Every year, the Los Angeles Times holds its Los Angeles Times Festival of Books celebration, a weekend devoted to great books and the people who make them possible. When I lived in San Diego, I used to attend as often as possible, given that the festival has one major drawback (for me, anyway): It always falls on or around my birthday. This year, I've already made separate travel plans for the weekend of April 24th and 25th, but I wish I could be attending (GNR president and publisher Carol Fitzgerald will be there, though).
When I was growing up, certain truths were just absolute. When it came to comics, Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, which came out in 1938, was the most valuable comic book in the world. Period. And there weren't that many of them.
Unlikely Superheroes I detested math! Perhaps even hated would better fit how I viewed any math class. It was the summer before my senior year in high school. My friends were splashing around in the cool water at the city pool, baking in the summer sun, while I trudged off, books in hand, to Mrs. Parker’s, my tutor’s, home. I was a very studious individual. I never earned grades as far into the alphabet as in math. I would not say that I did not put effort into math classes; really, I lacked only one thing: confidence. Graphic novels give my struggling readers the superpower confidence in reading in which they do not have. The images interest students with passions for art. They also provide a concrete visualization for a student that leads to comprehension of the text. Not only do the pictures draw in unlikely readers, but so does the text. It is broken up in a way that seems manageable to those who panic at the sight of entire pages filled with letters—symbols with little or no meaning to their kind: a reader who lacks the decoding skills necessary to attack the text with ease. I can remember my first day of tutoring vividly. Mrs. Parker was not what I would have expected. I would have never guessed she’d be the hero I’d need (or wanted) to save me from the deep depths of frustration in math and distrust of teachers in general. Capeless, her stern voice spoke the words that would echo throughout the next 23 sessions that I had with her. “We will not use calculators in my home,” she bellowed as I quickly stuffed the “Superhero of Algebra” back into my book bag. She drew me in somehow. Her craft was masked cleverly. Was the reason I continued to come back to her home, filled with a typical hoarder mess, the thing that created an environment I desired to observe? Was it the fact she believed in me and found things that were of interest to me? Slowly, I learned that she was a really wonderful teacher. Her warm smile provided encouragement and pushed me to successfully complete each session. She copied and gave me motivational cartoons. She calmed my nerves and settled my frustrated mind. Just like a struggling math student, struggling readers are often frustrated, overwhelmed, and lack the basic skills needed to read in the first place. I have found that pairing full-text novels, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with an “illustrated” graphic text, such as Classics Illustrated Deluxe #4: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Classics Illustrated Deluxe Graphic Novels), or the Seekers and Warriors series (both in regular text and graphic novel versions) help to fuse teaching and learning relationships between readers above grade level, at grade level, and those who are at risk of failure. In my classroom, literature circles combining these related texts allow for all types and levels of learners to be instructed and learn at their own pace and in their own style without feeling they are not getting their individual learning needs met. I have also used graphic novels to teach and encourage writing. Students can create or retell text by using technology available to them, such as making a simple PowerPoint presentation or creating more developed projects using applications like Scratch, in which they can animate. I have recently found a leveled reader series called Phonics Comics, which I am currently using to support phonics instruction and writing skills. Written by a reading specialist, they encompass a large array of standards and skills necessary for success such as basic sight words, spelling conventions, and sentence structure. Graphic novels become weapons to fight the battles of “hating reading” and the “issues” that there is “nothing good to read” or that the book is “required.” As I teach online, there is limited digital graphica available. The more teachers, librarians, and other educational professionals add comics and graphic novels into their classrooms and libraries; I believe more resources will be available to use digitally. Currently, I am a frequent user of Marvel.com. I have also found a great digital version about Smokey the Bear that I have used in online instruction. The Hero Factory online takes you through a program in which you can create your very own superhero by choosing physical features, powers, costume, and names (see mine to the right). I love using this site for infusing writing into a lesson. Students are thrilled for the opportunity to create a story using their personal hero or villain. My online library also extends to the programs that I use on a daily basis as a teacher. Within the last year, Study Island has launched The Timbertoes, an online program geared for older students who are below grade level in reading. Tumblebooks, digital books online accessed through local libraries, are frequently adding graphic novel titles to their virtual bookshelves. I have also found that children’s magazines like Lego, Jr. include a monthly comic in which I can quickly scan and read with my students. I also am a huge fan of Dav Pilkey, creator of the Captain Underpants series (Pilkey.com)! Readers are pulled in by getting the chance to hear me read or to get to read aloud words like wedgies, toilet, or underpants! Mr. Pilkey’s personal story of teachers and principals often being the villains in his school experience makes me question why teachers so often “shut their doors” to opportunities of reading the graphic novel genre and allowing for students to develop comprehension through mentally visualizing and physically drawing illustrations for