Katie Johnson wasn't into reading. At all.
Nothing seemed to capture her interest. Not Judy Blume or R.L. Stine. Not Nancy Drew or even Harry Potter.
"I never read (books) till the middle of seventh grade," said Katie, 13, who, like many reluctant readers, ended up enrolled in an intensive reading class.
Then one day she discovered manga.
"It started as a joke," she said, telling the story about how she "stole" a friend's book for laughs. It was a Japanese graphic novel, the kind her good friend, Cassondra McIntyre, 13, always had her nose stuck in.
"I thought it was funny that you had to read the book from back to front," Katie said. "So I started reading it."
She hasn't stopped.
"I basically nab every manga book I can," she said.
The once reluctant reader is now a frequent visitor to the media center at Crews Lake Middle and the Hudson library, where popular titles such as Naruto, Ouran High School Host Club and Bleach share shelf space with more classic reads. She also spends extra time after school exploring the genre as a member of the school's Manga Club. Because of that, she said, her reading skills have improved markedly.
That's the kind of success story that Robin Borick is quick to crow about. While adults and others in the teaching field might dismiss manga as mere comic books with little educational merit, the Crews Lake Middle media specialist has seen the positive effect the books have.
"There's a lot of statistics that show how it increased the reading skills for students," said Borick, who also saw the benefits when she worked as a reading teacher at Wesley Chapel High. "It gets them into reading something, and then they become avid readers."
"I can't get over how widespread this is," said Borick, who also serves as sponsor of an after-school manga club at Crews Lake Middle. "Manga is the highest circulation for books checked out in the school library. Some kids will check out three a day."
"They are absolutely the hot item in our media center," said Melodie Oleson, media specialist at Sunlake High. "Our suggestion box is always filled with manga titles that are being requested."
"They've definitely grown in popularity," said Paul Stonebridge, teen services manager for the Pasco County Library System. He figures he draws in about 65 to 70 kids for manga/anime clubs and special events held at the Land O'Lakes Branch.
"We used to have one shelf (for manga)," Stonebridge said. "Now there's three shelves. I think it's here to stay for a while."
So what's the big draw?
Manga, which has long been part of the Japanese culture, can be a quick read for youngsters who might feel overwhelmed tackling thick chapter books, Stonebridge said. The books, which are read from right to left, are filled with animated drawings that sparked the popular anime television shows these kids grew up on, such as Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z.
"It's a good way to get the story across in a compact format," said Stonebridge. "I think a lot of kids really like the visual stimulation and the multitasking that's needed to read the books."
"They're marvelous for reluctant readers and the people that are more visual learners," said Oleson. "Kids who are primarily visual learners can hone in on the illustrations and then go to the text."
Megan McKenzie, a freshman at Fivay High who has long been an avid reader of all kinds of books, said her introduction to manga came years ago when she picked up a copy of Vampire Kisses at a book fair at Hudson Elementary School.
"It was a romance with all the blood, gore and scary parts," she said. "I just loved it and I wanted to read more."
"It's different in many ways than traditional books," said Megan, who helped found the after-school club at Crews Lake Middle last year. "There's action, romance. The story line is special."
And it's very different from those Marvel comic books it's always being compared to, said Cassondra, who serves as president of the Crews Lake Manga Club. "In normal comics it's always hero versus villain. The hero wins or they leave you hanging so you have to get the next issue. In manga, there's actually a real story line and the detail in the art is much better than American comic books."
Then there's the escape factor.
"I think it's been a good outlet for me," said Saebra Tidwell, 16, who serves as leader of a well attended anime/manga club at Sunlake High, along with Andrew Finn, 16. "It was something I could escape to — a way to get to a different world."
Indeed. Saebra, who was introduced to manga at the age of 5 by a Japanese friend, is a fluent speaker of the language, eats the food, dons the clothing and hopes to travel to Japan next year as an exchange student.
The books often open doors to a whole new culture, said Stonebridge, who last year coordinated a group trip to Japan and has another planned for the spring.
"The kids read the books and want to learn more," he said.
Best of all is the entrance manga provides into the reader's world.
"It's definitely a gateway book for tweens and teens," Stonebridge said. "A lot of kids will pick up a graphic novel because it's a culture they enjoy, or they like anime (shows). Then a kid who wouldn't read before is suddenly reading a 40-book series. Then maybe they get into fantasy things — chapter books like Lord of the Rings, Vampire's Apprentice or the Dragonlance series.
"Kids that never read at all are maybe willing to give a full novel a try," he said. "Manga is sort of the carrot — where kids can feel the comfort reading brings."