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Graphic Novels Gain Popularity with American Teenagers - 2002-10-19

Americans just finished celebrating Teen Read Week. The American Library Association launched the event five years ago to encourage teenagers to read more for pleasure. This year's theme was "Get Graphic at Your Library." The theme was aimed at emphasizing how popular book-length cartoon stories known as graphic novels have become with American teenagers.

17-year-old Beth Platte is an avid reader who serves on the teen advisory board at a library in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She loves to read classic works of literature, but she also loves graphic novels. "Before I started reading them I viewed them as all the same, all like Superman, but they're really not," she said. "There's a lot of difference out there. And I really enjoy them, especially because so much of the text is dialogue. They're quick to read, and they're interesting the whole time, and that's nice because as a teenager I am busy, and it's nice to finish something."

Beth Platte is one of many teenagers who've turned to reading graphic novels in recent years. Doctor Maurice Freedman, who's president of the American Library Association, says the ALA wanted to take note of that trend. "Graphic novels are terrific in that they have a good story but they have pictures and images that teens can relate to and enjoy," he said. "So you get the combination of the words and the images that help pick up on the power of images in teens' lives."

The Internet, television, video gamesall help make graphic novels a comfortable way to read for today's teenagers. Audra Caplan is the incoming president of the Young Adult Library Services Association in the United States. She's also interim director of the Harford County Public Library near Baltimore, Maryland. "We have a large graphic novel collection," said Audra Caplan. "We were one of the first counties in the state to bring in graphic novels and our circulation is quite high on them-higher than on our regular young adult fiction books."

Audra Caplan believes graphic novels are especially appealing to young people who have reading difficulties, or who don't think they like to read. Comics and graphic novels do have their critics, who complain they're frivolous entertainment for small childrenand that teenagers should be encouraged to read more serious literature. But Audra Caplan challenges those claims. "First of all, there are classic graphic novels, and there have been classic comic books," she said. "My personal feeling is that whatever we can do to get a child or a teen to read, then if you start them on one format, they are going to go on to something else. I think the important thing to do is make reading enjoyable for them."

And Beth Platte says she sees a link between the time honored classics and graphic novels. "They do have that feel about them, because they're epicthat feeling of good versus evil," said Beth Platte. "So I think that's why I like them."

Graphic novels have been growing more variedand widely admired-for several decades now. Art Spiegelman won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel Maus, about the Holocaust. Jodie Sharp helped launch the graphic novel collection at Harford County Public Library. She says graphic novelists are taking the comic book format in many new directions. "I would say that back in the 1960s, comic books really began to explore themes of alienation, as well as social issues and concerns," she said. "There are ones that are based on historical fact. There are non-fiction graphic titles and biographies, as well as all the fun stuff, the comedy, the fantasy, the science fiction. There are titles that appeal specifically to girls and others that boys specifically like, and some that are not gender specific. Graphic novels really cover the gamut."

Graphic novelists also see themselves as heirs to a variety of storytelling traditions. Jeff Smith is the creator of Bone, a best selling fantasy series that has many teenaged fans. He says his work is influenced by his childhood love of comic books, his later discovery of Star Wars and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and other tales of adventure from throughout history. "I love The Iliad, The Odyssey, Moby Dick, Morte D'Artur. I love films. And it's not just me," said Jeff Smith. "There's an entire generation of cartoonists who are mixing the symbols and the language from a number of different media, from novels and from films and from art all together, and are creating a new kind of comic that really has some weight to it."

Jeff Smith believes graphic novels still aren't as popular in the United States as they are elsewhere in the world. In Europe, he says, you can buy everything from romances to westerns in graphic novel form. And in Japan, graphic novels provoke as much discussion as hit movies or TV shows do in the United States. But Jeff Smith says the very fact that American librarians paid tribute to graphic novels has an important symbolic value. "It's something I've wanted to have happen all along," he said. "I've always felt that graphic novels as an art form could get a better audience. I feel librarians a lot of times represent the front line of our culture. They stand up for art. They stand up for literature. And I think if librarians are saying there's something to these comics, to graphic novels, I think that has some weight. I think that means something."

Jeff Smith is the creator of Bone, a popular series of graphic novels. The American Library Association chose graphic novels as the theme of its fifth annual Teen Read Week.