Getting kids to read starts with getting kids to look
- Article by: NORMAN DRAPER
- Star Tribune
- May 13, 2008 - 6:38 PM
To some older readers, "American Born Chinese" might look like a glorified comic book. Its 233 pages are loaded with cartoon panels and dialogue bubbles coming out of the characters' mouths. But in modern literary parlance, it's a "graphic novel," carrying just as much clout among today's readers and critics as the more conventional all-words kind of novel.
What's more, its accessibility made it the choice for teachers and administrators at Brooklyn Park's Champlin Park High School to kick off its "Community Read!" summer reading project. The plan is to have every student, every teacher, every cook, every secretary, every custodian, every administrator, and every other school employee read the book over the summer. Then the school plans to bring author Gene Luen Yang in next fall to talk to students at each grade level about how reading impacted his life and how his life affected his writing the book.
"It is a graphic novel, which is, I think for my generation, a whole new ballgame for us," said Terri Evans, the Champlin Park media specialist who is coordinating the initiative.
"But these kids are really visually literate," Evans said. They can key in well to visual images. ...The research shows [graphic novels] are great for reluctant readers and English-language learners."
Certainly, book critics don't dismiss "American Born Chinese" as a mere oversized comic book. Published in 2006, it has garnered a number of awards and was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award.
Birth of a big idea
"American Born Chinese" was the only graphic novel of six books chosen as finalists for the "Community Read!" program, Evans said. The idea to have everyone at the school read the same book over summer came out of a parent teacher organization meeting in January.
Evans plugged into the U.S. Library of Congress website, where many community reading projects are listed. She came up with a list of 50 books, which a school committee of parents, librarians, teachers, and administrators whittled down to the six finalists. Committee members then read all those books.
There was one major proviso.
"It was contingent on the fact that that the author would visit the school in the fall," Evans said. Authors of four of the six finalists offered to visit. But the combination of the book's accessibility, the author's willingness to visit, and his relatively modest fee made "American Born Chinese" the obvious choice. Committee members also felt the book's focus on the problems of growing up Chinese-American in California would resonate with many students who have also had problems connecting with school.
Evans said the book's publisher offered to pay Yang's travel expenses, leaving the school to pick up his $1,750-a-day fee for two days. The school is seeking donations to help pay this and other expenses: $1,500 for printing fliers, brochures, and bookmarks, and $26,000 for purchasing the 3,500 books needed to ensure that everyone at the school gets a copy.
"Community Read!" is part of a larger effort to get more students to read for pleasure, Evans said.
It's bearing fruit. Champlin Park students have checked out 43,500 books from the school library this year, compared with 12,000 five years ago. Evans said she still wants students to read conventional books, but added that comparing a graphic novel such as "American Born Chinese" to a gigantic comic book misses the point.
"This is much more layered and sophisticated than the comic book is," she said. "Graphic novels aren't about superheroes anymore. They're about serious things that are really happening in our world."
Norman Draper • 612-673-4547
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