Forget about getting your kids to read classics

I confess that I saved all my books from when I was a young girl. One of the common traits of girls with autism is that they read fiction at an insane rate. The only person I know who has read as many young adult novels as I have, in fact, is my friend Melissa, who also has autism.

So I have a stash in the back of my kids’ closet of the books. I started giving away the girl books when I realized they were never going to read about ballerinas. But I still have a bunch.

Except it’s clear that my sons are not interested. Given the choice, they’ll always pick a graphic novel. At first I thought they were lazy readers. But my older son reads almost as obsessively as I do, so clearly he is not lazy.

I was relieved to read research from Jeremy Short at University of Oklahoma who finds that students learn more effectively from graphic novels than from traditional textbooks. This gave me the confidence to buy history books as graphic novels, and the new, A Wrinkle in Time graphic novel. (Which, by the way, got a nice review in the New York Times.)

I remember the discussion when Maus came out, that the Holocaust was too important a topic to be treated as a comic. And the same was said of Phoebe Glockers’s graphic novel which was a memoir of her disturbing childhood. So we have already established that we can cover deep and meaningful things in via graphic novels.

Now, I think, we are establishing that graphic novels are good for everything.

Many parents will have a hard time with this. Most of us imagined sharing our favorite books with our kids. But now that I think about it, I spent a lot of my childhood accepting gifts from well-meaning adults and then putting them on my bookshelf unread, forever.

There’s a reason most of you have never read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. They are great stories, they are just not told in your vernacular. Much of the pleasure of reading is seeing life reflected back to you in your vernacular.

You will say, in the comments, that we also read to expand our experience and our exposure to other times. But to that I say: then you should probably read Chaucer and let your kids read the graphic novel version of Ninjago or Babysitters Club or whatever else would not pass muster in the national curriculum.

37 replies
  1. Elena
    Elena says:

    I let my kids read graphic novels and comic books – but we also do the classics. I have been reading the Little House books to my daughters (7 and 13) and I have been doing much heavier lifting with my high school kids. Some of the books they hate, others they surprisingly love! I have also had them listen to audio books. Our usual treat after finishing a classic book is to watch the movie if there is one, and then compare the book to the movie. Hands down they always think the book was better!

  2. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    Thank you so much for this Penelope! My 10 year old son is the exact same way so I bought a graphic novel of the history of Texas (since we live in Texas) and he read the whole thing. I’d like to see more books written this way. I think he retains the information better and is better entertained. I often wonder why some think reading about certain topics should not be entertaining. It seems quite puritanical to me. So if anyone knows of a good resource where I can find an abundance of Graphic novels to choose from, please pass on. And thanks for validating my decision to NOT require my son to read anything he doesn’t want to.

  3. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    I’ve been writing about and speaking on the value of comic books for years now. And it’s not just for pleasure that comic books, manga, high interest magazines, and graphic novels are the first choice for some readers. I share some of those reasons here: And a professor shared his research on comic books, also, in the comments section :-) We have a wide variety of reading materials in our home, including these awesome visual resources!

  4. Jane
    Jane says:

    I read the classics with my kids and they love it. It is one of my greatest joys, too. Perhaps you just haven’t found the best way to introduce your sons to these books.

    I generally start by reading the book to them. Like Black Beauty, for example. That book is pretty dated, so it might be hard for a 9 year old to read alone. But reading with mom is different. First of all, that is a special time together, which she enjoys. And secondly, I can explain the dated parts (if she asks).

    After a while, she gets interested in the story and finishes it herself. It helps if you stop at an exciting place. My oldest daughter had tears in her eyes when she finished Black Beauty (and it has a happy ending!)

    Don’t give up on the classics, just because the kids resist. Graphic novels may have their place, but they do take away a lot the imaginative part of reading.

    And since you mention it, I read classics myself all the time. Not all “classics” are good, but I read the ones I like. I never go by whether they have won an award, I decide by whether they speak to me.

    Would you suggest your sons give up on classical music, just because it can be hard?

    Reading classical literature is a great joy, and I’d never deny my kids that joy, just because they want to read something easier.

    (A graphic novel for the Babysitters Club? Please. That is pretty simple reading in its original form. My oldest daughter loved — loved — loved those books.)

    • pls
      pls says:

      Agreed. The study apparently relates that “students learn more effectively from graphic novels than from traditional textbooks.” Traditional textbooks are not “classics,” they’re written-by-committee cash cows that have to get by the yahoos on the Texas Board of Education. Textbooks, in a word, suck and are one of the 99 Reasons We Homeschool.

