Comics and Reading: A Natural Fit at IRA's 2010 Annual Convention
As its name implies, the International Reading Association is the preeminent organization in its field, and not just nationally, but globally. So it was great to notice how well represented graphic novels and other forms of graphica were at IRA’s annual convention, which was held April 25–28. And while the turnout did not seem as robust as the last time the event was held in Chicago back in 2006, attendance levels generally seemed to make exhibitors happy.
Gina Gagliano, marketing coordinator at First Second, typified the reaction of many publishers who exhibited: “It was wonderful to see graphic novels becoming integrated into everyone’s perspectives. Any time a teacher came over to our booth—we exhibited with our parent company, Macmillan—graphic novels were always on their radar.”
One of the titles that First Second spotlighted was Foiled, with art by Mike Cavallaro and text by award-winning author Jane Yolen, marking her first (but certainly not last) foray into graphic novels. Promoting such a book was a new role for Yolen, who may not have imagined such interest in the medium as recently as five years ago. “There [was] an underlying negative feeling about graphic novels—‘that stuff,’ as one editor said to me when I was pitching a graphic novel to her—that [reeked] of literary condescension,” she said. “But these same people who now applaud Neil Gaiman when he does an ‘actual’ novel don't understand how closely his novels and his comics are tied. The form is different, yes. But the storytelling at the base is similar. There are characters, a plot arc, subtext, metaphor. Only some of it is carried visually—which for me has always been an added bonus, not a subtractive element.”
That added value that comics can bring to narratives parallels the medium’s often unexpected range of educational benefits, many of which were highlighted at IRA—motivating reluctant readers, enhancing visual literacy, helping students learn how to make inferences, and even boosting other language-arts skills such as writing. It should be no surprise, then, that on the exhibit floor one could find not just plenty of graphic novels, but also books about teaching with them. One example was Get Graphic! by Mark Thurman and Emily Hearn. Stenhouse, a leader in professional development resources for teachers, had a few hot-off-the presses copies on hand, but it may need more at future shows, after teachers discover this highly practical guide to using storyboards to create graphic novels, comics strips, and picture books. Making an even bigger splash was Dr. Michael Bitz’s When Commas Meet Kryptonite: Classroom Lessons from the Comic Book Project, a new release from the prestigious Teachers College Press. Said Bitz of his IRA experience: "I met some very dedicated librarians and school teachers—all extremely excited about the possibilities of graphic novels in the educational space."
Who are the educators who make up the market for his book and others like it? Many of them could be found at the annual meeting of IRA’s Special Interest Group on Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Graphic Novels, an enthusiastically attended panel and book-signing event. One of its highlights was a talk given by Eisner-winner Bill Willingham of Fables fame. Humorously recounting how comics have been part of human storytelling since caveman times, Willingham nonetheless delivered a more serious message concerning how natural it is that schools should include the study of such an enduring medium.
Of course the convention’s regular programming did not neglect graphic novels either. Among the standouts was the secondary-focused “Graphic Novels: Zooming into the Classroom.” Led by Dr. Allison Ward of Winthrop University and Kristin Conradi of the University of Virginia, this session covered a tremendous amount of ground in a manner both engaging and clear.
Beginning with an astounding graphic that illustrated the surge in IRA journal articles on graphic novels in recent years, the presenters went on to share the reactions, both positive and negative, of students to the presence of graphic novels in the classroom. Another impressive session was “Using Graphic Novels with Primary Readers,” which was facilitated by Dr. Sandra Gandy of Governors State University. This 2.5-hour workshop was more about literacy than literature and boasted an astonishing array of practical activities to bolster various skills and strategies, several of which involved responding to wordless images. (Dr. Gandy’s presentation is available on the IRA website.)
Last, this writer helped lead the symposium “Comics at Literacy Builder: From Cognitive Research to Reading Theory to Classroom Practice.” It featured Northwestern’s Dr. David Rapp presenting on research related to making inferences while reading graphic-based texts such as comics and maps, and Reading with Pictures Executive Director Josh Elder showing, among other things, how a simple three-panel comic strip can be used to teach dramatic and narrative structure to primary students.
Still, are graphic novels on absolutely solid footing in terms of IRA’s membership or the reading curriculum itself? One sign that perhaps it isn’t: An ambitious and comprehensive preconference institute was canceled due to insufficient advance ticket sales. Organized by Dr. Katie Monnin, author of Teaching Graphic Novels, the program featured a unique mix of educators and creators. Yet there turned out to be a bit of a silver lining here. Springing into last-minute action, Diamond Book Distributors and Reading with Pictures moved the event offsite to Northwestern University and staged a successful event that people were talking about for days afterward.
Indeed, it was hard to shake the overall sense of optimism that radiated from pretty much all the stakeholders in the comics-and-reading field. Observed Yolen, contrasting today’s landscape with that of years past: “Now the attitude has changed, and all over IRA, you could see graphic novels as publishing companies have begun dipping a single toe in the water. Sometimes, [as with] Macmillan/Holt or Scholastic, there is a warm embrace of the form/format. But almost all the major publishers have now begun to try a book or two. I expect this small rivulet will turn into a flood.”-- Peter Gutiérrez