English as a second language; it means kids with learning disabilities. Once they’ve experienced the story and we’ve made it safe for them to love it, they just keep coming back. You can sit down and get a complete story out of a graphic novel in an hour. I’ve seen the power of being able to finish something and the emotion of success drive kids to becoming readers.”
Fajardo remembers picking up Asterix as a kid and being introduced to Europe and Romans. “Those books were not didactic; they weren’t trying to teach me geography. But they united this other world of history for me, and it was impactful. It’s what I want to bring to comics.”
Gomez posed the question of how comics were uniquely suited to compete with devices like iPads, iPhones, and video games for the attention of kids.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of competition, it’s a matter of speaking to them in the language they are accustomed to,” Baur said. “They are growing up in a visual information environment and comics are presenting stories in a visual way. I think they work in tandem and build off things they’re already learning — image and text and how the two things work together.”
“The key is getting them young,” Roman continued. “It’s not a competition. If it was, we would lose! The bells and whistles of technology will always be more exciting than books. But when kids are young, and if books are introduced alongside that stuff, they won’t separate it out. The key is realizing that both sets of things are fun. When reading is just treated as school work, and reading is a thing you’ve been assigned for class, versus social reading and shared reading, that creates a lifetime of reading.”
Telgemeier mentioned that young children who haven’t yet learned to read and require a parent or adult to read to them are at risk of being handed an iPhone or a game as entertainment instead of a book. “I’m sure those games are a great way for kids to learn, but because books require the parent and child to spend time together, I believe there has to be something to that. Learning to read out loud for yourself is so important!”
Roman noted that because of the contextual storytelling in graphic novels, a child who can’t read words can still understand the story and derive entertainment from the reading experience. Baur added that the reading experience builds a love of story in a way that technology can’t.
Fajardo took a turn as moderator, asking Baur how he figures out what the best comics are for kids who have never read one.
“I ask them questions. It’s all about trying to connect with them and figure out their interests,” Baur said. “Comics are nice because you can show a kid a comic and they can get an idea pretty quickly if it’s something they’re interested in investing time in. With novels, I have to spend a few minutes explaining what its about. I can hand them a comic, they’ll take a look, and they will decide if it’s for them.”
Gomez expanded on the idea of book recommendations by asking how Baur about how he convinces reluctant parents who don’t believe in the literary value of comics to allow their children to go home with one.
“What I tell parents is if you tell a kid ‘Don’t read that book,’ all they are going to hear is ‘Don’t read.’ If you tell them that their interests aren’t worthwhile, they are going to interpret that as the things they want are stupid. Clearly that’s not how parents want their children to feel, so I encourage them to let their kids explore. The library is a safe place,” he said. “I encourage parents to respect their children’s interests.”
Had the rest of the panel had any experiences with having to talk a parent into picking up one of their comics?
“It happens all the time,” Roman began. “What can happen is that parents want to turn their kids into clones of themselves. They want their kids to read the exact same books they like. If their kid is picking up a type of book they don’t like, they discourage it. It’s like, ‘You’re a Thor man, like me!’ That can be a little frustrating.”
Fajardo compared his experiences in working on Peanuts comics as well as his own independent books, and constantly having to pitch his personal projects to parents and kids. “The notion of Beowulf is a little stodgy. I have to let them know that it’s a fun story. It’s neat and challenging to see the two ends of it, having to convince people that a book is something they’ll enjoy.”
“We hear from teachers who are into graphic novels and are trying to convince their school board that they can teach the books and include them as book selections,” Telgemeier said. “It’s tough because there aren’t a lot of resources to give them, but there are starting to be. The CBLDF has amazing resources to convince naysayers about the value of comics.”
Gomez showed the audience the CBLDF publication, Raising A Reader, which can be viewed here.
“Be the squeaky wheel,” Telgemeier advised, returning to the topic of including comics in curriculum. “Be loud and vocal and willing to go to bat for something you care about.”
Gomez closed the panel by asking everyone to suggest one of their favorite comics for kids or young adults.
Telgemeir advocated for Zita the Space Girl. “It’s a safe bet for a younger kid, as well as one in middle school. It’s adventurous, well-drawn, and it has a lot of heart.”
Roman suggested The Secret Science Alliance. “It’s about celebrating your love for being smart. It’s about kids who let their nerd flags fly!”
Fajardo’s pick was The Crogan Adventures. “I’m a history nerd. These books are fun, cartoony, engaging and you’ll learn a lot, too.”
Baur selected The Lost Boy. “It’s adventurous, creepy, lots of dark shadows. It reminds me of the illustrations from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It’s good for kids who love being scared.”
Casey Gilly is a comics journalist and cat enthusiast living in Oakland, CA, where she eats tacos and plays ukulele.