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 top 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.

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.