what they read and author themselves. One day, I was asked to complete a few problems for her. I happily and mentally computed each of them and waited patiently for her to review them. “I didn’t tell you, but this was a test” she spoke casually. I was horrified in thinking that maybe I rushed or maybe I did not do something right, or maybe… Instantly, she added, “You got a B.” “A B!” I exclaimed in disbelief. “I have not seen a grade like that since elementary school in math! I am dumb in math!” I thought to myself excitedly. Graphic novels have brought my struggling middle schoolers who HATE reading and books in general to a world they have never known. Many—especially boys—read avidly now and can independently choose books for personal enjoyment. Last year, I witnessed two of my male students who both were reading below grade level gain 2+ grades by reading and creating graphic novels. It is amazing to allow a struggling reading student who is talented in art unleash new strengths—illustrating and writing! What else do graphic novels bring to my classroom? They teach dialog. They teach sequential order. They teach vocabulary. The teach onomatopoeia. They teach retell and summarizing. They teach story elements. They teach students that it is OK to be good at art—that they can be illustrators. They teach those who hate reading to have confidence to do so—what may be the only chance to spark imagination in a child who is disinterested! In my classroom, graphic novels are the Sidekicks of the Love of Reading. Mrs. Parker showed me how to have confidence. She helped confirm my long desire to become a teacher in her shadow. I want to influence a middle school–aged reader’s life in the same way she did mine, by teaching to the individual, accepting and acknowledging that nontraditional texts belong in the classroom—that reading graphic novels is really reading, by teaching each individual to be confident, life-long self-learners. This one is for you Mrs. Parker! About the Author Frances Jagielski is a Title I middle school reading teacher at the Ohio Virtual Academy. She teaches via computer from her home office in Toledo, Ohio. She holds a B.S. in middle childhood education, grades 4-9, with a reading specialist certification from Bowling Green State University, along with a master’s of education in educational technology from Lourdes College. Thanks to her personal superhero, Buzz Lightyear, she has adopted and teaches to the motto “To infinity and beyond!”
February 18, 2010
Since 1997, the year that Chris Staros and Brett Warnock joined together to form the company, Top Shelf has been producing a diverse and interesting lineup of graphic novels for a constantly evolving industry. As a company that successfully predicted—and in many ways helped bring about—the changing format and structure of the modern comics scene, Top Shelf has been an industry leader, while still remaining true to its indie roots.
Teacher, Watchung Hills Regional High School, Warren, New Jersey
The New York Times has an article on prose authors moving into graphic novels, most notably with the huge announcement of Twilight coming from Yen Press and its staggering print run (350,000 copies). Janet Evanovich is also the focus here, as Dark Horse has just announced it will print 100,000 copies of her Motor Mouth graphic-novel series.
When the latest issue of The New Yorker (dated February 15 & 22) arrived in the mailbox, I thought the cover artistry looked a little familiar. Turns out it has a nice tie to the comics world: It's by graphic novelist Dan Clowes. This issue commemorates the magazine's 85th anniversary, and Clowes' work was one of the four winners chosen from this year's anniversary-cover contest.
Just got news that James Sturm's Adventures in Cartooning has won the 2010 Gryphon Award, awarded to outstanding books written for kids in kindergarten through fourth grade and administered by the Center for Children's Books. We're big fans of Sturm's work, and he very much deserves this recognition.
February 2, 2010
You only think you know the legend of Pinocchio. His story wasn’t that sweet, and that was before the vampires came to town and killed Gepetto. What’s a poor wooden boy to do? Start lying like crazy so his nose grows and pierces their hearts. He’s a natural-born vampire killer, and he’s got the scars to prove it. The ongoing adventures of Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer come to us courtesy of writer Van Jensen and artist Dusty Higgins, who launched the idea. The book was recently named to the American Library Association’s list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens and it’s catching on strong with new readers. We caught up with Jensen and Higgins to discuss how it all came together. Congratulations on your recent naming to ALA’s list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens. Were you surprised to see this happen? Higgins: Surprised doesn’t seem like the right word. There’s an implication there that we didn’t think it was a good story and we’re surprised someone else did. I am happy and honored that the folks at the Young Adult Library Services Association enjoyed it enough to put it on the list. And yeah, I was surprised. Jensen: I didn’t even know we’d been nominated when I stumbled onto the news on a comics blog, and at first I figured it was a mistake. The other books on that list are really phenomenal. To be listed among them is an amazing honor. And, as the grandson of a librarian, it makes it that much more special to be recognized by the ALA. Dusty, the book was your idea? Higgins: I think when most people think about it, the idea is pretty obvious. It began as a throwaway warm-up sketch that kept nagging at me, developed into more sketches, and perhaps went a little too far. Then I got Van involved, and it went even further than that. As we kicked ideas back and forth, the story just kept getting bigger and bigger. It must have been a lot of fun to put this story together. Did people take it seriously when you pitched the idea to them? Jensen: When Dusty first approached me about doing the book, I didn’t even take it seriously. The idea of Pinocchio killing vampires is super clever, but it’s easy to write it off as nothing more than a joke. The challenge that Dusty and I gave ourselves was to take that little joke and turn