Guilderland, New York (PressExposure) November 10, 2009 -- Carol L. Tilley, a professor of library and information science at Illinois, says that comics are just as sophisticated as other forms of literature, and children benefit from reading them at least as much as they do from reading other types of books.
"A lot of the criticism of comics and comic books come from people who think that kids are just looking at the pictures and not putting them together with the words," Tilley said. "Some kids, yes. But you could easily make some of the same criticisms of picture books -- that kids are just looking at pictures, and not at the words."
Although they've long embraced picture books as appropriate children's literature, many adults -- even teachers and librarians who willingly add comics to their collections -- are too quick to dismiss the suitability of comics as texts for young readers, Tilley said.
"Any book can be good and any book can be bad, to some extent," she said. "It's up to the reader's personality and intellect. As a whole, comics are just another medium, another genre."
Critics would say that reading comics is actually a simplified version of reading that doesn't approach the complexity of "real" books, with their dense columns of words and relative lack of pictures. But Tilley argues that reading any work successfully, including comics, requires more than just assimilating text.
"The term 'comic' is somewhat pejorative and tends to denote the child-like and ephemeral, and it brings to mind the Sunday funnies that you used to line your birdcage," she said.
The term "graphic novel" is sometimes used to give comics a measure of respectability, Tilley said. But some artists, including Pulitzer-Prize winner Art Spiegelman, hate the term.
According to Tilley, even in the early 1900s, there were teachers who raised concerns about children reading comics -- that their content wasn't appropriate content for a children, and that it wasn't real literature. And when the first comic books were published as omnibus collections of popular published comic strips in the mid-1930s, "the same concerns sprang up again from adults," Tilley said. "They claimed the texts weren't good texts because they used slang, there were misspellings, they used colloquialisms and that the pictures were of questionable merit."
Although commercial publishers of comics have yet to recapture children's imaginations, Tilley says that some librarians and teachers are increasingly discovering that comics can be used to support reading and instruction. "In the last 15 years, we've seen some big changes. For instance, comic book publishers and distributors are showing up at library conferences and some review journals regularly evaluate graphic novels. That would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. So it has caught on, to some degree."
Public libraries collect comics and graphic novels much more than school libraries, primarily because of decreases in funding and emphasis on strong ties to the curriculum through No Child Left Behind. "Comics tend to be omitted under those circumstances," Tilley said.
"There has been an increase in the number of comic book-type elements in books for younger children," Tilley said. "There's also a greater appreciation among both teachers and librarians for what comics and comic books can bring to the classroom. For example, the National Council of Teachers of English sponsors an instructional Web site called 'Read, Write, Think,' which has a lot of comics-related material. Instructional units like these would have been much more rare 10 years ago."
Tilley's research on comics was published recently in School Library Monthly. Adapted from materials provided by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.