Mural a reminder of the importance of reading

Graphic novelist visits Portage school
2010-04-07T00:00:00Z Mural a reminder of the importance of readingBy Brian Williams - brian.williams@nwi.com, (219) 548-4348 nwitimes.com

PORTAGE | What's the world coming to? Now the schools are encouraging kids to read comic books?

Graphic novelist Phil Yeh, who promoted literacy through a group mural project at Jones Elementary School on Tuesday, might sympathize with that first question, but he'd probably take exception to the characterization of his art form in the second.

"Democracy is only as good as the education of everyone of its citizens," Yeh said, pointing to a line of students swiping and dabbing paint on a wall of the school's main hallway.

Democracy and innovation are endangered by a lack of reading and the reality of millions of Americans who can't read, said Yeh, who has written and illustrated more than 80 books.

"We don't ban the books like in (Ray Bradbury's novel) 'Fahrenheit 451.' We ignore them," he said.

But it was a science fiction writer like Bradbury whose vision of visiting the moon influenced scientists and society to undertake that project, Yeh said.

The economy needs innovators like Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and movie producer George Lucas, Yeh said, and guys who think differently -- like the Wright brothers, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin.

"I'm trying to tell the kids it's OK to be different," said Yeh, his pants spotted with paint. "If you don't encourage them to think outside the box, nothing will come out."

A goal of bringing in Yeh for the mural project was getting boys more into reading, home-school advisor Pam Carpenter said. Boys lag behind girls in their reading ability and interest, she said.

Jones librarian Linda Volk said Yeh's work was a big draw for boys.

"All I had to do was say 'graphic novel' -- all the boys, they were eyes and ears on me," Volk said.

A graphic novel is more of a gateway to further reading than an enabler of lower reading levels, Volk said. Boys reluctant to pick up a chapter book are much quicker to read a graphic novel, she said.

Yeh said by combining art and words, graphic novels were a bridge to both literacy and other literature.

"My art form deserves to be in hard covers and in libraries," Yeh said.

Yeh, who attended one week of first grade in Chesterton about 50 years ago on a move across country, still has cousins who own a florist shop in the town.

The mural project strengthened school community and pride because every student was involved, Volk said.

"They're going to walk in that hallway every day and say, 'We did this.'"

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