A View From The Cheap Seats:
By Rich Watson
Teen Read Week: one library's approach to comics
In today’s frenetic 21st-century environment, finding the time for casual reading can sometimes prove challenging. If you’re a teenager, it can be even more so. While the reading skills of American children are consistently positive overall, the motivation for them to read material outside of the classroom setting remains somewhat elusive.
This is where the American Library Association (ALA) comes in. Every year this organization holds an event called Teen Read Week, in which they actively encourage casual reading amongst teens. Often there is a unifying theme for the event; this year, the theme is graphic novels. From October 13-19, all across the country, libraries held seminars and workshops – some involving established comics artists – extolling the virtues of comics to teens from all walks of life. I visited one library in my neck of the woods to get ideas about not just the event, but about the reading habits of teens in general.
First, a few background facts. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a survey commissioned periodically by Congress to measure students’ learning abilities, performed on students in grades 4, 8, and 12. According to the 1998 results from the reading assessment, 77% of 12th graders tested performed at or above the basic reading level, 40% were at or above the proficient level, and 6% were at the advanced level. The proficient and advanced percentages were higher in 1998 than in 1994, the previous year of the test. An average score on a 0-to-500 scale gauges student performance, as does where they fall amidst the achievement levels. The criteria for the levels are the result of recommendations from panels of schoolteachers, education specialists, and the general public. (The complete report can be found at nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard.) I’ll be referring back to this survey’s results again.
Additionally, the ALA, in cooperation with the website SmartGirl.com, surveyed 2,809 teens from 28 countries last year about their reading habits. 41% said they like to read for fun when they have the time, which was a major reason these students cited when asked why they don’t reach much. 64.3% said they enjoy reading. Many described it as a fun form of escapist entertainment. Also, 43% said they would read more for fun if they had more time. (The full results of this survey can be found at ala.org/teenread.)
“I love the misconception that teenagers are lazy; they don’t do anything, they don’t read – they are the busiest people I know,” says Nick Buron, coordinator/young adult services for the Central branch of the Queens Borough Public Library in Jamaica, New York. “They go to school, they have after-school jobs, they have to find time to be with their friends, they’re in community and church organizations – they really do mean it when they say they don’t have enough time to read.”
The Central Library lies in the heart of southern Queens, a wide, sprawling building located within shouting distance of Jamaica High School. It has all the amenities of a modern library, including Internet access. The Youth Services section is a cozy niche in which an array of children’s and young adult (YA) books are arranged along the walls and aisles. A casual browsing of the graphic novel section reveals books like JLA, Sandman, Pedro & Me, Astro City, Ultimate Spider-Man, and more, including a bunch of manga titles.
The concept of books for young adults is a relatively recent phenomenon, says Buron. “Maybe 20 or 30 years ago, you were either reading a classic, maybe a YA book (there were really not that many books dedicated to the YA genre), or something that was probably below your age level – maybe a Mad magazine, or a Nancy Drew. Something that might not have been very exciting… In the last five to ten years, I would say, publishers have really concentrated on expanding their market to the younger teenager and the older teenager.” He notes writers such as Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King as examples of adult novelists who have become more aware of writing material for teen audiences, and the repercussions have been felt in the classroom. “Many of the new teachers have grown up in this environment. They’ve known a lot of these young adult novels… so instead of [their students] necessarily reading all those classics – which are great novels – they’re also introducing books into their curriculum that are no more than five years old, which is great, because it really connects the students to the reading.”
According to the NAEP survey, in all three grades, girls had higher average reading scale scores than boys. In the ALA/SmartGirl survey, of the 64.3% of teens who said they enjoyed reading, 70.4% were girls. What makes girls more interested in reading than boys? Buron suggests it may be due to their being more communicative. “Sometimes we don’t know what boys are reading. Girls will be more likely to share things with their friends, go to the librarian and say hey, this was a great book… At 3:00, when this room gets busy after school, you’ll see more girls asking for advice on regular fiction, whereas the boys will be more likely to go to the shelves and take their own books and ask for help less.”
The NAEP survey also showed that white students scored higher across the board than minority students. Buron believes this was due to the quality of schools. “I think there are some schools in our community and nationwide that do a better job emphasizing reading than other schools, no matter where that school might happen to be located. I think what we have found is that some of our more impoverished areas are the ones that have less certified teachers, and I think that does have a lot to do with it.” He also points out that within New York City, the means by which teachers become certified have improved within the past year. “I see that trend getting much better, and I’m hoping it does affect schools that really had a low percentage of certified teachers.”
