There are a few fields in literature that are mostly neglected, especially when introducing literature to kids. While fantasy is getting a lot attention all of a sudden, many others are not. Trouble is, these are important--far better, I think, than general fiction. It's a good thing for children to read good science fiction and fantasy, and especially good comic books.
(Note: By children, I mean grade school age)
For some reason, these genres--and this medium--are regarded as somewhat sub-par. I'd argue that this is not the case; I would say they are superior to those typically called "literature", offering far more opportunities for thought and personal growth.
Why you should give your kids science fiction:
Good science fiction encourages patterns of thought that are rarely developed in the outside world, though they are unquestionably important. Authors like Heinlein, Asimov, Card, and Clarke slowly develop scientific thinking, moral reasoning, a sociological perspective, and an affinity for philosophical thought.
1. They develop scientific thought because they often deal with scientific problems. Moreover, to understand science fiction concepts one must have some level of scientific understanding, or quickly develop it. By scientific understanding, we do not mean the ability to name off parts of a generator or explain the workings of theoretical cold fusion. I mean an ability to reduce a problem to its essentials, to explore different options, and to come to a logical conclusion. Readers are forced to look at the world with the skepticality, curiosity, rationality, and wonder of a scientist.
Science understanding tends to be abysmal in this country (sidenote: 57% of students in the graduate journalism program at Columbia university believe in pseudosciences like reading auras, ESP, etc--how's that for good critical thinking skills?). Perhaps this is because to understand and--naturally--debunk scientific ideas, one must be able to use scientific thought patterns. It is never too early to begin establishing these in a child's mind.
2. Sociological thought is developed again in understanding premises and storylines. For one, a good science fiction writer who sets his work in the future will attempt to extrapolate the nature of that future by following the cycles of trends. For another, many of the greats deal with specifically sociological problems (Asimov, Heinlein). One learns to follow a sociological argument and to make sociological predictions.
3. Face it, the good guys in the field are masters of character as well. Their characters usually struggle with moral conflicts. This isn't the wishy-washy emotional stuff of "serious" literature; these are usually attempts to deal with morality on an analytical basis--a far more useful tool.
4. Philosophical thought belongs to the realm of science fiction. Science fiction allows you to create a new world with a few different rules but without discarding the rules of the old. "Serious" literature usually works within the real world, strictly by real world rules. Science fiction allows you to change a few rules and settings, but holds most things constant. This allows you to set up thought experiments and follow through on them. It strikes a careful balance between fantasy (where anything can happen, so you can't follow a thought experiment) and general fiction (where very little out of the strictly possible ever occurs).
These characteristics are distinct from general fiction. General fiction encourages examination and interpretation of the world and characters of the book, with the careful caveat that it is all, after all, fiction. Science fiction gives the mind tools to see the world, then encourages the eye to turn outward and examine it under a microscope. Do you see? Most fiction, therefore, is somewhat sterile, encouraging self-contained reflection; science fiction is a teacher, forming the mind to be able to create and understand the world outside the book.
Also: what is science fiction today is often reality tomorrow. I recently read a science fiction novel from the 1970s where a character carefully explained what the word "mutate" means. This surprised me; the concept of mutation is a standard one to the modern mind. Science fiction makes it easier for the brain to constantly surf the wave of new knowledge.
Why you should give your kids fantasy:
I go to hear creative people speak fairly often: mostly writers, sometimes artists and directors.
The most common and groan-worthy question that is always asked is, "Where do you get your ideas?" A lot of the time, the moment some dude asks this you can see the speakers developing facial tics.
I am a somewhat creative person. I hate this question--both hearing it and being asked it--because it presumes there is a place to go where ideas come from, or a strategy. This is not so--not at all.
The fact is, everybody has "ideas" to start out. Watch little children playing or telling stories: they are far, far more imaginative than the most creative adults will ever manage to be. They explore new ideas constantly, and always allow for impossibilities.
It is not a question of where the artist "gets" his ideas. It's a question of at what point the fan lost his.
Children do this less and less as they grow older, to the point where highly imaginative people become rarer in the adult world. You might ask me, then, why imagination is important if you don't intend to work in a creative field. The fact is, imaginative ability is required to see your way around corners. We tend to rule out certain solutions to problems because we see them as utterly impossible before really investigating them; we need the ability to ask "what if" we pursued unprecedented avenues of thought.
Fantasy encourages this. When reading a fantasy novel--though good fantasy, as well, has strong rules--almost anything can happen. This requires a reader to maintain an open mind, and to accept new ways to understand the world. It keeps the imagination constantly open and capable.
Besides, good fantasy often relies on a lot of research. A reader can take away a lot of knowledge of world cultures, mythology, folklore, and any number of subjects from an excellent fantasy novel.
Fantasy has a strong tendency towards escapism, which is often decried. I ask why. Escapism is healthy--it is often the best way to survive a harsh outside environment. It doesn't mean you're avoiding or not dealing with problems in the outside world; it just means you're taking a break from them and possibly ruminating on new ways to handle them. Not only that, escapism gives you the opportunity to ride in someone else's brain for a little while, and hey, the world could use a bit more understanding. Interpretive fiction often makes you more aware of the technical aspects of the work, losing ground to the simplicity of the new world presented.
Why you should give your kids comic books
Oh comics. My loves. My heart. Why are you so much maligned? Why are you percieved as prurient and worthless? Granted, some of the content fits the definition, but all of it?--surely not.
Comics are the most important. Perhaps this is simply because the medium deserves as much recognition as any other. Perhaps it is because one must actually learn to read comics as much as one must learn to read any other book.
Mostly, though, it's because comics are the most effective medium of visual communication out there today. They are cheaper and easier to transport and view than film, and far more efficient at dispersing information than text.
Consider how much comics show up in our daily life: the little safety diagrams on the airline, before-and-after pictures in ads, and of course the newspaper funnies. The political cartoon has proben a powerful instrument of opinion. All of these are forms that depend on quick and full comprehension on the part of the audience. Imagine that power harnessed to almost any end in communication. Until you can print a video in a magazine, I don't think we'll see its match for quite a while.
Besides, comics change the way the brain processes information, and makes it develop an incredible multitasking ability. Consider:
When you view a page of comics, you are doing many things:
You are reading and processing the text and the information contained therein.
You are looking at and processing the image and the information contained therein.
You are putting the text and image together to make a coherent whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
You are processing this set of information in the context of a longer narrative, attempting to fit it into the structure of the story and--with your imagination--providing all the details that occur in between the panels.
All this is done in the blink of an eye. The brain is processing at incredible rates when reading comics with almost no effort. The brain is stronger for it.
The genres of science fiction and fantasy and the comics medium are usually disregarded beside "serious" literature. The escapism and unrealistic nature of these are usually cited as strikes against them, when they are indeed the fields' strengths. These are more effective than "serious" literature, and more capable of developing important patterns of critical thinking that are essential to a child's intellectual growth.