In comic form, Ohio history piques kids' interest
Locally drawn 'Ohio Chronicles' offer readers 'overload of information' about people, places
Any president who passed gas passes muster with fourth-grade boys.
Armed with this knowledge, a retired elementary school teacher is trotting out William Howard Taft and his controversial re-election bid in 1912 for the latest in a series of comic books devoted to Ohio history.
Taft, according to Northland resident Lee Smith, was known for burping, breaking wind and probably breaking spindly chairs when he plopped his 335 or so pounds down on them. The Ohio-born 27th president also is the only one to later serve as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Smith, 53, a native of Florida whose family moved to Ohio when he was 8, is in his third year of producing Ohio Chronicles, which he describes as the only mini-comic devoted to the state's history.
Smith said he was inspired to create Ohio Chronicles because of how uninspiring his fourth-graders found state history to be.
"I realized that part of it was the textbook and part of it was the fact that we didn't teach it very well," he said.
An elementary education major with an art minor at Ohio University, Smith said the students became excited about Ohio's past when he brought in the personalities of the people involved and detailed some lesser-known events.
Anecdotal studies have indicated that high school students who are, at best, disinterested readers became better at reading and did it more frequently if introduced to it through comic books, Smith said.
"I thought to myself, 'Why don't we start that earlier?' " he said.
Smith began using comic books in his classroom, and some of the students who were reading at a second-grade level or lower showed marked improvement.
"By using comic books just to supplement the reading program ... their reading scores went up a year and a half in one year," he said.
Copyright laws prevented him from copying comic books, and the cost of buying one for every student was prohibitive.
Then, an idea was born.
"If I make my own comics, I don't have to worry about that," Smith said.
Ohio Chronicles can be used by teachers and home-school educators to cover social-studies standards, he said.
"I believe that the short-and-sweet approach -- stories that are 12 pages or less -- keeps kids' attention," Smith said in announcing the latest issue of Ohio Chronicles, the one focusing on Taft's failed bid for a second term.
"The medium allows an overload of information -- chronology, quotes, historical images, clothing styles and character's emotions -- that can help children to really become involved in the events that are being portrayed."
Topics covered in past editions of the ongoing bimonthly publication have included the Battle of Lake Erie, the Land Ordinance of 1785 and Tecumseh.
"It's one of the few comic books that's based on history that's out right now," said Jeff Stang, manager of the Laughing Ogre comic book store at 4258 N. High St. "For a locally produced series, it's actually quite popular.
"He does a great job, I think, of bringing those events alive."
The series also is available at Wholly Craft, 3169 N. High St.
Other topics Smith plans to cover this year in Ohio Chronicles include the 1925 crash of the enormous U.S. Navy dirigible the USS Shenandoah during a storm in the southeastern part of the state; John M. Langston, the first black lawyer in Ohio and possibly the first to be elected to public office in the United States; and the story of Johnny Clem, who was 10 when he ran away to Michigan in order to enlist in the Union Army.
"They have pictures of him, and he looks like he's 6 or 7," Smith said. "He looks incredibly young."
As the story goes, when Johnny was captured by Confederate forces, he was angry that they took away his uniform -- especially his hat with two bullet holes in it.
"I thought the students would definitely become interested in that," Smith said.