Sarah Couri (NYPL), Jorge Aguirre (Giants Beware!), P. Craig Russell(launching more Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde), Colleen AF Venable (Guinea Pig: Petshop Private Eye), and Matt Forsythe(Jinchalo) got together for the first panel of MoCCA Fest on April 28th to shine a light on the current state of children’s literature in relationship to comics and broke some new ground on what can be a well-worn subject riddled with misconceptions and clichés.
Starting from the assumption that comics are a valid medium for children’s literacy, but one traditionally (perhaps even grossly) underrated, despite their heavy circulation in public libraries, the panel discussed their own struggles with a lack of respect for , as Aguirre called it, “something we love”. Colleen AF Venable admitted to extreme measures in her frustration, going so far as to “trick people” by refusing to divulge the designated genre or age-group when gifting books to friends or family and thereby generating a less biased enthusiasm for the work as it stands, since after all “great literature is great literature” and in this experiment, it can speak for itself.
The panels ranged into more rugged theoretical territory discussing the loaded terminology applied to graphic narratives. Why call a children’s book a graphic novel rather than a picture book? For P. Craig Russell there are many reasons to make a designation of this kind. A sequential artist, he insisted, is not an illustrator. For Russell, a comics artist who also succeeds as an illustrator is a person who “straddles both worlds”, such as Charles Vess.
Russell related his own youthful experiences, supposing he was “not good enough” to “break in” to the highly competitive world of illustration, one which he considers a “different craft” than comics. You can’t necessarily tell a story with an illustration, he pointed out. Other panelists agreed that formal qualities such as the use of panels and word balloons continue to separate comics from illustration, however difficult their other differences may be to define.
Each of the panelist was also asked if they found themselves changing or adapting styles in the knowledge of a child-based audience and the remarkable consensus was largely a “no”. However, many agreed that an editor might prompt them to do so if necessary; the editorial role became the subject of conversation, a role particularly significant in children’s books, according to Russell, in which the editor might function as a “hub” with varying tasks extending from them like “spokes”.
The panel authors suggested quite strongly that language and vocabulary should not be extensively “simplified” for a younger audience since, in their own experience, reading on a higher level helped to expand their own vocabulary and literacy. This has a particular bearing upon graphic narrative adaptation of literary classics which Russell, in particular, felt should stay as close to the original text as possible in vocabulary, perhaps providing glossaries if necessary.
Matt Forsythe felt that choosing “what’s best for kids” was actually the “wrong way to look at it”, since reflecting on his own childhood reading, he recalled several works that seemed “scary” and “definitely challenging” that nevertheless, helped prepare him for the more serious aspects of life. Russell supplied the example of the Disney film Pinocchio, which he found quite scary but worthwhile as a child, a scariness that stands up well in the face of so much adult-conceived “saccharine” entertainment for children these days. The implication was that adult created concepts of what children like might convey an artificial “niceness” that children may not even be comfortable with, particularly if it seems to belie the realities of life they see around them.
Panelists continued to return to the concept of the “scary” in children’s works, and the mysterious impact of works that stay with you decades later. For P. Craig Russell, recently re-discovering the Golden Book of Hansel and Gretel thirty years later has had a strong emotional impact, both in recognizing the virtuosity of good illustration and a recurrence of “light-headedness” from childhood in the face of its more frightening aspects.
The authors were, penultimately, asked to list their favorite reads as kids. For Russell, this included Dr. Seuss, Golden Books, and a taste for early Disney animation including Snow White, which had a particular impact on his own visual style. Jorge Aguirre preferred C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books and the works of P. D. Eastman while Matt Forsythe loved “surreal monster books”, and comics such as X-men.
Panelists lastly tackled the thorny question of introducing and encouraging visual literacy in young children who might otherwise feel excluded from graphic narrative formats that have a more “comic” style including panels and speech bubbles. While Russell lamented a possible diminution in visual literacy in recent years, he suggested that “overdoing” and “holding a reader’s hand” visually is something he takes quite seriously in order to leave no reader out of the conversation. He feels that graphic narratives should be “easy to follow” and authors should be as “obvious” as they can be with younger readers to encourage future enthusiasm for the medium. Sarah Couri added that we should assume that it’s a particular “skill” to “decode pictures” that children can develop over time, not necessarily a “natural” skill depending on cultural practice.
Russell brought the conversation to a close with some basic points concerning identifying age group when crafting a children’s work, that the age of the hero in a narrative will help determine the age of the readership intended, as well as a work’s length. He gave the example, however, of his work on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, to illustrate the need to let children choose their preferred visual narratives in terms of themes and style. The “scariness” of Coraline, in Russell’s experience has always been more of a subject of concern to adults than to the child readers who rocketed the story to widespread popularity and led to its adaptation as a graphic narrative and film.
Not only did the energy that panelist brought to the table launch MoCCA Fest on a strong footing, but their own seriousness and passion for necessary conversations like this reminded readers that comics are not yet as “established” as an acceptable form of literacy as we might begin to imagine. Their answers also highlighted the seminal role of picture books and illustration to launch young creators on the road toward children’s comics, even while arguing the need for separate mediums with their own particular strengths. As the writers considered their own childhood reading experiences, the audience was left with the radical sense that our comics readers of the future begin right here with children’s literature. The survival of the medium,“something we love” may depend on it.