A little while ago, I started a new post series centered around the problems facing boys in regards to literacy. I framed the initial discussion around Disney's Beauty and the Beast and how reading is portrayed within that movie. The movie is famous for its positive portrayal of Belle as a modern, forward thinking princess, and that portrayal is driven home through her love of books. But while Belle is constantly shown reading, the men around her all have problematic relationships with books.
If you're interested in reading the earlier discussion, you can find the previous posts in this series here:
1. Boys vs Books: A Tale as Old as Time
2. Boys vs Books: Beating Back Against Busy
Today, we're looking at one of the three male characters Belle attempts to share her love of books with. Today, we have moved on to Gaston.
First off, I love this image. It cracks me up every time. Ahem...
From the perspective of a writer, this is one of the most problematic scenes in the movie. Belle's love of books is used as shorthand to convey her intelligence and independence to the viewer, so it's little surprise that they're similarly used as a tool to show that Gaston is stupid and domineering - the perfect threat when you consider that he fancies himself her suitor.
The domineering aspects of his personality come from the way he steals the book and eventually tosses it into a mud puddle. (I'm not going to argue. This is pretty low.)
The stupid comes from this line:
"How can you read this? There's no pictures!"
HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! Hilarious! He thought the book should have pictures in it! What does he want? A children's book? Ridiculous!
In all honesty... the line is actually pretty funny. His reaction and his facial expression and his behavior are so oafish. It treads the line between mocking him but also making him a threatening presence. I can see why the filmmakers wrote it this way.
And yet that comment he makes about expecting a book to have pictures plays into some persistent cultural stereotypes about what books are "worthy" of praise and attention and what books are "unworthy." And wouldn't you guess it? The very books the movie is making fun of are among the books that little boys are most likely to find interesting.
I'm talking, of course, about comic books.
Words and Pictures
During my Master's program, I had an excellent professor who taught my foundation course on children's literature. He had a deep appreciation for old books, the history of the discipline, as well as an enthusiasm for what modern writers were doing now in children's literature. More than anyone, I heard him repeat the command to read, read, READ extensively within your genre if you wanted to create work of publishable quality. He also was a remarkable writer and someone whose work I continue to admire. I plan on being just like him when I grow up.
So let's say you want to teach your child to love books as much as he does. What is the foundation on which this enthusiasm for books was based? As it turns out, comics. As a kid, comics were a far more natural love for him than the books he was SUPPOSED to love. During adolescence, he wanted to be a comic book artist when he grew up, not a novelist. Hints of this still exist in his works, such as illustrated chapter titles.
Of course, for his chosen career path, he eventually had to fall in love with honest-to-goodness-pictureless books too, but the transition between an avid comic reader to a literature super fan is not as strange as it might seem on first glance.
During my research for this series of posts, I was struck by the fact that from the perspective of educators, many of the skills that fall under the umbrella of "literacy skills" are things that you can pick up from other forms of art. Skills like the ability to follow and explain a narrative, or the ability to empathize with a character. These skills can even be developed by having thoughtful discussions with your kids about the movies they watch.
But the amazing thing about comic books is that they provide a natural bridge between visual storytelling and text based storytelling. We're used to the notion that younger children use the pictures in their books to get hints at what the text might say. The same holds true with comics, but with the added bonus that the language and storylines have grown more complicated, since they're usually aimed at an older audience. Even if you have someone who has fine reading comprehension, comics might still help with reading engagement, since they provide helps for readers to visualize the world the story is describing.
And yes, an enthusiasm and passion for comics can lead to a passion for books. And vice versa. Yet you still hear things like what my professor once said when he told us, "I didn't read a lot as a kid. I mostly read comics."
Somehow, both those sentences contain the word "read" in them, because comics are a form of reading that doesn't "count." The Ontario School Board, in their work in boys literacy, notes that many boys who are labelled as poor readers often read far more than they think they do, but they don't believe what they do counts as real reading. They don't report that they frequently will read comics, instruction booklets for video games, sports magazines, web pages filled with information about baseball or animals or Minecraft or cars or whatever other hobbies they might have. Children are highly intuitive and they pick up quickly that adults don't place a lot of stock in reading those things. So is it any surprise that they don't value their own achievements in these areas?
The Price of Literary Elitism
To me, the comic book conundrum is symptomatic of larger problems that the book world has around literary elitism. Certain types of books tend to get valued more than others. Disdain for comics and magazines grows as we age to include an ever-increasing array of books. Oddly enough, it tends to smack people in the face along both gender lines. Romance is confined to a "pink ghetto" while science fiction gets treated like the quintessential "bad books for men."
I'll never forget the first writing course I ever took as a naïve undergrad student. My instructor explained the course syllabus and then had all of us introduce ourselves by name, and favorite book. It was the early 2000s, we averaged around 18 years old and you could see the side of his lip twitching as half the class announced their love for Harry Potter. Then he told us all, very flatly, "so you know, we only study literary fiction here. You won't be writing mystery, suspense, romance, science fiction or fantasy. They're all too formulaic. We want you to learn from great writers instead."
No wizards or spaceships. Both far too childish. We weren't to deal in the whiz-bang plots of thrillers, clearly intended only for the uneducated masses. And heaven help us if we wanted to write a story that existed solely to explain how people fall in love!
I can't tell you how much I wanted that writing program to work for me. I'd wanted to study writing my whole life. But sadly, I realized it wouldn't be during my undergrad, because my world of writing couldn't function if it had to be that small. (Incidentally, my main project for that class was a short story that took place during the after-life, and I got an A+ on it because my professor knew so little about speculative fiction, he never realized I'd tricked him into reading paranormal fantasy.)
Sometimes when I think back to that first undergraduate writing course I took, I'm amazed anyone reads at all. Or writes at all. There are so many people who are foaming at the mouth, eager for their chance to tell you that what you're reading is stupid. People who might not know much at all about the books that you love, but are dead certain you shouldn't waste your time on them.
Books! Books for everyone! You get a book! And you! AND YOU!!!!
I'm a firm believer that if we want to increase literacy, it doesn't happen by demanding people like very specific things. In one of my previous posts, I touched on how important it is to meet readers where they are, rather than insist they conform to your tastes. This should also mean NOT belittling what they're interested in.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that incorporating comics and other alternatives to traditional books in education is a balancing act. I'm not here to argue that comics should replace books or that literary fiction be thrown from the curriculum in favor of Harry Potter. What I hope is that they'll be treated more as allies in a common cause.
When I first read Howard's End, a classic novel from 1911, I fell in love so quickly with the text because it reminded me of Peter Pan. Plot-wise, the two books have nothing in common. One is decidedly sillier than the other. But you know what they do share? Time period. They're both Edwardian novels and I realized that part of what I liked about the books was a particular turn of phrase that was in style just before the start of the First World War. Pan prepared me to love a classic novel, and that in turn taught me to be more curious about literature from that whole time period.
The frivolous books of our childhood - the books with pictures - are often preparing and informing our taste in adult literature. And with the sophistication of many graphic novels and comics, they can continue to be an influence, worthy of engagement. It doesn't have to be an either/or.
So like last time with the baker, let's attempt to re-imagine the scene where Gaston steals Belle's book and make it, ummm.... better?
Gaston: How can you read this? There's no pictures!
Belle: Well, there's actually a graphic novel version of The Graveyard Book too, if you're interested in seeing the story illustrated.
Gaston: Belle, that was just an excuse to start talking to you. I'd rather we talked about me now. *throws book into mud*
Look, he's the villain of the story. We can only do so much.