My Day, Monday: The Power of the Graphic Novel

Growing up I had an older brother (still do, actually) who did NOT like to read books. Picking up a book for fun was absolutely unimaginable for him. And then make it a book that was REQUIRED for school? Torture.

But it doesn’t mean he didn’t read. His lifeline was comic books. He collected comic books like I collected…well…books. He was particularly obsessed with superhero comics. His days were filled with Alpha Flight and X-Men and Spiderman. I will never forget his reaction the day he got The Dark Knight in his hands back in 1986. It was his most prized possession at age 15. I remember the big wooden toy box in his room became filled with carefully plastic sheathed comic books. (He still has that same toy box in his attic office space in his house. And it is still full of comics.)

Just a couple from my son’s shockingly large collection.

As for many kids, superhero stories were his gateway to mythology. And later, this book- shunning child became a voracious reader with an extensive vocabulary built from comics who earned his MFA in Creative Writing and now sits on panels for things like the Maine Readers’ Choice Awards. Now it isn’t clear which of us gets through more books in a year.

Oddly my oldest child has become a combination of the two of us. He has read with complete passion since birth but knows more about superheroes and mythology than any other 12 year old I know. It’s been funny to watch.

My mom had the good sense to recognize that while comic books weren’t her first choice, they got my brother reading. Over time she started to recognize the rich language used in these comic books and complex storylines. Plus, he was an artist at heart and the images were critical to his full engagement.

Fast forward thirty years and I am so grateful for the example my mom set. My middle child is a very adept reader. She has always read “above her age level” or so her teachers have told me. And yet, she doesn’t love it. We say that she has started more books than any other child her age. Finishing is a whole other story.

If a book doesn’t fully engage her, it sits, half-finished on the shelf. She will never pick it up again. There are some books that have become favorites, that she consumed in a matter of days and often read more than once: “Fish in a Tree” and “One for the Murphys” by Linda Mullaly Hunt, “Rules” by Cynthia Lord, and “Out of My Mind” by Sharon Draper. But these always feel like exciting victories.

There has been an exception to this trend, however. — Enter, The Graphic Novel.

Just a few of my daughter’s graphic novels.

It started with “The Baby-Sitters Club” books, which led her to every Raina Telgemeier book she could get her hands on: “Sisters,” “Drama,” “Smile,” “Ghosts.” My comic loving brother sent her “Lumberjanes.” A kind comic store employee put “Amulet” in her hands. A friend recommended “El Deafo.” And on and on.

These books speak to her. Sure, there are fewer words than a traditional chapter book, but that isn’t the draw for her. The images just make them feel more real; she feels more emotionally connected. And these books are smart. The stories are clever, the characters well crafted. Books like “El Deafo” open minds.  And then this weekend was the biggest winner of all.

I had read about Shannon Hale’s new book and knew that we needed a copy of “Real Friends” immediately. This graphic novel is a memoir, based on the life of author Shannon Hale. It brings her back to her earliest days of school and the struggle we all faced when we had to make friends for the very first time. Shannon was lucky enough to find a wonderful friend named Adrienne and they were a fantastic team. The story follows the pair as they grow up and new friendships and “groups” form and disintegrate. Real FriendsShannon documents those efforts to stay in the “in crowd” and the devastation of finding yourself “out.” She explores the things kids do to find their place, protect their position, and guard themselves from being “at the bottom.” I read it and could feel those moments again, that uncertainty of where one fit and how far one was willing to go to maintain a friendship. My middle child, in 4th grade, read it as a raw reflection of the year she has experienced. This is the year that the mean girls begin to emerge, cliques appear, and “popular” becomes a priority. (Yes, that’s 4th grade these days and it is horrifying to watch.)

This graphic novel was as powerful for me as about any novel I’ve read this year. It was truthful and real and it helped my daughter think hard about why people make the choices they do. Sometimes they turn their backs because they are being cruel. But sometimes they do it because they are afraid of finding themselves on the outside. They need to put themselves one more person away from the bottom of the line. And sometimes kids realize that “in” is not worth it.

This book is a lifeline and I am immediately buying a copy to donate to my daughter’s classroom…and for a whole slew of kids I know as an end-of-year gift.

I think we’re only seeing the beginning of what the graphic novel will do to children’s literature. And for now, I have to go find my daughter’s graphic novels that her big brother has “borrowed.”

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