they don't call them comic books for nothing
It's the end of the school year around here and that means it's time for the library reading program to kick off.
Every summer, our library (and most others, I'm sure) run a program that entices children to read during the summer in exchange for prizes. Some people have a problem with this; bribing children to read is evil, they say. Some people, like myself, don't care how you get a child to read, as long as the end result is the child has read when you might not otherwise done so.
There's a theme every year, with a clever title and accompanying decorations and themed prizes; Blast off with Reading, Read around the Seasons, etc. That stuff is great when the kids are young and easily swayed by a plastic ruler or some fuzzy stickers and the chance to scrawl your name on a star that will hang from the ceiling of the children's room.
I think (and this is just from my experience working in the children's room at the local library) that fourth grade is the telling year - it separates the bribed readers from the natural readers. The kids who are bored with superfifcial prizes wander off, never to darken the insides of the library again that summer. The kids who read for pleasure, who find treasures within the words of a good book, will still sign their stars every week, prize or no prize.
So how do you get the children that think reading is a chore to change their minds? How do you entice them to open a book? It's a tough challenge, getting a a child like that to find enjoyment in reading. I know, I have one.
The American Library Association has a series of Read posters, using celebrities or famous fictional characters to open kids to the idea that reading can be a wonderful thing. I saw this poster, featuring DC Comics superheroes and realized that solution was here all along. Here, meaning the bookshelves in my own house, which are crammed full with graphic novels and comic books amongst the classic literature.
I started DJ with the book Strange Stories for Strange Kids by Art Spiegelman. After he finished that he started asking for comic books. He likes the superhero stuff; Justice League, Spiderman. He's reading. What difference does it make that he's reading his words on pages of color and ink, the dialogue in word balloons? To some, it makes all the difference in the world; there are people who will never accept comic books as actual reading material. To me, it makes no difference at all. He's reading. He's interested in something that doesn't have a controller. He's discovering characters and other worlds and he's enjoying it.
There are a million ways to get kids to read. Using comic books is just one of them. Using their heroes as reading role models is another. If fuzzy stickers and plastic rulers work for your kid, then more power to trinkets. You could read aloud and make the funny faces and silly noises necessary to convey the fun of making a story come alive.
Comic books and bribes are what works for my kid. This gets me stares, looks of horror and the shame, shame wagging of fingers in my face from library purists, who think 10 year old boys should spend their summer reading Huckelberry Finn because they want to. I get parents who sit around at Little League games bragging that their daughter, at nine, has already finished the entire Harry Potter collection or mothers who claim their ten year old sons spend every waking minute reading biographies of great Americans and when I tell them that my son is clamoring for the next issue of Young Justice, or that I'm reading Neil Gaiman's Sandman aloud to my daughter, they roll their eyes and shake their heads and I'm sure they are thinking about calling the Library Police to come and confiscate my card and my right to choose my son's reading material.
He's reading. He's going to finish the summer reading program this year. And frankly, Mrs. PerfectScholaryDaughter, I'd rather have my kid whiling away the summer with characters fighting for truth and justice than reading MaryKate and Ashley's Adventures in Using Cuteness to Get Away With Causing Trouble.
[addendum: I should have clarified that the trouble lies not with DJ's reading skills - he reads and comprehends on a 6th grade level and he's in 4th grade - the problem is that he just has no desire to read anything but what is required of him in school]