Binky series by Ashley Spires

I was off to a good start with this blog. It felt good to put my heard-learned knowledge to something that might be useful to actual teachers. I was getting good feedback, from colleagues and from perfectly nice strangers. All of the things bloggers want.

And then someone asked me what, I am sure, she considered a perfectly innocent question, “Do you think having the irregularity of thought bubbles, action balloons, overlapping panels and other non-traditional print characteristics is OK for kids just beginning to learn to read?” And I had to say, “umn, I don’t know.”

I have to say that a lot when literacy people start asking very good questions, as they are want to do. The reason I say “I don’t know” so often is because there is not a lot of research on the cognitive activity involved in reading graphic novels and comics.

There is one thing that I can say. More and more emphasis on younger and younger children reading and gleaning information from non-narrative, informational texts means we had better figure this stuff out. The Common Core State Standards don’t call for reading graphic novels until the 5th grade and then they drop off the CCSS around grade 7. I can’t explain that either.

Owly: A Time to be Brave by Andy Runton
Owly: A Time to be Brave by Andy Runton

I went in search of graphic novels for young readers. I love the Owly series by Andy Runton. It is a  fabulous wordless stories.

But  I wanted to know what was available for readers who are just getting their feet wet and working towards  print automaticity – when reading means following the expected pattern of  left to right and top to bottom  that English requires.

I went to my local library, talked to one librarian who was not at all interested in me or my work because he “just doesn’t get that whole comics thing”.  I went to another librarian, she had some suggestions but I think she got them directly from The HornBook, which means she is reading trade journals about graphic novels, but not the actual books. I can say that because she responded to my questions with, “Yeah, I don’t actually read them”.

Then I saw a kid perusing the graphic novel shelves. I watched him for a while. He was opening books, flipping through them, pausing and putting them back.  He put  Cardboard on his stack, put back a couple of books that weren’t very good, paused to read a good chunk of Foiled by Jane Yolan and Mike Cavallero, then he put both Foiled and Foiled Again on his stack to be checked out. A women, who turned out to be his mom, came by and asked if he was ready to go. I took my chance and asked her if it was Ok if I talked to her son, I handed her my official looking Boston University business card, and gave her my 30 second dissertation explanation. She said sure and stood near us, which was fine by me.

Harold, I’ll call him Harold because he looks nothing like a kid named Harold, is 12. I chatted with him for a few minutes. He’s been reading graphic novels for a while. He’s a DC man and likes a lot of the reboot, especially the new Spider Man. He’s not too keen on Batman. We talked graphic novels, I suggested a few, especially the Olympians series by George O’Connor. We established mutual credibility and I moved on to what I really needed advise about.

Turns out Greg (He really wasn’t a Harold) liked being asked for help by an adult with a business card (I gave him one, too). After I explained what I was looking for, he pointed out the BINKY series by Ashley Spires, published by Kids Can Press. I got way too excited and geeky and started talking about publishers, Scaredy Squirrel (aslo published by Kids Can Press), fonts and white space. My cool-adult cred was totally blown and Hank (I really should have asked his name) and his mom took off.

SpaceCat

I checked out all the Binky books (I found 4, there is a 5th coming out in September), and read them several times. I like them a lot. They appeal to my sense of the absurdity of taking oneself  seriously.

Binky The Space Cat, page 35
Binky The Space Cat, page 35

Plus, there are fart jokes.

Binky is a house cat who is in charge of protecting his space station (the house) from aliens (all manner of flying and stinging bugs). The books have a great dual narrative (much like the Bad Kitty books by Nick Bruel). Binky’s space station narrative, in which he is a highly trained member of F.U.R.S.T (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel) stand in sharp contract to the reality that the readers understands, in which  Binky is a total nut-job of a cat.

Binky concludes
Binky the Space Cat, page 25

The illustrations work on these levels perfectly, allowing the reader to understand the cues Binky uses to come to the completely wrong conclusion about the world. Also, did I mention the fart jokes?

In general the regularity of the panels, and the action oriented transitions work to provide scaffolding of the sequencing of the story for young readers. In addition, the colors are mostly muted with small dashes of vibrant color.

But, and there is always a but, I don’t think the reading level, the actual written words on the page, are designed for young readers. I wanted to see what others thought about Binky’s reading level and soon discovered that no one has developed a good measure of graphic novel reading levels (and there is another project).

Here is what the experts say about Binky’s reading levels. The thing is, these reading levels (including the Lexiles) range from grade 1 to grade 5, which is a wide range!

Title

Lexile Level

Fountas & Pinnell

Grade level

Grade*

Age Range*

Binky The Space Cat (2009)

GN740L

N

3

2-5

7-10

Binky To The Rescue (2010)

GN360L

N

3

2-5

7-10

Binky Under Pressure (2011)

GN240L

N

3

2-5

7-10

Binky Takes Charge (2012)

GN560L

N

3

2-5

7-10

Binky License to Scratch (September 1, 2013)

GN400L

NA

NA

2-5

7-10

From Kids Can Press website (http://www.kidscanpress.com)

There are many complex words and phrases like “collecting specimens” (Binky to The Rescue, p. 19) and “caught unlawfully reading” (Binky The Space Cat, p. 5). I wonder how many 5 year olds could figure out those phrases.

I want to return to the question that began this post. What about graphic novels for very young readers? Do these books help? Do they hinder? And, again, I have to say I don’t know. I know there are lots of lots of questions left to answer. I’ve been thinking about how to develop a measure or rubric or system to communicate reading levels but … I don’t know.

BinkyRescue

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One thought on “Binky series by Ashley Spires

  1. cheers to you! This blog is a perfect blend of irreverence and brilliance!
    What an interesting question:
    How do graphic novels, with their inherent “rule breaking” fit into the development of emergent readers’ concepts of print? In thinking about this, my thought went to my experiences teaching letter-sound correspondence/phonics to early readers. Just when they think they know the sounds of a given letter/letter pattern, we help them encounter a new way to read those symbols. Could it be that graphic texts provide the welcome idea of flexibility to kids’ emerging ideas of how print marches across a page. In doing so, do they become more cognitively flexible (flexible, flexible…)? Are they, will they, become more tolerant of differences in diverse texts? Does this relate to the ways they are learning to read web-based texts?
    The ways in which we read are a’changing for sure!
    mc

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