It has long been said that boys, and particularly teenage boys, can be extremely difficult to engage with reading. In a previous post I looked at ways to engage younger boys through illustrations and story lines they find exciting. Having now used the book by D.J McGhee which was reviewed in that post with my own students (see here: http://creatingwithkohla.com/wordpress/?p=196 ) I can say without reservation that this approach does work. This brings us to the question of how to continue the good work for slightly older boys.
At the Writing East Midlands Conference 2015 I was fortunate enough to meet another writer who shares my passion for engaging children with the written word. James Walker is one part of the team behind a ground-breaking project called ‘Dawn of the Unread’. Based in Nottingham this project seeks to engage teenagers, particularly boys, with classic literature by introducing them to it through graphic novels. For those of you unsure what a graphic novel is, think comic book style, but with the more complex story line you would expect from a novel. To quote directly from the Dawn of the Unread website James says this about the reason he set up the project:
I despise illiteracy. I would go as far as to classify it as a form of child abuse given how profoundly it can shape an entire life.
He is absolutely spot on. Obviously there are legitimate reasons why some children, with certain disabilities, may be incapable of learning to read and write. But what about the six in ten white boys from poor backgrounds that struggle to read properly by the age of fourteen? Their struggles seem to relate entirely to the lottery of their socioeconomic class. In a supposedly civilised and educated nation how can this possibly be acceptable? It perpetuates the stereotype of the unintelligent working class, a stereotype we know is both unacceptable and untrue. Yet so many of these boys remain unable or unwilling to read to a high enough standard to access many opportunities in life. The cycle then continues as they gain low-paid jobs, or are unable to find employment at all and their own children then grow up in the same relative poverty which appears to be causing the problem.
So how do graphic novels help? Well for one thing these particular graphic novels are packed full of zombies, interactive features and reader input. All these things help with the initial engagement of the boys. The plot is more sophisticated than the early picture books we looked at previously, which means teenagers do not feel as though they are being patronised. However, pictures help. Boys are often very visual and kinesthetic learners. Pictures therefore engage them more naturally than chunks of text. There is surely no better illustrator than the cartoonist in residence of the aforementioned conference, ‘Brick’, a man who has the perfect irreverent and sarcastic sense of humour to appeal to teenagers of both genders, and boys in particular. I can say this with authority as I was lucky enough to have a series of exchanges with him last week, and if I can’t manage to be too sarcastic for him then he is a match for any teenager. with illustrations like those below (by Brick and artist Hunt Emerson respectively) I can see my male students being thoroughly engrossed and wanting more, even without the added interactive features of the website, competitions, quizzes and many more.
The final question remains – how do they plan to get readers to move on to classic literature from the graphic novels? Well the zombies in these novels are the literary figures of Nottingham. A small but significant portion of the website is dedicated to information about these characters and their more traditional forms. Engagement purely through exposure is a highly effective strategy. If teenagers think you are trying to make them like something they will often rebel. However, if you simply tell a good story in a graphic novel about someone you think is a really important figure, and then facilitate them finding further information, well, that is a completely different scenario. Surround a child with a particular sport and you will often find yourself with a fan of that sport to one degree or another, here’s to hoping that the same holds true for literary figures and their works.
I look forward to following the progress, and, hopefully inevitable, success of the Dawn of the Unread project in the not very distant future. to find out more about Dawn of the Unread, including how to get your child or students involved in the project please visit the website.