Prose before Superheroes

This is obviously not me.

This is obviously not me.

Jonathan H. Liu at GeekDad is putting a temporary ban on comic books for his fifth-grade daughter. Because of the violence? The sexist depictions of women? Because comic books are an inferior art form? Nope on all counts. 

He found that his smart, curious daughter was, in fact, leaning on comics and easy, action-oriented books for all her reading, while even kid-friendly books like Harriet the Spy took several attempts and an unreasonably long time. Comic books, in other words, were the path of least reading resistance.

Now, certainly I’m not putting all the blame on comics—I think comics are an amazing medium and I’m a huge fan of even the books on the bottom shelf that are currently off-limits. But the act of reading comics is different than that of reading prose—just as watching a movie isn’t the same thing as reading the book it’s based on. They exercise different parts of the brain, and my daughter hasn’t been flexing her prose comprehension muscle very much.

I know I’ve come across like Calvin’s dad: “Do this thing you hate! It builds character!” And, okay, I’ll admit that I _do_ think it’s good for kids to do things that are difficult for them. My oldest daughter is less interested in math; my middle daughter refused to read for a long time—but since I feel both math and reading are important skills, I make them do things that aren’t easy. 

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about as my boy reaches the age where he can just begin to comprehend some written words, because I remember how poor I was at reading as a child. Not because I wasn’t smart, but I too got lazy. 

I’ve written before about a humiliating moment in elementary school relating to my unwillingness to tackle actual literature over picture books for babies:

I recall being assigned a book report in second grade, and we were to choose the book ourselves. Imagine my dismay when, on the day we were to present our reports, all the other students had chosen honest-to-goodness novels for children, and I had picked some crummy Sesame Street picture book, just so I wouldn’t have to read something “hard.” That was a rough day.

Reading Liu’s piece, I think that part of the problem is that my parents were so desperate to get me into reading (both of them being devourers of all manner of highbrow volumes) that comics became an acceptable substitute for actual books (“at least he’s reading,” I heard a number of times), with the hopes that they would become a gateway drug.

We’re not talking about Watchmen or something. We’re talking Peanuts and The Far Side as a kid, and Transformers and a smattering of Spider-Man as a teenager. Suffice it to say, they did not lead me to the hard stuff. 

And now I suspect, as Liu does, that in using comics as a literary crutch, I lost an opportunity to train my mind to process anything more complex than a speech bubble with a picture. This is not to say that comics turned my brain to mush — television did that with the force of a thousand blenders — but they did serve as a patch, a veil of literacy, a get-out-of-reading-comprehension free card.

So as I allow my kid to occasionally play Curious George iPad apps, I think I too will be wary of allowing comic books on the reading menu before novels and nonfiction. I also believe that kids need to do some things they at first don’t like so that they can experience the rewards of accomplishment, understanding, and mastery. I’d be a more whole person today, no doubt, had I toughed it through a few more initially-unpleasant experiences. Certainly, a few good books, a little earlier in life, wouldn’t have hurt.

Note: This post was originally titled “Paragraphs before Speech Bubbles,” but was renamed after Len Sanook helped me find the right rhyme.

 [Photo source]

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