When I became the media specialist at Chase Street in 2011, there wasn’t a graphic novel section in the library. There were a handful of Calvin and Hobbes comic books (which I’ve loved since my childhood), but that was about it.
I understand the pushback from (some) adults. Comics tend to be quick reads. Some people place a high value on the written word, while visual storytelling is seen as somehow less-than. Readers of traditional newspapers might see the news stories as the important thing and the comics section as frivolous fluff.
Whatever it is, comics have stereotypically been the things you sneak inside your textbooks when the teachers aren’t looking. The fun stuff you read when all your work is done. The amusements you buy with pocket money because your mom isn’t gonna pay for them.
And I’ll admit, when I was a kid and devouring chapter books like Charlotte’s Web and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I *might* have looked down my nose a little bit at my younger brother who only wanted to read Garfield comics and Far Side cartoons and the aforementioned Calvin and Hobbes.
That’s right. I was a book snob. I’ve learned a lot since then. 🙂
But if you look at the proliferation of traditional superhero comics in the 1930s, or the popularity of Mad Magazine in the 1950-60s and beyond, or the rise of graphic novels as we know them today (epitomized by works like Maus and Persepolis and American Born Chinese), it’s clear that there’s something there–something more than fluff.
When I became a teacher and learned more about how reading works, that’s when I finally started to understand the power of comics. A well-crafted graphic text, like a great picture book, is all about how the words and pictures work together to tell the story.
And when we read comics, our minds construct meaning from both the words and the pictures (not to mention the white space on the page or the orientation of the panels and speech bubbles). It’s a complex and fascinating process.
Good graphic texts, like any kind of quality fiction, contain dynamic characters and irony and subtlety, figurative language and opportunities for inference and so much nuance.
Because graphic novels meld visual and verbal storytelling, they do all of these great literary things while providing challenges for strong readers as well as support for readers who struggle. And they can be great motivators for reluctant readers who resist more traditional texts.
Now that I understand this, I’ve made sure to curate a graphic novel section in my library that provides a wide variety of stories for a wide variety of readers.
We’ve got some traditional-ish comics featuring Batman and Superman, but we’ve also got contemporary graphic offerings like Babymouse and Squish from Jennifer and Matthew Holm, fantastical series like Jeff Smith’s Bone and Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet, and graphic memoirs like Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters. I’ve also made sure to include some really great graphic novels created locally, like Andy Runton’s Owly (Atlanta, GA) and Joey Weiser’s Mermin (from right here in Athens!).
I can’t keep these three Zita books on the shelf. As soon as a kid brings one back, another kid snatches it from the shelving cart. The students pass them around and read them over and over again and ask me frequently if Ben Hatke is EVER going to write another Zita book.
So when Hannah DeCamp, the school engagement specialist at our wonderful local Avid Bookshop, emailed me over the summer to ask if we’d like Ben to visit our school while he’s on tour promoting his newest book Mighty Jack, of course my answer was yes!
I invited all of our 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classes to meet Ben Hatke on September 28th. (He visited Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary that morning and Avid that evening, and by the next day he was in Alabama for his next stop. Whew!)
To prepare for the visit with 3rd and 5th grades (4th grade was busy working on a project), I created a slideshow for them that combined snippets of two posts about Mighty Jack from Ben Hatke’s website, a Q&A and Mighty Jack sneak peek from Macmillan, and a really great video profile from Mirandum Pictures.
These resources (mostly in Ben’s own words) helped students learn a little about his creative process and his sense of adventure, and they also helped the kids come up with some questions to ask during the Q&A that followed his presentation. (Because we all know kids love to ask questions, but it never hurts for them to do a little thinking ahead first.)
Besides researching what I wanted to share with students ahead of time, I also read Mighty Jack myself. It was SO good! I love how it takes the basic premise of the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale and turns it into a modern-day adventure that kids can relate to.
The fantasy bits in the mysterious garden are quirky and fun, but for me it was the realistic elements that really made the story hit home: Jack’s single mom works all the time and still can’t pay the bills, Jack’s sister Maddy is autistic and nonverbal, and Jack struggles to balance his responsibilities with his need for freedom and adventure.
Now, Ben cautioned on his website that Mighty Jack would end on a cliffhanger, and I should’ve taken that warning more seriously. I was crushed to reach the last page and realize I’ll have to wait a whole year for the sequel!
