Pages from Stitches: A Memoir by acclaimed author David Small.

Pages from Stitches: A Memoir by acclaimed author David Small.

A young girl, a primary-schooler with a well-worn library card, was enthusiastically reading a riveting memoir when a stern tone descended upon her.

“What is that?” the teacher asked/accused.

“It’s a graphic novel,” came the girl’s reply.

Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World was dubbed an ‘instant classic’ by Time magazine. It follows the day-to-day lives of best friends Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, two cynical, pseudo-intellectual, and intermittently witty teenage girls recently graduated from high school in the early 1990s. Click for more photos

10 graphic novels you should have read by now

Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World was dubbed an ‘instant classic’ by Time magazine. It follows the day-to-day lives of best friends Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, two cynical, pseudo-intellectual, and intermittently witty teenage girls recently graduated from high school in the early 1990s.

  • Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World was dubbed an ‘instant classic’ by Time magazine. It follows the day-to-day lives of best friends Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, two cynical, pseudo-intellectual, and intermittently witty teenage girls recently graduated from high school in the early 1990s.
  • Persepolis is a French-language, autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi that was later made in to an animated film. It is a gripping and powerful retelling of the author's childhood up to her early adult years in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution.
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. This story of grappling with complex family dynamics and also with one’s sexual orientation was a New York Times bestseller.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman. The first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize it depicts Spiegelman interviewing his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor.
  • It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken by Seth. The story follows Seth's search for a fictional Canadian cartoonist named Kalo, who once contributed to The New Yorker. Seth's search leads him from Toronto, Ontario to the small town of Strathroy.
  • Stiches by David Small. The story of Small's journey from sickly child to cancer patient, to the troubled teen who made a risky decision to run away from home at sixteen—with nothing more than the dream of becoming an artist.
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore. Watchmen depicts an alternate history where superheroes emerged in the 1940s and 1960s, helping the United States to win the Vietnam War.
  • Celebrated SUmmer by Charles Forsman. The AV Club nominated this as the best graphic novel of 2013. It's a funny and moving story of escalating humor and tension between two disaffected teens, Mike and Wolf, who take a spontaneous summer road trip after dropping acid.
  • Nana by Al Yazawa. This is like the Twilight of graphic novels. Aimed at teens this complicated story of the friendship between two very different girls both called Nana and their careers, friendships and realtionships is highly addictive.
  • Summer Blonde by Adrian Tomine. Tomine is best known for his cover illustrations on The New Yorker. Summer Blonde is a compilation of a popular comic series he creates called Optic Nerve. It's a very dark look at modern life.

Such works, the girl was told, were unacceptable for classroom “reading time,” let alone for a book report. The teacher’s sharp ruling boiled down to a four-word excuse for banishment:

“Graphic. Novels. Aren’t. Books.”

Sigh.

Here we go again...

Really? Two decades after Art Spiegelman’s landmark Holocaust graphic novel “Maus” won the Pulitzer Prize and helped stake a fresh claim for comics as literature — paving the way for the appreciation of such works as “Persepolis” and “Blankets” and “American Born Chinese” — do a significant number of teachers and administrators remain mired in such backward thinking?

Unfortunately, my rhetoric is rhetorical. These curricular “world-is-flat’ers” are still thick on our school grounds. But it’s time for the culture’s tectonic plates to more rapidly force a shift in academic thought.

As we step into 2014, this lingering bias in curriculum needs to cease. We fervently urge the least enlightened of our educators to catch up with the rest of the class. And to make our case, let us present Exhibit A:

The young girl who faced that rebuke of illustrated books was a relative of mine. And that book (a-hem) in question was “Stitches: A Memoir,”acclaimed author David Small’s poignant personal story of a dysfunctional childhood home — including his adolescent battle with throat cancer, which may have been caused by his doctor-father’s early over-embrace of X-ray radiation. In Small’s masterful prose and liquid pictures, we vividly experience the voiceless boy-patient’s raw emotions.

Even four years ago, quite a few people would have begged to differ with that school teacher. “Stitches” climbed the bestseller list of the New York Times, which deemed the book worthy of review; was named one of the best books of the year by such outlets as Publishers Weekly; and was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. No less than Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist/author/playwright/screenwriter Jules Feiffer said aptly of Small’s masterpiece: “It left me speechless.”

Of the teacher’s wrong-headed thinking, I was left speechless. Her decision was not a mere judgment against one book, but an ignorant indictment of all graphic novels. As blanket criticism, it was unabashedly threadbare.

Consider my commentary here, then, to be a criticism of that criticism. Because what the larger academic problem calls for is not damnation, but persuasion. A struck match. Into Plato’s cave, let us bring truer illumination.

What follows is not some broad indictment of modern education. I was born into a brood of teachers — the family crest might as well be a chalkboard — and I deeply value what too often is one of the nation’s more thankless and underpaid cornerstone careers. Plus, as an artist who has spoken to thousands of impressive educators — many of whom appreciated my history-themed syndicated comic strip — I applaud those who thoughtfully and passionately help inform and shape young minds, while keeping an open mind themselves. On this front, so many of them “get” it.

What this essay is, at heart, is an extended hand in the name of better understanding — especially as our schools are filled with so-called “reluctant readers” and other struggling learners. We face an educational imperative: Why not use every effective teaching tool at our disposal? Decades of studies have shown the power of visual learning as an effective scholastic technique. Author Neil Gaiman (winner of the Newbery and Carnegie medals for children’s lit) recently noted that comics were once falsely accused of fostering illiteracy. We now know that comics — the marriage of word and picture in a dynamic relationship that fires synapses across the brain — can be a bridge to literacy and a path to learning. Armed with that knowledge, the last thing we need blocking that footbridge is the Reluctant Teacher.

The writing is on the classroom wall. As generations are weaned on the Internet, our culture grows ever more visual. And the take-home lesson is this:

Let us meet our young minds where they live.

Let us smartly employ the resources of visual learning.

Let us begin.