28 May 2009

Greek Myth Graphics as a Gateway

At the Graphic Classroom, Chris Wilson wrote recently about using comics about Greek mythology as a way of buttering up elementary-school students for Rick Riordan's first Percy Jackson novel, based on that mythology. The strategy worked--for some students:

I introduced my comics to the students in my student teaching class early in the semester. I had an entire box filled with Greek mythology from Lerner Publishing [Graphic Legends and Myths series].

At first, only one fourth grade student--a boy in the gifted program--picked them up. It was on my recommendation and I thought he would enjoy them. . . . It was not long until I had a group of nearly 10 boys reading Greek myth. The girls, except one, were uninterested.

When we finished our daily read-aloud book, I introduced The Lightning Thief to the class. Instantly, the boys became so excited when the story mentioned Perseus, the Minotaur, Medusa, Zeus and other Greek characters. So excited in fact, that they would often interrupt the read-aloud to share what they knew about the characters. There were times when they would stand up and shout and flap their hands.

Fourth grade boys
About literature

I could not keep my Greek myth comics in stock. They were in backpacks and on desks and in hands, some even read during recess.

I soon left the classroom to begin my rotations. When I came back four weeks later, I discovered the kids had finished The Lightning Thief. Many of the boys had gone on to check out the next book from the library or purchased it from the Scholastic book fair.

I sat down with the students and asked them about it. The boys were almost uncontrollable in their excitement over both the comics and the novel. The girls, on the other hand, were not. I asked them about it.

They were confused.

The girls, you see, had not picked up the comics so they were very unfamiliar with the characters or the back-story. Thus, they were so-so on the book.
Just as the girls had been, for the most part, so-so on the comics. But might that have been because Greek myths--or at least those about heroes and monsters and gods hitting each other--hold more appeal for American boys no matter what format they come in?

Rick Riordan started the Percy Jackson stories to appeal to a boy--specifically, one of his sons. And according to this interview, that young Riordan already enjoyed Greek mythology.

Maybe someone could run Chris Wilson's experiment using comics and a novel thought to have more appeal for American girls, and see if the students' responses are reversed.

This anecdote also reminded me of a moment last summer when I was visiting Godson and his family in upstate New York. I had ended up with the largest bedroom in the house, more real estate than I could use, and I came back to that room one day to find all the kids playing inside. Godson's Brother had found the latest volume of Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze comics among my books and was intently studying the vast family tree at the front. The comics pages didn't draw him in as much as all those polysyllabic names.

(Pointer from Good Comics for Kids.)


Charlotte said...

Maybe it's just that the girls weren't interested in violent comic books. Maybe they would have fought over something more narrative rich, like D'aulaire's book of greek myths, which I loved, and read cover to cover at least twice a year. My mother xeroxed the black and white illustrations for me to color, I argued with my sisters which of the nine muses was more beautiful, and, in general, ate it all up. Even the stories of the heros killing monsters (and each other).

J. L. Bell said...

The Lerner Graphic Universe books on Greek mythology tend to emphasize heroes fighting monsters. I just checked out the two with female title characters: Demeter, Persephone, and Psyche. The cover of the first shows a kidnapping, and the latter some sort of scary manifestation. No beautiful muses, no happy marriages, no nymphs metamorphosing into flowers.

Vivian Mahoney said...

I agree with Charlotte. Most graphics tend to be too violent, with almost "robot-looking" or muscular heroes looking to save the day. Which is too bad, since girls are a hidden market and if they did one with Greek myths, it would be a winner.

I took my girls to the Rick Riordan book signing a couple weeks ago, and with over 600 people, there were almost as many girls as boys--which surprised me.

There seems to be a trend with popular authors writing graphic novels for strong girl characters and perhaps that will help break the mold so the graphic novel can be more girl friendly. Greek myths would be a great topic to try!

J. L. Bell said...

The Graphic Universe books that I've seen are very much in American comics' default style: lots of foreshortening, emphasis on action, attempts at naturalistic drawing.

We know that girls are the primary audience for a different style of comics: Japanese manga, which often emphasize mood, emotions, and stylization of the human face.

It's possible that a different style of mythological comics would appeal to girls in our culture more. But would those appeal to boys?

MF Hed said...

I agree with the above comments. While it is unfair to plunk all girls in the nonviolent category, it may be that those kids who are indisposed to or sheltered from violent images would be turned off from exploring cross-curricular lesson units that remind them of what they find distasteful.

Sometimes a lesson plan works well when it is turned on its head. I know of two 9 y.o. girls who very much enjoy the Percy Jackson series and have been inspired to research Greek mythology because of it.

I can't help thinking that if both options were presented at the outset - start with the myths, or start with Lightening Thief - then most kids, already hooked, then would easily transfer their interest in one medium to the other out of sheer curiosity.

Elizabeth said...

This is surprising to me because, for reasons that I now recognize as likely particular to my own childhood, I've always thought of Greek mythology as more a girls' thing.