“WH-AM … P-OW … KA-Z-AM!”
I am sitting in the driver’s seat of my car, listening eagerly to the whispers coming from the back seat as I steer home. A sly smile spreads across my face. I don’t say a word, for fear of disrupting my daughter, who is actually reading, as she sounds out words from a comic book with enthusiasm.
This is all new — my kid making an effort to read anything without me pointing to the letters, taking deep breaths to remain patient, or wondering what I’m doing wrong.
So I keep driving.
I don’t glance over my shoulder and smile to her or say, “Good job, hunny!” I don’t acknowledge it at all. I’ve learned that if I do, she’ll slam her book closed and stare out the window instead, pretending she still hates reading, as I’ve so often heard over the past two years.
I stare straight ahead, simply letting it be, letting relief flood over me at the same time.
My daughter had always loved books and stories from early on. As soon as she was sturdy enough to sit, I’d place her in between my legs and she’d help me turn page after page of books that overflowed from a wooden shelf next to her crib. Whenever we got into the car, I’d hand her small, square board books and she was somehow content.
Once, when she was one-and-a-half, we drove eight hours straight for a trip, and to my and my husband’s shock, she amused herself with only books the entire way. I heard from other parents that their children would simply chew the edges of the covers at that age. But my daughter was enthralled.
Chattering constantly by age 2, I was told over and over that she was exceptionally vocal, and would likely be an early reader. It didn’t matter to me if she was or not, still I had no reason not to believe it. But while being read to was one of her favorite pastimes for the first few years of her life, the start of elementary school shifted my daughter’s interests.
At 5, my daughter began kindergarten and took a hard turn away from having any desire to read at all. In fact, she began to hate reading with a truly fiery passion.
The reading requirements were fast-paced; I had already known this before she began. With the introduction of Common Core, more was expected from younger students. But I hadn’t anticipated how jarring it would feel to my child, to me. At parent-teacher meetings, I was told that my intelligent daughter was falling behind in reading. Far behind.
I was instructed to read more to her at home, to point to words and letters, to hover over her as she did her homework and make sure she practiced sight words each night. My instincts railed against it, but I did as I was told. It all felt like too much for a 5-year-old, and I wasn’t surprised when she began to complain about school, to cry in the hallway, to act out at home.
If you asked her to try and sound out a word, or read a page of a story, she would sooner throw the book across the room than attempt to read it. It was simply too much, too soon. Tears and frustration became our new normal. I wanted to let her quit trying to read altogether. And in some ways, I did. But not because I was giving up on her.
Because the harder I pushed her to read, the harder she pushed back.
At the end of the grueling kindergarten year, I felt I had no choice but to take her out the school that had crippled her confidence and left her feeling unmotivated, angry, and not good enough. For a year, I homeschooled her while I searched for alternative schooling options. And even though I was eager to see her learn, I stopped pressuring her to read. I figured, pressure from all angles hadn’t served her.
It wasn’t too long after that she got back to picking up and paging through books again. She’d lay on her bed and look at pictures. She’d ask to be read to. She just didn’t want to do it herself.
So I kept reading to her. I got her audio books from the library. I let her try to enjoy stories again without the idea that if she wasn’t yet able to read them herself that something was wrong with her. Deep down, I knew there wasn’t. But ignoring the voices from all around us — the knowledge that other kids her age were reading chapter books and the requests from well-meaning family members who asked her to read to them — was hard to do.
Then finally, this past Christmas, my husband bought my daughter a few comic books. Since she and her younger brother had recently become interested in superheroes, like Batman and Wonder Woman, it occurred to him that she might like to have some of the books rather than just watching the shows. When I wrapped them in red and green paper and placed them in her stack of gifts, I didn’t give a thought to what the books might mean to her. But it turned out, she was more excited about the comics than any other gift she’d received.
My daughter loved the strong female characters and storylines. She was interested in the structure of the comics, too; how she could see the story being played out as she scanned her eyes over the page.
There was a certain drama that drew her in. She was enthralled with the comics and everywhere we went, they were always in her hand. And slowly but surely, after all her resistance, I started to hear her sounding out the large words, without prompting. It was the first time she’d actually attempted to read on her own. Soon, she was picking out graphic novels, novels in comic-strip format, at the library. So far, her favorites are stories about girlhood, friendship, and unlikely heroes.
But it turns out, my daughter’s story isn’t unique. I’ve since learned that graphic novels have educational perks for kids that just aren’t talked about. They can help kids develop more complex reading and analytical skills, using the images and text together to develop a greater understanding of the story, and of storytelling itself.
And that was true for us: I wasn’t focused on what my kid was learning, I was simply following her lead, and relishing the fact that she has found something she loved and was excited about. The fact that she was developing important reading skills was a bonus. But more importantly, perhaps, her bedroom is filled with books again that don’t go untouched. She actually wants to read again for the simple joy of it.
Now at 8, she’s able to follow stories herself. But it’s not because she was forced. It wasn’t pressure from any tutor or teacher. And it certainly wasn’t memorizing sight words or sitting at a desk staring at handouts. Somehow, comics did the trick. But really, it was writing her own rules for learning that brought back her confidence to even want to. It was finding something she loved, and letting that guide her. Because as it turns out, that’s the easiest way to learn.
This Sunday, the morning paper came in the mail. While I paged through it, looking for something to read, my daughter stood next to me, holding out her hand. I knew what she was waiting for. Without saying a word, I found the comics and handed them over. “YES!” she whispered, doing an excited little skip, then running off to go read them.
And once again, I couldn’t help but smile.