‘Adventures in Cartooning’ Is an Eye-Opening Read

Alison Morris -- June 26th, 2009

One of my favorite books to come out this season is Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles into Comics by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost (First Second, March 2009). What I love most about this book is that it is not a dry how-to book. In fact, it hardly reads like a "how-to" book at all, most of the time. (You can read the first several pages of the book on the web site of First Second to see what I mean.) This is the entertaining story of a brave knight who rushes off to rescue a princess from a fire-breathing dragon. But along the way, yes, a magical elf just "HAPPENS" to teach the knight (and, in the process, this book’s readers) to the basic principles of creating comics. Or at least, that’s how it feels when you’re reading it — like the plot is first and the lessons here are very much secondary.

For this reason, Adventures in Cartooning is a great book for kids who enjoy comics, whether or not they also happen to be budding artists. Even the most pencil-shy, "I hate drawing/I’m a terrible artist" types will enjoy reading the entertaining story on these pages, AND they may just become better readers of all types of books for having done so.

Did I just say that the simple act of reading this book could make kids better readers?? Yes, I did. And by "better" I mean more critical or more intentional readers. Here’s why:

Comics, particularly ones written for kids, are primarily visual. Their panels contain more visual clues than textual ones, so you’re required to actually LOOK at what’s happening in a panel in order to absorb the information it contains. When a reader begins to understand just how comics and/or graphic novels are crafted, they’re then able to see, sometimes VERY clearly, the tricks a comics creator uses to advance a plot and establish characters. They notice the subtle tricks an illustrator can use to slow things down, speed things up, change the mood of a scene, increase the tension in a story. (Read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for an in-depth introduction to these types of trickery.)

Writers of non-illustrated stories use tricks to do all of these things as well, but their tricks or devices are often much more difficult see, because they’re textual, rather than visual. This means a lot of people go through life barely recognizing that these tricks exist in the first place, let alone learning how to spot them or employ them. Introducing readers early on to the idea that there is a craft behind the telling of ALL stories is one way of lifting the veil from their eyes, and Adventures in Cartooning does this beautifully, and with panache. For that (and for the number of times I laughed out loud while reading this book!) I applaud James Sturm and two of his former students at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt.: Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost.

While I’m applauding this trio I’m also going to do something I should have done MONTHS ago: post photos from Gareth’s and my trip to CCS last November, when we appeared as "guest lecturers" before the current crop of CCS students. That post will appear here next Friday and give you a peek behind the CCS scene, so stay tuned!

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