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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.

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For the reluctant reader, they are absorbing. For the struggling reader or the reader still learning English, they offer accessibility: pictures for context, and possibly an alternate path into classroom discussions of higher-level texts. They expand vocabulary, and introduce the ideas of plot, pacing, and sequence.

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But such arguments remain unconvincing to many other educators who firmly believe this form of pop culture has no place in the classroom.

"Once kids know how to read, there is no good reason to continue to use dumbed-down materials," writes Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University, in an e-mail. "They should be able to read poems, novels, essays, books that inform them, enlighten them, broaden their horizons,"

And there is always a concern about the appropriateness of content.

But just getting reluctant adolescents to read - anything - can be a boon to their discovery of the joy of reading, says Marilyn Reynolds, author of "I Won't Read and You Can't Make Me: Reaching Reluctant Teen Readers."

Ms. Reynolds, who worked for decades at an alternative high school for struggling students in a Los Angeles suburb, tells the story of a girl "steeped" in graphic novels whom she met at a library.

"That's probably all she will read in high school," says Reynolds. "She's a rebel. She's probably failing English ... because she doesn't conform, but she's got this fervor for that kind of expression. How much better that than not having any fervor at all."

Reynolds may be extreme in her belief that reading a comic book or graphic novel is a worthy end in itself. Most educators hold that the genre is best used as a bridge to more complex material.

For example, Wonder Woman comics could interest students in Greek mythology, says Philip Charles Crawford, the library director at Essex High School, in Essex Junction, Vt.

"The subject matter leads you other places and I think the majority of readers are going to read other things," says Mr. Crawford, who has written "Graphic Novels 101: Selecting and Using Graphic Novels to Promote Literacy for Children and Young Adults."

And graphic novels like Marjane Satrapi's memoirs, "Persepolis" and "Persepolis 2," have exposed readers to life in Iran in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. Ms. Satrapi recently spoke at Edwin G. Foreman High School in Chicago, where students read "Persepolis" for class.

But others worry that the comics versions of classics like "Frankenstein" or "The Odyssey" may come to replace the originals. Carol Jago, an English teacher at Santa Monica High School in California, believes this raises questions of equity in the classroom. "If we end up giving the real thing to our honors students and the comic books to everyone else, we're actually demeaning the nature of public education," she says.

Yet defenders of the comic book point out that many adolescent afficionados of the genre have gone on to excel at the written word.

For his book "Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!" editor Sean Howe collected essays in which established writers like Jonathan Lethem and Aimee Bender divulge their longtime love of comics.

Even Edward P. Jones, who won this year's Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Known World," recently admitted that he was weaned on comic books. Until he was 13, he says, he'd never read a book without a picture.