The Importance of Comics for Kids, a slight subversion

I was asked by the Australian Librarian comics advocacy group ALIA and the Primary English Teachers Association Australia to present a talk on ‘the power and potential of graphic novels and comics for young readers, their benefits for developing readers and their language/visual literacy skills, and what you keep in mind when you’re making comics for a young audience!’.

The essay below is a slight subversion of the prompt. Instead of focusing on the qualities of comics that make it legitimate, I wanted to talk about comics as an already-included member of a campaign for arts education, and how it should be a natural part of a teacher’s strategy to nurture literacy and appreciation in children. It not that children don’t know the value of comics and need to be taught – it’s the adults who have lost that knowledge and must regain it again.

Hello. I would like to begin by thanking the PETAA and ALIA for inviting me to speak about the potential power and benefits of graphic novels for young readers. It’s an honour to be here.

Amongst educators and practitioners, those of us who engage deeply in comics for work or pleasure, we are familiar with the arguments for and against comics. I’m happy to hear that attitudes towards graphics novels and comics are changing as more people begin to understand the breadth, diversity, craft and artistry of this storytelling medium. It’s why we are here, right? Graphic novels are experiencing a renaissance of legitimacy – we’re seeing more space dedicated to comics in bookshelves, more talk from industry about why comics are a totally valid form of reading for kids, and more celebration for the socio-political value comics provide in terms of representation and education. You want to learn from me, hybrid author of pictures and prose, how comics can deliver visual literary skills for children in specific, and I’ll touch on that in a bit, but I want to speak first about this very important point.

I think we get too caught up in justifying why this particular medium deserves legitimacy, when in fact, legitimacy is not the point of why art is essential for everyone. In my experience, both of children around me and myself as a former child, children already intuitively appreciate the value and aesthetic of comics, just as they appreciate the same of cinema and television, of picture books, literature, theatre, dance, music and other forms of art they may have encountered in their lives. When you show them art, already made or in the making, they really, earnestly become enthusiastic participants – you see it in the way they tear through a comic or sing Let It Go over and over or dance to the Wriggles. The problem arises when the adults in their life fail to nurture that interest, or worst, actively or passively discourage it, because the adults simply refuse to engage — out of ignorance or wilful disregard for certain art forms because they are not mainstream enough, good enough, highbrow enough, legitimate enough, grown-up enough, etc. In short, adults grow up internalising these joy-killing messages and then shut out art from their lives, which eventually produces conflict where they struggle to undo those closed doors for themselves and their children.

As educators and practitioners, we should avoid practising that kind of artistic fatalism in our consumption of media, and we should avoid introducing it to children via our thinking and behaviour. I believe it’s our duty to continue to facilitate their natural interest and openness for story, art, joy – by treating all art with equal respect, whether that’s comics or the classics. Adults and children will experience the same benefits reading comics as they do with all other forms of art: they learn to engage as audience; to develop language, expression, empathy, multimodal literacy; to discover and deepen topics of interest like science, history, culture, and politics via the exploration of those topics in art; and finally, to maintain media literacy in our modern times where visuals, words, sounds, are everywhere – not just as information to passively absorb but to identify, critique, challenge and create from. So when you bring comics to the classroom, I hope it is done as part of a well-rounded campaign for arts education, and that your reasons for introducing comics are just the same as for any other art form.

I mentioned multimodal literacy earlier as a benefit. It’s a term for describing literacy that engages in two or more modes of meaning, whether that’s visual, textual, audio, kinesthetic, basically all of the literacy that encompasses each of our senses and aspects of language. Comics are multimodal texts – they activate literacies involving images, memories, speech, and social cues i.e facial expressions, body language and socio-cultural norms. I’d go one step further and say they also exercise our liberal arts literacy. Comics pull from multiple mediums: cinema, prose, poetry, rhetoric, and adapt many of the devices from those mediums as well as forming their own. Caesura, enjambment, recto-verso parallel, match cut, epizeuxis, polyptych, repouissor — these are some of the devices present in comics, out of the 62 I have identified in my research. In no other medium do you find such an eclectic variety of interdisciplinary tools employed to weave a story, and it’s already very amazing to me that children are able to engage in this by themselves – and even make their own! When children read comics, their minds are already gradually developing their multimodal literacy, so to repeat my earlier point, it is up to us adults to encourage it, and to also learn how to read and talk about comics, to understand the process, to engage in practitioners’ thoughts about their work, so that we can be intentional with our strategy and teach children how to articulate their love for art and story.

To summarise, comics and graphic novels are important because art is important, and being able to pursue them, to study them, all contribute to making a child an engaged and literate adult. They should be part of a strategy to nurture multiple literacies, and most importantly, to nurture the continual appreciation for art that can stand the test of growing up. In order to achieve this, we, too, must nurture our own literacies and engage with art fairly, so we can produce the skills within ourselves to pass down to children. For comics specifically, it is to learn its processes, its conventions and its devices, so we can fully activate comics’ potential to provide pleasure and knowledge. After all, to teach children the joy and educational value of comics is to model it ourselves.

Hello, hello

Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.

She writes and illustrates quite a few webcomics and graphic novels. When not making books, she lulls away her time with essays on craft, life and experiences in the publishing industry. Some of her thoughts of art and life are rather unstructured and will evolve over time as this blog matures, as they should be.

Currently committed to being Alexander the Great's death doula. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.

Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur

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