Why My Daughter Isn’t Allowed to Read Comics

summer reading list

Some of my daughter’s summer reading list. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

This week I’m taking a break from the Serious Comics series while I get myself organized, and instead I’ll tell you why my nine-year-old daughter isn’t allowed to read comics. Ok, that that’s not entirely true. She’s currently on comics probation: she gets to read comics one day a week (she picked Thursday) but the rest of the week she has to stick to prose.

Why?

First, let me tell you a little bit about her. She’s our oldest kid, and she always had great verbal/language skills. She started reading pretty early, and has inherited our love for books and my nearsightedness. If she’s sitting still, chances are there’s a book in front of her. It’s because of her that my comics are shelved in two sections: the top shelves aren’t yet appropriate for her (hey, she’s only nine), and below is a section of comics I’ve approved for her to read. I’ve sought out comic books that I think she would enjoy, and I love that my six-year-old, who has struggled more with reading, will sit and read comic books now.

But the problem is, in the past few months (particularly once school let out for the summer), we noticed that our oldest daughter was reading comics almost exclusively. She’d pick up a book she’d already read a dozen times, and read it a few more times. Meanwhile, the large section of children’s literature right below it was gathering dust. My wife mentioned a list of books that she had read by the time she was entering fifth grade, and suggested that we make up a summer reading list. No problem, right? She’ll just blast through the list in no time.

Well, as it turns out, it took her a long time and a few attempts to finish Harriet the Spy. She started A Wrinkle in Time and then set it aside because it just wasn’t interesting enough. We started seeing this pattern with nearly every book on her list—the middle school books she did want to read were page-turners: lots of pictures, simple vocabulary, action or jokes in every sentence.

Now, certainly I’m not putting all the blame on comics—I think comics are an amazing medium and I’m a huge fan of even the books on the bottom shelf that are currently off-limits. But the act of reading comics is different than that of reading prose—just as watching a movie isn’t the same thing as reading the book it’s based on. They exercise different parts of the brain, and my daughter hasn’t been flexing her prose comprehension muscle very much.

I know I’ve come across like Calvin’s dad: “Do this thing you hate! It builds character!” And, okay, I’ll admit that I do think it’s good for kids to do things that are difficult for them. My oldest daughter is less interested in math; my middle daughter refused to read for a long time—but since I feel both math and reading are important skills, I make them do things that aren’t easy.

It’s not just about “building character,” though. As she enters fifth grade, my daughter will have a lot more reading to do—and it won’t be comics. She’ll be expected to read both fiction and non-fiction, and to be able to make sense of what she’s read. Last year she already had to work on writing reports, and I’m sure that will continue. If it’s hard for her to sit down and read more than a few pages without little hand-drawn doodles scattered all over them, homework is going to take forever.

Finally, though, prose is awesome. If you’ve never read The Westing Game, then you’re missing something really cool. My daughter already understands how books can make you laugh—but they can also make you cry, or shiver, or give you a glimpse into another person’s life. Comics are great for visuals, for the way you can communicate volumes with a lifted eyebrow, a glance to the side, but there’s magic to words that can be harder to appreciate when your brain is occupied with reading pictures.

The comics ban is a temporary one; it’s just meant to get her going, with the hope that by the time she finishes her reading list she’ll be asking us to recommend other books to read. When my daughter finished reading Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, she told me that at first she thought we put it on her list just because we were trying to make her learn something, but then she admitted that it was a really fun book and she enjoyed it. That, I told her, was exactly the lesson I wanted her to learn.

About Jonathan H. Liu

Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.

About Jonathan H. Liu

Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.

22 thoughts on “Why My Daughter Isn’t Allowed to Read Comics

  1. Interesting point. I have an 8 year old daughter who loves reading comics as well, and she has been reading the Dark Horse Avatar miniseries sets over and over. I’m also concerned that I want her to read more prose-heavy books, but my own personal introduction to some of the classics as a child was via the ‘illustrated versions’ that my teachers had in their classroom libraries. That is how I first read Poe, Dumas, and what really started my own love for reading, so I’m split as to whether I should take away the comics for a bit.

    • Well, here’s an example: we have the relatively new Wrinkle in Time graphic novel by Hope Larson (which I liked, but my wife didn’t). My daughter blasted through that in an afternoon. I hoped that it would encourage her to start on the prose version, but she’d rather just read the comic again. I totally agree that comics are great for getting a kid interested in reading—my 6-year-old doesn’t have a comics ban currently—but it’s not enough JUST to read comics.

  2. Jonathan,
    We have noticed the same trend at our house. I just finished helping our middle girl find a prose heavy book in the teen room to make sure that she was reading something other than light popcorn this summer. I think summer is a great time to let them both relax and challenge themselves to read something fantastic which stretches their brains and something which might not always end happily. Good job, friend.

