Teenagers Reading

research for my PhD thesis

Word and Image

with 4 comments

I previously blogged about whether reading a graphic novel is equivalent to reading a conventional book. Some of the teenagers I talked to thought this wasn’t the case, but most of the librarians agreed it was – striving through their work to ensure young people encountered a variety of genres and formats in their reading, without making judgements on supposed “quality.”

misc Pilgrim ?! by Bryan Lee O'Malley I asked every group of teenagers what they would think if graphic novels were assigned as an English class text. Some teenagers thought this would be an “easy” option and it was the visual component which led to their demotion of the format as a “legitimate” text. These teenagers also happened to be those who had limited experience of the format. (Names have been changed to ensure confidentiality.)

Fourteen year old Anna believed,

People would choose the graphic novel without like thinking about it cause they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s just a comic, it’ll be easy.’ But they won’t like think about like what you have to do. And they’ll just be like, ‘Oh it’s a change. And do that.’

Marty (age 14) said, “They’re not really books” and Jeremy (age 14) agreed, conjecturing that studying a graphic novel would compare unfavourably to a conventional book because it could not be studied it in depth.

That’s why we read more thorough books like The Red Cardigan [1] and stuff.

Ellen (age 14) very forcefully gave her reason for disparagement of graphic novels as a “lesser” format.

Researcher: What do you think of them [graphic novels] Ellen?
Ellen: For kids. [shouting] Pictures! I hate pictures!
Researcher: [laughs]
Ellen: It’s, I get half way through a book and see a picture and I stop.
Researcher: Yeah?
David: I read them.
Researcher: You want a novel?
Ellen: I want a novel, not a picture book.
Researcher: Yeah.
Mia: I don’t like.
Researcher: Do you think they’re too um, like a little kid’s book?
Ellen: No. I reckon if you’re an author you have be an author, not be an illustrator.
Researcher: Mmm. So you can like, paint a picture with words?
Ellen: Yeah. That’s an author.

Marika (age 14) talked about what she thought of the interaction between pictures and text in graphic novels, believing a graphic novel would work perfectly well without the pictures.

The pictures let you see how they’re [the story is] flowing, but it [the pictures] just says what they’re [the words are] saying, so you might as well watch a movie.

As with the other teenagers mentioned here, Marika had limited experience of graphic novels and was not interested in reading the titles displayed during the focus group session. Her lack of experience with the format is the likely cause of her erroneous belief of the limited complexity of graphic novels and the dispensability of the visual component.

The proven complexity of the interaction between word and image is discussed extensively in the literature, both online in blogs and other websites and in more academic writing [2-11].

When you draw a comic you’re not just adorning text. Comics are text themselves; it’s a language, and telling stories in that language demands a skilled practitioner. Or two.

Bryan Lee O’Malley creator of Scott Pilgrim [12]

Bryan Lee O’Malley blogged about the recent nomination of Skim by Mariko & Jillian Tamaki [13] for a (Canadian) Governor General’s Literary Award,

but only for Mariko. Jillian’s been demoted to ‘illustrator.’

In light of this, famous Canadians Seth and Chester Brown have written an open letter to the Governor General’s Literary Awards.

Other comics creators have added their names to the letter – one being O’Malley. You can read the letter at Destroyer Zooey’s Livejournal (aka O’Malley).


  1. Burke, J.C. (2004) The Red Cardigan Milsons Point, NSW: Random House.
  2. Arnold, Andrew (2007) “Comix poetics” World Literature Today, vol.81, no.2, pp.12-15.
  3. Baetens, Jan (2001) The Graphic Novel Louvain, Belgium: Leuven University Press.
  4. Carter, James Bucky (Ed.) (2007) Building literacy connections with graphic novels: Page by page, panel by panel Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
  5. Gravett, Paul (2005) Graphic novels: Stories to change your life London: Aurum Press.
  6. Hatfield, Charles (2005) Alternative comics: An emerging literature Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
  7. Howe, Sean (Ed.) (2004) Give our regards to the Atomsmashers! Writers on comics New York: Pantheon.
  8. Kress, Gunther (2003) Literacy in the New Media Age London: Routledge.
  9. McLaughlin, Jeff (Ed.) (2005) Comics as Philosophy Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
  10. Miller, Steve (2005) Developing and Promoting Graphic Novel Collections New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.
  11. Saraceni, Mario (2003) The Language of Comics London: Routledge.
  12. O’Malley, Bryan Lee (2004) Scott Pilgrim Portland, OR: Oni Press.
  13. Tamaki, Mariko & Tamaki, Jillian (2008) Skim Toronto: Groundwood.

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Written by ClareSnow

24 November 2008 at 2:17 pm

4 Responses

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  1. It’s a questions of teaching and promoting a different kind of literacy, isn’t it? Reading and understanding what’s going on in comics is more than just “looking at pictures” and until younger readers are taught to “see” them properly, that’s all they’ll see.

    If you take teens to an art museum and let them wander around without the proper preparation and instruction then all they’ll see are a bunch of pictures as well. You cannot expect them to think otherwise if they aren’t even taught to take comics (or art) things seriously.

    david e

    24 November 2008 at 9:19 pm

  2. It would be interesting to hear how the parents view graphic novels and if their influence had anything to do with the teenagers responses.

    I agree with David E, the level of art appreciation needs to be raised to fully explore the medium of comics. Like a friend of mine once said while we were watching the ballet “most people do not fully appreciate the art of ballet, only a dancer can know how hard it is.” Most artists would have a better appreciation of a Picasso than your average teenager.

    The love of the medium comes in time, or not at all. To each his own I say. I however, will continue to enjoy them on many levels (especially Y: the last man!) :)

    Edward Shaddow

    26 November 2008 at 2:35 pm

  3. I think David has hit the nail on the head exactly!

    James B Carter

    4 December 2008 at 2:31 pm

  4. […] combination of old photos scattered throughout and informing the story tantalized my love of the interaction between word and image, so I had to read Miss Peregrine. The story has a clever premise and the photos appear in context […]

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