My last post addressed the common sentiment that books with pictures are for very young children and the goal is to get them to move beyond that. I'd like to propose that the goal is not to have kids/teens/adults get to the point where we'll only reading unillustrated prose novels, but to get kids/teens/adults confident in reading and literate enough to navigate this world.
First let me say if the only purpose for reading a book is to pass a pleasant afternoon, then mission accomplished. Reading as entertainment should not be dismissed. But of course as parents and teachers, we want our kids to be great readers and read every day. Why?
It's about processing information and about learning to think, besides developing imagination and exposing ourselves to new ideas and ways of being. In school, college, the workplace, the world, the ability to take in new information, understand it, and act on it is vital. Reading helps us get there. But not all our information comes in newspaper format, i.e. words on a page. I think honoring three different mediums for stories makes it more possible for us to be completely literate. (man, I sound so official, don't I? What, do I think I'm presenting a paper at an academic conference or something?) [EDIT: good thing I'm not at an academic conference since I wrote mediums instead of media.]
Prose novels--Absolutely, being fully literate includes reading unillustrated prose and picturing for ourselves the characters, place, and action. I am in no way dissing the unillustrated novel. I've written seven of them. This category represents the majority of my personal reading. I find myself more able to get lost in a story of a prose novel than any other. However, I think it important not to assume that everyone is like me. Some people really struggle to form those pictures from words. Hopefully if they fall in love with reading in other mediums, eventually they'll develop the ability to fall into a prose novel as well. But taking away everything else and pushing a reader into this kind of book will most likely make them hate it.
Illustrated books--Here I include picture books and graphic novels, books I read every day as well, some for my kids, some for myself. I find this kind of reading so refreshing and delightful.
Pictures in early readers are good because they help develop a child's imagination--when the child is young and inexperienced at storytelling (because that's what we do when we read a book--tell ourselves the story) they need the handle of illustrations so they can picture what's going on in their minds. But once they gain that ability, many believe, they should leave behind illustrations along with their teddy bear and security blanket. It's something you grow out of, something that will inhibit your ability to imagine for yourself. I disagree. Visual storytelling is very much a part of our world and another way we learn information. The very best illustrated books, in my mind, tell two stories. The pictures don't simply represent what's going on in the text, but amplify it, comment on it. The story you get from reading just the text should be different than reading the whole. Reading these kinds of books most definitely works your brain. Besides, illustrations are another form of art, a celebration of the visual sense. If the only place we get visual art is in a museum then this world is greatly diminished.
Graphic novels are not simply a movie in book form. A movie gives you the entire flowing image, sound, and music to create a mood for you. The real magic in a graphic novel happens in the white space between each panel. The reader must supply the action that happens there. You look at the first panel, then the second, then imagine what's missing, piecing it all together to make a whole action. This is working a different part of your brain than just reading words on a page. And it's a skill worth developing. Do you know an adult who never read comics as a child and when introduced to a comic or GN now can't make any sense of it? We are fed pictorial information every day. It's valuable to exercise our ability to understand it.
Nathan Hale in rapunzel's revenge employs what I think of as the perfect kind of illustration. He isn't trying to be "artsy" and break ground--his goal is the most noble one: to tell the story. His illustrations are not too simple--not just talking heads on blank backgrounds. Nor are they too complex--not intimidating to those new to this medium or require careful examination just to understand at a basic level. He finds, in my mind, the perfect medium. You can read quickly and understand, then go back and examine and get even more information, piece together the story at a more profound level. It's not as easy as watching a movie or TV show, it requires more work by the reader. By that same token, it also allows the reader to be more of a participant in the storytelling process rather than simply being a viewer.
Audio books (or books read aloud)--So much of the information we get is audio. Most of the information we get in a classroom is audio, and I've read one study that puts visual learners at greater risk in getting left behind in school that audio learners. (I'm a visual learner--I have a very hard time remembering something new if I don't see it.) Listening to books read is a wonderful way to become more literate. For some reason, some people consider listening to an audio book "cheating" or "not really reading." Hogwash. Learning to absorb information given in audio is vital. Listening to an audio book is different than talking to someone on the phone. Following a story told aloud is developing a listening and comprehending skill that would serve us all well.
Again, like pictures, it's something we think we need to leave behind at a young age. We read to young kids, but often as soon as the child is old enough to read on her own, she reads to us but no longer is a listener. One of my favorite times in school was hearing the teacher read a chapter of a book aloud, but I'm told by many teachers that this is just one of many high points that they've had to abandon due to the rigors of the testing requirements (curse you No Child Left Behind!). And of course, once out of elementary school, this ritual is abandoned. Before television, families would sit and listen as someone read a book aloud. No more. As adults, many of us listen to talk radio, NPR, but kids and teens usually don't. This is the area of literacy where I'm weakest. When I was growing up, audio books were commonly abridged, scarce, and not extremely well done. This is a golden age of audio books now, and I'm diving in and loving it.
I was surprised at how young an age I could start my kids on audio books. Max at age 4 (and now at 5) loves the Moongobble and Me series by Bruce Coville. We love listening to these on long car rides. As well, we read books aloud to him and tell him stories. (Max wants me to add here, "Max can read." He really can. The little cutie.) Audio books can be a great boon for older kids, teens, and adults who aren't getting read to. I believe continuing to listen to audio books all life long hones listening skills and rounds out our literacy triad.
We read words.
We read pictures.
We hear words.
All important to literacy. And may I add...also potentially a rippin' good time