      My 13 year-old daughter does not have Aspergers, reads Young Adult novels at a frantic pace, but has also read The Odyssey in its entirety (for a Greek Mythology MOOC), the Lord of the Rings, Wuthering Heights (thanks Kate Bush), and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf (after having it read aloud to her). But she was raised to enjoy reading and has been gently pushed to read and/or listen to more and more difficult writing (and yea, part of that is her screen time is limited, but not enough that she can’t take three MOOCs simultaneously and do stuff with Photoshop that I can’t do).

      Computers and information related graphically are nice tools, but there are other aspects to life and learning.

  5. Sarah Pierzchala
    Sarah Pierzchala says:

    The only reason my eldest (a classic Asperger’s, BTW) can even read is due to Calvin and Hobbes!

    I allow comics, graphic novels, fim adaptations, nightly Mom read-alouds—whatever gets them interested in a good story. And it’s definitely working!

  6. karelys
    karelys says:

    What makes classics the classics?

    I think there will be more classics to come in our kids’ time. If they don’t read the classics that were the classics to us then what?

    I think the moral of the stories repeat themselves in other books like movies. They have different dialogs and sceneries but the core of the story is recycled often.

    Maybe reading and quoting the so called classics has more to do with sounding cool and awesome and cultured than being well educated.

    As an immigrant I didn’t read lots of the classics and I didn’t watch most of the shows that people think are great/classic (like Seinfield or Friends or whatever). I did a lot of Wikipedia to quickly understand what shapes this culture because it’d take a lot longer to read the books. I know that sounds stupid to some but I had to get on with the pace if I wanted to get jobs and not be out of step with the people paying be better checks.

    So I began understanding how the culture of the country is shaped. I make room to read the classics just to know them and be able to be part of the conversation if it comes up. I think mentioning Lord of the Flies was a connecting point with my boss yesterday. But thanks to Wikipedia, this blog, and a whole lot of reading I got to understand the culture in a way that I leap-frogged many of my peers and especially the immigrants in my same situation.

    I wonder how to reverse that for my kid. I want him to know about my original culture and be able to make himself a place in it and in the hearts of people.

    And talking about graphic novels I think that’s a great project! just for fun. I’ll make something like that but with pictures of people. Then I’ll invent stories.

  7. Mark Kenski
    Mark Kenski says:

    Feed the bonfire of your kids’ curiosity with anything that will burn.

    Fire goes from spark to kindling to tinder to small logs to larger. In time the largest “classic” logs will not only burn in that fire, they will be exactly what your kids seek to throw into it.

  8. Isabelle Spike
    Isabelle Spike says:

    Yeah, textbooks are in no way the same as classic novels. The quality of writing in textbooks can be awful, and reading them can feel like a giant chore. Of course not everyone will connect to the same works, but the reason that the classics ARE the classics is because they are, for the most part, REALLY GOOD! Even if you don’t thoroughly enjoy reading Shakespeare, learning how to work through it so you can appreciate the amazingly deep characters and unbelievably insightful commentary about humanity can be so worth it in the end. We rarely enjoy things we don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean we won’t enjoy them eventually if we put the work in up front and have faith that it might be worth it in the end.

    Also, like it or not, there is huge cultural capital in knowing “the classics” of our culture, or at least being familiar with enough of them to pass in social situations. Being well-read is practically the definition of “smart” in huge swaths of society, and I wouldn’t want my kid to be dismissed outright by people because he is completely lacking in knowledge of the written classics.

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      “…there is huge cultural capital in knowing “the classics” of our culture…”

      Not for long.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think the idea of huge cultural capital within the “classics” went out of fashion in the 80s when Allan Bloom was skewered across the university system for defending “the classics”.

      The problem with the idea that there is a list of “classics” is that it’s a list written by white men that heavily favors white men. So the list almost becomes a list of books to read if you DON’T want to read widely.

      During the 80s, when people were crushing the idea of a set list of classics, people came up with alternative lists that are fascinating to me. I can remember reading of a list of “classics from below the equator” for example.

      At some point I think parents have to realize that it’s not a list of classics as much as a list of books the parents want to share with the kids.


      • Crimson Wife
        Crimson Wife says:

        The older classics are going to skew heavily towards white men because that is who had the power until recently but the solution is not dumping the classics entirely. That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What homeschoolers should do is to make sure to incorporate the classics from non-Western civilizations. I got a children’s version of the Ramayana from the library when we were studying India and my kids loved it.

