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Kathryn E. Shoemaker: An expert’s advice on graphic novels

Katheryn E. Shoemaker

Kathryn E. Shoemaker teaches graphic novel and picture book creation and illustration to children and adults. She has illustrated more than 40 books for children, including No Pets, Good Bye Marianne, A Telling Time, Clayman: The Golem of Prague (all by Irene N. Watts), My Animal Friends by R. David Stephens and Floyd Flamingo and His Flock of Friends by Tiffany Stone.
Shoemaker has also authored four books, including the bestselling Creative Christmas, and has illustrated hundreds of educational materials, cards, posters and calendars. She has broad experience as an art teacher, curriculum specialist, filmmaker and fundraiser.
Shoemaker holds a B.A. Magna Cum Laude, a masters degree in children’s literature from the University of British Columbia and is a doctoral candidate working on the social semiotics analysis of picture books at UBC where she also teaches courses on children’s literature. Her research and teaching interests are in the uses of picture books and graphic novels to promote literacy and literary development.

Q: What’s the difference between comic books and graphic novels?
A: A graphic novel is basically a very long comic book, and both are a form with many genres, just like novels and picture books — naturalistic, fantasy, mystery, crime, romance, biography, etc. This form has panels, speech and thought balloons, sound effects, captions and some language abbreviations.
Q: Should parents of graphic-novel fans be worried about their child’s reading tastes or the influence on their reading level?
A: Some parents prefer to see their children reading literary literature, in which case there are many literary graphic novels for young readers. Frankly, the difference between reading the standard “Babysitters Club” series and the graphic novel versions of them is simply a difference in form. Many young readers go through a period of voraciously reading series, quickly reading for the plot or following favorite characters, much as some older readers devour bestseller romances, science fiction and popular fiction. Similarly, the difference between reading a fine literary graphic novel and a fine standard novel is a difference in form, not literariness.
Ultimately, children’s literary tastes are shaped by family and school environments. If they are offered a range of materials, they will eventually adopt family and school tastes. Naturally, within those tastes will be genre favorites, gender preferences and age-related interests.
I think it is important there is a varied menu; in my experience, readers with an opportunity to read a range of forms and genres become more sophisticated readers than those who have a restricted diet. Exposure to some junk from time to time gives good contrast to quality.
The graphic novel’s visual storytelling may appeal to reluctant readers. Graphic novels’ conversational nature makes them especially accessible to new English speakers and readers, and to reluctant readers who find descriptive narrative prose daunting.
Graphic novels are not necessarily easier to read than other forms of literature, but their visuals give an immediate message about the content, characters, setting and action. The ability to quickly know main characters and plot lines may draw readers reluctant to make it through five or six introductory pages of verbal text.
Q: Should parents actively encourage graphic novel reading?
A: This is a personal choice. For reluctant readers or new language learners who may benefit from the visual support that illustrations and the graphic novel form provide, then yes, by all means it should be encouraged.
Q: What myths do parents have about graphic novels?
A: The fears and misconceptions about comics and graphic novels are usually due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of the form and its many genres, and to lingering memories of schools pooh-poohing them. Grandparents may remember when comics were lurid and unsuited to young children. Given the opportunity to view a wide range of literary, biographic, historical and humorous genres, they might reconsider.
The form is erroneously regarded as easy to read and not challenging young people’s reading development. That is most definitely not true, though there will always be cases where a person reads only poor-quality graphic novels, just as some read only poor-quality novels.
Q: Why might parents help their child create their own graphic novels?
A: We are in the midst of a highly visual, highly multimodal communication time. Becoming sophisticated readers of picture books and graphic novels supports visual literary and literacy development. Learning to create a graphic novel supports the ability to transform verbal ideas and narratives to visual ideas, displays and narratives.
Q: Best sites that review/rate graphic novels?
A: ScottMcLoud.com is great for information about the comic form. There are also sites that help people produce their own comics. I favor folks learning on paper with pencil and line before going online because I think many of the sites simply ask folks to manipulate templates. Look for sites where you can use your own artwork and then turn it into an online comic.
Q: Other sites about graphic novels?
A:http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/yalsa/booklistsawards/greatgraphicnovelsforteens/gn.cfm

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11.01.11

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