In the fight for better literacy, comic books are teachers’ secret weapon

Long regarded as the enemy of literacy, comic books and graphic novels are increasingly useful as a way of improving reading skills among otherwise reluctant students, young and old

Illustration by Evan Munday.

Illustration by Evan Munday.

On a cold mid-February afternoon under overcast skies, a school bell rings. The halls of Toronto’s Agnes Macphail Public School flood with children dressed in puffy jackets and schoolbags. Although a swift exodus befalls most schools at day’s end, Agnes Macphail still pulses with high-pitch chatter. Students linger in the foyer while others flock towards the school’s library. Amidst the rows of bookcases and computers, a group of students, ranging from grade six to eight, sit around tables as they talk animatedly and await the start of their book-club meeting.

The students burst into cheerful greetings as Diana Maliszewski, Agnes Macphail’s teacher-librarian, walks into the room. Dressed in a black cardigan, white dress shirt, and black pants, Maliszewski sits at the table amongst the intermediate students.

“So, which book are we going to talk about first?” Maliszewski asks. The children’s voices overlap and echo throughout the library. The group settles on Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, a paperback book boasting a turquoise-coloured cover and a yellow smiley face.

“I have to warn you,” Maliszewski says, “I didn’t get a chance to read this one.” The students erupt into playful jeers. “I know, I know,” Maliszewski says, hands on her face in mock embarrassment. “But it’s okay because you guys can tell me all about it.” The children rifle through the pages as they talk excitedly about the novel. “I read it twice,” chirps one girl seated to the right of Maliszewski.

During the club meeting, a group of boys amble into the library and linger in front of a shelf of colourful books. “I’m sorry guys, but the library’s closed. We have a club meeting going on,” Maliszewski says apologetically. The boys groan. “I know. I’m sorry, but I’m glad you guys love this place. I really am.”

Students jokingly scolding their teacher for not reading; children looking crestfallen when told the school’s library is closed. It plays like an episode of The Twilight Zone, one that parents and teachers across the country would love to see replicated. But what accounts for the kids’ enthusiasm is the type of books they’re reading: graphic novels.

Maliszewski is one of the few teachers in Canada who dedicate a student club to graphic novels. But she is one of a growing number of educators and literacy advocates who believe the often-misunderstood genre could be the key to unlocking literacy for reluctant readers.

A staggering 48 percent of Canadians over 16 struggle with poor reading skills. Literacy is commonly measured on a five-level scale, with levels three and up considered adequate to function well in contemporary society. The Canadian Council on Learning estimates that 12 million Canadians do not meet that standard, meaning they cannot cope with many basic reading tasks — things like interpreting simple graphs, reading short text, and integrating pieces of information. The absence of such rudimentary abilities make it difficult to complete high school, acquire new job skills, or even decipher a medicine label.

The current statistics are bleak, and the number of adults with low literacy is actually poised to increase by 25 percent over the next 20 years just based on population growth. Literacy organizations, parents, educators, employers — everyone is looking for new ways to get Canadians excited about reading and improve these troubling numbers. But there’s little hope for change — unless we try something new.

Although an avid reader as a child, Maliszewski didn’t discover graphic novels until her adult years when she took the course “Comics and Graphic Novels in Schools and Public Libraries,” at the University of Alberta, where she received her masters degree in the teacherlibrarianship program in 2010. The genre quickly hooked her: “The skies parted and the light shone down,” she says.

She joined the TinLids Greater Toronto Area Graphic Novels Club, a group of educators and publishers who gather to discuss the educational potential of graphic novels. In 2004, Maliszewski established a graphic novel section at Agnes Macphail’s school library. “It took off like a rocket,” says Maliszewski. “It was insanely popular, especially with the boys. A whole bunch of people just loved it.”

More and more graphic novels have ascended to respectability in literary circles lately, but the whiff of pulp entertainment — given the genre’s roots in 20th century comic books — has tended to make teachers wary of their usefulness. For every Pulitzer-winning Maus, Art Spiegelman’s haunting allegory of his Jewish ancestors fleeing the Nazis, or Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s poignant adolescent memoir of revolutionary Iran, there seemed to be thousands of mindlessly violent, sexually retrograde, and narratively bankrupt superhero yarns. Novels are regarded as educational and nourishing; comic books as depraved trash.

Of course, there are also plenty of lousy books without drawings in them. As the depth and breadth of good graphic novels available has grown over the last few decades, some educators have started to see how a more visually dynamic presentation can boost reading skills without feeling like a chore.

