May 28. 2016 5:36AM

Reading the true value of comic books

Special to the Sunday News

KidsCon, a family-friendly comic-book convention organized by Emily Drouin, takes place June 11 in Concord. 

Emily Drouin always thought it was a shame that kids who might venture into a comic convention with their parents would get sucked into the swirly blue universe of big-eyed space explorers she created only to get scared senseless by the startlingly realistic and gory exploits of a zombiepocalypse or some such thing at a neighboring table.

"A lot of times conventions will say that they are family-friendly but there are a lot of bloody and gory (comics) on display," said Drouin, of Raymond, who writes and illustrates a science-fiction adventure comic book series called EPLIS with her husband.

"I started suggesting that they have a writers alley just for kids," she says. "No one seemed to be on board with that."

But Drouin was on a mission: to expose kids to the value and joy of not only comic books, but reading and art. To that end, she has created the first comic convention just for kids. Kids Con New England is a day-long event coming up on Saturday, June 11, that boasts a slew of writers and artists hawking their kid-friendly comics and graphic novels, along with facepainters, balloonists, Jedi training, play with pirates, a superheroes meet and greet, games, costume contests and cartooning workshops, among other things.

"Another reason I wanted to put this on is to promote art education and literacy through comics," Drouin said. "Because comics are actually a great tool, a great way to get kids excited about reading - the ones who otherwise might think you know, 'Oh, books are boring.' And these books are very visual too, and so that helps a lot of kids who are visual readers.

"I've always had a very active imagination, a very vivid imagination, I always felt comics were a great outlet. I could escape and go into this fantasy world. It's what inspired me as a kid. I want this event to help bring comics to that new generation, to inspire a new generation, to inspire future artists and writers..I love seeing that sparkle in kids."

Since the rise of the graphic novel in the late 1980s, comics have experienced a radical transformation, evolving from a sort of pulpy mind candy, to critically acclaimed high art and literature. And this hasn't gone unnoticed by teachers, who in growing numbers use comics and graphic novels as a literacy tool.

"A comic book can act as a bridge between younger readers who are simply learning to read through visual narrative and a life of enjoying comic books and longer graphic novels when they are adults," said Seth Abramson, assistant professor and writing specialist at University of New Hampshire-Manchester who will be teaching a Graphic Novel course in the fall. "Also, we are increasingly seeing comics used to teach difficult concepts in math and science or even ethical behavior in school."

Comics do a number of things in this regard, said Heather Pelkey, teacher, reading specialist and adjunct professor at Keene State College. For example, she said, for the sixth-grade class she teaches in Winchester, she uses the graphic-novel series Nathan Hale Hazardous Tales, which highlights historic events, people and places such as World War I, The Alamo and the Underground Railroad.

"All of the kids, but especially the boys, eat these things up. They go through the whole series and keep asking when the next one's coming out," Pelkey said. "They are just excited. And I find that from there, their excitement translates to different topics. From there I can then say to them, let's try this book. So I can use it as a jumping off point to a novel."

The pictures, Pelkey said, help them access topics for which they otherwise may have no frame of reference and helps students who may not be the best readers.

"It gives them that visualization, because the visualizing might not be something that they are doing while they are reading. Or the visual clues help them with words they may not know," she said.

"It's all those concepts of print that we give to them when they are in the lower grades and in picture books and then we suddenly just take that away from them. Some kids are just not ready for that and they don't want the stigma attached to them that they are not reading. But when they have a graphic novel in front of them, they can read."

Comics these days are much more complex and sophisticated than they were before the rise of the graphic novel, Abramson said. And their frame-by-frame structure creates bite-size learning and reading opportunities, and can also help students develop their own stortelling abilities.

Pelkey said she does sometimes worry her kids are reading too many graphic novels, but then reminds herself that her students who read them eventually do branch off into other forms of literature. And she also reminds herself of one very important thing:

"They are excited about books," she said. "And my feeling is if a kid is excited about a book let them read it. I don't care. If they are reading comics, they are reading. It's expanding their vocabulary, exposing them to those words and giving them more knowledge that they might not otherwise have."