Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Graphic Novel Week: Interview with Terry Thompson

Yesterday, we reviewed Terry Thompson's new professional book for teachers, ADVENTURES IN GRAPHICA: USING COMICS AND GRAPHIC NOVELS TO TEACH COMPREHENSION, 2-6. Today, we have an interview with the author about the book and his work in this area. Enjoy!

FRANKI: Are you a comic book/graphic novel reader yourself?

TERRY: I get asked this a lot, and the answer surprises many people. The common assumption is that I have stacks and stacks of comic books and that's all I ever read. Though I'm a huge fan of DC Comics' Nightwing and Green Lantern series, graphica is only a small slice of what I read. This mirrors the theme in my book about how comic books and graphic novels should supplement (not replace) the variety of literature our readers experience. Graphica shuffles into the "to be read stack" on my night stand about every 4th or 5th book.
When I read graphica, I have to admit that prefer graphic novels over comic books. Since I'm not one who can wait an entire month to find out what happened after the cliffhanger ending of an issue, when I do read comic books, I prefer to have all the issues of one story arch at the same time. Since lots of plot lines in comic books span several consecutive issues, I have to wait a few months before my stack of issues includes the entire story.

FRANKI: Tell us about the word GRAPHICA.

TERRY: Funny you should ask. A friend of mine jokes that I made it up! When he first saw the book, he wrote me an email and said, "Is graphica even a real wordica???" In actuality, graphica is a rarely used industry term that does, in fact, refer to the comic/graphic novel format. I chose to use it for the book, because I felt the medium really needed a more definitive word that encompassed all that it can offer. Because the term 'comics' can refer to comedians or comic strips in the funnies, and 'graphic novels' limits us to only one type of format within the medium, I brought the word graphica out of hiding to give us a common term for the medium as well as a mutual frame of reference for the literature it refers to.

FRANKI: When did you start seeing the value in using graphica?

TERRY: In chapter one, I tell the story of my experience with Bradley and how a single comic book that I picked up at the local comic book store literally transformed him as a reader right before my eyes. That was the moment that I realized I needed to learn more about the medium and what it could offer my students instructionally. Between that research and trying graphica with other struggling readers, it didn't take long for me to realize that I'd landed on a potential gold mine of literature that - before then - had never dawned on me as a way to support my teaching.

FRANKI: Do you find that most kids understand graphica more easily than many adults? Or are there students who have difficulty with it?

TERRY: Yes. And yes. I think that one of the aspects that draw kids to graphica is that it inhabits a childlike world of art work, movement, and themes. Since many of our kids are used to being stimulated visually (videos, games, computers), the format seems to speak to them in a way that traditional literature doesn't - and they take to it with relative ease. On the other hand, while most of the adults I've worked with embrace graphica as valuable, they admit that they don't always 'get it' - it's almost like how the kids are the only ones who can hear the reindeer bells in the Polar Express. Almost. With that being said, though, we have to remember that graphica is just like any other literature we offer our students. Most of our students will take to graphica, but some won't - and we need to allow for that. It's just like working with other genres and mediums. Kids are different and they take to various types of reading differently. Whether they're finding the artistic representations of meaning difficult to navigate or they simply have a preference for more traditional types of literature, there are kids out there who will have difficulty with graphica. And that's ok. We don't live in Stepford.

FRANKI: What are the biggest gains you've seen kids make when graphica is part of their reading?

TERRY: When kids read a lot of comics and graphic novels, I've noticed their ability to describe their mental images in clearer detail and in a way that better supports their ability to make meaning. Because the artwork is such a clear example of what good readers do when they visualize, the act of visualization on the part of readers of graphica appears more precise and fluid. I'm also noticing that these readers seem to be making gains in stamina. Since the illustrations support the text and the students are interested and motivated, they'll read for longer amounts of time than they might read traditional text. The effects seem to be playing out in that they have an increased endurance for reading - even when they're reading traditional texts. However, the biggest gains of all have been in students' increased levels of motivation to read. I've seen tons of passive readers become active about the task of reading - simply because they had a sincere desire to read the medium.

FRANKI: You talk a lot about transferring skills learned in comic books and graphic novels to other types of text. Can you explain this?

