Ann M. Martin

Comics Speak Up for Darfur at United Nations

Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole, Any Empire)

Award-winning graphic novelist Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole, Any Empire) was among a panel of 9 Young Adult authors that appeared before the United Nations to raise funds and awareness for young refugees of Darfur last week. They spoke about their contributions to a new book called What You Wish For, aimed at bringing hope to a troubled region. Following their UN presentation, they appeared at a book signing at the New York City book store Books of Wonder.

The short story anthology What You Wish For includes a comics contribution by Powell, as well as stories by YA authors such as R.L. Stine (Goosebumps), Ann M. Martin (The Baby-Sitters Club), Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries), poets like Nikki Giovanni, Gary Soto, Naomi Shihab Nye, and others, totaling 18 contributors. The book also includes a foreword by actress Mia Farrow, who serves as a Darfur advocate and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. The book was published by the all-volunteer non-profit organization Book Wish Foundation, with 100% of proceeds from the book’s sales going to UN Refugee Agency UNHCR. The agency will use those funds to build libraries for refugee camps in Chad, which is populated by hundreds of thousands fleeing from horrific violence in neighboring Darfur.

Nate Powell is the only person from the world of comics involved in the book. His story is called “Conjurers”. Powell’s graphic novels have been highly praised for good reason. Swallow Me Whole is a haunting exploration of teenage turmoil amid mental illness. It was selected as a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist in the Young Adult category (before there was a graphic novel category), and was named on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list by the American Library Association. It also won Ignatz Awards for Outstanding Debut and Outstanding Artist, and the Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel.

You can watch the entire 2-hour UN panel presentation.

How do you get people to read comics when people don’t know how to read comics?

Photo by Sarah Shatz (Click for Toon Books blog)

I’ve recently been struck with the reality that some people really and truly don’t know how to read comics. This is a real and true hurdle for plenty of people in accepting and even trying a comic book or graphic novel.

For people like me who feel we were born holding a copy of Amazing Spider-Man, it’s hard to believe. But this shouldn’t be dismissed as nonsense. It doesn’t mean the people having trouble reading them are stupid. In fact, I think scoffing this reason is the equivalent of calling comics simple kids stuff for dummies.

But both of these assumptions are fallacies. From my experience, usually the struggling reader is a big book reader and they’re usually quite bright. They simply haven’t had much if any experience with the language of comics.

And comics are far from simple. They are a language all their own, and just like anything else, it takes time to learn the language. There’s more going on than just looking at little cartoon drawings and reading the words. The words and images play off each other and interact with each other, and other images on the page, and the reader, in a way unlike any other medium. Just as we must learn how to read non-verbal cues in face-to-face conversations with people, there are non-word cues that readers must learn to incorporate into the entire message. The artwork is doing much more than just providing a visual representation of the words. Frequently they’re providing information not found in the text, information about how the artist interprets and feels about that the text or the world that’s been created, visual clues about how characters feel, information about environment and setting, aesthetic information that informs tone or mood, as well as stylistic choices that reflect the artist and the prism through which he sees the world. And there’s even more than that. In every panel.

That’s a lot of work. The brain can figure all or most of it out, but it can take time to adjust to receiving information in a new way.

The best way to get used to it is to read comics at a young age when we’re still extremely adaptable. One of the best publishers for first time and young readers is Toon Books. I linked to them yesterday in my Comics News Roundup, but I’m sure it’s easy to miss. I also wanted to feature this video they have on their front page. It’s narrated by Editorial Director Françoise Mouly (so prepare your ears for a French accent). She does a great summary of what they’re about and also has some great information on how comics are great for kids just learning to read.

Toon Books has their books split up into three levels: Grades K-1, Grades 1-2 and Grades 2-3. But to be honest, they’re so delightful and charming that grown-up readers will probably get a smile from reading them too. There’s a reason many of their books, like Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith, Benny and Penny by Geoffrey Hayes, and Stinky by Eleanor Davis, have received awards, made best-of lists, and gotten other praise and recognition. There’s also a teacher’s guide with lesson plans, an online literacy tool, and other free resources for the classroom.

A lot of publishers are adding material for new readers to their catalog. Top Shelf Productions has the Kids Club with the adorable Owly by Andy Runton (who has a great teaching section on his site), Johnny Boo by James Kochalka and more coming in 2011. Traditional book publishers have also opened up to this. Scholastic Books now has the Graphix imprint, which has published material for slightly older readers (Grades 5-7) like Smile and Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitter’s Club series of adaptations by Raina Telgemeier. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. More to come, for sure.

But what about older people who haven’t learned how to read comics? Like I said, more to come…