"Comics are a gateway drug to literacy."
—Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus, A Survivor's Tale
When first drafting our mission statement in 2008, we turned to one of our advisors, Stanford Professor Emerita Barbara Tversky, for the best explanation possible of how comics teach kids. Professor Tversky puts it so well: “Comics use a broad range of sophisticated devices for communication," she told us. "They are similar to face-to-face interactions, in which meaning is derived not solely from words, but also from gestures, intonation, facial expressions and props. Comics are more than just illustrated books, but rather make use of a multi-modal language that blends words, pictures, facial expressions, panel-to-panel progression, color, sound effects and more to engage readers in a compelling narrative." Five years later, study after study has come out extolling the virtues of comics as a teaching tool. All we can think is...we told you so!
The Canadian Council of Learning has gathered definitive research showing that readers who love comics also tend to read more text-based material and report enjoying reading more than their peers who don't pick up comic books. Reports the CCL, "Comic books allow children to develop many of the same skills as reading text-based books such as connecting narratives to children’s own experiences, predicting what will happen next and inferring what happens between individual panels. Even before children are ready to read text, comic books can give them practice in making meaning from material printed on a page, tracking left to right and top to bottom, interpreting symbols, and following the sequence of events in a story. Comic books have been shown to be useful for beginning readers, since the reduced text makes the language manageable for new readers. Comics expand children’s vocabulary by giving contexts to words that the child would not normally have been exposed to."
Comics, the CCL goes on to say, are especially useful for improving reading development among second-language learners and children with learning difficulties. (It's no coincidence that educators of these groups are among TOON's biggest advocates.)
Heidi MacDonald of Publishers Weekly recently covered a University of Oklahoma study measuring how students retain information presented in graphic novel format. The University of Oklahoma study found that students who read comics-format material, as opposed to text-only material, retained more information verbatim -- and 80% of the students involved found comics "compared favorably" with the text-only format.
Josh Elder, the founder of Reading with Pictures, wasn't surprised at the Oklahoma study's conclusion. “Every year, more comics are in more classrooms than the year before to great result,” Elder said. “Even the newly implemented Common Core Standards explicitly call for the use of alternative media – including comics–in the curriculum." Jeremy Short, who headed the OU study, told PW, “It was exciting to verify what some would say was common sense but some naysayers would say was the opposite of commons sense. I was shocked at how opposed a certain minority seemed to be to this format. The pencil, ball-point ben, chalkboard, and computer are all innovations that educators scoffed at when they were first introduced. I hope the graphic novel can be added to that list of educational tools that seem foolish to bemoan in hindsight."
Of course, we're proud of our books not just for their pedagogical virtues but also for their artistic ones. The thousands of kids exclaiming over TOON Books aren't so excited simply because they're developing their inference skills -- they're thrilled because they love making mud pies with Benny and Penny, swimming through the ocean with Nanaue, and journeying to the bottom of the world with Mouse. As Booklist pointed out way back in 2008, TOON Books are "a literacy tool to teach kids how to not only read but also love to read." And that's exactly what we want in schools and in homes all over the world.