  9. Jane
    Jane says:

    Agreed, the classics are the classics because they are good (mostly, anyway). They stay with you, they enrich your life. Why deny kids this?

    I will add that my kids read plenty–plenty–of comics. And we began on classics after years of encouraging them to read the things they love. Then, once the love of reading was established, did I gently introduce them to more difficult books. It is a joy to share books that were important to me with my kids.

    It’s kind of like music. You wouldn’t want them to only know how to play “Twinkle, twinkle”. Even if is easier for them to stay at that level, they would miss so much. Personally, I think this is even truer about literature, because literature has more “cultural currency.”

  10. mbl
    mbl says:

    I have nothing against graphic novels. But this I know, it would not be a suitable format for Julie Andrews Edwards’ The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. My great-grandmother gave it to me when I was nine and it is still my favorite book. When I first read it, I started illustrating it and decided that is what I would do when I grew up. (I didn’t.)

    From the 25th anniversary edition in 1999:
    My publishers asked me if I wished to have the book illustrated. The tale is about using one’s imagination (and discovering what is under one’s very nose), and I hoped that readers would discover the Whangdoodle for themselves–just as I had–so I decided not to. I am so glad I made that choice, for in the years since publication, I have received literally hundreds of drawings and school projects and letters. I have kept every single one of them. I hear there is even a town in America where they celebrate Whangdoodle Day. He seems to make friends everywhere he goes.

    I waited until my (aspie) daughter was 6.5 and we started reading it together. I don’t know what I would have done had she not been instantly captivated by the story, but she was. I assumed it would be the first of many readings, so I made some notes on the back cover. This was exactly one year ago and before we started homeschooling.
    pgs 40-50 (the kids were learning how to harness their imaginations) We were on the front porch reading.
    dd “Let’s have science class now!!” I explained that we didn’t need to pretend it was a class. dd “Okay. Let’s do science now!!” We stopped reading and looked at branches and bark and saw volcanoes, alligators, and rivers in there.
    After we went back to reading she was leaping and rolling around on the ground when she bonked her head. Hard. She asked me to keep reading but “read more slowly because I’m going to have to say the words in my head.”
    We ended the book with a 4 hour straight through marathon snuggled on the sofa. She asked if there was a sequel. When I said “no” she sighed and then said “How I love books!” The next day she asked if we could read it again.

    LRGW lead us to reading Mandy, and then The Secret Garden, and then Anne of Green Gables (had an orphan theme going.) We bought an extra copy for loaning. After we loaned it to her new best homeschooling friend, they read it in a couple of days (200+ pgs) and then bought a copy.

    I think it is a silly to say that “we are establishing that graphic novels are good for everything” as it is to say that they are good for nothing. DD has read a couple of graphic novels and we still have Mark Fearing’s Earthling! (which looks great) on our amazon list, but there is much, much to be said for allowing space for one’s imagination.

    As pls pointed out, how students learn effectively has little to do with literature. Having an ear for good writing is a wonderful, wonderful gift. (Of course the flip-side means that forced exposure to bad writing is excruciating.)

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      That’s wonderful! Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles was my favorite book, too, and I have cherished my copy forever. I would never want it illustrated as that would destroy the whole message of the book.

      I recently gave (a brand-new copy, so I can keep mine!) the book to my 7-year-old son. He thought he wouldn’t like it because he thought it was “girly,” but I asked him just to keep an open mind and give it a chance. After the first couple of chapters, he was hooked. I never force my kids to finish books they truly hate, but I do ask them to keep an open mind about books I “assign.” The only way you know if you like something is if you get exposed. The cover of the book looks “girly” so he would never have tried it on his own, but in the end (because I “assigned” it), he loved it.

      I love graphic novels, too, and we have them in the house, but his pleasure reading is generally not graphic novels. I think he prefers imagining.

  11. Greg
    Greg says:

    I find great readers spent most of their childhood reading genre fiction.

    The one person I know who has been able to make a living in literature studies lectures on graphic novels. He knows his classics but his childhood was Neil Gaiman and Steven King.

    It seems most econ bloggers grew up on science fiction (I’m particularly thinking of Paul Krugman, Tyler Cowen and the entire econ department of GMU). Jessa Crispin from Bookslut was also a sci fi kid.

    There is something illicit about trashy fiction when you are a kid. You know (or think) that the contents of the book would make your parents squirm. That’s what builds a pasion for literature.

    The problem with graphic novels is that they are expensive. It’d be a lot cheaper if your kids were reading trashy books.

