'Tweens' curl up with graphic novels

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Like many preteens these days, 9-year-old James Poslusny likes to read the full-length comic books known as graphic novels. He especially enjoys stories based on the usual suspects – "Star Wars," "Star Trek," and the life of George Washington.

Come again? Yes, one of James's favorites is a biography of the nation's first president in comic form.

The drawings "help you get it straight in your mind what's happening," he says while attending the world's largest comics convention in San Diego a few weeks ago.

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James, visiting with his parents from Philadelphia, is a bit more precocious than other kids his age. He counts the Revolutionary War among his favorite subjects, along with dinosaurs. But appreciation for graphic novels is hardly limited to the gifted-and-talented set.

In fact, over the past five years, "tweens" – kids between ages 8 and 12 – have become a major market for the full-length comic books, previously sold mainly to teenagers and adults.

Young children are snapping up everything from superhero compilations and fantasy stories to adaptations of classics such as "Moby Dick." Modern books including the "Goosebumps" and "The Baby-sitters Club" series are getting graphic makeovers, too.

Not everyone is impressed by graphic novels. Some teachers refuse to assign them to their students, claiming they aren't challenging to read. But many librarians and teachers stand by the books.

"Reading graphic novels leads to reading other things," says Robin Brenner, a young-adult librarian with the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. "There's a value in and of themselves, not just as a bridge to reading 'real books.' "

"As long as you're reading, we're happy campers," adds Marina Claudio Perez, young-adult services coordinator at the San Diego Public Library.

The graphic-novel trend can be difficult for older generations to grasp, since the word "graphic" conjures up images of material that is anything but appropriate for kids. In fact, graphic novels are nothing more than "longer comic books. That's really it," Ms. Brenner says. "They're in the same format, but can be anywhere from 70 to 600 pages and are bound as a paperback or hardcover book."

Traditionally, children stopped reading "picture books" at about third grade, and many never returned to the format unless they embraced comics in junior high or high school. Then came the 1980s, when teens abandoned comic books as the industry embraced darker, more adult themes, says comics scholar Scott McCloud.

Comics began to regain some of their popularity with kids over the past few years, however, as their creators changed their themes to appeal to both kids and adults. At the same time, comics characters like Spider-Man gained a higher profile at the movies. Meanwhile, children's publishers were inspired to start thinking about the potential of graphic novels.

"People realized there are kids who love comics, and no one was publishing anything for them," says David Saylor, vice president and creative director of Scholastic, a publisher of children's books. "We live in a virtual world. It just seemed like a natural thing that kids would enjoy graphic novels, too."

Scholastic has issued several graphic novels within the past few years, and more are planned through 2010, Mr. Saylor says.

One of Scholastic's biggest successes is a colorized reissue of "Bone," a series by Jeff Smith published in the 1990s. A blend of Pogo-inspired art, comedy, and fantasy, "Bone" was named "best all-ages novel yet published in this medium" by Time magazine.

Graphic novels that follow the Japanese art form of manga – featuring characters with wide-open eyes – are especially popular among girls who like stories about cats and princesses. Other subjects include teenage life and biographies of "American heroes," including Amelia Earhart.

"There isn't one major children's publisher that isn't doing some graphic novel," Saylor says. "It's not only a trend, it's here to stay." But are the books any good? As with anything, it depends, librarian Brenner says. The novels only share a format, so they "can be as good or bad as any other format – just as good or bad as books or TV," she says. "It depends entirely on those creating the work."

Saylor says some parents are leery of the novels because they seem to be little more than comic books. Others worry about adult themes and imagery, especially in graphic novels geared toward adults.

However, "Parents are more open to it than they were," Saylor says. "Some grew up on comics, and the world has just changed. The idea that comics aren't good for you has changed. Librarians and teachers are changing people's perceptions."

Indeed, last year Maryland launched a pilot program in which Disney comic books were added to the third-grade curriculum in some schools.

"We think of reading very broadly now, [not] just reading novels or literature," says Betty Sturtevant, coordinator of literacy programs at George Mason University in Virginia. "My concern would be if we went overboard and the kids never learned to read a variety of kinds of materials."

How comic books became novels

Back in the 1950s, comic books were anything but the darlings of the literary world. Congress held hearings to determine whether violent comic books led to juvenile delinquency, and experts debated whether superheroes like Batman and Wonder Woman promoted sexual misbehavior.

Fifty years later, respectability has finally arrived. Graphic novels – full-length comic books – are reviewed in newspapers and studied by academics. Some have become Hollywood movies, while others have been lauded for their journalistic aspirations and won major literary awards.

The key, says comics scholar Scott McCloud, is the word "novel."

"There's a promise in the word that many artists are trying to live up to," says Mr. McCloud, who's written books about comics. "It aspires to the same length and complexity of prose novels, something more ambitious than a superhero slugfest."

Some graphic novels for adults – like "Road to Perdition" by Max Allan Collins and "A History of Violence" by John Wagner, both turned into movies – are fiction. But many are based on real events, like Art Spiegelman's 1992 "Maus: A Survivor's Tale," which won a Pulitzer Prize for its depiction of how the author's father survived the Nazi occupation of Europe. In black-and-white panels, with Nazis depicted as cats and Jews as mice, Spiegelman turned his father's experiences into a gripping, sensitive story. Even 9/11 is a topic: a graphic-novel adaptation of the 9/11 Commission report is due next week.

Other graphic novels explore life abroad. An artist named Joe Sacco won an American Book Award for his journalistic portrait of life in Palestine, while artist Marjane Satrapi describes life growing up in Iran in "Persepolis," reportedly required reading at West Point military academy.

For preteens, popular graphic novels include:

"The Baby-sitters Club" by Ann M. Martin and Raina Telgemeier (2006). This popular and respected 1980s book series about teenage girls gets a graphic novel makeover.

"Yotsuba&!" by Kiyohiko Azuma (2005). An irrepressible girl is the hero of this well-reviewed Japanese manga comic.

For teens and adults:

"Ghost World" by Daniel Clewes (1997). This mature tale about disaffected teenage girls captivated reviewers with its realism and heart.

"The Dark Knight Returns" by Frank Miller (1986). It was among the first graphic novels to be considered literature. The full-length comic book adds layers of complexity to the life of an old superhero.

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