Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Learning Appreciation for Graphic Literature

Recently, I was invited to conduct a workshop for kids aged 8-12 on graphic novels and web comics at my local library . As you may be able to tell from the name of this blog, I am a fan of comics. When I was a kid I did not like reading and only read comic books and books in the Choose Your Own Adventure series (now I'm a PhD candidate so don't believe the criticism that reading comics makes you stupid.)

I was eager to lead this workshop to help convince kids that graphic literature is a legitimate literary and art form and that they can do it themselves. I had three goals for this workshop:
  1. introduce components and techniques to reveal how the medium works 
  2. highlight various genres to show that graphic literature is broader than just superheroes (although I am an unabashed fan of this genre)
  3. get kids started in making their own graphic works
I got a good response from the kid attendees, so I thought I'd share it here.

Before starting, I should clarify terms. Kids don't really care about using correct terms, but adults do. And I, like many people, hate the term comics (as they aren't exclusively funny any more) as a term for the entire medium. The term comics should be used to refer to short content either published in monthly print magazine type form (then known as comic books), or in newspapers (then comic strips), or online (then web comics).

Although the term graphic novels has become popular, it is not a catch-all term for all the forms of the medium. Graphic novels should be used for longer form works that tell a singular story- as in a novel (but in graphic lit form). Graphic novels can be created specifically or result in a collection of comic books.  Graphic books refer to any longer graphic literature published in a book - so this can include treasuries, collections of humour strips such as Garfield, instructional, etc. I like the term graphic literature for a catch-all term.

Introduction - Sequential Art
I started by telling the kids that graphic lit is a series of panels of art and words that work together in sequence to tell a story. (You can mention that there are other forms of sequential art and a long history of this, such as ancient cave paintings. See Scott McLeod's excellent book Understanding Comics for more on this. Also, words are sometimes optional as some graphic lit uses panel images only.)

Activity: For a fun way to demonstrate the importance of sequential order, I had the kids arrange a page of a comic book that had been cut out and put in random order back into its original order. Then I asked the kids to explain why they chose the order they did.

I had pages from different titles (e.g. Teen Titans Go, Uncle Scrooge, Angry Birds, Wolverine, Spider-ham - yes, Spider-man in pig form) ranging in difficulty from easy to hard. Once the kids had their order, we'd check it against the comic book. The kids could do the easy ones on first try, but often needed hints for the more difficult ones.

Preparation: It is is essential to find a page that makes sense when removed from the overall context of the story and has self-contained panel shapes. Instead of commiting the crime of cutting up a comic book, I colour photocopied pages and then cut them out.

Activity B: Have the kids grab a handful of panels from various titles and then arrange them in whatever order they want and then tell the group their story in order based on their panels. (My daughter came up with this idea - I love it!)

Genres of Graphic Literature
Having established what a graphic book was for the kids (I used the term comic for them as they were familiar with this term and not the others), I wanted to have them consider the various different genres.

 I had the kids start by saying what graphic books they had read and what they liked about them. I asked them what genre ("type of story") they thought their example was and would help them if they got stuck (e.g. fantasy, non-fiction, humour, etc.).

I brought with me a few of my favourite kids' graphic novels from a variety of genres, showed the kids a few pages, and asked them what genre they thought it was.

Teaching kids about terminology isn't necessarily something they are interested in. But to understand the components of graphic literature, how artists use them, and how they work together to tell a story it is essential to introduce a few key terms.

I had a handout to give the kids with the following key terms:
  • Cover = first page
  • Panel = shapes (often rectangular) containing a single scene
  • Border = lines that surround a panel 
  • Speech Balloon = round containers for characters’ talk 
  • Thought Balloon = containers for characters thoughts
  • Captions = containers  for information about a scene or narration
  • Sound Effect = words used to describe sounds – Splat! Pow! 
  • Lettering = design of the words (using distinct fonts)
  • Gutter = space between panels
  • Emanata = symbols or shapes showing characters' emotions or thoughs (e.g. light-bulb for an idea, tear or sweat drops, etc.)
  • Bleed = images that extend beyond frames
  • Splash = image that takes up a whole page
  • Spread = image that takes up more than one page
Activity: I had them pick a book from my stack of graphic books. Then I would say the term and its definition and have kids point them out in their book.

To add excitement, I made it a competition to see who could find an example first or who could find the coolest example of it.

The Art of Graphic Books
The visual art aspect of graphic lit is often not considered or relegated as secondary to the words and narrative of the work. But the art is essential (and has been getting better and more diverse now for decades.) For kids inclined in visual arts, graphic lit can be a great form for them so it's important to come at this topic from this angle as well.

My handout also had a page with the following art terms:
  • Colour (intensity, hue, number)
  • Size
  • Shadows and Brightness
  • Lines (strength, shape)
  • Viewing Angle (such as sideways, birds-eye view)
  • Distance (such as close-up, far away)
  • Layout and Placement (such as overlapping, bleeding, foreground)
Activity A: As with the prior activity, I had the kids find examples of the art technique after I had explained them. We briefly discussed the way that the artist used art to tell a story or create an effect, mood, or style.

Activity B: I then had all the kids make a simple illustration.

Preparation: There are a lot of good books or websites that teach kids how to draw illustrations or comic art. I found a book page with a very easy example of how to draw a dog in five easy steps. I photocopied this page and included it in my handout.

Lettering the Work
To discuss the words and font aspects of graphic lit, I discussed how the story is told not only by the words in bubbles captions but also in how the words are presented.  I went over some terms related to font (e.g. centering, case, bolding) and then had kids define them for me.

Activity A: Using pages of a graphic book that has bubbles and captions in place but empty, I had the kids fill in their own words. I told the kids that spelling didn't matter and that they could say whatever they wanted. Then we all took turns reading and presenting our creations.

Preparation: You could make your own by whiting-out (either digitally or physically) an existing portion of a comic book. But I recommend the website for
the graphic books Stone Rabbit. They have an excellent two-page story available here to download and print that is set up for just this activity.

At this point as a reward for participating, I bribed the kids with Spider-man gummies. After recharging the kids up with sugar, I had them create their own short comic strip. I emphasized to them that anyone can create a graphic work and that to begin don't worry about art style (stick people are fine), spelling, or grammar. Just do what you want.

Activity: To make your own comic strip can be done either by having the kids hand-draw them on paper. If one has access to computers and the Internet, there are a few great websites that make it easy for kids to create their own web comics. BitStrips is such a site and is highly recommended by my daughter.

I ended it by giving the kids a list of graphic novel recommendations - which you can see via my list on Goodreads of Graphic Literature for Kids and recommending the book Lila And Ecco's Do It Yourself Comics Club. It's an amazing book for kids interesting in learning more about how to create their own graphic work.

Let me know if this lesson plan or any of the activities are useful. Spread the graphic lit love and knowledge!

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