Saturday, May 12

Summer Reading, Part One: Low Humor

I believe in summer reading. Some of the best memories I have about my summers growing up were the times spent at the local libraries, taking books home on a lazy afternoon and reading until my eyes got blurry or my stomach grumbled. I wasn't a shut-in or a book worm -- I would play pick-up games with kids on the block, or down at the park -- but I did spend a lot of time to myself because I was fairly insecure and introspective.

Things have changed and now my kids don't just go a couple doors down to play with their friends, they request play dates which need to be coordinated with other parents. The idea of walking down to the local park and hanging out with other kids was predicated on an environment where neighbors looked after one another and the local park had a paid supervisor to check out balls, games, lanyard materials and whatnot. And the summer reading of my youth, always self-directed and rarely encouraged by my mother, has been replaced with a formalized list of titles handed out at the end of the school year for elementary school kids to stress over as they tussle with parents over having their "fun" summer taken away from them.

Along with the myth that homework actually helps children perform better at school, assigned summer reading sounds to me like a clever way to make kids hate books at an earlier age than they might normally. I don't look back at those summers where I would devour books as a punishment, and my girls currently don't seem to have a problem seeking out a new book the minute they finish another, yet when those lists come out and we look over the titles and descriptions of recommended reading there's always a sense of resentment from all parties.

Why are we molding children as young as 8 to accept that summer is a time to "get ahead?" Won't they get enough of this pressure come high school? And why does the material always need to pass some bar of appropriateness, not just for reading level but for content? Is there no room for "play" in summer reading?

No. I mean, yes, there is room for play in summer reading. If there isn't, room should be made. To this end I am always in praise of low humor and the types of reading materials often regarded as pop or junk culture and always inconsequential. Since the end of World War II it seems there has always been a voice decrying low humor and popular culture in favor of more refined works. After half a century perhaps we ought to acknowledge that a large portion of the population -- I'm looking at you, Boomers -- have ingested and devoured a fair amount of this inferior printed matter and have been none the worse for it. I see no reason to continue to demonize it any further.

Classic MAD Magazine Paperbacks

I grew up on Mad magazine. I read plenty of other humor and comic magazines along the way but it always comes back to Mad because it taught me more than most adults would like to admit or give it credit for teaching. Yes, I was a boy, and there's a fair amount of boy-friendly gross-out humor involved, but what else was teaching me social and political satire? How else would I learn about the value (or lack thereof) of popular culture like moves, television and music were it not through their jabbing, critical parodies? Highlighting the inanities of stereotypes and skewering authority skirted the edge of political correctness but in those humorous examinations of human folly I came to understand my own points of view, began to formulate my own opinions and had a good laugh in the process.

Currently Mad magazine seems to be suffering. Mad's parent company was acquired over time by Time Warner but the magazine was allowed to run independently until it's founding editor William M. Gaines died in 1992. Since then corporate elements have slowly taken over in an attempt to make the magazine more of a fiscal asset. When the magazine, famous for taking on the absurdities of American advertising, began accepting ads themselves in 2001 most readers, young and old, recognized that Mad was dead. Long live MAD!

My local libraries had spinner racks filled with paperback books and among those were the collections from Mad. Some were artist-centric collections and others were thematic, all of them chock full of material that had appeared in the magazine in the (at that time) 20-plus years of its history. For me there were three artists whose books never failed, whose various approaches to humorous illustration still hold up all these years later: Don Martin, Al Jaffee and Sergio Aragones.

The late Don Martin, nicknamed Mad's Maddest Artist, drew characters with elongated faces and hinged feet and often frozen in some of the most exaggerated "takes" this side of Tex Avery. While Martin's work for the magazine was often single-page comic style stories his books contained longer stories that often poked fun at a number of genres, particularly those based on movies. Al Jaffe, the master of the back cover fold-ins for the magazine, is best known for his "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" series, something anyone who works or has worked in retail or customer service can appreciate. It might seem like teaching children how to come up with sarcastic retorts could backfire the larger lesson in these books is to think before asking the unnecessary question in the first place. Finally, Sergio Aragones was the created of the "marginals" the little illustrations tucked in around the corners of the pages of the magazines. In book form his comics dealt in the visual humor of silent movies, a universal humor where the punchline often hinged on the flipping of a stereotype or expectation.

