Comics and Childhood Literacy

When I was a wee kiddo, my parents read to me often. Tucked into my Beauty and the Beast sleeping bag, we'd read children's books, Bible stories, fairytales. Back then, I didn't even know comics existed beyond the funny pages, but I loved reading with my parents.

This love of reading stayed with me throughout childhood and well into adulthood. As a teenager, I loved both manga and classic literature, in college, I fell in love with the works of Terry Pratchett, in graduate school, I read a lot of horror both in comics and prose. Comics did not detract from my love of prose, but served as an alternative way to consume literature, and over time, I came to feel that comics were really the perfect artform- where art and prose complement one another.

This love of comics inspired me to create my own, which in turn inspired me to improve my art. As a child, I loved writing short stories, and comics have kept that love alive for decades. My love for comics has opened the doors to so many different interests- sewing, fashion, watercolor, pen and ink illustration. And this love inspired me to pursue a Masters of Fine Art when I finished my undergrad degree in Digital art.

While in graduate school at SCAD in 2012, I wrote my Sequential Art Masters's thesis on how comics sometimes fail young readers, what artists and comic creators can do to accommodate pre-literate children. I posited that there should be two levels of distinction in children's comics- early reader comics and children's chapter comics. I also stated comic creators need to make accommodations for their readers while challenging them to improve their comic literacy. I read dozens of children's comics and noticed that while many creators were making comics with kid-friendly themes, the panels and composition were too challenging for readers unfamiliar with comics. This thesis was written the same year Raina Telgemier's graphic novel Smile hit the market, and comics for younger readers have grown a lot in the past ten years. Now we have a wide variety of comics specifically designed for kids and teens, and the art form has made wide strides.

While working on my thesis, I did a lot of research on children's literacy, skills, and strategies for teaching young readers, and found a lot of evidence to support the fact that comics can be an instrumental tool in teaching people to read. The combination of sequential art, language art, and sequential storytelling in graphic novels support literacy and help children master reading. Comics can be a wonderful way to encourage struggling readers to develop reading comprehension and language art skills and can make the challenge of learning how to read fun and engaging.

Graphic novels and comics allow younger readers to read along with the story using visual context clues even if they're pre-literate. The illustrations can help children understand different emotions and expressions, and can be a wonderful tool for learning how to decode emotions. Comics can be useful in teaching cause and effect. The nature of comics (sequential storytelling) is ideal for cementing an understanding of the sequence of events and can be used for sequential picture reading (child guesses what the story is about based on the pictures) with pre-literate readers. Parents can use the pictures to ask children questions about the content and context of the story which helps with reading comprehension.

During my thesis, I really fell in love comics as a tool for literacy and I have spent the past 10 years making comics to support that. At the time I wrote my thesis, my mother was teaching early literacy support, and I was student teaching at two schools, so I was able to workshop a lot of comic literacy theory in real-time.

Comics are useful for childhood development beyond literacy- they can be used to teach and foster so many important skills

Comics can be used to teach:
  • Sequence of events
  • Cause and effect
  • Expression decoding
  • Sequential picture reading
  • Predictive Reading
  • Empathy
  • A sense of perspective
  • A love of nature and animals
  • Creativity
My ongoing comic, 7" Kara was part of this thesis.  The first chapter was submitted as the visual portion of my thesis, and much of what I'd learned has gone into every chapter since.   At the time, comics specifically for children were a bit of an anomaly, and few publishers wanted to publish children's comics.  When initially working on the concept for 7" Kara, I thought a combination of lush picture book style illustration, immersive double-page spreads, and strong character acting would better convince parents to give comics a try.  Although my predictions for the future of children's comics were quite different from how reality panned out, I think our goal is the same- to create enjoyable comics for even the youngest readers.

Currently, I'm Kickstarting the second volume of 7" Kara. It's a charming story, set in South Louisiana, about friendship and family that invites readers to see the world through a whole new perspective. So many children's books portray families as either perfect or shattered beyond repair- I make it a point to demonstrate that family relationships can be both messy and wonderful. I wanted to depict realistic relationships that children could learn from and parents could relate to while also creating a world that both would enjoy escaping to. I also wanted to create a story that relied on non-violent problem solving while maintaining an adventurous spirit- an adventure story for those with kind hearts. Friendship, particularly friendships that bridge massive differences, is an important theme in 7" Kara, and Volume 2 is an opportunity to explore these themes.

7" Kara is a story that younger children can grow into and enjoy for years. From being read to to reading to a parent or loved one, comic formats are great for young readers and non-readers and can be used to teach several important pre-reading skills. 7" Kara can also be read together, with both readers taking turns play-acting the dialogue. The 7" Kara Volume 2 Kickstarter includes a package with wooden charms of Kara, Naomi, and Pancake (the kitten) that are perfect for play-acting along with the story, as well as an activity package that includes coloring sheets and fun activities that invite young readers to spend more time in the Lilliputian world.

Volume 1 has been in print for a while, and I'm delighted to finally be able to offer Volume 2 for pre-order through Kickstarter. Inspire empathy and imagination in your favorite reader and support a self-published indie comic. 7" Kara Volume 2 is only possible with your support- funds raised from pre-orders on Kickstarter will be used to print and ship Volume 2! I plan on having 7" Kara Volume 2 out by December, which makes it a perfect gift for comic fans young and old.