I wrote last month about my daughter (age eight, third grade) expressing a preference NOT to influence her younger cousin towards reading graphic novels, so that he would not become addicted. The other night she brought this up again, even more directly, saying that she wished she had never discovered graphic novels, even though she loves them, because she thinks that reading them has made it harder for her to learn to read books with more text. Her worry made me wonder, for the first time, whether such a thing could be true.
I think her concern has been triggered by two things. First, she's participating in her school's Battle of the Books (quiz show-themed reading incentive contest), and is feeling (self-imposed) pressure to read at least some of the books on the booklist. There are some appealing titles on there (Stuart Little, a Magic Treehouse book, a Judy Moody), but none of them are graphic or notebook novels. Second, her teacher has asked her to try to read (and take AR tests on) more nonfiction titles. I am not an AR fan, but I am ok in general with the idea of her reading more nonfiction, as long as it doesn't dampen her enthusiasm for reading. And although there are a few nonfiction graphic format books, the pool of these in the school library is fairly limited.
I ran her question by my Facebook and Twitter communities and received an array of responses. Most people said things along the lines of what I've always believed, that she will get there in her own time or when she finds the right book, and that the important thing now is to keep up her enjoyment of reading. This was helpful and encouraging, and there were some suggestions for encouraging her to diversify her palette a bit (see below). But a few quieter voices did say things like "Well, it took my son until 8th grade" for that to happen. Or, "I'm seeing 8th graders who will only read Wimpy Kid and Big Nate and I worry about them in college." Or, "I'm an adult and I still read mostly in graphic formats." And these things, together with my daughter's own concerns, gave me pause.
I've defended my daughter's love of graphic and notebook novels always. I've bought her a ton of books, and checked out piles of library books. I've loved watching her curled up on the window seat reading these books over and over again. But I've done all of this secure in the understanding that she will one day move beyond them into also reading more text-heavy books. [See Pernille Ripp's recent defense of graphic novels, complete with examples of some high quality graphic novels that tackle serious subjects.]
I love graphic novels and believe that they are "real books". However, I do not want my daughter to be someone who grows up ONLY reading comics, graphic novels, and notebook novels. First of all, she would miss out on a LOT of amazing books. Second, she would struggle in high school and college, or whenever it becomes necessary to be able to read more dense prose. Third, she would eventually start to struggle with reading comprehension in testing (and say what you will about the amount of testing in our schools, she needs to be able to do it). So yes, she does need to add more to her reading repertoire than heavily illustrated reading at some point.
That point doesn't have to be in third grade, I would have said… But now here she is, feeling like it's time. This tells me that it's time to at least explore our options.
The first thing my husband and I told her when she brought this up the other day was that she could practice by reading something text-heavy but easier. We told her that she doesn't need to go directly from the 13th Diary of a Wimpy Kid to the third Harry Potter book. She immediately seized on the idea of the Magic Treehouse books, and set herself a goal of reading all 49 of the ones that we have (thank you Scholastic Reading Club) for practice. She thought that she could read 7 a day, and whip through the series in a week. She has already realized that this would only be possible if she was home sick from school for several days, or otherwise had her schedule magically become clear of other things. But she did whip through three or four of them.
What I have seen her doing since then is switching back and forth between formats. The other day she read a couple of chapters of Christopher Mouse (a Battle of the Books title) on one couch, then moved over to the other couch to re-read a Dork Diaries book. She brought home Who Is Jane Goodall? and Crystal the Snow Fairy from the school library, and alternates between those and whatever graphic novel or picture book is near at hand. Now that I think about it, she's like someone working to build up a new muscle. She exercises for a bit, then takes a break with some other activity that's easier for her, and then returns.
Meanwhile, I've been working on building up some titles that I think might be helpful for her during this transition. In the interest of beefing up her nonfiction options, I ordered a couple of the Who Is(Was) ... titles about people I knew she would be interested in. She shrieked with joy over Who Was Blackbeard?! I also picked up a few Science Comics, and dug a Nathan Hale Hazardous Tale title that I had previously picked up out of the stack.
My Facebook and Twitter friends had other constructive suggestions, such as:
- Me reading aloud something more challenge to her, to build up her listening comprehension. And yes, we will get back to this at some point, but we're taking a break after the very intense Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
- Her reading something in print format that she has already read in graphic format, like City of Ember or a Babysitters Club or the first Wings of Fire book.
- Finding more in between books, like the Andy Griffiths Treehouse books and the various Scholastic Branches books, that are heavily illustrated by still primarily text driven.
I'm keeping all of these in my back pocket, along with my own the thought of trying audiobooks again. But I don't want this to turn into some sort of a complex for her, either. Third grade: the year she had to give up reading what she loves. So I'm planning to take it very, very slowly. I'll keep buying her graphic novels (and science comics and so on) and helping her check them out from the library. I'll also help her if and when she wants to find other titles that are a bit less heavily illustrated, but still hold her interest.