Adventures in Graphica
written by Terry Thompson
In many ways, Terry Thompson represents the ideal author for a book on teaching reading with comics and graphic novels in today’s schools. He’s not just a classroom teacher, but a literacy coach (a profession that has swelled in size and importance over the past decade), which means that he supports and interacts with a wide range of teachers and students. In addition, the institution where he has worked is a Title I school in Texas—so this is no expert on theory hailing from academia, but an educator who works in the so-called trenches and must satisfy some of the nation’s most stringent K-12 standards. Of course many of the leading academics in this area have spent time in the classroom and, moreover, no one wants practitioners who aren't grounded in theory in some way. Still, Thompson's overall tone, pragmatic approach, and accessibility are clearly refreshing. For him, using comics and graphic novels isn’t simply a nice, new way to approach the issue of engagement or to connect with the current generation of visually oriented learners, but a vital part of teaching core reading skills and strategies such as those related to comprehension.
Given this kind of background and purpose, Thompson’s professional development book Adventures in Graphica betrays just the sort of concerns and emphases that one would expect. He shows readers in clear, hands-on, and highly practical ways how to use graphica—a catch-all term that encompasses everything from manga to newspaper comic strips—not only to explain comprehension strategies to young readers but also to help them practice them day in and day out. And while English Language Arts teachers, department heads, and other literacy coaches will appreciate that Thompson is obviously deeply familiar with the work of Rasinki, Allington, Fountas and Pinell, and a host of other scholars, his light, strategic referencing of their work and his down-to-earth, conversational style means that Adventures in Graphica is equally accessible to librarians, parents, and others with a stake in childhood literacy. As for its content, the book answers several basic needs in the ongoing comics-and-literacy conversation, gathering and expanding upon ideas that are occasionally found in journal articles or presented at the NCTE or IRA conferences.
However, like many of the sessions that one might attend at such venues, the text is quite conservative in anticipating its audience’s prior knowledge of the topic. Readers who are already personally familiar with graphic novels and who have been exposed to some ideas about teaching with them may grow impatient with the tee-up chapters that precede Thompson’s meat-and-potatoes insights. Similarly, some of the backmatter material, such as lists of recommended titles and even descriptions of “publishers who offer graphica,” while thoughtful and comprehensive, can give the impression of being slightly extraneous since such information is available elsewhere—one wishes that these pages had been devoted to more text about classroom practice instead. However, obviously these very same features of the book are what would make it most welcome to beginners…and also make it the perfect gift for the converted to present to a skeptical colleague or administrator.
The heart of the book deals with concepts that are instantly recognizable to any reading teacher—visualization, self-monitoring, making inferences, vocabulary, and fluency—and does so with clarity and concision, providing ample black-and-white reproductions of graphica to illustrate its points. At times one wishes that such samples were drawn from more “authentic” examples of the art form rather than titles developed by library publishers especially for the school market, but that’s actually an instance of Thompson knowing his audience well—these are the content-vetted and leveled titles that are heavily pushed at educators, and also the ones that they can probably most easily justify purchasing. Another welcome example of Thompson really putting himself in his readers’ shoes is the logistical and troubleshooting advice he offers on adding graphica to classroom libraries and on providing a rationale to counter any pushback for doing so. Time and again, he demonstrates that he inhabits the same real world that his audience does, and has already anticipated its challenges.
Thompson also achieves this on a deeper, pedagogical level through a recurring feature called “Translate the Transfer.” Here specific tips are given at point-of-use for how to support readers to transfer the skills acquired with graphica to conventional prose texts. While some might question why such a strong focus on skills transfer is necessary—after all, do we teach students to navigate the Web or read poetry only because it develops skills that apply to novels, or also because these texts have inherent value?—the author knows only too well that teachers must contend with this kind of curricular justification on a daily basis. On the less positive side, the rationale from evidence offered in the intentionally brief chapter on research is likely to be of minimum use to teachers. Of course this is not really Thompson’s fault: Although he cites virtually all the key studies, there’s really not that much out there, at least not in terms of data that would directly support the practices he advocates. Instead, the research findings are mostly of the comics-can’t-hurt-and-possibly-could-help variety; they’re good for shooting down knee-jerk reactions against the medium but hardly highlight its unique strengths when it comes to literacy.
The author’s unbridled optimism about “the research” is partly worth noting because it is, in fact, so uncharacteristic of the rest of the book. Indeed, Thompson consistently refuses to shy away from the limitations of the medium in a classroom setting, and he is careful never to present graphica as a magic bullet to supplant all those not-so-engaging texts young readers must deal with. Rather, his tone throughout is modulated and reasonable, holding the reader’s hand to be sure, but holding it firmly, with the conviction that comes from witnessing firsthand not only how comics help children learn to read, but to learn to love reading itself. In short, he’s not just a cheerleader, he’s a coach—and very good one, too.