The Importance of Images for Young Readers by MIKE PETRIK

I was always a terrible reader. Especially back in school, reading always just seemed like a chore. It was homework.  Something that got in the way of me doing what I wanted to do with my time.  Why would I want to read this book when I can draw . . . or go skateboarding . . . or ANYTHING else . . . which is a terrible way to start off life as a reader.  How in the world are kids supposed to explore books on their own, if the only experience they have with books is through boring ol’ text on a page?!  For some kids, reading came easy. Not me. No way. 

This is the point in the story when the Scholastic Book Fair strolled through the door. Slow motion, wind through the hair, dreamy lighting, accompanied by a rockin’ 80’s ballad.  What made the Scholastic Book Fair so essential to non-readers such as myself?  Just picture it.  My grumpy 8-year-old self forced to go down to the library during the school day to check out the book fair. 

Aw man, more books? Maybe they have posters or something to look at. Hmm, well what’s this? I know Garfield. That’s that funny cartoon on TV about a sarcastic cat.  Maybe I’ll just flip through this a bit.

It didn’t even register at the time, but I was reading. And it was fun. Thanks to my parents giving me a few dollars that morning, I picked up a copy of that book, and thus began an obsession. I was hooked. I had to consume any Garfield book I could get my hands on.  But WHY? What was the difference between this book and the usual books we would read in the classroom?  I am what highbrow science types refer to as “right brained,” also known as a “visual learner.”  My brain makes sense of things it can see in picture form, not just the symbols of letters in language.  Drawing pictures is how I always told my stories, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I tell stories visually, so naturally, I read stories visually.  Not to say that I was avoiding reading the text in the Garfield books.  But the illustrations acted as a bridge for me to reach the text.  I saw Garfield in an environment and knew how things felt.  I smelled the lasagna. If I saw Odie, Garfield’s dog pal, I knew something hilarious was about to happen.  Suddenly the anxiety I always felt when presented with a page jammed full of small text was pushed aside, and I could just enjoy sitting and reading through a book just for me. 

As I got older, I explored more books with this same kind of flavor. Most notably, Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. The vastness of the artwork and storytelling in the Calvin and Hobbes comic collections blew me away. Using his imagination, Calvin could be anywhere. Do anything. And we as the audience were lucky enough to go along for the ride. But what really stood out to me was the sophistication in the language and storytelling. I remember thinking how strange it was that a grown-up comic had a little kid as the main character. He was doing gross and funny things, but the stories could be very serious, and sometimes even too grown up for me to understand.  But that was okay. I had the gorgeous artwork to guide me through if things got too confusing, and I could learn along the way. Just like the Garfield books, I devoured the Calvin and Hobbes collections.  Me. A kid who hated reading! At least I thought I did. Well not anymore.

As a young artist, I learned by copying my favorite art.  Once I had these books back at home, I would sit for hours and draw Garfield over and over again.  Same with Calvin and Hobbes: I filled up page after page of printer paper, copying not only characters, but the environments around Calvin.  The detailed world built around the characters are just as important to telling the story as the expressions of the characters, or the words they are saying.  Every dent in a garbage can, or knick in the wall, or sticker on a piece of furniture, all work together to tell the story.  The composition tells the reader how a character is feeling. For example, if the character is small in the frame with lots of empty space around, that will give the feeling of loneliness. The lighting can tell the reader simple things like the time of day, or if it’s hot or cold in the scene. All of these years later, as I am currently in production on the art for the third book in my One Cool Duck graphic chapter book  series, these lessons I learned about storytelling from Calvin and Garfield are still guiding the way.  

For kids like me, who were intimidated by text on a page, I can honestly say that comics rescued me. I know that to some,  they are just silly cartoons–a grumpy orange cat, and a spoiled jerk kid with an imaginary tiger. But I guarantee I would have continued down the path of hating reading if I hadn’t found Garfield at the Scholastic Book Fair at my school. I know I’m not alone on this one. If you have any young readers in your life, get them some silly cartoon books! They will thank you for it, and someday they may even create their own.

Here are some important books I have hung onto over the years.  I have lost so many from moving around, but somehow these few stuck with me. Unfortunately, I don’t have any of those signature long rectangle Garfield books anymore, BUT that’s because  they were donated to an elementary school library, so hopefully some kid just like me will fall in love with them. 

First, the aforementioned Calvin and Hobbes books.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the series by Alvin Scwartz, with insanely creepy and fun illustrations by Stephen Gammell. My love for all things spooky started right here. I picked these up at the Scholastic Book Fairs!

Mad Magazine: No summer vacation would be complete without reading some comic books or Mad Magazine in a shady spot under a tree. I loved these then, and I still love them today.  

So, I guess what I’m trying to say here, is never let anyone ever tell you that reading comics or graphic novels doesn’t count because they aren’t “real” books. What a bunch of nonsense. Go read a comic book! Or a Calvin and Hobbes book! Or a Garfield book! It’s fun!

MIKE PETRIK is an animator by day and an illustrator of books, magazines, and wonderfully scary doodles by night. The author of One Cool Duck: The King of Cool #1), The Silly Sounds of Halloween and The Silly Sounds of Christmas, he’s new on the scene and is an exciting new talent. He lives with his wife and three children in Oak Lawn, IL. One Cool Duck: The Far Out Fort #2 will be available Fall Instagram: @mikepetrik; FB: @mikepetrikillustration