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'Hamlet' too hard? Try a comic book

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

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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.

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