Graphic Novels vs "Real" Novels: The Parent Kid Standoff

Does it matter, so long as they're reading?

“It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.”

The opening paragraph of Madeleine L’Engle's A Wrinkle in Time reads like a three-course-meal.

In contrast, the opening lines of the graphic novel based on the book read, “It was a dark and stormy night. I’m not usually afraid of weather. It’s weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of me, Meg Murry, doing everything wrong.”

Hmm. Even with the accompanying artwork, it’s somehow less satisfying. Like fast food take out – Does the trick, tastes good, but missing part of the exquisite experience of dining out.

When I heard the movie A Wrinkle in Time was being made, I knew I’d be taking to my son to it. It’s a classic story with a strong female protagonist. We were seeing it, full stop. But knowing that even the best movies lose something in the translation from text to screen, I wanted my son to read the story first. I gave him the choice: Book or graphic novel.

To no one’s surprise, he chose the graphic novel, and he thoroughly enjoyed it, which thrilled me. But I was sad he was missing out on L’Engle’s brilliant descriptions. I decided we would read the novel together.

After we saw the movie, we compared the three media. He couldn’t choose a favourite, admitting they were all too different to rank on a neutral scale. He did notice that the movie was missing entire sections and characters included in the book and the graphic novel. For this alone, he was glad we had also read it.

So we had covered A Wrinkle in Time pretty thoroughly. But what about the constant debate in my house over what my child reads?

My ten-year-old is a good reader. Above average, even. Because I’m not super concerned about his ability to read and comprehend what he reads, I’ve pretty much left him to his devices in terms of what he chooses to read. But for the past two years, he has exclusively chosen to read graphic novels.

I don’t mind graphic novels as a genre. I recognize them as art, with a place on the bookshelf of any reader. But I will admit, it bothers me greatly that they are all he reads.

I know I need to recognize my own bias. Aside from raiding the stash of vintage Archies at my childhood cottage every summer, I’ve never had much of an interest in comics. Words, though. My love affair with words began early. A well-phrased sentence can make my heart race like I’ve just spotted my crush across the room.

I grew up with the words of Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, and James and Deborah Howe ringing in my ears. I paid little attention to the tune of a song, and honed in on the lyrics. I carried around a binder with loose leaf paper and a multicoloured pen in case inspiration struck me. Words were everything to me, and they couldn’t be condensed to dialogue and illustrations.

As I sat watching my son reading another graphic novel, I sighed at his lack of taste. And then three words hit me.

Sweet Valley Twins.

Oh yeah. I forgot about my obsession with them. At ten-years-old, I took a break from Ms. Blume and picked up the comparatively low-quality Sweet Valley Twins series. I read the whole 100+ book series. I co-chaired a club based on the books (I was Jessica, naturally.) Shakespeare, they were not. They were cranked out as quickly as possible, quantity over quality, and they certainly lacked L’Engle-esque descriptions.

But my mom didn’t force me to forgo them in favour of better literature. She took me to the book store and let me buy book after book. Like my son does with his graphic novels, I passed them around among my friends. My mom can quote Frost and Yeats on cue, but she indulged my Sweet Valley Twins phase. Why? Because it was fun, and at least I was reading.

The Sweet Valley Twins didn’t stunt my love of literature. By high school, I’d fallen in love with Maya Angelou. Try to find someone who can string together words more beautifully than Ms. Angelou. But eventually, something did kill my love of reading, at least temporarily - university.

I was an English major, which seemed a natural choice for a lover of words. Suddenly, I wasn’t reading because I wanted to; I was reading because I had to. And I was reading what someone else chose for me. I still loved words, but reading lost its thrill. I didn’t read for pleasure again for nearly a decade.

I don’t want to be the person who stifles my son’s enjoyment of reading. He’s not reading novels, but he’s reading, and he’s enjoying it. If I push the novels, will I smother that?

For now, I'm letting him do his thing. But I insist we read novels together occasionally so we can spend time together reveling in the beauty of description.



Heather M. Jones is a mom of 2 from Toronto. When not writing, she can be found reading, worrying, and spending way too much time on Facebook.