Monday, November 22, 2010

Getting Graphic

When I was younger, I passed many hours reading comic books, such as "Archie" and "Richie Rich" -- remember those?  These comics weren't considered "real" reading, however, and our collection of them was relegated to a box in the basement.  Bookshelves were reserved for "real" books, or for my dad's impressive collection of National Geographic magazine.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I started working at a public library and discovered an entire rack of our young adult department shelving devoted to graphic novels -- what I mistakenly first called "comic books."
Though I'd worked with teens and literature for most of my adult life, I'd never thought of these illustrated stories as anything more than light reading, impulse buys in the grocery store checkout line.

To be more clear, there is a difference between "comic books" -- such as the traditional Archie and Jughead titles -- and "graphic novels."  Comic books tend to be short, sometimes interconnected stories about a certain cast of characters.  Graphic novels are longer, more involved works with recognizable plot developments, thus earning the title of "novel." Although some of the more familiar characters may have originated in a traditional comic book series, they are presented with much more complexity in graphic novels. Nonetheless, I was skeptical when I first began working in the public library, and have rarely picked up a graphic novel to review.

Recently, however, a trend in the graphic novel publishing industry has me intrigued about the possibilities of this genre for parents and educators.  Certainly there are still ample titles featuring Superman, Batman, the Marvel characters, etcetera.  In addition to these, though, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of "classic" works of literature being re-published in graphic novel form. Titles like Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and multiple plays by William Shakespeare can now be read in pane-by-pane illustrations, complete with speech bubbles.

Scoff if you must, but consider that many of these "classics" pose an almost insurmountable obstacle for reluctant or struggling readers.  Have you ever opened a copy of Dracula and looked at the tiny print? Now try to understand the nineteenth-century English usage.  And Shakespeare's plays, with their Old English vocabulary and turns of phrase, have turned off more students than potentially any other works of literature. Consider that an illustrated version of these great stories may present an entry point for readers who simply cannot understand them any other way.

Today, I had an opportunity to review a graphic novel version of Homer's Odyssey.  In my years as an English teacher, the Odyssey was a core work for my Fantasy and Mythology class, and I struggled with ways to help my students understand it.  Usually, I would end up reading through the ancient poem aloud, stopping each little way to explain to my class exactly what was happening in the story. Without my help, very few of my students grasped the central concepts or plot line of the epic. 

How different that experience might have been if I had been able to use Gareth Hind's illustrated version of the classic.  Of course I would still have expected my students to read a recognized translation; Hind's abridged version leaves out some of the story, and his modernized language does lose some of the poeticism of the original.  However, to see the illustrated events of each Book of the Odyssey before reading, or to get the "gist" of the story in more modern usage before delving into the archaic language of older translations would have made such a difference in both my students' comprehension, and their engagement with the literature.

Graphic novel versions of classic literature are not a substitute for the actual works, and I don't present them here as such. Instead, they are useful pre-reading or companion reading tools:  they engage those students who exhibit visual intelligence, and they offer a framework for longer, more complex stories by condensing the plot and simplifying the language.  If you are a parent who has a child struggling to read a "classic" -- you'll find an abundance of them on high school required reading lists -- consider visiting your library to see if the title has been published in an illustrated form. If you are a teacher using the classics in your class, perhaps presenting a graphic novel version as a help, not a substitute, will ensure more success with your lessons. 

When it comes to literacy, and to reaching reluctant or struggling readers, we really can't afford to scoff at any potential reading tool.

Monday, November 8, 2010

For-Fun Historical Fantasy

I haven't blogged for several weeks, having been so busy with work and family commitments that I just haven't had time to write much.  I've been reading, though: professional journals, up-and-coming young adult novels, some nonfiction works by writers I know.  Most of what I've read has been rather serious, complicated work.  That's why I welcomed the mid-October release of Halt's Peril, book 9 of John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series.

It's rare that I read more than one book in a young adult series; only those that are particularly well-written, and innovative enough to hold my sustained attention, will earn a re-visit.  Usually it's enough to read the first book of the series: from that point, most librarians will tell you, we can get the feel of the characters, events, and tone of the series.

Flanagan, however, along with a few others, have earned repeat visits.  For me, the lure of the Ranger's Apprentice series is the pure fun of it.  Flanagan has created a fantasy world set in medieval Europe:  instead of writing accurate historic fiction, he's instead taken actual places, events, and peoples, then played with them.  In the first book of the series, Ruins of Gorlan, we met Will, a young man about to turn 15.  At this point in his life, he will be apprenticed to a trade, and he has his heart set on apprenticing to the soldier school, in order to serve and protect his beloved kingdom of Araluen.  Unfortunately for Will, he is small for his age, and not brawny enough to be selected as a soldier-in-training.  Instead, he is chosen by Halt, the Ranger that serves Castle Redmond, where Will has lived since being orphaned as a young boy.  Will doesn't want to serve as a Ranger: for one thing, he doesn't understand their work; for another, the residents of the kingdom seem to fear the Rangers' skills, thinking they possess some sort of magic.

Of course, Will finds out that being a Ranger is a great honor: the Rangers are akin to the Secret Service of the kingdom, and his natural skills and talents fit well with the job requirements.  He becomes a master at tracking, hiding, archery, and knife-throwing.  His adventures take him from the hills and forests of Araluen, to the snowy, icy terrain of Skandia, to the shores of Hibernia.  Of course, these are all real places -- England, Scandanavia, Ireland -- and a great deal of the fun for me, as a history buff, is decoding which peoples and places Flanagan is writing about.  His writing team has even designed great curriculum guides to accompany some of the titles; a great resource for teaching history, though this type of historical fantasy is not the typical genre for such lessons. Homeschooling parents might be particularly attracted to this somewhat unconventional education.

From what I've researched, Flanagan, who writes from Australia, will be continuing Will's adventures for at least a few more books.  Personally, I can't wait to give the set of books to my son, who is now 9, just a little too young for the reading level.  I'd recommend these books for a 7th or 8th grade reader, especially outdoors-y kids who will enjoy the hunting/tracking/survival aspect of the adventures.  (Advanced 5th or 6th graders will be able to handle the story line, although they may need some help with vocabulary.)  The historical aspect of the stories keeps many of my patrons coming back through their early high-school years:  the mark of an excellent young adult series.