Thursday, June 27, 2013

Graphic novels

I love comic books. LOVE. I love cartoons too--but some of them are not for kids. South Park, anyone? Family Guy? Adult Swim? We get it - just because it has drawings in it does not mean it is for children.

I happen to also be a big fan of graphic novels intended for adult consumption. Here’s a great one by a guy with three kids.

But this year, my fifth grader came home carrying A People’s History of American Empire.

This is A People's History of the United States in comic book format. This is a tough history book by Howard Zinn about how the United States perpetrated war crimes, used torture, and in general, how terribly our great country has behaved as we created our expanding nation. An important book, right? Some might say. 

Probably great for a smart high school junior or a college freshman on a debate team. Certainly should be required reading for politicians and grad students of American History. But my kid had just turned ten when he hauled this thing home from his school library. He still wasn't allowed to watch PG-13 movies. And on his way home from school, clearly traumatized, he is telling me that he didn’t eat during lunch because he found this drawing of a soldier cramming a funnel into another man’s mouth and pouring water into it.

“It was our soldiers that did it, mom,” he says, stricken. "Our soldiers!"

"Yes," I reply, carefully. "Every country has done horrible things in the name of justice, defense, or war, even us."

“The thing is, I’m just not sure I still love America like I used to.”

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and I must have used about two thousand to try to talk my son into at least some semblance of national pride. I'm not sure I succeeded - the book's message is very strong: America has done dreadful things to expand its "Empire."

So, because it was a graphic novel, my ten year old “got the point” of this very adult book. But to what end? He had no context of "badly taught, one-sided history" with which to compare.  If the evening news is sensationalist, how much more sensationalist is it to take a deeply-thought nonfiction book and make it pulpy with lots of violent drawings? 

Other than to make more money, is there any reason to turn a great book like this into a comic? Surely the intent could not have been to make torture accessible to a much-younger reader?  What sticks in a child’s mind is not the words, it is the images.

If it is too hard for a kid to read without pictures, maybe the concepts are still too hard. I was against Reader's Digest editions of the classics being assigned in schools (I'm for reading books in their original), and I'm equally against this "graphicalizing" of books that were intended as scholarly works. I'm not at all against adult content graphic novels in general - there just needs to be some way to explain to schools that just because it's got pictures it doesn't mean it's age-appropriate for small kids.

I'm not a book censor. I think all books should be available to all people, but I do think that some visual content might not be age-appropriate to some kids. My inner artist and my inner parent are at war. Any ideas? Am I being a ridiculous control freak?

Now I'm going to go have a huge cup of coffee and go work on my fiction so that the images are striking enough that someone wants to make a movie of them.

/bangs head on desk.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Do you need an extension?

As someone who often writes under a deadline, I have been using homework assignments to try to teach my kids the value of pacing oneself. I started college as the kid who finished all her assignments at 4am on the day they were due (I also used to suck on my used tea bags to avoid falling asleep in my morning classes - yeah, not something I want to bequeath).  But my junior year I took 24 credits and once i had thrown myself into that fire, I realized that without pacing and planning I'd never get through  the semester.

So I taught myself to be organized and I did things early, and I gave myself rewards: if I write 250 words of this stupid paper on the history of music in the 1600s I can go out on that date, if I finish my math, I can go to the Quad and hang with my friends. When my paper is totally done then I'll party.

It gave me a terrific work ethic--one that is useful for a writer with kids.

My first grader recently came home with a homework assignment over a holiday that was ludicrous - the class was to do an entire week's worth of homework in one day, including writing a story from the point of view of a beekeeper using ten vocab words, then writing each word three times, and finally writing ten sentences using these words. My girl is six. It's the end of school so there are performances and recitals as well as just the excitement of summer.

I wrote a note to the school, saying that the assignment was too much. Instead of pledging to look into it, I got an immediate note in reply - if it is too much, just don't do it, or tell your kid you will ask the parent for an extension. It's just homework.

What are schools teaching our kids? If homework is just thrown at them with the expectation that they won't do it if it's too much, what kind of adults do we expect we will get?  I can offer a possible insight as many parents who are writers are also writing teachers - and their number one complaint is the kid that walks in on the day the paper is due saying "I need an extension!" and the reason?

"I didn't finish the work."

Then in the real world, 25 yr old college-grad Petra needs to have her part of the project in by Monday to the rest of her team can present on Wednesday morning, but she emails it in on Tuesday at 6pm. The team is furious, but she shrugs, "I got it in before the meeting."

By college, the kids don't even bother to try--they know they'll get an extension. Society grouses at college profs for allowing the kids to get away with it, but I think it starts earlier. I think it starts in First Grade with schools that are not thoughtful about the amount and quality of homework that is assigned. I think that kids who are getting junk work and tons of it are being told by both their (naturally frustrated) parents and their schools that it doesn't matter if they don't do it--and that all they have to do is get an extension.

What do you think?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Creative kids can't spell

This is a personal rant against a trend in children’s literature.

This rant does not represent the thinking of Pen Parentis, just of me.


I am so frustrated by the current trend of books aimed at a younger child audience that are filled with intentionally misspelled words (Junie B Jones, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, etc.) – presumably to show that the main character who is writing the book is a child.

Not only does it presuppose that all kids are dismal spellers, it pushes the (false) notion that creative people must have terrible spelling. And it enshrines the belief that spelling doesn’t matter.

Idea#1 – "It makes the book more real." My son actually said this to me in defense of one of these books.

I seem to recall plenty of diary books written in first person from the point of view of a child who had no spelling issues: Are you There, God, it’s Me, Margaret comes instantly to mind. Nothing was more real. I never had any doubt that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s main character was a child who grew up on a prairie writing on a slate--never! She didn't have to write letters and numbers reversed for us to know she was young.

As far as verisimilitude goes, I don’t recall The Outsiders having misspelled words among the slang S. E. Hinton used throughout. Far as I recall, the book uses the apostrophe very properly. And its author was actually a child. Well, ok, 19. So they say.

Idea #2 – "creative people all have terrible spelling."

Not going to grace this one with an answer. Well, okay. One: what about Harriet the Spy? 

Idea #3 – Spelling doesn’t matter.

It duz. Rilly. Its soupr annoing to reed bad speling. Even if you CAN.

I’m hoping that this trend will pass. You learn to spell mostly from early reading—just like you learn language from the people that surround you when you are an infant. If your parents have an accent, guess what, you have one too. It’s hard enough for a kid to figure out how to spell Light when it is spelled Lite on every package of food she has ever seen—can’t we petition the schools to please ensure that the books our kids read for reading class follow proper spelling and grammar rules?

The other books can all be in the library – I dislike censorship - but any assigned reading should really help the kids learn to write. If you're going to supply only broken tools, don't expect anyone to be able to build a birdhouse. 

I know, it’s a losing battle (heavy sigh) –which is why this is a rant and not a post.  Go write something. Sit in the sunshine. Listen to your inner editor. Buy him a cup of ice coffee. I'm buying mine an aspirin and a huge glass of water.