Graphic Novels and Literacy

ipadpaulThe following article was originally published in the August issue of the Southwell Folio. This is a magazine edited together by Penny Young which will sadly cease publication at the end of December.  

In 2014 I created an online graphic novel serial called Dawn of the Unread. The narrative conceit is that, incensed by the closures of libraries and low literacy in 21st-century Britain, Nottingham’s most famous dead authors return from the grave to wreak revenge. It’s at this point I should make a confession: I am not an expert in graphic novels. In fact, prior to the project I didn’t even read graphic novels. But it was the right medium for my target audience: reluctant readers.

As far as I’m concerned, illiteracy is a form of child abuse. And Britain’s never had it so good when it comes to this shameful social problem. According to a major study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), England holds the unenviable title of 22nd most illiterate country out of 24 industrialised nations. The study involved over 166,000 adults and went as far as to suggest the potential threat of “downward mobility”, whereby the younger population is less well educated than the older generation. Not what you’d expect in the ‘Information Age’.

Literacy is a particular problem in Nottingham. Recent figures suggest six out of ten teenagers leave school without five A* to C GCSE grades, including English and maths. We were recently ranked worst in the East Midlands for level two SATs results with 77 per cent gaining a level four or higher, below the 79 per cent national average. It’s a right mess and it makes me furious which is why I decided to do something about it. But we’re getting somewhere. Dawn of the Unread was vital in Nottingham being accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature and was used as an example of best practice in how to engage youth through digital technology. The City of Literature has now become an educational charity, with improving literacy their number one goal. I’m proud to have helped contribute to this conversation.

There’s been much written about the diminishing attention spans of our ‘youtube generation’ so thrusting ‘complex’ books on them isn’t going to help. If teenagers reading levels are already low, Shakespeare will only frustrate them further. Instead, I’ve tried to create a thirst for knowledge. To tease, tantalise and inspire by creating a series of 8 page comics which offer snippets into the lives of our incredible diverse and rebellious literary heritage. By using a wide variety of styles (reportage, poetry, fiction, gallows ballad) and combining different writers and artists, I hope that one of the stories may appeal. And if teenagers go on to the library to get out books, it will be because they want to learn more.


So what is a graphic novel?

The term ‘graphic novel’ was first coined by Richard Kyle in an article for Capa-Alpha in 1964. But to be blunt, it’s just a means of making a comic sound more respectable. There is a prevailing attitude that comics are a form of dumbing down reading and that they are somehow inferior to literature with a big (or little) L. But having edited together 16 issues of Dawn of the Unread I can assure you that comics are anything but simple.

A comic is a kind of creative production line which involves: a writer, artist, colourist and letterer. The writer and artist are co-authors of the text and it’s vital that both get to express themselves equally. Therefore a writer must not be over descriptive as a broad range of ideas can be illustrated by the artist. The style of the artist can also reflect the theme of the story. I selected Carol Swain to illustrate the life of Alan Sillitoe (issue 12) because she draws in rough crayon on textured paper. What better way to subtly reflect the gritty realism of Sillitoe’s writing?

Each page of a comic consists of a limited series of panels (frames) which function to create a sequential pace to the story. This helps you feel the action unfolding and is similar in purpose to a storyboard. How characters react in frames offers a further layer of meaning too. The Gotham Fool (issue 4) is the tale of a group of people who feigned madness in order to avoid building a highway for King John. At the time madness was perceived to be contagious. Labels are a means of reducing identity to one fixed point, so we reflected this in the art by the way characters are not constrained by panels. They break out into the gutter (the space between panels), suggesting a degree of freedom.

05-01Colour is also an important signifier of meaning. When we created the charismatic hybrid Byron Clough (issue 5) we used bright colours and thick black lines, just to stop verisimilitude and reinforce that he was imaginary. Likewise the use of font (letterer) can capture the essence of a character. In issue 11 we explored Geoffrey Trease’s debut novel Bows Against the Barons which features Robin Hood. The font is sharp and crisp, as you would expect from a master archer.

By making Dawn of the Unread available online I was able to utilise the potential of digital technology by including embedded content. This means that when you click on a star icon within a panel it provides contextual information, such as essays. This helped facilitate more insightful discussions for more confident readers who wanted to go deeper into the text. As far as I’m aware nobody has done this before.

Finally we created an App that enabled users to ‘play’ Dawn of the Unread. This consisted of a series of tasks, bringing in a gaming element to our project. By using a wide variety of styles and storylines, making the comic available across media platforms, and providing different narrative routes through the text, I hope that there is something for all types of readers.

