'Tweens' Curl Up with Graphic Novels
Randy DotingaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor, 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.
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. …