From Ponyo to "My Garfield Story": Using Digital Comics as an Alternative Pathway to Literary Composition
Yuan, Ting, Childhood Education
When I was an elementary school student in China, my mother was a librarian. Tnerefore, I had the privilege of reading most of the manga (Japanese comic books) created by Hayao Miyazaki (1941-), one of the most beloved contemporary manga artists in Japan. His works played a big role in my formative years. I was moved by the different characters in the stories and developed a habit of writing diaries about friendship, courage, trust, and love--frequent themes of Miyazaki's manga and anime (animated movies). In his recent work Ponyo (Miyazaki, 2009), released in North America with an animated movie in 2009, a young boy named Sosuke rescues a goldfish princess named Ponyo, after which they embark on a fantastic journey of friendship.
When I came to the United States and began to work with students and teachers, I saw children's passion for reading comics and for composing both pictures and words to make meanings. This reminded me of my childhood experiences and the comics I wrote as a child, and demonstrated the potential for writing comics with children in education settings.
What is the definition of comics? Will Eisner, the "Father of the Graphic Novel," defines a comic as: "The arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea" (1985, p. 5) and explains that "In its most economical state, comics employ a series of repetitive images and recognizable symbols. When these are used again and again to convey similar ideas, they become a language--a literary form, if you will" (p. 8). Eisner's definition moves beyond the contexts of aesthetics and design and considers literacy, psychology, and anthropology.
Comics, as an umbrella term for comic strips, comic books, cartoons, graphic novels, and manga (Bitz, 2010), include both stories with "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence" (McCloud, 1993, p. 9) and single-panel cartoons, such as those in Sunday newspapers. Despite the ongoing popularity of comics among students, schools do not seem ready to integrate the "humor" of comics writing into curricula (Goebel, 2009).
Meanwhile, researchers have proved the important relationships between words and pictures for meaningmaking. For example, Siegel (1984, 1995) and Suhor (1984) analyzed the concept of "transmediation"--that is, most of us read by going back and forth between pictures and words and we frequently translate our ideas from one sign system to another. Sipe's (2008) research conclusion on the interplay between words and pictures can add to our understanding of engaging students through comics--the "text-picture synergy" can produce a greater literacy effect than a single creation that relies on either pictures or words alone. Furthermore, it is my belief that manga can be used to teach multiculturalism, by exploring other cultures and other ways of reading and writing, and help to engage students in authentic literature (e.g., Simon & Ammon, 1989; Tunnel & Jacobs, 1989). Instead of isolating students from their embraced literature, students' critical thinking skills can be taught from the classroom practice of reading and writing manga.
At a time when we are facing a generation of students who are "digital natives" growing up with cell phones, digital cameras, computers, and other digital technologies (Prensky, 2001), we need to move beyond the conventional single channel of writing in schools. Children are multimodal composers--they happily combine different semiotic systems (such as talk, drawing, gesture, dramatic play, and writing) throughout their learning experiences (e.g., Kress, 1997; Siegel, 2006). It is important to think about students' multimodal practices in and out of schools and about new possibilities for classroom writing curriculum, using the communicative/design options made possible through digital technologies. Ito et al. (2008) suggested that students could benefit from teachers who are open to new forms of experimentation (e. …