Educators are warming to comics as reading aid


Comics, once scorned by educators, are sharing school library shelves with the classics of literature these days as librarians look for ways to hook teenagers, particularly boys, on books and reading.

Libraries in middle and high schools are betting that colorful, action-packed books featuring superheroes and other larger-than-life characters can give struggling or disinterested readers a bridge to more advanced literature.

Interest in comics as an educational tool is rising amid a publishing renaissance for comics and their grown-up cousin, graphic novels - more-sophisticated combinations of words and pictures featuring longer stories.

"Even if it's just a few words and lot of pictures now, we will progress to more words and less pictures," said Janice Saulsby, a librarian at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, whose collection includes more than 100 traditional comic books, graphic novels and classics drawn in comic-book style.

At Boynton Beach Community High School in Palm Beach County, media specialist Will Heckman has built up a collection of 1,400 graphic novels in the library the past two years. Kids can't seem to get enough.

Graphic novels constitute less than 1 percent of the books in Heckman's library but sometimes make up half of the books students check out, he said.

State librarians also have caught on to the popularity of graphic novels, adding them to the monthly list of recommended books for school media centers. The School Library Journal dedicated much of its August edition to graphic novels.

Dr. Phillips High senior Caio Rosa said graphic novels are a good way to spend a half-hour.

"You're actually caught up in them," he said. "You're mostly interested in how the story ends, and you know it will end soon."

Carol Jago, a literacy specialist for the National Council of Teachers of English, recognizes the attractiveness of comics to kids but also see risks. High achievers would explore the classics while students allowed to read easier texts might never advance to longer novels.

"School isn't about entertainment," said Jago, who works at a high school in California. "It's easy to lose sight of our real goal."

Other educators see promise in comic books. Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, an English education professor at Boise State University in Idaho and leading authority on gender and literacy, said comics and graphic novels are a good way to get boys reading.

Lori Kimble, another Dr. Phillips High librarian, said it is important to help students move from graphic novels to traditional ones.

"Sometimes, I'll tell a student who's checking them out, 'If you really like this ... you might like Jack Vance or some of the other science-fiction writers," she said. "A lot of these students have never been exposed to literature."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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