Kids love comic books. Kids love to learn. Introducing comic books to the classroom is a sure-fire way to hold students’ interest and help them retain the information being taught. There are so many ways to incorporate comics into education, and Reading With Pictures is an organization devoted to tackling this idea. Their main focus is on producing graphic novel textbooks for elementary school subjects. The textbooks are engaging and informative, featuring work from several well known artists, including Katie Cook, Janet Lee, and Marvin Mann.
Trevor Mueller, head of marketing and contributing author for Reading With Pictures, discussed the organization with me. They are up to a lot of exciting stuff:
How did Reading With Pictures first get started?
Reading With Pictures was founded by Joshua Elder. When he was working for Tokyo Pop on his Mail Order Ninja series, he did a lot of school and library appearances as well as a lot of live readings. In doing so, he started talking to a lot of teachers and librarians about kids and literacy, and they kept saying “Kids eat up comic book material, it’s too bad that there is not additional educational material that is out there that engages them as much as a comic book does.” A light bulb went off in Josh’s head and he came up with this idea for an educational graphic novel. With that, he decided to try to create educational materials that are in a comic book format. But he didn’t want to limit them to an English class format. He wanted to find ways to apply it to math, science, social studies, and history. There’s a plethora of different subjects out there where comics could definitely lend themselves because they are both narrative prose as well as a visual narrative.
We literally started off with meetings in my kitchen when he approached me to be the marketing director of the organization. We started to set the groundwork for what would become the organization as it is today: a licensed 501(c)(3) based here in Chicago, with two graphic novels, partnerships with the American Library Association as well as Northwestern University, and a whole bunch of teachers and librarians that sit on our board.
How does the partnership with Northwestern University work?
Josh actually went to college there, and he had a lot of connections with his old teachers and professors that we were able to utilize. A lot of of what we leverage their knowledge for are in the educational guides for Volume Two as well as helping us put together some research studies to prove that comic books can help increase literacy and reading retention in younger readers.
There are several great goals described on the site for future plans with Reading With Pictures. It mentions that you hope to create a speakers bureau to get cartoonists in schools and libraries. What were you hoping to have them talk about or demonstrate for kids?
There are two sessions that Josh and I end up doing since he and I are currently the only two people on the speakers bureau. The goal is to eventually [expand] that out so that there are speakers within all the local areas. That way Josh and I don’t have to travel for it and we can engage local educators and comic creators to do these for us. The two programs that we put together include one for kids. That one is to show them how to make comic books and showcase the fun and interactivity that comic books can provide within an educational environment. The second workshop is for teachers, to teach them how to teach with comics. This is something that a lot of teachers have found challenging. They recognize that the material is engaging, they recognize that the kids definitely enjoy reading comics, but they aren’t necessarily sure how to incorporate them into their curriculums. One of the missions that Reading With Pictures has is to compile the additional comic book resources that are out there. Such as Shakespearean adaptations, or anything else that we can find that has that educational rhyme and reason appropriate for a classroom setting. Then moving forward [our mission will be] to establish content curators as well as creators. We want to make sure that Reading With Pictures has a steady output of educational materials so that we can continue to make additional resources available for educators.
Speaking of that, the website also mentions that you want to do interactive databases for educators. What would that entail? Would is essentially be your books in an online format or would it be something different from that?
It would be something different from that. We want to create resources available within this database that teachers can leverage two-fold. One: Their ability to upload case studies and any kind of educational materials that they themselves use in their classrooms that are comic book related. And two: We want to compile a database of comic books that are appropriate for certain age groups and/or are appropriate for certain subject matters. So, if you’re looking for a comic book about mathematics, the following comic books have mathematical stuff in them, such as Jim McClain’s Solution Squad. Jim is actually a seventh grade math teacher that created a superhero team whose super powers are based on mathematical properties. He uses it in the classroom all the time.
Are there school systems that are utilizing your textbooks at this point?