When September 28th arrived and the kids (more than 200 of them) filed into the gym, the excitement was palpable. Ben drew Zita as the kids took their seats, and after a quick introduction from me, he started the presentation to the sound of oohs and aahs. The kids were riveted from start to finish (and the adults were, too!).
During his presentation Ben shared his sweet and funny new picture book, Nobody Likes a Goblin, which is just delightful:
I love how the story challenges our ideas of which kinds of characters can be good guys or bad guys. (And I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons, but if you have, you’ll appreciate the book’s other-side-of the story presentation of a typical dungeon campaign.)
The way Ben presented the book added to the story’s magic; rather than simply scrolling page-by-page through a PDF, he zoomed in on images to highlight details, zoomed out to show landscapes, and panned across to follow the action. It was so cinematic!
Ben also shared the first part of his Eisner Award-winning graphic novel Little Robot, a nearly wordless book that packs a huge punch almost completely through its visual elements:
Adventures ensue when the book’s tiny protagonist discovers and accidentally activates a little robot she finds in the woods. The girl in the story reminds me a bit of my own daughter: bravely curious about the world around her, endlessly trying to figure out how things work. There was an audible “Awww….” when Ben stopped reading at the end of the chapter because everyone really wanted him to keep going.
Besides sharing some of his work, Ben also spent time talking with us about three elements that work together to create an effective visual narrative.
His first point–two pictures, one story–made my teacher brain jump for joy, because it’s all about the concept of inference, of reading between the lines to draw conclusions:
I really loved this idea, not just because it can help us read visual narratives, but because it’s just great storytelling advice that can be applied across mediums. I’m already thinking about ways I could
steal borrow this idea for writing activities with my students.
Ben’s second element was the power of gesture–another way of approaching the old “show, don’t tell” adage. Through gesture and body language, your characters can emote any number of feelings and attitudes–leaving your words to do other work to advance the story:
This is the kind of writing advice we give students all the time, but I loved how the visual presentation made it more accessible, and now I have an especially great example to reference when I’m working with students on packing more punch with their writing.
Ben’s final piece of advice was about drawing from life:
And this is when he gave students my very favorite piece of storytelling advice:
“Walk out into the world with your eyes open.”
It’s fantastic to emulate your favorite artists and authors. It’s also fantastic to write and draw what you know, but when you don’t know, you can always strive to know more–to widen your worldview through intentional curiosity.
At the end of the presentation, Ben gave our students time to ask questions:
They asked about his family, his writing process, his plans for the future, and how he makes his books so awesome. He commented,
“When I finish a book, I look at it and think, ‘What could be better about it?’ And I just keep asking myself that all the time.”
My favorite kid question of the day (and Ben’s) was this one, which I was excited to see shared as a comic on Twitter the next day:
Back story: In the video from Mirandum Pictures (linked above) Ben mentions that his kitchen has two doors, one facing east and one facing west, and his dream is to one day go out one door and come back through the other one by way of circumnavigation. The kids were so fascinated by this idea! (And they were also super pumped to see that he had sketched their question.)
Ben’s acrobatic grand finale was pretty amazing (y’all, he did FLIPS for us!), but WordPress won’t let me embed a video, so you can click the link to see his impressive gymnastics on our Instagram page.
And then, as if we hadn’t worn him out enough, Ben was kind enough to come back into the library with me and autograph 233 (!!!) copies of Mighty Jack for our 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students and teachers (plus a couple for the library, of course).
Students have brought in stacks upon stacks of thank-you notes (and thank-you comics!) to show their appreciation for this event, and most of them had finished Mighty Jack by dismissal the next day (which I know because they simultaneously gushed about the book and complained to me about the cliffhanger ending the next afternoon at car rider pickup).
A whole bunch of my kiddos double-dipped on the Ben Hatke experience by visiting Avid that evening for an encore performance. And four of our six 5th grade bloggers (Madison, Niko, Jane, and Phoebe) chose to report on the visit for their weekly updates last Thursday.
Meanwhile, my brain is swirling with ideas for adding Ben’s visual storytelling elements to my writing instruction, and I’m also looking for a frame for our Zita picture so she can find a comfortable home on our library walls.
A huge thanks to Ben Hatke for taking the time to visit our school, and one more thanks to Hannah DeCamp and her wonderful colleagues at Avid Bookshop for connecting our schools and our community with inspiring authors and illustrators! This event was truly unforgettable.