Another NAEP survey result was that across the board, students who discussed their studies at home at least weekly had higher averages than those who didn’t, and those in grades 8 and 12 who did this almost daily were associated with the highest average score. “The younger the kid, on the average, the more involved [parents] are in their material selection, and as they get older, parents start to realize that they’re relying more on the professionals that are in place, whether they be at school or at the library,” says Buron, who advocates parents to not only talk to their kids about what they read, but to also read the same books if they’re unsure about its appropriateness. “There’s nothing more of a connection between parent and child than reading the same book and then discussing some of the themes in that book… Kids are much more aware of the things that are going on in their environment than their parents either know or would like to know. And there are some themes out there where parents think that [they’re] too mature for their kids, when in reality, it’s right on target, and that goes back to the parent speaking with the child.”
How does one deal, however, with a child who reads below their age level? Buron says it’s imperative to gauge their skill accurately, and that comes through trial and error of various books and observing how they respond to them. “This is where I see the professional librarian come into play – to find that individual student and try and find the right book for that student… Reading signs is extremely important. That’s why if I were to give a kid a book, and they flip through the pages and they say to me, ‘This book is too hard,’ my response is not gonna be, ‘No it’s not.’ I’m not gonna insult the reader by saying no, you don’t know your own reading level. Or if they say this book is too long, that to me signals, not necessarily that they’re lazy, but they don’t have the ability to get through the book… That’s why, during that brief encounter, those are the clues I’m looking for. You don’t insult the person; you find them another book. You don’t say, ‘Well, this is the book you have to take.’”
So how do libraries view graphic novels these days? As mentioned, the Central Library has a well-worn graphic novel section in place. For Teen Read Week, they put together a “recommended reading list” pamphlet compiled by a committee of librarians nationwide from the 2001 Young Adults Library Services Association, which is part of the ALA and is responsible for picking the themes for Teen Read Week. The list included high-profile books like Ghost World, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ultimate X-Men, and Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, as well as lesser-known books like Electric Girl, Clan Apis, and Geisha. In addition, they provided certificates signifying the amount of books they’ve read that week, review cards in which teens could write about a given book for display in the library for others to read, and favorite author polls. A greater emphasis was put on talking to the teens about reading for pleasure.
Buron is very sold on including graphic novels in the library, though he didn’t start out that way. “For a long time I personally wasn’t even sure if comic books had a place in the library. When I started working in the library, I thought, ‘This is not the place for comic books.’ But for some young people, that is their entry point. They come in, they read comic books, [and] I really don’t feel that, four years later, that’s gonna be exclusively what they read. They’re gonna progress as well. If they’re reading, they’re gonna continue reading, and if we deny that access point, then there might not be other access points for them to come into this world of reading… I think the graphic novel theme has come at the perfect time, both from a publishing point of view – because there’s a lot of material to purchase for this – and from the library-acceptance point of view. We’ve come to the point where people are not surprised or shocked or even dismayed to see comic books in the library… [Libraries] have an excellent reputation, in general, throughout the country. When the community starts to see that the libraries have made a conscious decision to start collecting this, then [they think] maybe there is something to it.”
The ALA showed its support for graphic novels this past summer in Atlanta, at their annual conference. As part of the multi-day event, a seminar was held to promote Teen Read Week and educate the librarians attending on the history of comics and how to promote and catalog them properly. Attending the show were Art Spiegelman, Neil Gaiman, Jeff Smith, and Colleen Doran, along with representatives from the major comics publishers and Diamond Distributors. As Gaiman wrote about the seminar in his online weblog, “[I]t wasn’t, as I half-expected, a bunch of librarians who were comics fans, but was, much more interestingly, 175 librarians who could see the enormous demand for graphic novels in their libraries, particularly amongst teens, and wanted to know more about these things that, due to demand, they were putting on their shelves.”
Regardless of whether it’s graphic novels, online articles, prose books, or any other kind of material, says Buron, getting teens actively involved in reading for pleasure can only bring long-term benefits. “This is the week to make the connections with kids. You might be able to get a book into their hand, but we’re asking them to take the time to read for pleasure, [so] we should take time to talk to them about reading for pleasure. And the relationships that develop is something that will carry on past Teen Read Week, because that kid’s gonna come back, maybe in a week or two, and say ‘Hey, that book that you recommended to me during Teen Read Week was excellent. Can I have another book like it?’ That’s the goal.”
A graduate of New York's School of Visual Arts, Rich Watson has been a self-published cartoonist since 1993, and whose output includes the superhero drama CELEBRITY and the romantic fable RAT: A LOVE STORY. He currently resides in New York and gets his comics weekly from Jim Hanley's Universe and Midtown Comics. Talk to him and comment on his column by visiting his message board.