I was that kid. I still write for that kid. by Kevin Sylvester
I just returned from NerdCampMI and heard Dav Pilkey (and many others) talking about “finding the right books for the right kid” and also “any reading is reading”.
Dav talked about his own experience of being told he wasn’t reading the right kind of books – usually comics or silly stories.
And I also heard that there is still some opposition out there to the idea of reading words with pictures.
So I thought I’d add my personal testimony of how a kid can go from bad reader to voracious reader (and maybe even writer).
When I was a kid, I was given books to read for school and found it impossible to finish them. I had the experience of watching a book seem to grow in size and weight as I struggled to get the words to represent anything to my brain.
I have a theory, based on me, that what we call “reluctant readers” – usually boys like I was – have a harder time creating internal images from external words on a page. Literacy, after all, is a kind of translation, or even code-breaking endeavor.
I certainly needed help making the leap.
The first step toward was Spider-Man. When I was about 9 years old I saw the glorious cover of Bring on the Bad Guys at a book sale. I was hooked.
The key here, of course, is that these are 90% pictures and 10% words. They are also archetypal stories of good and evil, and the reality of life even when you have awesome powers. They resonated and still do.
The next step came about thanks to my library in Youngstown, N.Y. Just as I was discovering comics, they renovated the children’s section and put down a mat and huge cushions!
In what I still see as a stroke of genius, they then put the books out of their Dewey-decimal order and, instead, placed the books at the eye level of the intended reader, ascending in complexity as they went higher (taller).
The perfect eye level for me sitting on a cushion? Beatrix Potter. (I am short, and this was when I was 12 – so it was perhaps a lucky accident that these gorgeous green covers stared at me at this age.)
The Tailor of Gloucester (my fave) was the perfect next step in my reading development. Those books, of course, are 50/50 words and images. So I didn’t need to constantly refer to the images to
Next logical step?
The Hardy Boys. These books are genius.
The plots are more complicated (they are mysteries after all) but the brilliance is two-fold. There’s action, solved not through force (force is always used by the bad guys in the Hardy Boys) but through brainpower. The value in the plot is on being SMARTER than the bad guys. Then there’s the language. The plot’s move along in a linear fashion, with lots of active verbs, and not too much description.
That’s because the description is often left to a handful of precious pictures. This is the key for me. The Hardy Boys always have a picture every 10 pages or so – just about exactly the time it would take me to get lost in the plot. Because of their placement, the images work as a kind of electric shock to jolt you back into the storyline just before you tune out.
After that it was The Hobbit (although only after seeing the TV movie version) and then a few years later a joint degree in English and Philosophy. And it all started with Spidey.
And I’ve also written and illustrated more than 20 books. I use a lot of active verbs. I put in a lot of pictures. Not because it makes the reading “easier” but because that is part of good story-telling. You know who else wrote books with pictures? Charles Dickens. Anthony Trollope. Jane Austen.
I know I’m likely “preaching to converted” here, but I also want to say that literacy comes in all shapes and sizes, just like kids do.
And keep fighting the good fight, and if you ever meet a parent, kid or other educator who has an incredibly limited view of what reading is — or if they see “easy reading” as a dead end — send them my way. I’ve got a Spider-Man with a side of Roly-Poly Pudding, and some choice words, I’d like to share with them.
Kevin Sylvester wishes he’d been bitten by a radioactive spider. Alas, no. So he spends his time in his attic studio writing and illustrating books for kids. He’s the author of more than 25 books, including the MINRs trilogy (sci-fi), the Neil Flambé Capers (about a kid chef who solves mysteries) as well as picture books about monsters, hockey players and an upcoming novel about a girl who can make her boogers come to life. He also writes non-fiction on everything from sports to the global economy. You can find out more at his website kevinsylvesterbooks.com. He’s also on Twitter @kevinarts and blogs about stuff at kevinarts.blogspot.com