These books were last reprinted back in the 1990's and can be found used usually for under a dollar. For the price of two new paperbacks (one for each of my girls) I can get 8 to 10 of these books, which they will share. Value is a good thing when you're feeding hungry readers.

Comic Strip Collections: Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, &c.

Last year we introduced the girls to Calvin and Hobbes but it only really took with my oldest. An excellent comic overall, if a child already hasn't discovered this gem from previous safaris through the library then I highly recommend it. The play between the real and imagined worlds within the comic and Bill Watterson's magnificent draftsmanship make this a winner, and I don't begrudge Watterson for stopping the cartoon at the height of its popularity so he could go out on a high note. It can be a tricky comic to introduce -- my youngest needed to initially have the two worlds explained to her -- but reaps rewards in revisiting themes that call on a reader to remember personality and character traits from earlier strips. Actually, this is true of most daily comic strips, but few are as gratifying or as deceptively simple as Calvin and Hobbes.

Naturally, the grandaddy of them all would be the Peanuts collection, a seemingly endless series of collected dailies currently being captured in annual volumes by Fantagraphics Books, the comic book publisher. There is a certain charm to the Peanuts strips though after all these years I am starting to feel that their genteel quality is showing its age. Charles Schulz kept adults out of his strips (with one or two rare exceptions) and sparingly used pop culture references which has helped to keep them evergreen. For kids who think they have seen it all it's sometimes fun to bust out some "old school" on them and watch them enjoy it.

I remember the summer I found a yard sale and discovered the paperback collections of The Wizard of Id and B.C., the strip collections of Johnny Hart and Brant Parker. I'm not recommending these books directly except to suggest that there's something to be said about "discovering" something not put in front of you. I had a dollar bill burning a whole in my pocket and that was the price of a whole stack of these paperbacks - 17 in total. You feel like you've robbed a bank when you walk away from a sale with an armload of books like that and I'm always on the lookout for another great deal like that. When I finished with those books I hit the library up for the others in the series they had (which I somehow never noticed before) and then started paying more attention to yard sales. And the comics pages of newspapers, which brought me more reading. Some lessons are learned in books and some are learned in consuming them.

None of this is great literature, though much of it is classic pop culture from the 20th century. Reading comics requires a different set of skills, a combination of reading and observing, drawing pictorial conclusions and making visual analogies. It isn't something we teach children (though we ought to) but it is a language unto itself that teaches the reader as it goes.

There are plenty of other possibilities among the ranks of what has generally been relegated to the lower rung of trashy pop culture. It's all part of our neglected cultural heritage.

Comic Books: Mickey Mouse, Archies, Cartoon Network, & The Great Unknown

A recent news item talks about Maryland schools adding comic books to the classroom, and Disney is the company supporting it. This has been one of my fears about the increase in comics and graphic novels, that large corporate entities would make attractive offers to schools and flood them with materials designed to build brand loyalty. Disney has a long history of being in the classroom -- Boomers will remember the filmstrips in science class about VD, Gen Xers
would have seen the movie version -- so they aren't strangers to mixing educational content with humor. But when you take something like a comic book and turn it into a teaching tool you take away what's fun about the comic and you ingrain a sense of skepticism that all comics may be as dry as instructional media

No, comics are meant for the summers. They're meant for lazy afternoons in the shade (all summer reading can be an outdoor activity, weather permitting) slurping on a slushie and letting the time slip. I was never a big fan of superheroes -- I never could understand what any kid saw in these fools with their spandex outfits -- but there's plenty of other types of comics in the world. Kid-friendly titles do tend to be hokey but they also present simplified stories of character interaction. Archie Comics aren't going to break any new ground in humor -- they may be the corniest of the bunch -- but they do provide the basic vocabulary in understanding visual media, good for building those future graphic novel skills.

