Disney Publishing and Diamond Distributors have partnered with the Maryland Department of Education to create a "Comics in the Classroom" program intended to improve the reading ability of third-to-fifth-grade students, it was announced at the "Bringing Back Comics for Kids" panel on Friday.
Participating in the discussion were J. M. DeMatteis ("Abadazad," the 1980s "Justice League," "Hero Squared"); Landry Walker and Eric Jones ("Kid Gravity," "Little Gloomy"); Steve Behling (Managing Editor, comics for Disney Adventures); Jeff Sharp (art teacher at Maryland Century High School and founder of Comics in the Classroom program); Michael Cart (columnist/critic for "Booklist Magazine," former librarian) and Eric Shanower ("Age of Bronze," "Oz" graphic novel series), with Steve Miller (Vice President for Business Development at Disney Publishing Worldwide).
The state of Maryland, having seen some success with comics as a reading tool in Jeff Sharp's classroom, is creating a pilot program to expand their use. Disney Publishing is creating resources, what Miller called a "toolkit for the classroom" to assist teachers and parents in facilitating the program. It is designed to allow educators and librarians to choose material appropriate to the age and reading ability of students, primarily drawn from Disney's vast archives of material, at least initially, since they have a substantial backlog of appropriate content. The goal is to provide a satisfying reading experience to the reader, while also meeting the state's requirements for curriculum. The announcement came at the end of the panel and was expanded upon in the question-and-answer segment following.
Before that, participants addressed the question raised by the panel's title. The usual suspects were immediately trotted out: access and distribution, parent and teacher prejudice against comics, lack of support and awareness among retailers, lack of appropriate content and inaccurate assumptions about children's reading preferences. Various proposals to address each of these issues were suggested by the panelists.
For purposes of discussion, "kids" was defined as "below high school age," primarily the six-to-ten-year-old segment. The question of increasing readership among girls was raised, and it was noted that the problem has been addressed: Girls read comics now. Girls read manga. That battle has been won. Now readership among boys is dwindling.
(Of course, none of the participants mentioned the obvious: Girls do not read manga, they read fantasy, romance, funny animals, science-fiction and all the other genres the US publishers have largely abandoned; it just so happens that manga is about the only option for those children interested in reading something other than superheroes.)
DeMatteis observed the majority of kid-friendly non-manga comics for those under 10 appear to be "tie-ins to the latest Cartoon Network program or Young Reader adaptations of the Fantastic Four movie"; there is relatively little original content for young readers. Jones suggested retailers need to be more familiar with available material, as they tend to lump "all ages" material together, failing to note a comic appropriate for age 13 is sometimes not acceptable or interesting to a child of six. DeMatteis noted many comics shops are decidedly unwelcoming to children due to the frequently displaying posters and products many parents would prefer their children not be exposed to. According to Walker, "many publishers and retailers make the mistake of thinking that children are stupid; children are not stupid, they are hungry to learn. We need all-ages material that is intelligent enough for kids. Talking down to them and treating them like idiots turns them off."
According to Cart, libraries have become very supportive of comics and graphic novels, and librarians are very well-connected to kids and schools. This makes libraries very effective partners in reaching the younger reader. Along with parents, libraries and schools are among the "gatekeepers," and are looking for partners. Retailers make very effective partners in getting comics to kids. Sharp observed comics are an extremely effective tool for teaching the reluctant reader: "They are an exciting way to engage the student." He suggested school libraries and media centers can partner with local retailers to sponsor Graphic Novel Fairs, as his school has done to great success.
Quality is the most important factor to Eric Shanower, saying "if kids aren't satisfied, they won't come back" to comics. He would prefer to see "a sweeping societal change" in which comics reading becomes the norm, where adults and children alike read comics just the way they see movies or watch TV.
Returning to the topic of retailer involvement, Jones suggested retailers could do a better job of displaying comics in a way that appeals to kids. In his view, kids don't care about mint condition or poly bags; they are going to rifle through all the comics to find the ones that interest them, and they aren't going to be neat about it. If retailers want to sell comics to kids, they need to display them on lower racks where kids can reach them, and in such a way that they can browse through them and become engaged by them. DeMatteis immediately responded, "that presupposes that the retailers want to do that." Many retailers, he stated, don't want to deal with kids. The retailer he described seemed very much like the Simpsons' Comic Book Guy. Meanwhile, the 12-to-18 market is exploding, they want to read comics, and they can't get them. The kids Cart described as "reluctant reader" won't go to book stores, but once exposed to comics, the usual response is "I don't like to read, but I love these!"
The possible use of non-standard comics such as magazine format was suggested, since "people who don't read a lot [tend to] read magazines. Behling mentioned Disney's quarterly Comic Zone regularly outsells Disney Adventures by about 25 percent. He also pointed out it is one of the very few comics that includes the word "comic" in its title. Walker mentioned the idea of bundling comics with video games, the way they formerly were packaged with toys, and DeMatteis mentioned he was approached by a company that was interested in creating downloadable comics for PSP.
"Whoever invents the iPod for comics is gonna do the trick," he noted.