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New 'comics' lure kids to reading

Not long ago, about the only way a kid could get away with reading a comic book in school was to hide it inside the covers of a textbook. Now Roberta Kaiser, the media specialist at Nautilus Middle School in Miami Beach, not only stocks her shelves with them, but demand outstrips supply by a wide margin.

"I have to limit them to one at a time, but there are students who come in two to three times a day to return one and get another,'' Kaiser said.

Before anybody explodes about kids reading comic books when they're supposed to be doing quadratic equations or studying Shakespeare, know that comic books have changed, and so has reading.

Under the spiffier label of "graphic novels,'' these bound books feature every stripe of hero and story. "The themes and genres can range from science to biography, and from memoirs to yes, superheroes,'' said John Shableski of Diamond Book Distributors, which specializes in comics. "Every subject is available in the format.''

These are not your father's comic books. Superman and Wonder Woman, yes; but also

graphic novel editions of the works of Shakespeare, and many classics -- The Red Badge of

Courage, Beowulf,
Greek myths, the Adventures of Robin Hood, even Canterbury Tales.

Last year, the Printz Award, an American Library Association honor for the most distinguished book for teens, went to American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney was an original online comic about a beleaguered middle-schooler before the hard-cover edition propelled it and its sequel to The New York Times bestseller list. Bone, about a marshmallowy type creature's adventures, was self-published by Jeff Smith before Scholastic bought it, colorized it and split it into nine volumes. A million copies of the first installment, Out From Boneville, have been sold. Scholastic brought the series to the classroom by producing a teacher-friendly guide.

Comics are infiltrating the schoolhouse like never before because they are reaching that most elusive of creatures -- the reluctant reader. Faced with a generation raised in a visual environment dominated by television, the Internet and electronic games, teachers and librarians have found comics will lure readers -- especially boys -- who have a limited interest in books.

It was the how-to-get-a-boy-to-read conundrum that propelled Francoise Mouly, co-editor

of Raw magazine and the New Yorker art editor, into producing comic books for young readers herself. Mouly has two children with husband Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus, a Holocaust memoir that is considered one of the granddaddies of the graphic novel format, and which won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize. Her daughter, Nadje, learned to read after a few weeks of concentrated effort. Despite being raised in the same environment -- "surrounded by books, with parents who read to them,'' her son, Dash, now 16, struggled.

"I was running out of books I could use with him,'' Mouly said, so she turned to Spiegelman's vast collection of comics -- Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, Batman. That worked.

"My husband sacrificed his comics to fatherhood, but it was a good cause, and it allowed Dash to find a path to success,'' Mouly said. "It made us both realize how much of a magic bullet comics could be. Children will learn if there's something in it for them and if it's pleasurable.''

The personal experiment made Mouly realize how divorced comics had become from

childhood. "Dash had friends who came to the house and had never seen comics before.''

In response, she and Spiegelman produced three comics anthologies -- the Little Lit series -- aimed specifically at readers age 8 to 12. Next month, she's launching Toon Books, which takes the comic book offensive to its youngest audience ever: beginning readers. The new line debuts in April with three titles -- Benny and Penny by Geoffrey Hayes, Silly Lilly by Agnes Rosenstiehl, and Otto's Orange Day by Frank Cammuso and Jay Lynch. The books have already been adopted by Renaissance Learning's "Accelerated Reader'' program, used in 60 percent of American classrooms.

Comics in book format are not new. In the 1940s, illustrated classics and Bible stories in bound form were produced specifically as educational material. But the entire comics genre took a massive hit when excessive violent imagery led the U.S. Senate to hold hearings in 1954 to investigate the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency. The hearings didn't find one, but they did lead to the creation of a sort of decency code, supported by much of the industry, that effectively set innovation back several decades.

As far as pendulum swings go, comic books are back and then some. Shableski, the book

distributor, says sales climbed from $43 million in 2001 to $330 million in 2006.

Much of that is fueled by the embrace of schools and libraries, which in response to a

perceived reading crisis among kids, have shifted their focus on getting children to read the "right'' material, to getting children to read, period. It's not just that children are more likely to read something they enjoy, it's that a comic book's combination of pictures and text holds a child's attention longer than blocks of print. Speech balloons develop an understanding of the role of dialogue in a story. Many comics readers wind up wanting to create their own, ("that never happens with a video game,'' Mouly points out), promoting not only literacy, but creativity and self-expression.

Kaiser, the middle school librarian, says her kids overwhelmingly choose the superhero and manga (Japanese) comics over the ones that cover curriculum topics. She hopes the biography and history selections will be added to teachers' lesson plans, but for the moment she's satisfied that she has figured out a way to get certain kids to make regular stops at the circulation desk.

"Some of my comics readers are reading other stuff, but some of them would not be reading at all if they were not reading comics.''