  12. Nonnie
    Nonnie says:

    Classics are highly enjoyable in their own way, but I still find contemporary books more emotionally satisfying. Some older books I tried and failed at reading as a little kid, I was able to appreciate a lot more as a teenager (Anne Frank, Little Women, Shakespeare, 1984). Although, there are also a number of books I LOVED as a little kid that I later found out were a lot older than I’d thought (Call it Courage, Johnny Tremain).

    I was pretty skeptical about graphic novels since I love reading so much, but I loved Maus and Persepolis. It actually reminds me of reading Jane Austen or Shakespeare in that it takes a while to get used to the “different vernacular”. I think the tide of public opinion has been turning for a few years and will only continue to grow more positive.

    (Sidenote: As another extremely voracious young girl fiction reader (non-Aspergers?) I ended up reading most of my mom’s old fiction books incidentally as I made my way through all the bookshelves in the house.)

  13. kristen
    kristen says:

    When my son was about 6 or 7 I read him one of Jack London’s short stories about a dog that had to choose between two masters. It was way above his vocabulary level but I brought it down where absolutely necessary.
    He burst into tears in the midst of the dilemma and when I asked him why he replied that he could “see the pictures so clearly in his head” and he felt so sad for the dog having to choose. This helped convince me that there is a time and a place for everything…including great literature.

  14. Bird
    Bird says:

    The kids were making up worlds for games and stories while they were eating lunch and as I listened, I realized how much all four of them are influenced by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which only one of them has read. If people are working collaboratively, not everyone has to have read everything – the books that influence one will be present to the others.

    I have a hard time reading graphic novels but I can tell it’s a skill I’m going to need. I invested in a “copy” of Chris Ware’s Building Stories – actually 17 pieces that come in a box and tell a story together. Brilliant, the future of putting stories on paper, and challenging.

    Sometimes I am trying so hard to be the world’s best reading concierge that I forget to read them bits of what I am reading – which they are generally interested in. I do love finding them adult criticism of things they love, like the animated Avatar series.

    I was an English major and have read a lot, but increasingly realize I am missing whole fields and traditions. There’s a whole hell of a lot of new novels that I can’t address intelligently without first going back – recently I had to read Watchmen, by Alan Moore (major epochal graphic novel) to be able to write a review of something by an author who was influenced by it as a teen.

    Rambling! But mostly, it’s not what you read; it’s who you hang out and practice your art with. It’s about being able to tell where the things you love want you to go next. And in conclusion: fuck the common core. Kill it with fire. Keep it the hell away from my kid and all the kids! It’s a lie, and not a kind one.

  15. Susie
    Susie says:

    My 8 yo son learned to read with Calvin and Hobbes and continues to read only books with graphics, photos, or at least some colored text. It is not useful to force him to read something he’s not interested in, he’s an ENFP!

    He listens to classics via audio and has from a young age. I’m a huge fan of audiobooks for any child but especially children who aren’t going to read those books themselves. It teaches them how to write effectively (my son currently writes via dictation and his “writing” is quite good!). They get to hear a great story, something more substantive than Calvin and Hobbes or Geronimo Stilton.

    I could not be happier that so many nonfiction books now have such rich graphics and photos!

  16. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    I read somewhere these two things that changed the way I see kids learning to read:

    1) if they’re more interested in it, they’ll *want* to read
    2) boys read more if they read it in action/graphic novels

    The first seems like a no-brainer, but ohmygosh I hate some of those princess books my daughter likes. We go to the library once a week, they pick out whatever they want, and I pick out some that I like, and we read all of them throughout the week. My son is learning to read and chooses comics over anything else. I think you’re right in saying this is a thing that the parents will have a harder time with, I certainly did. I was the kid who read historical fiction for fun around age 10, so the comics feel way out of my realm of desire for what I want to be reading and sharing with my kids. However, I’ve really tried to take the advice of unschoolers (and even structured homeschoolers) who have told me that kids will learn to read on their own if you let them read what they want. Didn’t you have a post on that? :)

    Sarah M

  17. mh
    mh says:

    Not only do my kids (boys) love graphic history/graphic science/graphic biography, but they learn from it. It’s like the knowledge sneaks in while they are enjoying themselves. They get it.

    The kids are big readers, so who cares whether their first exposure to Matthew Henson comes from Graphic History or their favorite book on cell biology is Max Axiom? It gets them interested, piques their curiosity, and keeps building bridges to new information. Eventually, everything your child knows has to be learned individually — nobody can learn it for them. Bring on the graphics!

