Visual Literacy, Learning, Graphic Novels and Manga


Last night Jean Knox, Joan MacRae and I heard an interesting talk at the Book Festival with Dr Mel Gibson (no, not that one) talking about using Graphic Novels and Manga when teaching children and young people literacy skills.

She gave us a whirlwind tour of such books, few of which I had heard of.

I am aware of Colin McNaughton and Colin and Jaqui Hawkins as well as the comics many of us in the audience had known as children: Jackie (the immortal article ‘ How to Knit your own Pyjamas’ passed me by thank heavens), Bunty, The Eagle, Beano and Dandy. (My parents bought me ‘Look and Learn‘!) She stressed the point that modern graphic novels were available for all ages, interests and abilities and were to be viewed positively as serious sources of study. Comics are a ‘medium not a genre’.

I am a big fan of anything by Raymond Briggs and Mel offered fascinating insights into ‘The Snowman’, ‘When the Wind Blows’ and ‘Ethel and Earnest’. She not only illustrated the sheer breadth of subject matter and age range but also dissected their sophisticated and specific ‘grammar’. I had never noticed, for example, the variation in size of ‘panels’ which indicate the differences between the small events of individual lives and those on the world stage, such as the detonation of the nuclear bomb in ‘When the Wind Blows’. windThis is ‘campaigning’ and challenging literature at its very best and worthy of close attention. Other examples of political commentary are works by Joe Sacco,- his ‘Palestine’ is essential reading, as is’Maus’. One I did not know also comments powerfully on universal concerns: ’In the Shadow of the (Twin) Towers’

Mel forcefully illustrated the power of graphic novels as tools for serious study again and again; suggesting for example, that students compare and contrast the 3 graphic versions of ‘Macbeth’. After all, while the story remains the same interpretations differ – as they do on stage.

Many of these books not not just make the full text accessible they make it relevant. Mel quoted some youngsters who on discovering the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ rimewho wondered what the author ‘was on’ (laudanum/opium, dear). This work illustrates that these books can also be multi-layered :someone ’sits on a stone’ and, lo, there is Mick Jagger. Maybe the youngsters don’t get it but their parents will (or perhaps thier grandparents)! It is such ‘manic, powerful, active’ work that appeals to the emotions and often replicates the style of the computer games many young people play thus engaging them instantly. Examples are: ‘GON’, COWA’, ‘Skim’ and ‘Alice in Sunderland’.

Mel focused, on the whole, on those books that touch on major themes and complex narratives but she also referred to books that are just fun and so likely to engage even the most reluctant reader. She did make the point that at present there are few works for primary children and that those with text do not make concessions to less experienced older readers. However, publishers are ever more aware of the gap in the market and are beginning to produce books in lower case and with a more straightforward structure that doesn’t ‘play with the grammar of the page’ so much.

Mel ended her talk lauding the role of the school librarian and giving brief suggestions for teaching. These are being consolidated on her own website and she has also made substantial contributions to LTS. Check it out.

Finally, it was great to hear Bill Boyd’s question about differences between Scottish and English curricula – (she tried to be tactful but made it clear that she felt the curriculum south of the border was restrictive) asked virtually through Glow!