'Sisters' makes fifth-graders smile

Every year, I participate in my city's Community Reading Day, in which adults in various professions read a book to an elementary school class. Everyone loves to read to the little kids, so I always volunteer for the older grades, and of course I bring comics.

Sometimes I get a good response and sometimes I don't, but this year was really great, because of both the book and the kids.

The book was a no-brainer: Raina Telgemeier's Sisters, which was the top selling graphic novel in bookstores last year and the top pick on the Good Comics for Kids blog's list of the best children's graphic novels of 2014.

As I was re-reading it to prep for the class, though, I realized for the first time what a rich variety of storytelling techniques Telgemeier uses. I showed the class how she used the film technique of an establishing shot at the beginning of the book, starting with a wide view of the California coast, narrowing down to their neighborhood and then their house, and finally looking in the window to show the family sitting around the dinner table. I pointed out how she used different panel shapes and sizes to slow and speed up the action, how she shifted between close-ups and long shots, and how she used splash pages to define the different sections of the book and provide information about the characters (for instance, she has a cutaway diagram of her mother's mini-van showing different zones for each of the siblings, filled with clutter that gives the reader an idea of their personalities).

The biggest "Aha!" moment was when I showed them how the coloring of the whole page changes for flashbacks (the panels and the surrounding page are given a yellowish cast, like aging newsprint). And of course we talked about the elements of graphic novels—sound effects, word balloons, text boxes, etc. Then I read an excerpt from the story that was actually a flashback within a flashback and pointed out the visual cues Telgemeier gave for the settings and the action.

The other delightful thing was the class itself. I always ask the kids if they read comics or graphic novels, and usually only a few hands go up. This time, though, almost everyone had something to say. So who's popular in fifth grade? Big Nate, Jughead, Bone, One Piece, and yes, there was a girl who had read Telgemeier's earlier book, Smile. Usually there's at least one kid who reads superheroes, but surprisingly, no one copped to that this time.

I'm not sure if this is a trend, but awareness of graphic novels seemed to be much higher in this class than in the classes I have visited in previous years. I wrote about Community Reading Day a couple of years ago, and back then, very few students had heard of graphic novels. (Looking back, two things strike me: Nobody mentioned Calvin and Hobbes this year, and I was right about Tokyopop.)

Anyway, it was a delight to have such a great book to read and such an enthusiastic audience to read it to. The next Community Reading Day can't come soon enough!

[Editor’s note: Each Sunday, Robot 6 contributors discuss the best in comics from the last seven days — from news and announcements to a great comic that came out to something cool creators or fans have done.]

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