When Reading Isn’t Fun: Letting Pictures Lead the Way

-by guest blogger Mary Ventura

Mary is a Special Ed teacher and parent of a child with Special Ed needs.  She has learned a few ways to get kids who don’t have a natural affinity for reading to love books, and we’ve asked her to share them with us.  Her advice: get them to visualize the story, with a little help (from graphic novels, as described below, or with a movie pairing).

My 11-year-old has struggled with reading off and on through his life, and he’s got some learning disabilities that make it all a whole lot less fun.  All I wanted was for him to love reading so much he would tuck himself away in his room and get lost in a book, but this was far from the case in the beginning.  It’s interesting in looking at Special Education (I say this as a Special Ed teacher and parent of a child with Special Ed needs) the first thing we tend to do with our kids who need extra “help” is suck all the fun stuff right out!  Reading becomes flashcards with sight words.  Or, even less fun, flash cards with vowel combinations and separated word parts.  So when he was 7 and struggling with reading for any length of time and was kicking and screaming and crying his way through a 10-page book with about 20 sentences in it, I realized something wasn’t working.

Logan was struggling because he couldn’t comfortably read the words.  He was never going to tuck himself away with a book, because reading was a physically uncomfortable, un-enjoyable activity and it was becoming more so every day, not less so.   But at the tender age of 7 he really loved Star Wars and so I found myself inquiring at the local comic shop counter and walked out of there with 2 Star Wars graphic novels and a Wolverine comic for good measure. (I’m not totally up on super hero comics but I did know that Wolverine’s real/human name was Logan and thought it might be a good selling point for my Logan.)

What an amazing gift graphic novels have been for our family. What graphic novels enabled Logan to do was to read what he wanted to read and then relax and let the pictures take him through the story, picking up a word here or a sentence there as he desired.  Graphic novels gave him the ability to be an independent reader on his own terms with books he found interesting.  He slowly built up his reading endurance, reading more and more each time he sat with a book until he could read it the whole way through, and now spends his early Saturday mornings in his bed covers surrounded with books.  He has also taken to staying up to read after bedtime, some nights even going to bed early just to read a little longer.  The kid LOVES to read.  He still has his struggles with it, he still has his reading goals in school for special education, but he loves reading and that’s the one gift I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give him.

At home and at school, I’m finding the best thing to happen in the world of books for struggling readers is the creation of the graphic novel.  Comics are short and lack the ability to really build on a kid’s reading endurance, but a graphic novel is perfect because it truly is a novel done in comic form.  The characters change and evolve throughout the course of the story, the plot rises and falls with twists and turns and the reader is carried through the whole experience with pictures to boot.  I have been in meetings where English teachers pick up a graphic novel, flip through the pages and say with a chuckle, “I’m sorry, but I have a hard time calling this a book!”  For some die-hard literature lovers it might be a little difficult to accept them, but for someone who is trying to hook a kid into reading, it can be the most amazing experience.

Some graphic novels my students and kids are loving right now:

Courtney Crumrin Series by Ted Naifeh: The Twilight series and everything Vampire and Zombie is SO in right now but they all seem to be hugely thick and intimidating for the struggling reader.  Courtney Crumrin is a wonderful solution!  It’s a mystical world of witches and warlocks and Courtney is learning all about her powers from her uncle and teacher.  It’s so great because it’s a very accessible text but is not childish looking.  All levels of readers in my middle school classroom have been devouring this series!  It’s rated Y 7+ (youth ages 7 & up)


Pinky and Stinky by James Kochalka: I love Pinky and Stinky!  I have friends who roll their eyes at it but I’m convinced they have forgotten what is funny for 4th-7th graders.  It’s an all-ages graphic novel about two piggies, Pinky and Stinky, who are sent on a mission to outer space.   Just when Pinky and Stinky think their journey is coming to an unfortunate end, their cute little piggie tails are saved.  The art is blue ink and wonderfully simple to take in; it’s easy to appreciate and not overly stimulating with crowded detail.  Plus it’s big and thick so it gives the reader a sense of accomplishment when finished even though it’s a pretty quick read.  It’s a favorite book for the car for our family when we’re driving for an hour or longer.


Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi: If you have never read a graphic novel before, and doubt you would ever enjoy one, Amulet is the series for you!  Kazu Kibuishi’s artwork is full color, smooth and inviting.  I pushed the first book into my mother’s hands (a comic book doubter- now retired Language Arts teacher) then I stepped back and watched as she twisted in her chair, gasping aloud until she finished and immediately asked for the next book.  The main character is Emily, a girl whose family has just moved to a house that belongs to Emily’s lost grandfather.  Emily and her brother stumble upon an Amulet in a strange room in the old house and soon Emily finds the Amulet has a strange power.  When her mother disappears in the basement Emily has no choice but to follow the power in the Amulet to bring her mother back.  The first book has left every student in my classroom immediately grabbing for the next one.


4 Responses to When Reading Isn’t Fun: Letting Pictures Lead the Way

  1. hazelrigg1 says:

    I’m getting used to the idea of graphic novels. Liked your article. Do you have any suggestions for a series in which the protagonist is a boy? Many thanks.

  2. marydventura says:

    As far as a series goes the only thing that comes to mind is the Bone series by Jeff Smith though they aren’t humans and the main human character is a girl…I’ll see what else I can find. Here are some stand alone graphic novels that are hits with my students and kids:
    Copper by Kazu Kibuishi is a great intro into the graphic novel world. It’s the story of a very optimistic boy and his talking dog Fred. The book is compiled of different stories of these characters and the stories can stand alone or be read as a chapter book.
    Also, for the older, perhaps more angsty and emotionally complex, there is a story called
    The Savage by David Almond and illustrated by Dave McKean. This book is a story within a story about a boy getting bullied and dealing with the death of his father. He begins writing a story to deal with his complicated emotions. There are some violent images. It’s a great book for those complicated and disenfranchised souls.

    And as a side note, the Amulet and Courtney Crumrin series are huge hits with both my male and female students.
    Thanks for the question!

  3. msyoungacademy says:

    I found Beowulf for my British Literature class. I use it as a companion piece for my more visual learners. The publisher is Candlewick Press and the ISBN number is 978-0-7636-3023-2

  4. marydventura says:

    Yes, Beowulf is another great addition! There are a lot of novels now available in graphic novel format!

    One of my students has actually found herself in love with the Hardy Boys graphic novel series, which is actually a series with male protagonists as well!

    Anthony Horowitz also has made many of his novels available in graphic novel format!

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