How Do We Get Kids to Start Reading Comics

For those of us who worry about such things, it has been a real breakthrough over the past few years that comics have garnered increasing accolades from the education community as being a very effective tool for encouraging young people with limited reading skills to start reading on a regular basis. This increasing institutional acceptance of comics as appropriate reading material has led to a dramatic increase in the sale of graphic novels to both public libraries, and school libraries. This is a critical breakthrough, as from the very beginning, the comics industry has always relied almost exclusively upon newsstand sales of comics to get young people hooked on the medium. Universally, the comics marketing professionals with whom I am familiar see a direct correlation between the steady decline of newsstand distribution over the past 40 years, and the dearth of young people currently collecting and reading comics. This lack of new readers has, in turn, led directly to the vicious spiral of price increases, and subsequent print run declines, that has transformed the comics business from a once vibrant mass market phenomenon, into what can now only be realistically characterized as a cult industry. The fact that comics trade paperback collections and graphic novels are now increasingly available for young people to read for free in libraries cannot help but attract some new readers to what is otherwise a dying business.

I promised at the end of last week's column that I would let you in on a revolutionary new concept that CrossGen has brought to the world of comics which may be the answer to the decades-old question of "How do we get kids to start reading comics when there is no longer any effective newsstand distribution?" In response to this question, CrossGen is employing a technique that I first saw utilized by Apple Computers, back in the mid-1980's. They are introducing comics directly into schools, and much like computers, they are making them an integral component of the teaching process. I just wish I could put a copy of the new CrossGen Comics Teacher's Guides into your hands so you could see just how revolutionary they are. These spiral-bound books give teachers a tool set of six easy sections designed to foster critical thinking skills. Each book was created around a specific CrossGen Comics trade paperback, and allows the teacher to assign reading to their students from the book, and then to test their progress in comprehension of what they have read. I have a copy of the MERIDIAN TEACHER'S EDITION for Intermediate and Middle schools on my desk right now (they also have a High School edition), and I have to tell you that I believe it to be simply brilliant in its execution. I'm not alone in that thought, as I took my copy with me to MidOhioCon, and showed it to Mark Evanier and Tony Isabella, two of the comics professionals whom I most respect. They were both completely blown away. It was Evanier who said (I'm paraphrasing here...) that he thought that this new CrossGen program was the best idea he'd seen for marketing comics in at least the past twenty years.

What makes this idea so revolutionary is that CrossGen CEO Mark Alessi has had the wisdom to not make this teaching program a profit center. Mark is visionary enough that he recognizes the critical need to bring new readers into the business if we are going to survive, so he has put this program together on a cost plus basis. Specifically, a school district can purchase the entire CrossGen reading program for only $490, complete with graphic novels, activity guides for each student, and the Teacher's Editions. Or, for even easier teaching, CrossGen offers a package for $1,500 that will include a wireless PC containing the program on CD ROM that connects to a mini projector with built in flashcard, that allows complete pages from the books, or the lesson plan, to be projected on a standard school projection screen. CrossGen is also helping students by creating three separate free access websites (one for each title in the series) which will allow students to review their lessons, and their homework, online! I haven't been in school for a while, but I sure haven't heard of any other textbook publisher who backs up their program with a free tailored website, much less three...

Given the usual exorbitant cost of these types of specialized reading instruction programs ($10,000+), CrossGen's packages are an incredible bargain. If they can just get the word out to the nation's school districts that this program exists, I see this revolutionary comics teaching package as an easy sell. Giving the program even greater credibility with traditional educators is that it was put together by Beth Widera, CrossGen's Convention Manager (she runs MegaCon). As a former teacher (nine years of teaching 4th and 5th grades), with a Master's Degree in Education, she brought to the table practical experience on the problems teachers face in getting young people to read. She had assistance from Pam Davies and Janet Bechtle in the production and design area (the Teacher's Guides look great!), and large amounts of constructive input from five other teachers, who between them have a combined 100 years experience helping slow readers. They were especially helpful in providing contributions on how to potentially tailor this reading plan to help those with developmental disabilities and/or attention deficit disorders.

Where this program is today is in the beta-testing stage. The Hillsborough County (FL) school district has been working with CrossGen from the beginning in making sure that this program is acceptable to both students and teachers. Beginning in January, it will officially become a part of the Hillsborough curriculum. After a semester of beta-testing in Hillsborough, the plan is to revise the books one last time, and then roll out nationally. With luck, this program will be available for teachers nationwide, beginning in the Fall of 2003. I arranged with Beth for 4 sample pages from the Teacher's Edition to be provided for you on the facing page. This is the first time that any portion of this program has ever been made public! If you would like to see even more, Beth and Mark Alessi generously agreed on one day's notice (!) to put together a link on the CrossGen website( www.crossgen.com/education/chapter1.pdf) which contains twenty different sample pages of this new program, some in full color. After you take a look at these pages, I'm sure you will see why I am so excited! If adopted by school districts nationwide, this new CrossGen program could conceivably introduce hundreds of thousands of new readers to comics each semester! I'm sure they'll like the new CrossGen comics, but I wouldn't be surprised if a significant number of these readers branched out into comics from other publishers. This could be just wonderful for the comics industry as a whole!

After you check out the sample pages on the website, if you have some input for CrossGen about this program, you can contact Beth at beth.widera@megaconvention.com. I know the folks at CrossGen would love to hear from as many as you as possible about this new program. Bear in mind, this is a big risk for them, so they'd like to hear as much feedback as possible. Especially form those of you in fandom who happen to also be educators. Let's all work together to help CrossGen make this a winning program. Believe me, if they win, all of us who love comics also will win...

Please send your e-mails to chuck@milehighcomics.com, and your letters to:

Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221



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