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My daughter has recently become very enamored of graphic novels, in particular Zita the Spacegirl, the story of a young (ten year old?) girl who inadvertently sends herself off on a grand science-fantasy adventure. We discovered Zita last summer and I am now commanded to read the first volume to her almost every day she is with me (Sunday/Monday?Tuesday). At first she listened to me read the word balloons to her while she sat and looked at the pictures with little commentary. In the last few weeks, however, her interaction with my reading and with the book has been changing in ways that are both enjoyable to  experience and fascinating to consider in terms of developing reading skills.

Rowan is almost four years of age and has always loved books. She is at a point where we still mostly read picture books but some of them have full  paragraphs or multiple lines of dialogue on each page. Rowan knows the alphabet and can identify single words, and even a few phrases, as distinct symbols (as opposed to generating meaning by identifying strings of letters). She has asked me to read a few “first reader” books to her, that she follows along and we’ve also tried to get through a large-size edition of Ramona the Pest designed especially for reading along. This last one has been difficult because the story is long and there are few illustrations, although we make more progress each time we pick it up.

Zita is a different kind of challenge; it is also a long story but rather than pictures being used to enhance the words, the pictures themselves are the primary components of the story. The first few times we read it she was perplexed by the format and could not follow along well. The progress of the narrative through pictures was not just unfamiliar to her, but seemed counter-intuitive given her reaction, which was frustration at the lack of words to bring the pictures together. I would point out how the pictures were supposed to move from frame to frame, but she would quickly get lost and demand that we start over. She enjoyed each reading but was very puzzled by the story too.

Yesterday I tried a new approach, and so did she. I started by reading the dialogue balloons (there are no narrative asides or text blocks in Zita) in each panel and making sure I attributed them to the proper speaker. She understands how this works but is distracted by dialogue coming from off-panel. After the first few pages I decided to start supplying narrative bridging, bringing off-panel speakers in by explicitly adding them to the story (“Topper, who is off by the boxes, started yelling at Strong-Strong.”) and linking panels to one another with a few lines of explanation. Previously I had tried to do this by breaking out of the story and creating an external description; for example, saying “So, in these three panels, Zita is trying to figure out what to do.” But Rowan treated these as disruptions, not explanations, and would ask more questions about the action or what the images were trying to tell her on the page.  Today, inspired by her telling me how much she loved myself and her mother telling her stories at bedtime, I tried to create a story about the pictures, keeping the explanations within the flow.

Now, for that same set of panels, I say “Zita sat down by the creek to think. She was scared as she hugged herself, but soon decided that she needed to get over her fear and go back to the field where Joseph had disappeared.”  This time there were no complaints, and Rowan began to interject her own interpretations of the action. She has always been an active listener to stories and likes commandeering the narrative, and as we got into Zita she frequently added on to the story I was telling from the novel. By the last chapter she was happily telling the story with me as much as she was listening to me read.

This took over 45 minutes, but unlike previous forays into longer books she was engaged throughout the reading and gradually helped to shape it. I realize now that she was learning some of the conventions of reading a graphic story from within the process of telling the story. She did not need to be taught how to read a comic; rather, she needed to figure out the kind of meanings that graphic novels create. Instead of being told how to read she had to see how I read and use her experiences with story-telling to learn how to see these pictures differently than the ones in a picture-book. She already knew how to identify story elements and narratives orally; this was a lesson in expanding that ability and applying it to the printed page, in this case to a graphic story.

Just as important as object analysis and orthographic processing is the absorption of conventions of narrative and meaning delivered to a child orally. This jibes in some respect with recent discussions of learning how to read; a child needs more than the ability to identify letters; they need to know what functions they serve in context. Graphic novels require the ability to read words, but they also require a reader to use other conventions that relate to the meaning of pictures in sequence without textual explanations. Most picture book text describes what is happening in a picture, and the story unfold through the text’s creation of a narrative. The skill of relating words to a discrete picture that itself reinforces the words of the narrative is different than one that prioritizes the pictures and comprehends the unfolding of a narrative sequence.

Rowan understands a number of story conventions; when I tell her a story I am asked to start it “Once upon a time. . . ” because “that’s how a real story starts.” She understands relationships between characters and is very good at remembering names. But she is used to being led verbally through stories, and graphic novels like Zita do not do that. What makes the novel work much better for her is for me to show her how the panels work together to form the center of the story. Words tell us what the pictures cannot, and comics require a reader to fill in the gaps between panels to maintain the sense of narrative flow you usually get from a piece of fiction.

And how do we do that? Do we fill those gaps with more images or with words? Do we think of pictures that happen in-between, or do we tell ourselves a story that creates continuity? I’m actually not sure, and a brief research session has not turned up any answers to that question. Certainly Scott McCloud’s amazing Understanding Comics suggests what that process is, but I have yet to find much research about how that process actually works cognitively. For Rowan, she needs an explication of the pictures in words so that she understands how they work with each other. Overlaying a more familiar method of storytelling helps her begin to understand a different one. She has already started to apply this to some Calvin & Hobbes comics, which are short enough to explain easily but now are suddenly much more animated for her.

The activation seems to come from a realization that she gets to decide part of what’s going on. Even the simplest storybook relies on the imagination to animate it, but they also leave little between the words and pictures for a reader or listener to interpret. Perhaps the problem that comes up in listening to longer stories is similar in some ways to the one of reading sequential art fiction. The reader is called upon to participate in the story to a greater degree; there is more information to assess, process, and integrate into the story-in-your-head. Rowan has tried to change or elaborate stories (both oral and read from a book) for some time now, but most of them have been easy to alter because of their simplicity and brevity. But now she understands that she can do this with longer stories too, and it seems that a graphic novel is teaching her the reading skills that will allow her to creatively  engage other long-form media, including books and novels.

It is amazing to see this happen as we read. She has to ask a lot of questions about motivation and cause-and-effect, but she is grasping the basic structure of stories quite well, even as she fumbles her way through the specifics. I wonder if this skill isn’t just as important as teaching children the technical skills of reading and writing; critical and creative thought comes from knowing how stories and ideas work. And it also seems important to allow children to be wrong, often. Rowan has gained confidence in understanding stories and building her literacy skills by trying to change stories and play with words to see what happens when you add something to a sentence or a narrative.

I think this is the essential insight humans need to develop to strengthen their understanding of stories; the fact that the reader/listener/viewer constructs the story presented in their own way. How much work is done by the medium and how much by the receiver varies (movies leave much less to the imagination than oral storytelling, for example), but the first thing that a child needs to learn is that they are the agent that enlivens a story. It’s easy to think that as you tell or read a story that your child is just taking it in exactly as your relate it to them, but I think that children quickly being to learn the arts of imagination and innovation needed to not just understand stories, but to make them their own.  This was harder to see in longer prose stories, but became clear when Rowan and I changed the way we were looking at Zita the Spacegirl, playing with it to make it into a story that we could both tell and understand better.