There will be a book launch for Dawn of the Unread as part of Nottingham’s Festival of Literature on 11 November (7.30- 9pm) Antenna, Beck Street, Nottingham. Tickets are £5 but you get £3 off a book. 

Nottingham City of Literature: Talk to National Union of Teachers

City of Lit banner

Since Nottingham’s accreditation as a UNESCO City of Literature, we’ve had a silly amount of emails. Quite a few of these are from local organisations asking for a representative to come and give a talk about what the fancy title means and how they can get involved.

On 25 Feb I addressed the National Union of Teachers (NUT) for their Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire branch. I snapped up the chance because the event was hosted at Mogal e Azam, an Indian restaurant opposite the Theatre Royal. I was lured by the offer of a free curry, which is the first form of ‘payment’ I’ve had since becoming a director of Nottingham City of Literature. But before you get all excited at my luxurious lifestyle, I had to pay for my own drinks.

The gathering was pretty much what you’d expect from a Union meeting; the highlight of which was hearing a request for an amendment to be made to an amendment. But on a serious note, there’s some pretty tough issues that teachers need to address. The most recent being the government’s plans to convert all schools into Academies. Needless to say the meeting over ran by an hour or two. When it was my turn to address the 20 or so teachers I managed about four words before being halted by the clatter of plates as the waiters – who, despite their job title, do not like waiting for people to finish what they’re saying – had begun serving up the mains. The food smelled lovely so there was no point having a hissy fit. We would continue after the mains.

When everyone was suitably bloated and tired, I took the stage. The audience has shrunk down to about eight people, with many having to shoot off due to childcare duties. This also included the host who had invited me over to give the talk. It was a humbling experience that I won’t forget in a hurry. Every time I look at the curry stain on my shirt that won’t come out, I’ll think: NUTs.


Joking aside, I was really eager to talk to the teachers because improving literacy is one of the City of Literature’s core goals. According to the most recent report from the OECD, Britain is now officially the most illiterate country in the developed world. This is why I positioned illiteracy as a form of child poverty in my Dawn of the Unread manifesto in 2014. Literacy levels are a particular concern in Nottingham as we are below the national levels. Therefore listening to teachers and offering them support is absolutely vital if we are to achieve our ambitious aims.

Certain areas of Nottingham need real support at the moment as they include high levels of deprivation and intergenerational worklessness and are really feeling the brunt of welfare reform. In the face of these challenges we’re committed to doing everything we can to help our children and young people achieve their full potential and learn the necessary skills to progress and become valued members of their community. We passionately believe that participation in creative learning activities, speaking and listening work, reading for pleasure, storytelling and storymaking and engagement with writers from all disciplines, is key to developing literacy as a core skill for all our young people. And that participation in shared literature-based activities is at the core of developing strong resilient communities.

Numerous research, in particular that produced by the National Literacy Trust, has shown the correlation between literacy levels and social outcomes. People with low literacy levels are less likely to vote, less likely to get married or be homeowners, and most worrying of all, have the least ‘trust’ in society. I could go on…

Teachers are under enormous pressure at the moment too. Putting aside the endless marking, long hours, and Ofsted inspections, they are also expected to teach to classrooms of increasingly diverse pupils. I witnessed this first hand last year when I took Dawn of the Unread to Djanogly Academy. I was informed by one member of staff that the school was 60-65% non English speaking as a first language. Therefore teachers are faced with the impossible task of teaching pupils from a broad range of countries who don’t even have language in common. Remembering that those non English speakers are from a wide variety of countries and so there isn’t even a second language in common. The result is boredom and apathy in the classroom as there simply aren’t the resources to give each pupil the individualised teaching they require. But I digress.

Low literacy levels, then, are not just about the diminishing attention spans of mobile-phone-obsessed youth. Not just about digital versus print media. But about language, aspirations, poverty, overcrowding, resources, pressure, support networks and multiculturalism.

The City of Literature team has now created a sub group headed up by Sue Dymoke which focusses on all issues relating to literacy. It’s a working group of around 30 people who work in various capacities within education and relevant sectors and was formed out of an open callout. Their findings will determine how we as a board go about achieving our literacy goals and implementing a strategy to support teachers, parents and children.

Complimenting this is the recently formed Cultural Education Partnership (CUP), a network of education, cultural, heritage and arts organisatons working together to address the inequalities in access to culture among young ‘uns in Nottingham. I attended their first meeting on Thursday 24 March and the most important issue raised was demand is more important than supply. In this sense, raising literacy levels isn’t just about flooding schools with writers but creating the desire for reading and writing from the pupils. For this to happen we need to listen to what children have to say.