Three Reasons Your Child Should Be Reading Comics (or At Least Why You Shouldn’t Worry About It) ::

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that the comic book genre is having its “moment.” In the last few years comic books and graphic novels have become more and more popular, especially among children. It’s one of the largest sections in my school library and the most frequently checked-out genre. But it’s also one of the most controversial, especially among parents. I hear from many parents who worry about their kid reading a lot of comics. Are they missing out on great stories, not reading up to their potential, or even (to put it bluntly) being lazy?

At this point it is probably important to admit that I, myself, am a huge fan of comics. Besides being an avid reader, I have published scholarly articles about them, given presentations to educators on the subject and even worked in a local comic book store. I love introducing both parents and students to this format for so many reasons, but the main points are probably best summed up in an encounter I had early in my teaching career.

Years ago, a fourth grade teacher asked me to help one of her students find something to read. Reading was n’t this student’s strong suit, so I avoided it out of fear of having her books compared to what others in the class were reading. After my first recommendations missed the mark, I pulled out the first book of the Bone series by Jeff Smith. As some might know, Bone is arguably one of the greatest graphic novel series of all time: a high fantasy storyline mixed with hilarious cartoonish characters on an epic adventure. It is also fairly long and looked comparable to what his friends of it were reading. Reluctantly, I agreed.

A few hours later, he came back and asked me for the second. “You’ve finished already!?,” I exclaimed. I have beamed. Then he proceeded to read through the remaining eight books in three days and talk it up so much that it became the most popular series in the library that year.

Months later, after reading through a huge portion of the library’s graphic novel section, I asked for help finding something new. Knowing he was a fan of fantasy, I pulled a copy of the Oracles of Delphi Keep by Victoria Laurie. It wasn’t a graphic novel and it was very, very long. He shook his head and said there was no way he could read something like that. I reminded him that he was the kid that read an entire nine-book series in less than a week. So he took the book and finished that series too.

I tell you this story because it highlights three of the reasons I love seeing kids read comics: habit, exposure and confidence.

Comic series create a habit of reading

Comic books had been supporting a habit of reading long before they took off in mainstream popularity. With their fairly short format and notoriously long series runs, they create a routine of reading and looking for the next thing to read. Basically, once you finish one book, there’s always another to read. The more books in the series, the longer you read. Over time a habit begins to form so that even when you finish a series, you still want another book to read next. You may move onto another series or find something brand new, but a pattern has been developed.

This is ultimately the goal when we talk about “life-long readers.” We want kids to finish a book and then automatically think, “OK, what’s next?” in such a way that it becomes a long term part of their everyday lives. If your child is reading comics, this is being reinforced for them naturally.

Art exposes students to more complex stories

There’s a common misconception that comic books and graphic novels are simplistic or superficial. With their use of pictures and limited use of text, it would be easy to believe that they are fairly unsophisticated. Fortunately, this isn’t actually the case. In the story above, the reason I gave the student a graphic novel was precisely because he needed something with more depth and complexity to be engaged, but his reading abilities did not always allow for that.

The inclusion of pictures can help support or deepen a narrative without increasing the reading level. Comic artists and authors work hand in hand to tell a complete story with the illustrations often increasing their dimensions. An example of this can be found in the entirely wordless graphic novel The Arrival by Shaun Tan. A glimpse into the immigration experience, the book’s lack of text is meant to leave the readers just as disoriented as the protagonist, while bolstered by detailed illustrations. In works like this, the absence of text adds to the story-telling while also making a complex subject accessible to students of a wide range of ages and abilities.

Comics build reading confidence

In the earlier story, the student I gave the graphic novels to was able to finish a much longer and harder book series because he felt confident enough to try, and at least part of that stemmed from his earlier success. It certainly wasn’t as easy for him but by that point he thought of himself as a reader. Books like comics let kids explore genres and learn what they love and that they may actually like the process of reading. So when (or if) they are ready to branch out into more text-heavy narratives they do so with enthusiasm.

As a school librarian, I’m happy when I see any of my students reading something they love. Bonding over our favorite stories is one the best parts of my job. But comics and graphic novels hold a special place in my heart for the way they welcome kids into the world of reading at any ability level. From fantasies and biographies to classics and humor, comic books meet readers where they are with stories and experiences worth exploring.

Sarah Stanley is a mother of two with a master’s degree in library science from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She is the librarian and Educational Technology Facilitator at St. Timothy’s School in Raleigh.


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