Glen Downey, Comics in Education, www.comicsineducation.com
Teaching comics and graphic novels in the K-12 classroom is one thing. Writing them, however, is quite another. Here are three helpful tips for anyone wanting to write visual narratives for children!
1. Think about what your young audience knows, and what they don't.
I learned this while writing a children's graphic story called The Sun. The book was for students in Grade 1, and in it I needed to explain what the sun is and what we get from it. I didn't think this would be very difficult until I began to recognize what kids know and what they don't.
In the graphic story, a young girl meets the sun and they have a conversation. Early on, she tries to figure out what the sun is made of. Initially, I was going to have the sun explain that it's a big ball of gas!
This might seem reasonable enough until you realize that very small children have no idea what gas is. They get solids and liquids, but gasses are a rather complex concept to grasp, especially when so many are essentially invisible.
The solution was simple, however. I had the sun describe himself as a big ball of fire. Every kid knows what fire is!
2. Be mindful of the physical structure of the words you use.
When you're writing comics and graphic novels for children, you should keep in mind that there's an important component of your stories that will be relatively new for them.
Kids are learning new words all the time, so we can't expect that they'll have our range of vocabulary when they sit down to read a book. They won't.
There's a reason that books for children are leveled, and you should be mindful of the age of your reader and what words he or she will find familiar or unfamiliar. Remember, too, that just because a concept might be simple, the word for it might be complicated, and kids will need simplified language in order to understand what you mean. For a more detailed explanation of how to ensure a graphic story is appropriately leveled, check out this blog post about using readability statistics.
And don't worry, the first time I submitted a story for children, I was told that it was written for students with about six years of postsecondary education!
3. Use the verbal and the visual to reinforce one another.
Comics thinker and guru Scott McCloud has examined at length the ways in which words and illustrations in a graphic novel speak to one another. Sometimes the visual helps to extend meaning and sometimes it serves as a counterpoint, but in writing for young children it often helps to have words and images reinforce one another.
It used to bug me when a book I was writing would have a narrative caption box or a dialogue bubble that would explain to the reader what exactly was happening in the illustration. However, this mutual reinforcement is often necessary when it comes to young readers and one only need think of the close relationship between word and image in picture books for beginning readers to recognize this is the case.
Keeping these three principles clearly in focus can help you when it comes to writing comics and graphic novels for children. It will also help you when you're trying to pitch your great idea to a potential publisher!
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Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children's author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He works as a children's writer for Rubicon Publishing, a reviewer for PW Comics World, an editor for the Sequart Organization, and serves as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto.