Comics in NZ Education: Guest Post by Raymond Huber

Today as part of our ongoing feature on comics in New Zealand education, we’re joined by the New Zealand children’s author, editor and educator Raymond Huber. You can find out more about him and his great books, including the Ziggy Bee stories, at http://www.raymondhuber.co.nz/

Here’s Raymond on ‘Comics in the Classroom.’

The thought of comic books in the classroom is frowned upon by many teachers and parents. Comics still have an image problem with many adults – a mistrust of the comic format based on suspicions about quality, content, and most of all, literary value. There might be a grain of truth in the first two: comics used to be cheaply produced, and they can contain offensive material. Some comics do take the Readers Digest approach to literature, but there are also many that now take the comic form to its own artistic heights, especially comic picture books and graphic novels.

Why use comics in the classroom?

Perhaps the best reason is that children love reading stories in the comic form. Consider the Tintin books, selling over 120 million copies, and public libraries often put a limit on withdrawals of the books. Given a choice in class, many children will grab comic picture books before novels. And most of these readers will be boys – another great reason for using comics in class.

John Scieszka's Knucklehead
John Scieszka's Knucklehead

Many literacy problems centre around boys so why not give them what they enjoy reading? The brilliant children’s author, Jon Scieszka, said,

Boys often have to read books they don’t really like. They don’t get to choose what they want to read. And what they do like to read, people often tell them is not really reading.

He recommends boys be given a choice about reading material, and that we expand the definition of acceptable reading to comics, comic strips and graphic novels. A study by reading researcher Maureen Rutledge (1) found that comic picture books are an important reading alternative for boys because

‘It is a form of reading they love.’

Boys are often also the reluctant readers. Comic books are great for encouraging those who are turned off by text – this is probably because of the high ratio of pictures to words. Reluctant readers also tend to be older than their peers who are keen readers – and perhaps the comic form is more acceptable to be seen reading than ‘baby’ picture books.

Comic books can be of an extremely high artistic standard, and they must have a deft, economical style of story-telling. In Tintin there’s a high degree of accuracy in the artwork; the characterisation is superb; and the plots draw on politics and science.

Comic books can also be a fantastic teaching tool support. They are ideal for teaching the visual language strand of the English curriculum because of features of line, colour, layout, and framing conventions. Comic books often deal with relevant themes and social comment too – consider Art Speigelman’s Maus books and In The Shadow of No Towers.

Like it or not this is more visually oriented generation than ever before. Children are attracted to comic books by the familiar cartoon style, engaging characters, and fast-paced plotting.

(1) ‘The gender differential in reading: Are boys failing the system or is the system failing boys?’ by M. Rutledge (SET Journal, 1997, no.1).

This piece originally appeared in Talespinner, a publication by Christchurch Teachers’ College, New Zealand. Find out more about Raymond Huber and his writing at http://www.raymondhuber.co.nz/

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