On Comics for Pre-Schoolers

I never really enjoyed reading comic books to my 3-year-old. I am a comic geek, so I thought I’d love it, but I hadn’t realized the particular challenges of reading word bubbles to the illiterate.

It began the first time I read one of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books: there’s a lot of dialogue, but without the “…elephant said” and “…piggie said” cues of a picture book (or even a novel), Maggie couldn’t tell who was saying what. So we resort to pointing to the characters as we go through the panels. This is an acceptable beginner tactic, but as comics get more complex, it stops working. Characters sometimes speak from “off panel”. Sound effects come from – where? We muddle through with the aid of funny stage voices and elaborate sound effects, but the activity is exhausting. I didn’t like reading comics.

That didn’t deter my child. Though it was exhausting for me, graphic novels are almost an ideal middle-point for a kid who is interested in the more sophisticated content of a novel, but still wants the visual cues of a picture book. There’s just so much going on within a panel, let alone a page. She has discovered she can “read” the narrative through the progression of panels in a way that picture books don’t especially allow. Kids memorize picture books, but can invent a complex and involved story the very first time they encounter a comic.

We’re deep down the graphic novel rabbit hole now, let me tell you. Thankfully graphic novels for kids are a ballooning media, and Toronto has an exceptionally reliable source in the newly-established Little Island Comics at Bathurst & Bloor. Little Island is an extension of the (best comic book store ever) Beguiling, who have become a world leader in promoting both graphic novels as a literary form and graphic novels for kids.  Supplying collections to school libraries is only one of their many above-and-beyond services. They know their stuff.

Maggie has a (probably genetic) fascination with dragons, and so most of her favourite comics feature them.  Last TCAF we picked up a copy of Dragons! Comics and Activities for Kids and she was absolutely smitten with Nogard the Dragon. Not long after we learned that Nogard and his buddies were products of Alec Longstreth’s Isle of Elsi comics, published predominantly in zine format! For those of you who were born on the internet, that’s code for “not available anywhere”. After reading Nogard for the nth time, my husband threw up his arms and flatly refused to read it again, leading to a week-long sulk in which Maggie insisted she didn’t have enough books with “monsters and other beasties” in them. So we thought we’d give Bone a go.

Bone, for those of you familiar with it, might seem wildly inappropriate for a 3-year-old, but our findings were surprising. Jeff Smith’s story of a trio of marshmallow-fluff little dudes caught in the middle an epic fantasy show-down between dragons, rat men, elder gods and ordinary folk is, until the 6th or 7th book anyway, funny, exciting, and easy to understand. Okay, so Maggie didn’t grasp at all the ins and outs of rigging a cow race, or the tactics of divide and conquer battles, but she knew who was nice, who was mean, and who was funny. We’d read approximately half a trade per night with an increasingly long series recap at the beginning of each session. She’d make us re-read EVERY stupid rat creature scene. There’s a slap-stick element to Bone which is so kid friendly, and the narrow escapes of those early books are exciting without being traumatizing. Add to that a story in which the women are the heroes, the bad guys are kinda cuddly, and the smaller you are, the safer you are, we have the perfect storm of things my kid loves. We re-read the first 6 books of the series four or five times over two months almost to the exclusion of anything else.

But even a good book gets old when you’ve read it five times in a row, so we had to move on. We engaged Kean Soo’s Jellaby. In a way this is more appropriate for a little kid, but it really depends on what freaks your kid out. There are fewer monsters and less blood and violence than in Bone, but the underlying themes of bullying, lonely kids and, my daughter’s biggest bugaboo, parental separation are pretty intense for a little kid. Maggie just ADORES the first trade. I can’t emphasize this enough. Jellaby is funny, cute, and reassuring to even a tiny child. Who doesn’t want a giant purple secret dragon friend? The second graphic novel delves into darker territory, and Maggie was especially upset by a scene in which the lead character Portia meets her missing father in a dream. But a few weeks after we first read it Maggie tentatively pulled it back off the shelf and went over it herself for hours over several days, then declared she wanted to read it again. The second, third and nth readings were better for her as we explained and unpacked the content. Just as she’d been fascinated by the rat creatures in Bone, Maggie is taken with the “bad” monster in Jellaby: Monster in the City. There’s something fundamental about monsters in a child’s experience. I think it helps them grasp and objectify the bad and scary things in the world. Better seen than unseen and imagined.

Our latest craze is Magic Trixie. We assailed Little Island’s Tory Woollcott not long ago for “more dragon comics for pre-schoolers” and came away instead with several superior suggestions. Among them was Jill Thompson’s Magic Trixie comics, the adventures of a little witch girl and her monster-archetype friends. Think Monster High if the characters were eight years old and not a bunch of tramps. This was originally on the plate because the third trade features a dragon, but the success around here is because of the friendly, conflict-free space in the comic. The stories are simple ones about wacky friends doing friendly things and being harmless, something my little one is fond of despite her sympathy for monsters. I think I enjoy this one because it affords a bit of breathing space after the deep themes and heavy unpacking we need to do with other books – Trixie is just plain fluffy, but fun. It also helps that Trixie’s father looks like Maggie’s!