    That’s what Khan Acadmey does so well, too — it’s all visual, all graphic, with words coming from off-screen — the learning goes in through their eyes and sets their minds working.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s such a great point about Khan Academy. It is like a visual text book. I adore watching that black magic marker run across the screen – regardless of the topic.


  18. Jen
    Jen says:

    I saved all my books, too. When most were ruined by a flood in my parents basement, i was devastated. But there is a used book chain in Tucson, Arizona called Bookman’s. And by spending many lunch hours browsing their children’s book section, I was able to restore at least half of the collection.

    Since moving to Israel two years ago, my oldest son (a voracious reader in English) hasn’t been interested in reading in Hebrew. Until he found the “bone” graphic series by Jeff Smith (Go Scholastic! My former employer whose books I also used to hoard.). Now, he’s finally devouring Hebrew too.

  19. Brenda
    Brenda says:

    The Cartoon Guide to Physics got me through the 2 semesters of college-level physics courses required for my major. Graphic novel as textbook. I do not think I would have mastered the course material without that silly-looking book, and I still have my copy.
    By the way, as a girl, I too read fiction at an insane rate, and obsessed over anything to do with King Arthur. You and Melissa are my new best friends!

  20. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    This makes so much sense to me. I think pictures are a lot like music in that they can really help your mind recall information. i cant quote a single sentence out of any of the hundreds of books ive read, but i know the lyrics to thousands of songs. Pictures paired with sparse wording can work much the same way. it seems the picture can provide a framework that helps your mind recall and place words– not to mention all the info contained in the picture itself. Maps are a great example, to read a description of each states location, or of its general shape would be utterly confusing and essentially pointless. But create a graphic representation and any of us can close their eyes and bring up an instant mental image of the entire country.

    Unfortunately for myself, I always want to enjoy graphic novels, but I find them very distracting. I have tried reading several over the years but I always end up very bored. I think processing the pictures slows me down a lot and I become impatient. I have always had an affinity for language and reading and I find it very easy to process sentences and paragraphs as I read. i enjoy slowing down when im enjoying the language but also quickly recognizing and scanning over sections that dont interest me as much. I am wondering if I were to read more graphic novels whether processing the images would become as second nature to me, allowing me to dwell on or scan over each scene much as I do with paragraphs.

    I always feel that I am missing out on something I would enjoy, but whenever I sit down with a graphc novel I find it can barely hold my attention.

  21. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I am an advocate of children reading. My boy reads a lot, and he reads what he wants (or other kids in his book group want). He reads about four hours most days, and can tear through a 400 page novel in a week. There is no need to substitute the classics for the latest YA science fiction. His reading does the job it ought: his vocabulary is excellent, and he is absorbing good grammar as well.

    The classics I read to him at bedtime. Think of it as a simple test: if you are not willing to read the whole book out loud, how can you insist your child read it by himself?

    The classics are good reading. It’s what makes them classics. The sometimes archaic language and peculiar vocabulary can pose an obstacle to immersion for the child, and push him back into decoding. Read aloud by a parent, however, extra clues of intonation and expression combine with the ease of hearing to make the work more enthralling. You can read aloud work he wouldn’t read himself. My eight year old boy loves Don Quixote, for example; he looks forward to it every night.

  22. Jen
    Jen says:

    I popped over here one day and try to visit from time to time even though I don’t homeschool. I love to learn new things, like about Jeremy Short and Phoebe Gloecker.

  23. Helene Poulakou
    Helene Poulakou says:

    I am excited to see this point of view expressed here!
    In fact, as soon as I read the title to your post, I automatically thought: “Why not present the classics in graphic novels?”
    I am an avid book reader, but I know I liked such stuff a lot when I was a kid.

  24. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Trying to get your kids to read your own favorites is always hard. I feel like you need to expose them to classics even though it can be difficult. This is always a matter of opinion though, I for one am upset with the curriculum in schools today. Another example of an “educated” opinion of someone.

  25. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    “One of the common traits of girls with Asperger’s is that they read fiction at an insane rate”

    Penelope, may I ask how many is considered a “insane rate” please? I just really want to know. Thanks a lot.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s an interesting question, because I know a lot of women with Asperger’s and they all know what this means intuitively, like, yes, I probably did that.

      My sense is that if you are asking for yourself, to see if you read that way, then the answer is yes, you did. Because most people would not even consider that they might have done this.

      That said, I read a book a day until I had kids. Then things went to hell. And actually, when I think about it, part of the disoriented feeling I had as a new mom was probably the shock of not being able to get through a book every day. It’s a way for me to ground myself .


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