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Informational Text: Recommended Books, Suggested Strategies
Probably my biggest regret over the course of my tenure at this blog has been that I haven’t written enough about the many excellent books I receive that relate to pop culture or transliteracy in some way. Here, then, are some recent and upcoming notable releases as well as my thoughts as to their potential teaching and learning benefits.
I won’t bother reciting Joe Sacco’s pioneering stature as a comics journalist—you’re probably aware of it, or can look it up easily enough. In this book, due out from Norton in the fall, he concerns himself with a single moment in history. But rather than simply create just another graphic nonfiction title on war, Sacco has produced a grand, fold-out panorama of connected pages. I can personally attest that kids’ eyes grow wide as the long chain of images unspools before them. That’s the “engagement” piece. You can follow this up with a visual literacy piece that asks students to explain what’s going on in these print-less splash pages. And of course the absence of text means that you can then have them supply their own narration, sound effects, thought bubbles, and so on, either verbally or in written form. The neat thing is that I bet the transition between being intrigued by a unique format and then formally practicing various literacies is hardly noticed.
A facile rationale for introducing this book to students might cite its potential to motivate manga fans to read complex informational text closely—not to mention with a huge amount of pleasure. But the reason Takehiko Inoue’s status as a renowned mangaka (Vagabond, Real, Slam Dunk) is largely irrelevant once the pages start turning is that he approaches the subject matter as an artist, pure and simple, not a “comics” artist per se. While beautifully documenting how Gaudi inspires him (e.g., he actually paints in a fractured glass style that translates a three-dimensional technique into two dimensions) he also recounts his own search for what inspired Gaudi, both in terms of Spanish culture and the natural world. The presentation thus combines elements of travelogue, sketchbook, expository/biographical text, and often mixes photographic and pictorial images, as well as diverse typographical styles, in extremely creative ways. On nearly every page, then, you have the opportunity to ask, “Why is this information provided in this particular way? What is the effect of these specific editorial and design choices—and how would you do things differently?” If such a line of questioning seems too open-ended or “creative” rather than critical, it won’t after you take a look at Pepita, which powerfully and invitingly connects the appreciation of art to direct participation in it.
Just as artful and even more explicitly “interactive” is this concise treasury of faerie lore written by John Matthews and wonderfully illustrated by Matt Dangler. The latter’s contributions aren’t the only visuals on hand—far from it, as fine art from over the centuries supports the clear and well-researched text. Excerpts from literature and even music complement these well, and the book uses the device, popular over the last few years, of including envelopes filled with cards (in one case here, postcards of those infamously faked “fairy photos”). The book’s smart layout and print-based attempt at multimedia help conceal just how complex it is in terms of the ground it covers. I recommend it, however, not just for fans of Tolkien-esque fiction, but for any young person in need of a mentor text for their own excursions into nonfiction composition and publishing. With this in mind, have students make an inventory of the different informational strategies (e.g., the gorgeous map tucked into the inside back cover) and have them plan and outline a similar book on a mythic or pop cultural topic of their own choosing.
Although the language in Jeff Weiss and Evan McGarvey’s incredibly rich and authoritative book make it best suited for older secondary students, its dazzling and information-dense graphics make it a natural in terms of studying pop culture artifacts (concert posters, album covers, even commemorative postage stamps). Indeed, one might not even expect such potential for visual literacy in a tome about seminal musical figures, but there you go. As just one example out of dozens, an artist-penned caption to a dual portrait of the book’s two subjects points out that “The painting has no clear distinction of whose face is in the foreground and whose lies behind the other.” Blurring the line between street art and fine art, and between pro art and fan art, 2Pac vs. Biggie also contains numerous text features such as a timeline and a Billboard chart. Use these to practice reading and comprehension skills that have obvious potential for “transfer” to academic disciplines—not to mention students’ outside-of-school (and probably fan-based) literacies.
It’s all too easy to dismiss colorful, fun books of this sort, with their brief chunks of text and apparently oversized photos, as merely motivational in nature: “Hey, this will get kids reading independently for a few minutes!” Yet with Common Core’s emphasis on non-fiction, Ripley’s, the annual Guinness volume, and other popular factoid-driven books take on new importance. Sure, I’d still let students explore the text at their leisure and not drain the pleasure from the experience. However, I’d also follow up by asking young readers how they chose to read a book that clearly doesn’t need to be approached linearly. What helped you find interesting information? Headings? Specific images? Or did you use a variety of strategies? By asking questions like these, students can become meta-cognitively aware of their own reading and text-navigation practices—and rather painlessly at that.
About Peter Gutierrez
A former middle school teacher, Peter Gutierrez has spent the past 20 years developing curriculum as well as working in, and writing about, various branches of pop culture. You can sample way too many of his thoughts about media and media literacy via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez
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