Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Real Poop on Beginning Reader Comics

Today's guest contributor is Patrick Gall. Patrick works as a librarian for children in preschool through eighth grade at the Catherine Cook School in Chicago. He served on the 2015 Newbery Award Committee and is a guest reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine.

Beginning reader comics make great Geisel books. Seriously. Comics can be defined, according to Scholastic’s A Guide to Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens, as “a combination of words and pictures in a sequence across the page” that usually contain “text, images, word balloons, sound effects, and panels.” Look familiar, Guessing Geisel readers? It should. Past Geisel Medal Winners that fit into this definition for comics include: You Are (Not) Small, The Watermelon Seed, Up, Tall and High!, Benny and Penny in the Big No-No!, Are You Ready to Play Outside?, and There Is a Bird on Your Head. 

So why have beginning reader comics (or, in the very least, beginning readers with comics elements) been so heavily honored by past Geisel Committees? Arguably, the qualities of both a Geisel Award-winning book and an effective comic for beginning readers are one and the same! Let’s take a look at Kevin McCloskey’s informative beginning reader comic from TOON Books – The Real Poop on Pigeons! – through a Geisel lens.

The Real Poop on Pigeons! is about…pigeons. Pigeons are not, at least in our school library, a particularly high-interest topic; however, McCloskey’s use of comics norms, coupled with his quirky paintings, create a distinctly engaging read. After introducing readers to a pigeon-hating protagonist and a crew of pigeon-loving kids set on changing his mind via interesting scientific facts, McCloskey shifts his focus towards the often begrudged birds’ historical significance. In particular, Picasso’s relationship with pigeons is addressed across a two-page spread:

Image from The Real Poop on Pigeons by Kevin McClosey
These two pages may look unassuming, but in actuality they are a prime example of how comics can function as effective beginning readers. By dividing the left-to-right spread into what amounts to four implied panels (by centering each pigeon kid under a Picasso bird painting, along with the talking Picasso bird to the far right) McCloskey has packed multiple “page-turn-like” transitions into one continuous image. These transitions are quick and largely unperceived by the reader, thus creating momentum. This structural dynamic also reinforces the relationships between the text and images. McCloskey’s purposeful placement of word balloons under each Picasso bird painting directs readers to look for context clues in the nearest image. Being that each painting is essentially the same (a face with a pigeon), the results become predictable. “I see a pigeon” in the first panel and “I see a face” in the second panel logically become “I see a pigeon and a face” in the third panel. This immediate relationship between text and image is achieved through a paneled comics structure ideal for new readers, who can find success not just with each page turn, but multiple times on each page.

One of the best things about beginning reader comics is that once you start looking for them, they are everywhere. Looking back through the small but mighty Guessing Geisel archive reveals multiple examples, including: Ballet Cat: Dance! Dance! Underpants!, every Elephant & Piggie book, Is That Wise, Pig?, and Noodlehead Nightmares. And since there are many more examples of strong beginning reader comics this year, I would not be surprised if the winning tradition continues.

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