29 January 2009

Stinky: Another Kind of Easy Reader?

Among the ALA's honorees this week was Eleanor Davis's Stinky, named a Theodor Seuss Geisel Award Honor Book. That award, named after Dr. Seuss, recognizes "the most distinguished American book for beginning readers." Usually such books have simple prose with standard punctuation, so as not to overburden young kids learning to read on their own.

Stinky is a notable honoree in that it was created in comics format, rather than as a traditional picture book or easy-reader. There's no narrative voice. And compared to prose stories, the comics form asks beginning readers to learn and apply a different manner of reading.

Look at this sample page from Toon Books. Its text includes several items that rarely appear in standard prose, especially in books with very basic, simple text for beginning readers:

  • Oversized, capitalized, and boldfaced letters for emphasis.
  • Different balloon outlines to convey speech, thought, shouts, and whispers.
  • Sound effects, such as the boy's whistling and chomping.
  • Punctuation marks conveying emotion on their own, unconnected to words.
These visual symbols comprise a system of comics punctuation that overlaps the standard prose system, but has its own tools and rules.

Stinky's comics style also requires readers to understand that, for example, the multiple images of Stinky in the right middle panel are all the same character at different moments.

Stinky can work because those "showing the invisible" techniques are standard in many comics, familiar to kids and their adults from newspaper or magazine cartoons. Nevertheless, this easy-reader challenges kids to learn a different way of reading.


Anonymous said...

I agree that it's a different way of reading. I disagree that it's a challenge. Kids are bombarded with images from birth: television, signs, boxes, toys, billboards, board books (on a literary level), and more. They learn to read faces very early on and interpret simple lines. Punctuation as emotion may be new, but reading pictures dates back to Neolithic times, and was used with powerful effect in stain glass for illiterate church goers.

J. L. Bell said...

I think a beginning-reader book in comics form is a challenge in the same way as a beginning-reader book in prose form. They both are enticing young children to develop new skills. I'm not sure which form, if any, is more challenging.

I also think there's a secondary challenge lurking here, which is figuring out what's acceptable in one form but not the other. Combining punctuation marks (e.g., "?!?!") is common in comics, non-standard in prose. (Though there's an example in Alvin Ho.)

Expressing fondness by drawing a little heart is acceptable in comics, emails, personal letters, and on Valentine's Day. Doing so in a literary novel or business letter would be thought askance.

Anonymous said...

All good points. But do all beginning readers need to be pedagogical? Why can't they be for fun? There'll be plenty of teachers to tell the kid the proper use of exclamation points and question marks in prose, and to stifle her/his use of little hearts.

And on a pedagogical note, I have seen reluctant readers turned around by Captain Underpants -- because of the comics. Although there's a significant prose element, the pictures are what brought the reader to the book.

J. L. Bell said...

But do all beginning readers need to be pedagogical?

Once we call them “books for beginning readers,” I think there’s an implicit message that the books are educational. That label says they’re not for anyone who simply wants simple stories. They’re stories for readers at a particular stage of intellectual development. The word “beginning” might further imply that those readers will progress to another stage. It’s not necessary to classify books that way, but our culture does.

And given that classification, I thought it significant that the ALA committee found this book for beginning readers worth honoring, given that people read it in a different way from the other honorees.

It’s been so long since I looked in a Captain Underpants book that I don’t recall how much of them comes in prose form and how much in comics form. Obviously, their superhero milieu owes a lot to comics. And might keep them from being considered for such an honor.