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Find more Experiencing the Surreal and Sublime through Dog Man
Passionate readers knows that the best reading experience can offer a glimpse of the sublime: connection to a universal human experience, mind-bending new ideas, the astonishing experience of a life outside your own, and in the best, rare cases, the opportunity to fully lose yourself in art. Many adult readers believe the best route to experiencing this almost-divine connection to a book is literary fiction. I vividly remember reading Anna Karenina for the first time and being so lost in the text that I could feel the scythe in my hand as I mowed the fields and tried to forget about my love for the aristocratic Kitty. This was odd because I was not a heartbroken nineteenth-century Russian nobleman; I was a young woman in the Midwest at the start of the twenty-first century. But that’s the power of reading, and those of us who love it are always searching for that magical state of total connection to a book. That’s part of the mission behind encouraging kids to be good readers: we want them to experience the transcendent power of literature.
For new readers, unlocking that transcendent literary state can require lots of difficult reading skills: literary fiction often requires a strong vocabulary and language fluency. Readers need to be able to sustain attention for a long time. In many cases, you might need historical and literary context to grasp the narrative and understand sometimes-nuanced metaphors. You might need the ability to hold multiple perspectives and plot points in mind.
Many young readers are still building these skills. Yes, we want kids to have the experience of being fully immersed in a good book, but while they’re building those skills, finding that transcendent state in complex novels may be years away. How can we expect kids to get excited about the power of reading when they’re still working on the tools to experience that power?
Enter graphic novels!
Among many other benefits, graphic novels connect kids with sophisticated literary concepts through a combination of art and narrative that makes them at once complex and accessible. While a young reader might not be expected to sit through pages of scene description, it’s likely they can fully grasp a complicated or unfamiliar setting by looking at a two-page spread in a comic book. A young reader may not be able to keep track of a written conversation between multiple speakers, but a series of speech balloons in a graphic novel keeps things clear. By combining art forms and relying on multiple skills—such as understanding sequence of events, recognizing body language and facial expressions, and decoding patterns—rather than just language literacy, graphic novels are able to give young readers a full-brain reading experience. Graphic novels enable kids—even new readers—to connect with the some of the most complicated ideas in literature by meeting them where they are. High-flown literary devices aren’t something only experts and connoisseurs can appreciate; your five-year-old patrons are already doing it.
Plenty of adults turn up their noses at certain super-popular titles, but those graphic novels employ devices that would be at home in any literary novel. Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series, for example, is an exercise in layers-deep meta-narrative: Dog Man (2016) is a graphic novel written by George and Harold, the main characters of Pilkey’s previous series, Captain Underpants, which is itself about a comic-book series written by those same characters, who are simultaneously characters in both the comic book they’re writing and the novel being written about the comic book they’re writing. At the beginning of the first Dog Man book, George and Harold retreat to their tree house, exhausted and bewildered by the events of the previous 12 Captain Underpants books. Hoping to discover answers about the epic adventure they created and unleashed onto the world, they instead stumble on a stash of a comic books they wrote as kindergarteners, about a police officer with a human body and a dog’s head. They decide to revise and re-release their old work as Dog Man, the book the reader is currently reading! This recap, time-shift, and reboot is accomplished over a mere six pages of introduction and brings the reader into a new layer of reality in George and Harold’s comics multiverse—before quickly moving on to jokes about exploding dogs and evil cats with giant vacuum cleaners. If Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) and its ergodic meta-narrative blew your mind as an adult, take a moment to be amazed at the narrative concepts millions of fourth-graders are able to keep straight in their minds as they devour Dog Man.
Literary concepts typically reserved for graduate-level analysis abound in graphic novels for kids! In graphic novels kids encounter characters as absurd and surreal as anything in Samuel Beckett or Richard Brautigan. James Kochalka’s Johnny Boo series follows Johnny, a ghost with amazing hair, and Squiggle, a tiny ghost shaped like a comma, through adventures on the moon and inside spooky trees filled with melted ice cream, using something called “Boo Power,” which is mostly just screaming the word “Boo!” until people fall down. In Johnny Boo Does Something! (2013), Johnny and Squiggle go on “a boring adventure” where they stand still and yawn. They get furious when they learn most people like to eat ice cream frozen—they think it’s best melted and soupy. Later, Johnny Boo finds “Ice Cream Hole #25” (a literal hole in the ground), which contains no ice cream. The book ends with a picture of the back of the author’s head. Kochalka knows that young readers don’t need logical plots or sensible characters to follow a story; they’re just as capable of grasping surreal humor as the biggest fan of the avant-garde. And, just like the wry absurdity of a Magritte painting, the visual nature of these graphic novels is essential to understanding the joke.
Sublime reading experiences aren’t all about mental gymnastics, formal experimentation, or narrative tricks, however; sometimes easily slipping into another time, place, or perspective is just as satisfying, and graphic novels can ease the way for many readers. My preschooler had a similar experience to my Anna Karenina revelation while reading Marguerite Abouet and Mathieu Sapin’s Akissi: Tales of Mischief (2018) with me. My son has never even left the Midwest, yet he was able to understand a life much different from his, easily imagining himself as a little girl in Côte d’Ivoire setting pigeon traps and watching a sheep fall from the roof of a speeding bus. He was able to look at the pictures and hear the words and refer backward or forward a few panels to get the full context, which allowed him to fully grasp not just the story but the setting and the feelings and the relationships between the characters. These are the aspects of literature that make a book feel totally immersive. Reading about an experience different from your own can feel like a magical connection to the universal, and brand-new readers can experience that with graphic novels.
While it can be spellbinding to view the world through someone else’s eyes, sometimes we read to feel connected to something more personal. Memoirs shoot to the top of adult bestseller lists because they accomplish this so well, and there’s been a surge in graphic memoirs written for kids for similar reasons. Raina Telgemeier’s graphic memoirs, most recently Guts (2019), hit deep for kids. Her portrayal of the terror of using the bathroom during a sleepover, for instance, is as real and powerful to a child as any depiction of heartbreak or trauma to an adult, and the graphic format, emphasizing potent facial expressions and body language, conveys that connection to young readers in a succinct, poignant, and deeply relatable manner. The popularity and praise for books like Shannon Hale’s Real Friends (2017), Jerry Craft’s New Kid (2018), Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s National Book Award finalist Hey, Kiddo (2018), and Robin Ha’s Almost American Girl (2020) are a testament to how powerful these graphic novels are for kids and teens. All readers deserve the experience of reading a book and feeling seen; it’s one of the things that makes literature so important, and why we children’s librarians spend so much time helping kids connect with books.
Graphic novels for kids are frankly amazing. They are a magic shortcut to the sublime, and to the best experiences reading has to offer. We urge kids to read because we know how spectacular and even astonishing it can be. As adults, we regularly get to experience the almost divine power of literature. This power is available to kids right now; it’s in graphic novels!
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