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'Hamlet' too hard? Try a comic book

It may be a shocking dilution of academics - or an ingenious way to hook reluctant readers.

By Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 12, 2004



At Oneida High School in upstate New York, Diane Roy teaches the students who failed ninth-grade English the first time around. Last year, on the heels of "Hamlet," she presented her class with a graphic novel - essentially a variety of comic book.

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Comic books have long been deemed inappropriate classroom reading material. If they appeared at all, they were smuggled in, disguised within the pages of a physics textbook or a volume of Shakespeare.

It's this image - of comic book as contraband - that has endured in the popular imagination at least since the 1950s, when the Senate Judiciary Committee investigated the comic book's sinister influence and potential to inspire juvenile delinquency.

But now the books are turning up on some classroom bookshelves - especially in classes where teachers are desperate to engage struggling and reluctant adolescent readers. For a certain type of student - particularly those who are visually oriented and bright but may lack the motivation or maturity to succeed in freshman English - the graphic novel can become a "bridge to other things," explains Ms. Roy.

Today, the comic book - and its lengthier sibling, the graphic novel - are growing in scope and popularity. In 2002, the theme of the annual Teen Read Week sponsored by YALSA, the youth branch of the American Library Association, was "Get Graphic." Graphic novels can be found in public and school libraries, as well as bookstores, where entire shelves are often devoted to the genre. Manga, the Japanese graphic novels, have swept up teen readers.

And in July, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story positing that the comic book could become the next "new literary form."

Roy's experiment with the graphic novel as text struck gold when she assigned Art Spiegelman's "Maus," the story of his parents' experience in the Holocaust told as a cat and mouse allegory - a highly regarded work that won the Pulitzer Prize. From there, some students moved to graphic novels about Hitler, and finally made their way to traditional books about the Holocaust.

Each student was required to read five graphic novels. But "there wasn't a single student in this class of kids - nonreaders who don't enjoy reading - who didn't read double that number," Roy says. "They would read them overnight ... they were reading them at lunch, in the hallway."

Roy adapted her curriculum on graphic novels from a series developed for teachers by the New York City Comic Book Museum.

Literacy efforts have traditionally focused not on adolescents, but on younger students.

And some reading experts are worried that with most reform efforts being directed at students in the third grade or lower, another crisis is being ignored.

Even as elementary student scores on federal tests are increasing slightly, high school scores are declining. Only about one third of 12th-graders were reading at a proficient level in 2002, down from 40 percent in 1992.

Adolescent readers face a host of complicated problems, ranging from general reluctance to pick up a book to aliteracy, an inability to fully grasp the meaning of words. Proponents suggest that comic books and graphic novels can help.

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