In an article entitled “Expanding Literacies Through Graphic Novels,” [PDF] comics scholar Gretchen Schwarz argues the benefits of using graphic novels as a way to expand and strengthen literacy skills. Schwarz says graphic novel readers have to pay attention to conventional literary elements of plot, character, and dialogue as well as interpret visual elements such as colour, shading, panel layout, and even lettering style, making graphic novels an engaging and sophisticated form of reading.

Maliszewski also believes the combination of word and image can help reluctant readers who have short attention spans or problems visualizing. “Comics are great for so many different areas in which people have struggled with literacy issues,” she says. “They’re the great equalizer because they’re enjoyed by kids who are not strong readers as well as kids who are strong readers.”

At 70, Ellen Szita knows firsthand the perils of low literacy skills. While growing up in Brighton, England, Szita was relegated to the “D” class throughout school because of her difficulties with literacy. When Szita was 13, a teacher unexpectedly asked her to solve a math problem during class. Unable to read, Szita froze.

The teacher ordered her to stand in front of the class. “You’re not even trying to do this,” he bellowed. Szita stood motionless as the teacher insulted her in front of the other students. As she walked back toward her desk, the teacher grabbed the blackboard eraser and threw it at her head. A year later, Szita dropped out of school.

After immigrating to Canada at age 18, Szita eventually moved to Vancouver, married, and had four children. For decades, she hid her literacy difficulties from her family. When her children asked for help with their homework, Szita asserted she was too busy. She couldn’t understand her children’s report cards and dreaded parentteacher meetings.

The one time Szita did meet with one of her children’s teachers, she dressed up and emphasized her British accent as a way of masking her challenges with literacy. “I would tell the teacher, ‘Oh, yes I understand,’” Szita recalls. “But I didn’t understand what the teacher was even saying. She was talking about algebra. I never even heard of the word ‘algebra.’ I didn’t know if she was talking about English or math.”

The turning point for Szita emerged after she and her husband divorced in 1979. Unable to support herself, Szita searched for employment. She applied to two jobs but was fired from both because of her low literacy skills. By 1987, Szita’s psychiatrist diagnosed her as dyslexic and referred her to the Victoria READ society, a non-profit organization that helps youth and adults develop and hone their literacy skills.

There, at age 46, Szita accomplished something she thought improbable: she learned to read.

As a way of promoting literacy awareness, Szita spent years sharing her experience at speaking engagements with high schools, colleges, universities, prisons, and other organizations. In 1994, the Governor General presented Szita with the Flight for Freedom Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literacy for her advocacy work. Today, Szita is the chair of the Canadian Adult Literacy Learners, an arm of a non-profit organization called the Canadian Literacy and Learning Network that supports provincial and territorial literacy coalitions across Canada.

For Szita, graphic novels and comics contain engaging and compelling stories that can encourage reading and learning amongst those with low literacy skills. Szita believes comics are an effective teaching tool that can help children and adults perceive reading as something to enjoy, instead of dread. “I think it’s a huge help,” says Szita. “You need to be happy about what you’re learning and if it’s interesting, it’s going to make a huge difference.”

Scott Tingley, a grade-three teacher at Riverside Consolidated School in Riverside-Albert, New Brunswick and founder of comicsintheclassroom.net, noticed the difference in his students’ attitudes toward reading and writing after he used an Owly comic by Andy Runton and a Monkey vs. Robot picture by James Kochalka as story starters for a grade one and two class he taught five years ago. Prompted by his students’ enthusiasm, Tingley incorporated a comics section in his classroom. “I have kids reading them all the time and I have kids from previous years coming over to borrow them,” says Tingley. “For some, comics are a joy to read. They can’t get enough.”

In his 12 years of teaching, Tingley has never encountered a student who didn’t enjoy creating comics. “At the early years they are so used to joining their drawings with their words that comics come naturally to them,” says Tingley. “I don’t try to trick kids into thinking they aren’t writing when they are creating comics; on the contrary, I make sure they are keenly aware that making comics is just another form of writing.”

While Tingley and Maliszewski use graphic novels and comics primarily in elementary school settings, the genre is equally pertinent in other educational stages. Guy Demers, an English teacher at Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School in Vancouver, first thought about using graphic novels and comics in the classroom during the mid-1980s when they started to mature as an art form.

