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In Other Words: Meeting Readers Where They Are

by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
 | Aug 15, 2013
I was an avid reader as a kid. The only problem was that I didn’t realize it at the time.

The reading I was most passionate about wasn’t validated as “legitimate” reading by the adults in my life. When my grandfather came home from work in the evenings, he’d plop the daily newspaper on the kitchen table and I would grab it, instantly ripping it open to the comics section. I devoured the daily adventures of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Calvin and Hobbes, and Garfield. And don’t even get me started on the joy that came with the Sunday funny pages. I loved comic strips so much that I would even cut the daily GARFIELD strips out of the paper and catalog them in a photo album, making my own treasuries, of which I already owned several.

As I got older and into my tween and teen years, I began to follow comic books more closely. I had already made a lifelong commitment to BATMAN fandom, and my grandfather was increasingly subjected to waiting in the car while I ran into my local comics shop to pick up the latest issues of SPIDER-MAN, X-MEN, and, of course, the Caped Crusader. And when my grandfather was unable to drive me to the comics shop? I would walk. I would walk a mile and a half each way, regardless of the dangers that lurked in the tough neighborhoods I needed to walk through to get there.

So essentially, I would walk three miles to read. I was spit on and had rocks hurled at me because I wanted to read. But it wasn’t “real” reading, at least not then. I can only imagine how much more confident as a reader I would be today if I had grown up in the educational atmosphere that present-day teachers have created.

Kids today are incredibly lucky to have many reading formats that are accessible to them and celebrated by their teachers and librarians. (The creative kids are lucky, too; when I was a budding cartoonist, I thought that the only way I would ever have a career was if I worked for a company drawing their characters, or sold off all the rights to any character I created.) Graphic novels have made huge strides in the education environment within recent years. And the studies, as well as the success stories shared over social media, speak for themselves.

Yet in traveling the country and speaking at nearly one hundred schools every year, I still hear heartbreaking stories of adults who aren’t supportive of the format. A librarian in Houston, Texas, told me of a parent who came into her library and requested that her son no longer be allowed to check out the GARFIELD treasuries. Bravely, the librarian stood up for the student. She said to the parent, “When you bring your son to the playground, do you require him to get up on the monkey bars for fifteen minutes per day? And if he doesn’t comply, is he not a valid player? No, you allow your child to find the playground equipment he feels most comfortable with, at his own pace. Eventually, you’ll get him up on the monkey bars—but only when he’s ready and has grown in confidence.”

I share this story frequently when speaking to educators. Because as educators, you are the ones who are faced with other adults who have misconceptions, and like the librarian in the story, the student is who you champion. Sometimes it’s hard to find the words when you’re confronted with these judgments.

I also like to tell people that we all have the same common goal—to raise the next generation of readers. We can’t expect our children to come to where we are just because we want them to. We need to go to them, give them the tools they need to succeed, and gently bring them to where we want them to be.

As helpful as graphic novels are to turn those reluctant readers into passionate readers, I should point out that comics are not just a “gateway drug.” There is no reason why CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS and CHARLOTTE’S WEB can’t coexist in a child’s reading life. Comics can hook those kids on reading, but when they have moved on to more challenging texts, they should still be allowed to read graphic novels, just as they should still be allowed—and encouraged—to read picture books.

The graphic novel is a format, not a genre. Like any form of literature, there is both philistine and prestigious material—and when we are reading for pleasure and by our own choice, both are valid. For instance, my Lunch Lady series does not aim for the same goals as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS—but both are comics. When I was reading those daily comic strips as a kid, I was also falling in love with Beverly Cleary’s THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE and Roald Dahl’s JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH.

But my newfound love for chapter books didn’t preclude me from following the adventures of comic book superheroes. And while I was reading comics that starred ill-proportioned superheroes, I was reading Lucy Maud Montgomery’s ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and every single sequel produced. Just as I needed to know what would happen in the aftermath of the Joker killing Robin the Boy Wonder, I needed to know what would happen next to the orphan girl who was sent to Prince Edward Island.

My reading habits today are no different. In my adult life I have pored over the pages of Craig Thompson’s BLANKETS, and my copies of all six books in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series are dog-eared. But at the same time, I’ll read every single book written by Matt de la Peña, David Levithan, and John Green.

Not long ago, I followed my own advice about not prejudging a child’s reading. I often receive wonderful photos of kids reading my books. I get them through the mail and through e-mail; through tweets and on my Facebook timeline. I absolutely love seeing the sparks of imagination in those photos that I so recognize from my own youth. And even more so—I am humbled to know that I have had a hand in creating that experience for that particular young reader. Recently I received a tweet from a parent who was so excited that LUNCH LADY AND THE CYBORG SUBSTITUTE had been the key to unlocking her child’s dormant reading life. Attached to the tweet was a photo, and I opened the link to reveal a Rockwellesque scene of a kid reading by the fireplace…but the screen from which he was reading shone brighter than the flickering fire.

At first, I was dismayed. That wasn’t “real” reading, I thought. And then it hit me—I was being dismissive of this child’s reading experience, just as others had been of mine.

When I awoke the next day, I had received another series of tweets from that same parent. Her son loved the book so much that they downloaded the next two books in the series and he read those before bedtime as well.

This child may not have been reading in the same way that I read when I was a child …but he was reading. And man, is that something to celebrate.

Jarrett J. Krosoczka is the author and illustrator of twenty books, which include picture books (PUNK FARM), graphic novels (LUNCH LADY AND THE CYBORG SUBSTITUTE) and chapter books (PLATYPUS POLICE SQUAD: THE FROG WHO CROAKED). His work has been featured in THE NEW YORK TIMES and USA TODAY, and on PBS and NPR’s All Things Considered. His TED Talk, which chronicles his path to publication despite challenging childhood circumstances, has amassed more than a half a million views online.

© 2013 Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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