'Hamlet' too hard? Try a comic book

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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