it into a fully realized story. That was a fun process, largely because, as we went back to Carlo Collodi’s original story, we understood how rich those characters are and how much more potential remained for them. We really only pitched the story to SLG, but I did show our 10-page preview to a few other comics people, and they all got a kick out of it. I think we also got it across that the book was more than just a goofy romp, so it wasn’t hard to convince people. Higgins: I think most people were skeptical. They laughed at the name and figured it wasn’t much good beyond that one joke. The biggest hurdle was getting people to realize that not only did we have an idea for a 128-page story, but we had an idea for a trilogy. That includes our publisher. But once they started reading the story, I think, with a few exceptions, we convinced most people. The original story of Pinocchio is fairly dark and twisted, making it fit right in with a vampire story. When did you first read the original version of the tale? Higgins: It was early in the process, probably around the time I approached Van about the story and we started filling out the plot. We knew we wanted to pull more from the original story, and since before that I had only been familiar with the Disney version, I was surprised at how much darker the original story is. Jensen: I had read it as a kid but forgot most of it. I went back to it after Dusty asked me to do the project, and it was really revelatory. Collodi’s version is darker, yes, but it also has better characters, more humor, and more poignancy than the Disney version, which sadly has become what everyone knows. Are most people you encounter surprised to discover that the original story of Pinocchio is not as sweet and light as they had thought? Higgins: Yeah. Two of my favorite examples are the cricket’s death, and Pinocchio’s almost-death by hanging. Jensen: That’s pretty much the standard response. The original and the Disney film are extremely dissimilar, but the cartoon is so ingrained culturally. We had actually finished the book when we decided to create the little recap of the original story. If we hadn’t, I think most readers would’ve been scratching their heads to the references of Pinocchio being hanged, the cricket being killed by Pinocchio, and so much else. So far, what has the reaction to the book been? Jensen: It’s been incredible. I think that clever premise helped, as when news of the book first got out, it spread like crazy around the Internet. But what’s been the most rewarding is how, after people actually read the book, the vast majority seem to like it quite a lot. And what most reviewers and fans have said is that the book surprised them in that it’s a lot more than just what the premise implies. Higgins: Good, better than I anticipated. I mean, obviously I think the story’s cool and all, but I understand this is an indie graphic novel, and Van and I are first-time writers/artists, so I kept my hopes down. But we’ve had a really good response to the story. How did you two meet and start working together? Jensen: We were working at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette together, where I was a crime reporter and part-time comics critic and Dusty was (and still is) an illustrator. Our first contact actually was that my wife hired Dusty to do a comics commission for me for a birthday present. After that, we discovered our mutual interest in comics, and before long we were tossing around ideas. Higgins: There being a handful of people working there under 30, eventually we started talking comics stuff. After Van left the paper and moved to Georgia, I got the idea for Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer and, knowing he was interested in writing, gave him a call. What are some of your favorite graphic novels? Whose work has inspired you? Jensen: I started working for Top Shelf in large part because I’m a fan of their books, with my favorites being Superspy, Owly, and The Surrogates. Other creators I deeply respect include Joshua Cotter, Ed Brubaker, Brian K. Vaughan, G. Willow Wilson, Mike Mignola, and Rutu Modan. I read a ton of comics, and I learn from all of them. But I can’t really say that any particular creator or book has had a singular impact on my writing. Higgins: John Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, Mike Mignola, Charlie Adlard, and Ben Cleveland for artists. As for graphic novels, I don’t even know where to begin, so here’s a sample of stuff I read: Scott Pilgrim, almost anything with Conan in it, Northlanders, Buffy and Angel (I should note, because I know somebody is going to say it, that the only thing by Joss Whedon I had seen before Van and I started work on the book was Firefly and Serenity), The Walking Dead, Fables, World of Warcraft, and Chumble Spuzz. If you’re wondering why there isn’t more indie stuff on that list, it’s because my local comic book store doesn’t sell a lot of indie stuff. What’s next for Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer? Do you see it as an ongoing or a finite series? Jensen: Part way through scripting the first book, I came up with an idea for a larger mythology and roughly plotted out a three-book series. The script for the second one is finished and Dustin is cranking out some incredible artwork. It should be out in fall 2010. What we’re exploring is the question of Pinocchio’s identity, which is one of those things that is much more interesting in the original story. I can’t say for certain how many books it will take to fully explore that question, but we definitely have an end in sight. Higgins: Right now we just have plans for a trilogy. If at some point Van or I think of a story we believe is worth telling beyond that, I’ll get back to you.
Every year, the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list comes out through YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association). More than just a fantastic resource, it's also a comprehensive look at the highest-quality graphic books to come out over the past year and a half. Because of its intrinsic value to parents, teachers, librarians, and general readers, we wanted to spotlight a few of the wonderful people who make the list happen and showcase how they do it. Meet three of the women responsible for creating this list in the first place.