Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Comics and Graphic Novels as Attention Trainers

This past weekend in The Wall Street Journal Weekend Review, Jonah Lehrer writes that while managing and focusing attention in school and in work is important, the more creative thinkers have been found to have attentions that wander and roam:
"Those undergrads who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as "eminent creative achievers" based on their previous accomplishments..Such lapses in attention turn out to be a crucial creative skill."
He does go on to note that these studies conducted were with college students, and results may be  different with younger subjects.  Furthermore he acknowledges how important it is for school-related success to execute mental control over attention.

So where does this leave us?  I see two correlates:
  1. In school, it is important for our kids to hone attention to what is being said by the teacher and to attend to the tasks directed by him or her.
  2. Finding time to daydream, to depart the text, to brainstorm, to pursue creative venues is equally important.
There are many ways to help your kids pursue creative, brainstorming activities: 
  • Read aloud and brainstorm alternative endings and titles to the chapters or to the books.
  • When reading, brainstorm sequels.
  • Make cakes and cards for parties instead of buying them.  Create and design the cake, invitation, and decorations.
  • Build forts in the snow, in the house (with chairs, sheets, blankets, boxes...).
  • Design and Create - don't buy costumes for Halloween or other costume parties.
  • Brainstorm unusual Sunday activities, or unusual family meals (experiment!).
  • Take advantage of local historical sights, museums, nature trails, and events.
  • Read all sorts of books, articles and of course, graphic novels, comic books!

As I am in comic book/graphic novel mode (see my "Note" to the right), let's talk about how comic books and graphic novels can help:

Attention and Graphic Novels:  When reading graphic novels, the reader MUST ATTEND to verbal and visual stimuli:
  • to the words,
  • to the font shape;
  • to font sizes, 
  • to the illustrations, 
  • to the color of the fonts and illustrations, 
  • to the foreground and background of the illustrations
  • and even to the way the panels (dialogue and picture 'boxes') are laid out on the page. 
This is a lot to attend to and to take in.  Reading these texts in an exercise in controlling and managing attention.  And, because they are so visually appealing and of high interest, readers find these texts extremely engaging.  So, not only will you kids be attending to various stimuli, they may be able to sit longer than usual because they are so motivating.

How to use graphic novels to build attention:
  •  If you read graphic novels together (which I recommend):
    • Talk about the art -  how it makes you feel, what you noticed immediately, what took time to see and understand.
    • Discuss design components and the page layout.  Discuss changes in layout and why the illustrator may have made those changes.
    • Ruminate about how word size and fonts all contribute to the story.  
    • Look for and discuss details. 
  • You may want to create your own graphic novels for favorite book and stories. Doing this forces you to focus on the essential dialogue and story elements.  It provides opportunities to brainstorm about design and layout as well. 

A note of graphic novel selections:
  • Please see my blog post of October, 13, 2010 for lists of graphic novel genres, kid friendly graphic novels and publishers, and a brief history of modern comics.
  • Also please note that especially for younger kids - adults should be involved in selecting graphic novels.  There are some wonderful ones, but they have various levels of violence and sexual innuendo.  There are many with little or none:  (Laika, Zeus, Athena, Robot Dreams, American Born Chinese all published by First Second Books), The Bone Series and Ghostopolis (Scholastic) have some minor violence but is appropriate for younger readers,  These are just a few suggestions.
  • WHEN IN DOUBT SEEK A LIBRARIAN'S ADVICE - most good librarians not only know their graphic novels, they are strong advocates.
Let me know what you and your kids are reading.  We can start a dialogue and recommended reading list.  And, know that the next few weeks will be delve further into the pros (and cons) of graphic novels


  1. What an interesting post. Jonathan is good at both art and math... In a recent school conference, the math teacher told us that Jonathan often draws during algebra class (7th grade), and that he ACTUALLY LETS HIM... which I think is a mark of an insightful teacher. He says he thinks drawing helps Jonathan pay attention more closely, and that he only interrupts him when he suspects Jonathan is "getting lost" in his drawings... Jonathan loves graphic novels. Recently he finished "Shadow" by Michael Morpurgo, a traditional YA novel about Afghani refugees and a bomb-sniffing dog. But he's read all of Bone, enjoys Bleach, Naruto and Shonen Jump. When he was small, his favorite picture book authors were John Burningham, James Marshall and Quentin Blake (the last is my favorite)... Blake's own books as well as the ones he illustrated for Roald Dahl.

    I've been looking for alternative ways of writing a memoir about addiction as a family disease, and graphic memoir/storybook is one... I think it might appeal to adults as well as teens.

    Thanks for visiting--hope to keep up the dialogue. --Jen/G

  2. As a teacher of language arts, I ALWAYS allowed doodling - but it had to be on topic, and those who wanted to would add their work to our "art gallery" which we used in conjunction with our written work to make the text more meaningful - AND to help with attention. It sounds like your son has a great teacher.

    Good luck with your book - going graphic sounds great to me!

  3. I akways enjoy your suggestions and often apply them in working with kiddos. Your post today made me remember things I did with my own kids many years ago. We were lucky to live in a big city with all kinds of interesting places to visit. Once a month we had a Surprise Outing of my choice, and the kids got clues that week so they could guess.

    And thanks for visiting my blog about blogging.

  4. What a fantastic idea! I love it. I just wish my kids were still young enough to do this. Wonder if it would work with my husband?