Being a teen librarian can mean a strange straddling of two worlds: the world of teens and the world of parents. No disrespect to parents – Hi Mom! Love you! – but I prefer talking to teens. This is especially true when we are having a conversation about what teens are or should be reading.
I am of the opinion that teens should be reading whatever they want. Radical, I know. Parents don’t always like this. They can often be concerned that what their kids reading is appropriate and that it’s not “fluff” or “trashy” reading. For the first criteria I can certainly advise them on what books might be best for what kids, but I also won’t prevent a 6th grader from checking out something potentially parentally objectionable like say, Game of Thrones or Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s your library card, kid, go crazy!
Because really, in my experience, teens are pretty good about self-selecting for “objectionable content.” If there is content in a book that they are not ready for, they might put it down. Or sometimes content goes right over their heads or they might learn some new vocabulary. That’s okay! I think it’s important to let teens decide what they are ready to read, and for parents to have conversations with them about their reading. As a librarian, I get to be like the cool aunt of books and give them The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and say, “This books is amazing and has swearing and talks about sex! I legally cannot tell your parent that you checked it out!”
In addition to objectionable content–also known as all the good stuff in books–parents are also concerned about their kids reading comics. After seeing their daughter pick out a stackful of comics and graphic novels, they sometimes say things like, “Now pick out a real book.” Then I will try my hardest not to make an extremely bitchy face at them and tactfully insert myself into the conversation. I tend to do a shortened version of the following explanation:
Comics are real books. They contain the same things that those “real books” contain, albeit presented in a slightly different manner. They have settings, characters, plots, dialogue, descriptions, literary devices, and genres. Not all comics are about superheroes. There are nonfiction comics, too! Comics have conflicts and denouement; sometimes they require a bit of background knowledge to be able to fully understand the text, just like any other book. If you jump into the middle of a Batman series without any knowledge of the previous volumes or characters, you might have no idea what is happening, just like if you started with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
They also have illustrations that help to present the story with all it’s plot, literary devices, and so forth. Reading comics is a different kind of reading and there are whole other conventions like the placement, order, numbers, and spacing of panels. You have to follow the art but also the words at the same time, as if you were going back and forth really quickly. Processing pictures and processing words are two different things for your brain so it’s like a little mental workout.
It can be difficult, but good writers and artists make the words and the art work together beautifully. Plus, it’s a really amazing format that allows you to experience two forms of art at the same time. This helps you to develop literacy in reading images as well as words.
I’m not a reading expert by any means but I can recommend Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud as two books that show the many ways you can read. Schools are beginning to use comics in the classroom much more frequently as well. Gene Luen Yang’s Printz-winning and National Book Award nominee American Born Chinese paved the way for more and more comics and graphic novels to be used in school. While Yang’s graphic novel with it’s themes of identity, and the conflict of cultural heritage and the pressure to assimilate works particularly well with classrooms, I know of other classes that have read books like Persepolis, or George O’Connor’s Olympians series.
Parents want their teens to be readers because they know that literacy in general is necessary to survival and that it’s a helpful skill for education and for life. If they aren’t buying my explanations about the different types of literacies, and are still hesitant about comics I go to the nuclear option. Here’s one of the Great Secrets of Reading Passed on by Generations of Librarians and Teachers: letting teens (or anyone) read what they are interested in makes them readers. That’s it.
If they are looking for great books about a Muslim girl in a predominantly non-Muslim country they might read Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah or Ms. Marvel. If they are interested in reading about Spiderman or Batman, they are going to read about them. Then they are going to read more volumes and probably then they will need new comics and maybe a friend or librarian will recommend another comic or book to them that has a similar feel. This–if all goes well–will happen again and again until voila! They are readers!
Letting teens choose their own reading material-whether it be the parent-approved, classic novels like Crime and Punishment, or Thor: Goddess of Thunder or the Guinness Book of World Records–allows them to take ownership of reading. Maybe they do like to read because now they know what they like. Readers are much more likely to try more challenging or different books if they already know that they like that subject or genre.
So let your kids read comics! While they may not have the word count of “regular books,” they are still a great way to share stories. Sharing stories that teach us empathy and understanding is a lot of what our culture is about. Comics are just another way to do that.