  3. We experience the same thing in our house, seems particularly bad this year. My oldest isn’t a comics fan but she has been rereading books she is already familiar with rather than tackling something new. My son needs to be dragged off Minecraft on a regular basis – even when he isn’t supposed to be playing.

    As a librarian I think they would pull my card if I didn’t mention bringing kids to the library to pick from (what should be) a larger selection. It also doesn’t hurt that many libraries have summer reading programs that can help create incentive to read. Their is also I really nice tool called Novelist that most libraries subscribe to that can help find read-a-likes to favorites and even track down volumes in a series.

    As far as being a mean taskmaster sucking the love of reading from your child is much better than not giving a crap and having a kid who is borderline illiterate with no critical thinking skills.

  4. This is exactly the reason why I’m writing and illustrating a children’s book for kids aged 8-9 (or 6-7 avid readers), inspired by my son’s exact same problem. My son is 6, reads like a 9-year old, but he’s a very visual kid. He gets discouraged by pictureless books, first readers books are ‘too childish’, comics and poetic picture books take +- 4 minutes for him to finish. A couple of exceptions aside, like Roald Dahl & Quentin Blake’s exceptional work for instance, there seems to be a gap between the heavily illustrated books with just a couple of lines of text per page and prose with no or very scarce visuals. I’m sure kids like my son would devoure books like Anthony Horowitz’ work, Harry Potter and the like if they would get some visual stimulus too. I do have to add that we’re Belgium based, maybe there are more options in the US, so please correct me if I’m wrong. I do agree that sometimes it pays off to fight your way through something that seems like a drag at first, but I don’t see how illustrations would somehow devaluate the beauty of prose. It might be professional deformation from my side, though, being an illustrator :)

    • My guess is that adding illustrations does add some amount of cost to a book’s creation, especially if the artist and writer aren’t the same person. I’ve ben seeing a trend in books with illustrations that aer (in my opinion) sub-par. They’re supposedly drawn by the kid in the story (and often the story’s also written by that kid), and that’s the excuse for amateur drawings and amateur writing. Sure, it’s entertaining, but it makes my kids think that there’s no reason to learn to draw or write better.

  5. You’re right. I read a lot of children’s books, and many of them are dissapointing indeed. Over here, event the most talented authors and illustrators need to take on a lot of commercial work to pay the bills when they can’t rely on (scarce) subsidies & funds. Meanwhile, publishers are filling the rest of the shelves with sub-par & amateur work to keep the figures up.
    And I share your unenthousiasm with the ‘naive’ movement :).

    There’s some real treasures, though. Like this: http://bookfoolery.blogspot.be/2010/06/secret-lives-of-princess-by-philippe.html
    I’m not particularly into princesses, but pretty much eveything Dautremer does is incredible. She also illustrated Alice in Wonderland: http://www.amazon.fr/Alice-Pays-Merveilles-Lewis-Carroll/dp/2013933762.

  6. I have also banned some things, and fret about others, but in the end. I think you are wrong in not letting her read what she wants.
    Why?
    Mainly because you are thus saying that reading is a chore, especially if she is an avid reader, you should not attack her joy of reading.
    Also, because we all have our stages, sometimes we want something light or familiar to read (of we are tired or insecure). Yes I am suggesting that you trust her almost as much as yourself regarding what are you going to read next, drop it if you want and try another thing, or try at another time.

    Surely she has also asked for a movie or show over and over again? (ad nauseam) And then one day she moved to the next thing. Unless she has been reading exclusively comics for a long time (say 6 months) I don’t think you should be interfering. Even the comic as a medium has limitations, and she has a lot of years to get to read all of the Terry Pratchett books so, wait for the comics phase to pass or wane, let her try, decide, make mistakes and learn from them.
    I believe that Borges commented that you had to read a lot of bad books to find the good ones, but doing so was part of the fun.
    I remember fondly all the “mistakes” I made in the library looking at the books I shouldn’t be reading. My parents would have made quite some damage monitoring me too closely. :D
    So, don’t take liberty away in exchenge for security, specially not HER liberty to enjoy reading for YOUR security of … what?

    • (Mrs. Liu here)
      Here’s the thing, though – sometimes reading IS a chore. Our daughter is bright and a quick learner, but eventually she is going to advance academically into a level where she can’t coast by. For me personally, it wasn’t until medical school that I actually found myself having to work at what I was learning. By that time, I was really wishing I had developed good studying skills earlier. I love reading as much as anybody, but it isn’t strictly a form of entertainment. She is stretching her brain in ways that will benefit her later on.

      And come on, it’s not like I put The Economist on her summer reading list. These stories are awesome.

      • So reading chores 6 days of the week and fun 1 day of the week?

        You said that it wasn’t until medical school until you had to work at learning. Your daughter is different. It’s harder for her now. Restricting her passion to 1 day a week is making it even harder.

        In my case, my love of fictional prose didn’t kick in until I was an adult *well* after all the forced reading of school had ended.