His first attempts at using graphic novels in the classroom occurred after he noticed a few of his students struggled with reading. He gave the students copies of Usagi Yojimbo, a comic series created by Stan Sakai. “It got them so excited about reading that they burned through all 20 volumes that were out at the time,” says Demers. “They started reading books along the same lines.”

The medium is finding uses in post-secondary education too. Rob Heynen, a professor in York University’s program in social and political thought, is one of the many professors at the university who has used graphic novels as course material. In his fourth-year course, “Visual Culture: Histories, Theories, and Politics,” Heynen incorporated Alan Moore’s Watchmen, an influential deconstruction of the superhero narrative, into his lecture on comics and graphic arts in popular culture.

Heynen says graphic novels, which depend on the reader’s ability to interpret and create meanings out of sequential images, are a useful way to develop a person’s literacy skills. “Even for people with low levels of literacy, images are still things that they can read,” he says. But Heynen believes the types of literacy skills required for graphic novels is different from that of traditional prose material, although both are related through their use of text. “They’re two different kinds of literacy in a way,” says Heynen.

However, Maliszewski says the idea of graphic novels as a “transitional medium” is one of the stigmas hindering the genre. “It’s a little elitist to say comics will lead us to ‘real’ reading,” says Maliszewski. “If you just read comics, that’s okay. Your parents might not think so, but it really is.”

Graphic novels still labour under the stigma toward comic books that swept North American culture in the 1940s and ‘50s, when censorious researchers sounded alarms over comics’ sexual and violent content. Most notable was the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book, The Seduction of the Innocent, which dubiously but sensationally correlated real-world “deviant” behaviour with the kind of crime stories depicted in pulp comics of the time.

Although that kind of moral panic is no longer widespread, Maliszewski says she still encounters misconceptions about the genre. She overheard a fellow teacher proclaim that all manga (the massively popular Japanese comics) are pornographic—decidedly not the case—and still runs into resistance from teachers and librarians who believe sex and violence is still pervasive.

In general, the feedback to Maliszewski’s graphic novels collection has been positive, but not without some controversy. Some parents complained their kids only borrowed graphic novels and dismissed more traditional prose books.

Guy Demers says he also hears complaints that graphic novels, by adding visual elements, rob readers of the ability to imagine a book’s narrative themselves. “This is the comment that, to me, speaks to the general public’s ignorance of the form,” he says. “Would Citizen Kane have been better as a book? Would the Mona Lisa have made a better poem? It’s a different form and needs to be examined on its own terms.”

If the stigmas and misconceptions about reading graphic novels are common, the ones facing people with low literacy are even more widespread. Advocates believe illiteracy is a silent epidemic, misunderstood or, more commonly, simply ignored. Canada, for instance, is one of the few developed countries in the world without a national reading strategy. “The general public still doesn’t understand literacy and what it means to have low or poor literacy skills,” says Lindsay Kennedy, senior manager at the Movement for Canadian Literacy. But the social and economic effects are deep and widespread: low literacy is strongly associated with poor health and poverty. “When your literacy skills are low, you’re at risk,” says Kennedy.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. A common misperception is that people with poor literacy cannot read at all, which is seldom the case. Far more common is low literacy, in which people can glean the bare minimum from a text. “Literacy is very much like a muscle,” says Kennedy. “If you don’t use it at all, you tend to forget how to use it.”

The Canadian government’s failure to address the country’s low literacy levels isn’t just a disconcerting issue for literacy organizations; educators like Maliszewski are also rallying for awareness and change. A national reading summit in 2009 assembled educators, librarians, academics, and publishers alike to discuss plans for a Canadian national reading strategy.

Although Maliszewski supports this movement, she says one of the problems the summit faced was the “prioritizing of literature,” which placed so-called “alternative reading materials,” such as graphic novels and comics, below that of traditional prose. She’s troubled by the implications of that.

“If you want to have a national reading strategy, you can’t be elitist about what people are reading,” says Maliszewski. “Reading comics is still reading. And depending on the comic, it’s really sophisticated reading.”

While the idea of graphic novels and comics as a legitimate means to combat low literacy levels in Canada is still contentious, there are educators across the country hoping people will see the merits of the graphic novel genre, in its ability to act both as a link to many other kinds of reading, and as a fulfilling and meaningful pastime in itself. Maliszewski wants to see all kinds of reading “not just tolerated, but celebrated.”

With so many Canadians facing literacy problems, and all the attendant difficulties that follow, it seems irresponsible not to try. Lindsay Kennedy believes the stakes are about as high as they can be: “Literacy is about giving people power. It’s about giving them freedom.”