Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Reading with Pictures

Reading with Pictures is a non-profit organization started by comics creator Josh Elder, who is known for his work on Mail Order Ninja. He, like me, thinks that comics are very engaging and found comics to be a large part of his diet when he was learning to read. He is seeking to make connections between comics and learning standards, and one of his projects is to make a textbook composed entirely of comics, which is what we have here. This volume was funded in part via a Kickstarter campaign, and it contains a number of comics stories sorted by content area.

Being that I am an educator by trade, and that I am a reading education person to boot, I am pretty much inclined to like this book. I have to say though, I am not thrilled with the tagline, "Comics That Make Kids Smarter," pretty much for the argument Tim O'Neil made when talking about books. Reading itself does not make a person smarter, but it is the content of the material, whether it be stories, nonfiction descriptions, or otherwise, that engages people and helps them think and perhaps amass some background knowledge through the process. And some books are better than others at doing those things.

So, how did this book do, you ask? Well, let me start with the good parts.There are some top-notch creators involved in this book, including Roger Langridge, Fred Van Lente, Ryan Dunlavey, and Chris Schweiser. For the most part, the artwork in this book was attractive and vibrant. And there were a couple of excellent entries:

I am a sucker for Van Lente and Dunlavey's work in the past, and their "George Washington...Action-President!" entry was no disappointment. I felt it offered a measured look at a vastly important historical figure that offered a complex picture of the man, warts and all.
Additionally, I had never read Chris Schweiser's Crogan Adventures until "The Black Brigade" tale offered here, but I will need to dig into some more soon. His account of Colonel Tye and a brigade of freed slaves fighting during the Revolutionary War was absorbing, dramatic, and very well rendered.
I have to say I was excited to see a mathematics section, because there are so few engaging and informative graphic novels about math, but I felt let down by these entries. One of the big problems I had with the book is characterized in the math story "Probamon" by Geoffrey Golden and Nathan Pride. It is a parody of the formerly ubiquitous Pokemon, and the jokes are pretty juvenile, mostly puns and poking fun at the protagonists (and I am OK with those, given the audience). But the danger of popular culture references such as this one, and they are pretty frequent in this book, is that they become quickly dated. I actually was amused by this story and I found it likeable enough, but I wonder how students five years from now might take it, or if they would even get the references. The story relies on the assumption that the reader knows how the game works and also that the reader can relate the concept of probability to its rules. So if such connections are not made, I wonder how successful or potentially bewildering this story might be.

Other stories in this book were less successful, for a variety of reasons. Some I felt were uninteresting in how they presented information, like comics stories with information thrown in. Some felt very pedantic and leaden in their delivery, like boring lectures. I know this book is aimed at elementary readers, but they can handle relatively complex information if it is presented in interesting ways. In the end, I felt that there were a couple of really great, engaging, and informative stories mixed with a bunch of tales full of clunky exposition and a few I felt were a waste of time. The biggest problem with this book is the problem with most textbooks: it tries to do too much. There are some factual and editing errors; the content seems thin and forced in most stories; and overall the book is inconsistent. I love puns, academic knowledge, and comics, but I felt disappointed reading most of this book.

It was an ambitious undertaking, and I think that I would have a difficult time finding much worth in any book that tried to shoehorn all of language arts, math, science, and social studies into its pages. There are a few graphic novels that I think would work excellently as textbooks, but they have much more of a focused topic. Off the top of my head, I can think of these in biology, world history, US history/government, World War I, and economics.

The reviews I have read for this book have been, at best, very mixed. Kirkus Reviews summed the book up as "wildly uneven in execution." Nick Smith recommended the books for classrooms and libraries but also commented that "not every segment is a brilliant success." Gretchen Wagner wrote, "Most of the pieces I did find both engaging and informative, but others I felt took too much exposition to introduce characters and backstory before getting to the concept, and others I could not find the point at all (although they were fun to read)." Jacob Canfield eviscerated the book in his review, writing "Despite all the good intentions in the world, The Graphic Textbook is a waste of money and time. With only a couple exceptions, none of the comics in this book are worth reading for any reason, much less educational ones."
Despite all the good intentions in the world, The Graphic Textbook is a waste of money and time. With only a couple exceptions, none of the comics in this book are worth reading for any reason, much less educational ones. - See more at: http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/10/leave-those-kids-alone-the-graphic-textbook-reviewed/#sthash.NYVrNoKD.dpuf

A preview, teachers guide, and more information about Reading with Pictures is available here from its publisher Andrews McMeel.
Would elementary students get this reference? Bueller? Anyone?

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