        If she has any hope of loving prose, you’re prolonging it. My son’s interest in prose has only come about through allowing him to read as many comics as he wants. Also, short stories are much easier for him than novels.

        • I see your point, but I don’t agree entirely. Once we provided the activation energy to get her to pick up some prose books, she has started to enjoy them and get into them. And it’s only comics that she’s restricted from during 6 days of the week; if there are non-reading-list books, magazines, etc. that she wants to look at on non-comics days, that’s allowed.

          Also, if it comes up that something on her reading list just makes her want to tear her eyes out (she HATED the “Little House” books), I’ll probably take it off the list. That hasn’t happened yet, though.

  7. The whole point of children’s comics (at least to many of us who publish them) is to instill a lifelong love of reading in general, and it usually works out well on its own. Personally, I avidly read anything I could get my hands on when I was her age — prose, comics, or magazines — and it was because I had comics available when I was learning how to read. Comics taught me how to read, held my interest, and in addition to literacy, gave me imaginative development that encouraged me to reach for novels in search of more of the same reading thrill.

    If a kid isn’t jumping from comics to every other version of the printed word with exuberance, I absolutely agree that some parental correction is in order! I might make a “one comic / one book” reading policy, but “Thursdays only” works, too!

    My only other thought is that a limitation imposed on one type of reading can easily be read as “this is reward for doing your reading chores” instead of, “Hey, did you know there are all these OTHER great things to read, too?” And some kids just develop at different speeds and in different ways — years of reading “Captain Underpants” can definitely lead to teen years reading Dickens and Hawthorne. As long as comics aren’t excluded from the diet, it all works out in the end!

  8. I think the trick here is not that you should emphasis comics over prose, or whatever, but to emphasis NEW reading experiences. While re-reading a favorite is fine (and I do so myself regularly), it’s not going to give a young reading many benefits… no new vocabulary to learn, no new situations to comprehend and analyze, etc.

    Perhaps rather than ‘only comics on Tuesday’ a better rule would be ‘only re-reads on Tuesday’.

    Also, it’s hard to remember that things that are ‘classic’ don’t necessarily resonate with every kid. Personally, I hated Wrinkle in Time as a kid. That doesn’t mean it’s not a classic, it just wasn’t for me. If you child can’t get into a book, let him/her move on, the best way to kill momentum for reading is to make them slog through a book they don’t want to read!

  9. This is pretty interesting. She just started reading comics exclusively once school let out, and she’s only been doing it a few months. Which is roughly 1/54 of her lifespan so far. I am all for reading everything, and for introducing kids to all types of reading. But, Mr. L, did you ever have a brief period in your younger life when you read only one book, or series, or series, or type of book? Could it be seen as a short period of relaxation, re-grouping, recreating?

    • Actually, yes. At one point I read a lot of books that were below my reading level, and didn’t feel like reading anything that seemed like a bit more of a challenge for a while, and I needed somebody to give me a kick in the butt to expand my repertoire. I think relaxation, regrouping, recreating is fine—as long as your other comprehension skills don’t suffer or atrophy in the meantime. We only put this in place when it became evident that this was happening—and now that she’s started fifth grade, we’ve gotten confirmation from the teacher that many of the kids in her class have a lot of trouble with informational text—they’re fine when it comes to fiction and narratives, but they can’t read an article and figure out the important facts from it easily.

    • From the article: “Some people are concerned that young people today read less in their spare time than previous generations. This is particularly worrying because our research suggests that it is likely to negatively affect their intellectual development.” Since the article cites things like being introduced to “new ideas” and “new vocabulary,” I would think that implies the greatest benefits are from reading books that do introduce ideas the kids haven’t encountered yet and words they aren’t familiar with. I know from the comics my daughter was reading this summer that the vocabulary was generally below her reading level, and the “new ideas” starts to lose its effect after the 10th time you’ve read the same book.

      I should also point out that after she actually sat down and read the books we gave her, she DID enjoy them. Once she started reading Holes, she couldn’t put it down and finished it by the next day. On her second attempt at A Wrinkle in Time, she got excited about it and had conversations with my wife about it. She found Westing Game a bit too scary, so we took it off the list for now.

      My point isn’t that she shouldn’t be reading for fun—far from it. It’s teaching her that reading these other books (books that introduce her to new ideas and vocabulary and require more, well, READING) is also very fun.

      I would be interested to know whether the study distinguished between reading comics and reading prose, simply because reading a comic book generally has significantly less text involved. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but looking at a picture is not the equivalent of reading a thousand words, particularly when vocabulary, grammar, and comprehension are concerned.

  10. It’s true reading a single comic has less text than a novel… however… reading comics for an hour doesn’t really offer less in the way of verbal content than reading a novel for an hour.. it’s just a matter of format… 2 or 3 comics (or maybe one Manga-style trade) as opposed to a couple chapters in a book.

    I really think the ‘new’ part is the key, not whether it’s a comic or not.

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