TERRY: Certainly. I call this 'translating the transfer' and, to me, this is the most valuable payoff that using graphica instructionally can offer. Teaching with comics and graphic novels offers visual representations of many of the invisible comprehension strategies we use when we read. For example I mentioned earlier that the artwork in the panels of a comic book can be a terrific example of what it means to visualize while reading. For many of our students, this is an 'in the head' process - but seeing the skill visually on the page, accompanied by the text, can ground this important but invisible comprehension strategy. As we use graphica to make the invisible act of comprehension visible, we can 'translate' for students how they can 'transfer' this learning back to traditional texts. Continuing with our example of visualization, I might remind a reader of graphica who's struggling to make mental images in a chapter book to try to imagine the reading like a comic book panel in her head. What colors would you see? What action would be happening? What characters are present? Who would be talking? What are they saying? How are they saying it? What types of onomatopoeia might be occurring? How will your mental image change as you continue through the text and create the next panel. In this way, graphica can serve as a scaffold to make comprehension strategies more tangible to our students who might otherwise struggle with them. All we have to do is show them how.

FRANKI: How do you suggest that teachers who are not readers of this type of text become comfortable with it?

TERRY: I think it is so important that teachers of reading be readers themselves. If we expect our students to read graphica (or any other genre or medium), then it is important that we have had experiences with it as well. In the same way that I'd propose that someone new to teaching poetry explore some more grown up offerings of the genre, I suggest that teachers new to graphica take some time to read selections that are more geared to seasoned readers. In this way, their processes of making meaning will be more authentic. Jumping in feet first and having a personal experience with graphica is an excellent way to get more comfortable with it. In no time at all, navigating the medium will be second nature to them - and this will only fortify their instructional use of it. To adults who are new to graphica, I often suggest the classics like Will Eisner's groundbreaking graphic novel A Contract With God or Art Spiegleman's two part graphic novel series Maus. Sid Jacobson's graphic adaptation of the 9/11 report is amazing, and several adults I've suggested it to have contacted me afterwards to tell me what a life changing experience it was for them (and it truly is amazing). Additionally, graphica is written in so many different genres that new readers might also do well to find a selection that matches their favorite like romance, memoir, science fiction, and - yes - even super heroes!

FRANKI: Have you learned anything new about the topic since you completed your book?

TERRY: In the book, I talk a lot about how motivated kids are to read graphica and how just making them available will create readers out of many of our resisters. As the manuscript went into the final copyediting phases, I settled on a new and important understanding that I wish I could have included in the book. I've noticed that, while that motivation to read comics is powerful, it can wane if students aren't introduced to graphica that meets them where they are. First impressions are everything. If readers are given a selection of graphica during their first encounter with the medium that is too challenging or doesn't fall within their zone of interest, some readers will decide immediately that comics are yet another type of text that they can't enjoy. This seems doubly difficult when the student was really looking forward to reading the medium. In these cases, the reader's excitement isn't enough. If we want to ride that wave of enthusiasm effectively, we have match students with graphica that is manageable for them and encourage them to monitor whether the selection is just right for them or it needs to be abandoned for a better choice. The popularity and nuance of being a graphic novel isn't enough. If we don't meet the reader's enthusiasm to take on graphica with appropriately matched selections, we may see that wave crash all too soon and its potential to make a difference lost to us unnecessarily.


  1. I'm enjoying this post series! Another adult GN that works for those teachers dipping their toes into this form is Persepolis. Now also a really splendid film. (One reason I recommend it is that so many teachers are female and this is done by a woman and gives that perspective.)

  2. Thanks. I like the term GRAPHICA, and will probably start using it, nerd-like, as often as possible. ;)

    As to his last insight about beginning with the right graphica, I'm glad I read American Born Chinese first. It was easy enough for me to "get it," but complex enough to challenge me and win my admiration.

    Great interview!

  3. Just wanted you to know that I am totally enjoying this series. I'm a literacy coach in Colorado, an avid reader and as of five years ago, the mom of two boys, who I adopted from the the foster care system in Colorado. They are not, unfortunately, avid readers, but love graphic novels. They've read tons- even some "classics" like Macbeth and Beowulf. I still don't love them (in my mind it's harder work to read the pictures in a graphic novel than the words in a book), but sure do value them in the lives of my boys and in my classroom.
    Thanks for putting this series together!
    Carol Wilcox


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