Volume One came out in 2010 and was kind of our proof of concept that comic books could be both educational in nature but also include stories that kids want to read. These were adapted on a classroom-by-classroom basis, because a hurdle that we discovered was that the government started rolling out core curriculum standards. The books didn’t end up helping to hit towards these standards, which is why with Volume Two we took the learnings that we had from Volume One and applied them to create the graphic novel textbook, which is Reading With Pictures Volume Two: Comics That Make Kids Smarter. This volume adheres to the core curriculum standards, so it should be much easier for these to be adopted on a district wide level, if not a school wide level. Additionally, the curriculum that we put together for it is a digital PDF which can be continuously updated separately. In this way, the book can still be leveraged and the material can be updated from a curriculum standard as those get updated throughout the years. The PDF is a free download available with every purchase of the book.
What can you tell us about the second volume?
Volume Two: Comics That Make Kids Smarter, is coming out in August from Andrews McMeel Publishing and its going to adhere to core curriculum standards for grades 3-6 in math, science, english, and social studies. I have a character that premiered in the first volume named Albert the Alien, who also has a story in Volume Two. Albert is the first foreign exchange student from another planet and in Volume Two he is in an English story, and since English isn’t his first language, he takes figure of speech literally and learns about figurative language in a very funny and visual way for kids to engage with. If Volume Two of the graphic novel is successful, our goal is to start branching out from grades 3-6 in both directions to continue to create additional content so that we will eventually run the gamut of K-12.
Would you eventually offer textbooks available on a college level?
I think it will depend on the interest and the demand once we have the K-12 books out. That could definitely be interesting supplemental material, especially as we’re hitting those kids that are currently in grades 3-6 and they will eventually get to the college level. But right now our primary focus is on that K-12 market, and then depending on the success of adoption levels we’ll begin to branch out.
Speaking of branching out, is there any possibility of doing something like a YouTube web series with the characters that your group has created?
The creators still own their own work, so some have gone on to do their own projects. Josh got the rights back from Tokyo Pop and did an original Mail Order Ninja story for Volume One, and it’s the first time Mail Order Ninja has been in print for several years. And Albert the Alien, who I created, was launched as a webcomic series for kids last year. we just successfully funded his first graphic novel on Kickstarter and Mark Waid has also picked him up for his digital publishing imprint Thrillbent, as he is trying to branch out to more all ages content. Albert currently has 125 pages of story content up online, totally for free, and then additional exclusive stories on Thrillbent and then the new graphic novel New in School will be out later this fall.
What can you tell me about your own work with Albert the Alien?
Albert the Alien is my latest project, but I’ve primarily been doing webcomics for the last eleven years and self-publishing for the last eight years. Albert is the latest labor of love that I have. It kind of stems from my love of growing up with Saturday morning cartoons and trying to find something that’s a fun, wholesome adventure but also something that, like science fiction does, makes you look at your world in a different way — through a different set of eyes. Having grown up in public schools, [I realized that] children can be very mean. I often felt very alienated from my peers and thought to myself “What would it be like to create a character who is actually an alien and doesn’t understand what we consider to be social norms, cultural norms, or really understand anything about our planet at all and bring him into our world and give him some friends that do know the local customs and flora and fauna and find a way to take ordinary things that we see every day and turn them into fun adventures.”
For example, his first adventure is about his first day at school. His alien school supplies decide to take over the class because they think they can do a better job teaching. And he brings an alien lunch to the cafeteria and it decides that people are delicious. The latest adventure online is that he has been cast in the seventh grade performance of Romeo and Juliet. The school bully, Wally McNally, takes over the play and kidnaps Romeo. Albert (who is playing Mercutio) and his best friend Gertie (who is playing Juliet) have to figure out a way to stop Wally (who is playing Tybalt) from ruining their play in front of all their parents and also rescue Romeo.
I like that the series also touches on teaching kids how to be kind to kids that aren’t following the same social norms that they are. It works on two levels.
Right, exactly. That was one of the things I wanted to do. Comics are especially popular in schools from an educational standpoint amongst kids with learning disabilities or kids with autism. Reading comics can definitely be a great way to get kids who either have these disabilities or kids who are just having difficulty reading to engage with the content. With Albert, I wanted to tell fun, wholesome stories that still have adventure and are a lot of fun to read, but are kind of like the cartoons I grew up with where there might be a little public service announcement or a moral or a message subtly woven into the narrative.
I take it from your description that it doesn’t come out and tell kids this is the moral of the story, it just kind of implies the lesson. That’s great.
Yeah, kids are smart these days. They’re way smarter than I was growing up.