I recently saw a Betty comic (as in Betty and Veronica of the Archie Gang) that told a story of Betty's older sister getting an actual letter in the mail (as opposed to email) and everyone in the house was all jazzed. Turns out it was an apology note that had been lost in the post for years, and as a result Betty's sister had spent years thinking the boy was a lout for standing her up. Curious, she finds his name in the phone book and calls him (something he should have done instead of sending a note) and the upshot is they are rekindling their friendship/romance. Betty is so excited that she goes to her room to email her boyfriend the story and instead he breaks up with through instant messaging. The punchline from the parents is that while modern technology has sped up ability to communicate (and miscommunicate) it hasn't changed the simple truths about relationships, it's just made them happen faster. Very simple, hokey, kid-friendly and an easily digestable chunk of how technology has changed.

The Archie and Mickey Mouse comics families are safe but might seem a bit stale to kids already acclimated to what television offers up. For them I'm suggesting most of what the Cartoon Network has in comics form. For superhero girl power, The Powerpuff Girls work well though they recently lost their own comic and are now included in anthology comics featuring a number of stories from different shows. Sure, it does feel a bit like television show promotion, but if it comes down to a choice between watching Camp Lazlo or having them read Camp Lazlo, I'll go for the latter.

Best trick: give a child $10, take them to the comic book store and let them choose whatever $10 will buy. A number of comic book emporiums will have discounted racks or bins with back issues sometimes marked down as much as 50%. Unless the child is comic book collector chances are good it's all new to them and they could come away with quite a haul. Better still: go back to the store alone and buy another bundle and mail it to them in the middle of the summer as a surprise.

Older kids aren't going to be interested in "baby stuff" like Mickey and the Gang and will probably insist on scavenging the Japanese manga titles and standard superhero fare. Older girls may especially feel there is nothing for them in comic books (it is a pretty male dominated field) but let them browse, and ask the store employees for suggestions. There are a lot of alternative and independent comics out there with female protagonists or created by women artists. The art in these comics may look very unfinished or at least unlike most slick comic books out there, but don't let that be the guide. As with any book, the cover can only say so much, it's what's inside that matters.

If you are worried about the content that an older comic reader may be attracted to, rather than insisting on approval take a moment to look at the item in question and say "That looks interesting, I'll want to read that when you're finished with it." If there's any doubt about your approval their self-censorship will sink in and make the decision whether or not the material is appropriate. And follow-through, do read the title when they are done and try to understand the appeal without judgment, without questioning. You might learn something about your child you didn't realize, and they might also be telling you something about themselves deliberately.

Again, I believe in summer reading, but I believe that reading in the summer belongs to the individual reader. They'll get plenty of broccoli during the school year, let them gorge on dessert for a while.

* * * * *

I'm sketching out some ideas...


about the books I think about when I think about summer reading. Despite appearances here, it wasn't always about comics! I'm going to try and present some themes about a week apart, leading up to the end of the traditional school year in mid-June. In the meantime, if anyone else has some personal suggestions for non-traditional (i.e. not found in general fiction) Low Humor that is well-suited for kids (and not already in their radar) please feel free to jump into the comments.

Next Week: Part Two -- Non-fiction?

2 comments:

Susan said...

I read lots of Mad Magazine as a kid, too, but have not looked at one in years. My 7 yr. old loves Calvin & Hobbes. He can sit and read the collections for LONG periods at a time--something he doesn't really enjoy with "chapter" books.

Monica Edinger said...

There's a discussion on summer reading at Richie Partington's middle school Yahoo group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/)
and I just pointed them to this post. (Just in case your traffic increases a lot and you wonder why!) The list seems to be mostly librarians and authors so I'm out there on my lonely it seems arguing against required summer reading. That's okay though. I'm used to it!