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Prejudice Against the Graphic Novel Persists in the Classroom

A young girl, a primary grade-schooler with a well-worn library card, was enthusiastically reading a riveting memoir when a stern tone descended upon her.

“What is that?” the teacher asked/accused.

“It’s a graphic novel,” came the girl’s reply.

Such works, the girl was told, were unacceptable for classroom “reading time,” let alone for a book report. The teacher’s sharp ruling boiled down to a four-word excuse for banishment:

“Graphic. Novels. Aren’t. Books.”

Sigh.

Here we go again....

Two decades after Art Spiegelman’s landmark Holocaust graphic novel Maus won the Pulitzer Prize and helped stake a fresh claim for comics as literature — paving the way for the appreciation of such works as Persepolis and Blankets and American Born Chinese — do a significant number of teachers and administrators remain mired in such backward thinking?

Unfortunately, my rhetoric is rhetorical. These curricular “world-is-flat’ers” are still thick on our school grounds. But it’s time for the culture’s tectonic plates to more rapidly force a shift in academic thought.

As we step into 2014, this lingering bias in curriculum needs to cease. We urge the least enlightened of our educators to catch up with the rest of the class. And to make our case, let us present Exhibit A:

The young girl who faced that rebuke of illustrated books is a relative of mine. And that book (ahem) in question was Stitches: A Memoir, acclaimed author David Small’s poignant personal story of a dysfunctional childhood home, including his adolescent battle with throat cancer, which may have been caused by his doctor-father’s early over-embrace of X-ray radiation. In Small’s masterful prose and liquid pictures, we vividly experience the voiceless boy-patient’s raw emotions.

Even four years ago, quite a few people would have begged to differ with that grade-school teacher. Stitches climbed the bestseller list of The New York Times, which deemed the book worthy of review; was named one of the best books of the year by such outlets as Publishers Weekly; and was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature. No less than Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist/author/playwright/screenwriter Jules Feiffer said aptly of Small’s masterpiece: “It left me speechless.”

Of the teacher’s wrong-headed thinking, I was left speechless. Her decision was not a mere judgment against one book, but an ignorant indictment of all graphic novels. As blanket criticism, it was unabashedly threadbare.

Consider my commentary here, then, to be a criticism of that criticism. Because what the larger academic problem calls for is not damnation, but persuasion, a struck match. Into Plato’s cave, let us bring truer illumination.

What follows is not some broad indictment of modern American education. I was born into a brood of teachers — the family crest might as well be a chalkboard — and I deeply value what too often is one of the nation’s more thankless and underpaid cornerstone careers. Plus, as an artist who has spoken to thousands of impressive educators, I applaud those who thoughtfully and passionately help inform and shape young minds while keeping an open mind themselves. On this front, so many of them “get” it.

At heart, this essay is a hand extended in the name of better understanding, especially as our schools are filled with so-called “reluctant readers” and other struggling learners. We face an educational imperative: Why not use every effective teaching tool at our disposal? Decades of studies have shown the power of visual learning as an effective scholastic technique. We know that comics — the marriage of word and picture in a dynamic relationship that fires synapses across the brain — can be a bridge to literacy and a path to learning. Armed with that knowledge, the last thing we need blocking that footbridge is the Reluctant Teacher.

Michael Cavna is a former syndicated cartoonist who writes about comics for ‘The Washington Post.’