I have to add a honourable mention for one more book, Rabbit and Bear Paws. Someone left this issue on a table at the Palmerston library and Maggie insisted we take it home. I was in a hurry and groaned a yes even though it seemed to me to be totally beyond her both in terms of length and content. Wow, was I ever wrong! Yes, it’s long. Despite the trim size of the book, it takes a full 45 minutes to read out loud cover to cover. Yes, the content is slightly confusing – 3-year-olds barely grasp the existence of romantic love. But Rabbit and Bear Paws, the lead characters, are also just two kids watching a bigger world around them which they don’t fully understand. While the adults are resolving adult storylines, they are getting into trouble and glimpsing child-sized portions of the bigger whole. The comic emphasizes slapstick, another plus, and Maggie loves a setting there the kids have so much outdoor freedom. It’s a world of trees, water, animals and space to run and adventure. Also, Strawberry is totally badass.

We’re extra excited now for TCAF because this year, we have a kid who will unquestionably be up for some of TCAF’s extensive children’s content! And if we can’t wait until then, I’m told Little Island hosts Saturday afternoon “make your own comic” workshops, along with colouring for smaller bodies. Where was this stuff when I was a kid??? Brewing, I guess. It’s an exciting time to be a kid who’s into comics!

Today in literary mashups…

(Courtesy of my friend Steve Tassie, who I hope is hard at work writing this literary masterpiece! Steve is a comedian, game designer, pirate and sometimes even a teacher! He can be found in comedy clubs and board game cafes around Toronto, from time to time.))

Paper Love

This Christmas my sister, who works as a conservator at Kensington Palace, gave me the best gift a bibliophile could possibly hope for: preservation. Specifically, she mounted, matted and framed much of my growing collection of ephemera.

The Bookworm, a keepsake from the Alcuin Society and a warning to my houseguests.

I’ve blogged before about real value added in publishing and, well, here’s a prime example. There seems to be a growing trend of including ephemera in paper periodicals, ranging from the postcard-sized prints included in each issue of The Devil’s Artisan to the large-scale bookish curios that form the basis of The Thing. It’s an easy gimmick, really. If you want to sell a periodical as an object rather than the content, you need to capitalize on the physical. McSweeny’s has figured this out and with it reaped great success. Canadian periodicals haven’t become so ambitious as to print a Douglas Coupland bedspread (yet), but I love what I’ve received from Canadian Notes and Queries, Amphora, and DA nevertheless.

The first keepsake from CNQ.

Bit by bit my house looks less like an exploded college library and more like the private museum of a gin-muddled librarian. I must be growing up!

State of the Reading 2011

I used to do reading roundups every year on my Livejournal on January 1st of the new year, like clockwork. I did the first at the dawn of 2004, reporting that I had read in 2003 46 books (“not counting plays, graphic novels, magazines or school books”). In 2004 I read 39 books and described the total as “disappointing”. 2005 got worse with a total of 38 books, with the caveat that “in my defense I am in school and had to read an awful lot of journals, textbooks and notes which don’t appear on this list.” 2006 was a strong 46 again, but in 2007 I only eked out 19, a flop I attributed to learning to knit instead. 2008 I read 22 (“The excuse: Was knitting a blanket 4-8h a day solidly between March and June. Also, had a baby.”)

In 2009 I started blogging and read only 18 books officially because I didn’t want to own up in public that I read Twilight that year. I didn’t even bother to make an excuse then, because I suspect by this point I’d come to realize that I am actually a very slow reader who needs a dedicated 8h a day of uninterrupted reading time if I’m to even manage a book a week.  In 2010 I moved my round-up to the blog rather than my LJ and added fancy graphics (because I am fancy). Surprisingly I managed to read 40 books and 32 graphic novels that year because, I think, I was back at work while strangers looked after my child – not sure how that works out in karma.

And all of that is a prelude to this year’s excuse. The Excuse has become as much of a yearly tradition, I now see, as the list itself. By the raw numbers 2011 looks okay:

Books read: 31

Books read before the baby was born: 23

Books read after the baby: 8

Not bad, right? We’re back to my pre-children numbers! But I have an excuse for excellence this time: I cheated. At least, what I did counts as cheating to me. I’m a bit of a subscriber to the Georgian philosophy of reading. It should hurt a little. It should be edifying. Reading “just novels” is fun, but perhaps not the very best use of one’s time. This is my way of avoiding hypocrisy.  I like video games, but I wouldn’t advocate playing them all the time. I like television, but I don’t think you should watch it all the time. I like to read, but I don’t think you should just read novels all the time. It’s fun. It’s leisure. But leisure is what you get up to when your day of hard work is over, when you have a bit of time to yourself.

I like to challenge myself when I read, and this year I most assuredly did not. I re-read all of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. I re-read the entire Game of Thrones series. I read Patrick Rothfuss and Connie Willis. I indulged because, dammit, I spent half the year pregnant while caring for a toddler, gave birth in my basement without any kind of pain killers, then parented two pre-schoolers almost entirely by myself. That was my work this year. I was full up on work, thank you very much.

So maybe my numbers should look like this:

Challenging books read: 14

Indulgent books read: 17

Lives created: 1

Lives sustained: 4

As 2012 runs me down like a herd of panicked wildebeests I can only hope I am able to keep up a pace like the latter minus, knock on wood, the life created. A handful of books to make me a better reader, and a pile to keep me jolly while I continue with my new, harder job: sustaining lives!