Archive for CEO Reviews

Review of Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love

Written By: Patricia C McKissack and Frederick L McKissack Jr.
Illustrated by: Randy Duburke

REVIEW

Each era of American history has a distinct color and feel to it – from the black and white clad puritans, to the green camo of the boys in World War II, to the tie-died hippies marching for change. In the graphic novel Best Shot in the West (2012), writers Patricia and Fredrick McKissack and artist Randy Duburke give a new, unique take on the gritty world of post-Civil War America, a time commonly known as the Wild West. 

At its core, Best Shot in the West is the story of Nat Love – a former slave who becomes an unexpected cowboy. Starting with Nat’s life on a plantation, the graphic novel quickly transcends to a story of a man who not only traveled the vast expanse of the 50 states of America, but across several of iconic moments in American history.

The story begins when Nat is 11-years-old. The Civil War has ended and he and his family are free, but without prospects. Nat becomes the man of the house but has a taste for adventure, so after winning a bet and earning enough money, he bids his family good bye and set out to make his life in the Wild West.

Soon he finds himself an indispensable hand in a group of cowboys running cattle up and down the western prairies. His life is filled from with stampedes, nights under the stars, shoot outs and even a raid by the Pima Indians – who take Nat in rather than kill him because many of them too were of mixed race. Ultimately Nat settles in Denver, just in time to see another icon of American industry rise – the railroad.

Today, Nat Love is remembered by history as a daring cowboy, but sorting out reality from myth has been tricky for many historians. Best Shot in the West utilizes brief snapshots of his life – from growing up as a slave on a plantation, to becoming famed for his marksmanship, to being captured by Pima Indians – to transport the readers into his story.

The illustrations are strikingly reminiscent of old photos, battered by time. But the stories presented – through fact and historical fiction – tell of a young man determined not only to make a better life for himself but also to have the adventure of his life doing it. These pieces of history also provide a rich touchstone of personal context from which to look at slavery and wider race relations in America during the late 1800’s, the development of the west by pioneers, and the effect of industry on rural life.

But perhaps the most valuable aspect of Best Shot in the West is that it tells the story of an African American cowboy. The problem of visibility (or lack thereof) often creates a barrier for minority students in taking ownership of these pieces of American history as their own. By telling the stories of American people of color, this book provides a story that is accessible to students, and a protagonist that they can identify with whether they share his racial heritage or not.

THEMES

Cowboys, African Americans in the West, Growing up with financial hardship, Bravery in the face of danger, Believing in yourself.

IN THE CLASSROOM

The text is not full of terribly difficult words, so younger readers can easily digest the adventures of Nat Love, but the story structure itself is a little more complex. The book skips from moment to moment in Nat’s life, creating almost an anthology of stories…not all of which are in order.

This makes piecing together the various pieces of his life an interesting puzzle and will keep younger and older readers engaged. Here are some suggestions for use in your classroom:

  • HISTORY: Discuss the interplay between the various points of American history- How did the Civil War impact the development of the west? What would it be like to live from isolated life on a plantation to the full development of the railroad across the country? What kind of periods do you see yourself living through now and in the future? Discuss Colorado History – How did the culture of the “wild west” shape Colorado? How did the Railroads change Denver? How is Cowboy Culture still alive here?
  • LANGUAGE ARTS: Discuss the use of non-linear story telling. How does that choice benefit or detract from the story? Discuss representation of People of Color in American literature. How does this story compare to other classic portrayals like in Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or To Kill a Mockingbird?
  • ART: Discuss Color Theory – How does the author use black and white and color illustrations together? What is the impact? What does the progression of color throughout the comic tell you about the story?  

CONCLUSION

Woven throughout all the history in Best Shot in the West is a story that shines through of a young man living an incredible version of the American dream. He started a slave and became one of the most famous shots in the west – a celebrity of his time. He was never rich, but he made his aspirations come true, married someone he loved, and created a life that he was proud of when he could have sunk into apathy so easily.

It is this grit that can be used to spark discussions among students about their own aspiration, goals and the obstacles to reach them. By reading about Nat Love’s incredible journey in Best Shot in the West, they will hopefully be better able to see what stands in the way of these dreams, and how can those obstacles be overcome.

Review of Beowulf by Gareth Hinds

 

By Erik Kallenborn

For the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to travel the country, speaking about the benefits of comics and graphic novels in the classroom, helping many teachers get started with the medium in their own classrooms along the way.

There are many roads that led to where the Comics Education Outreach is at this point in time, and a lot of our success comes from the partnership with Pop Culture Classroom; they saw and acknowledged our passion and were gracious enough to take us on as one of their many amazing programs. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention or give partial credit to Gareth Hinds’ version of Beowulf for our success as well.

Gareth Hinds’ amazing adaptation of the classic epic poem Beowulf has been a staple in my classroom for over five years, and my kids continue to find new aspects of the graphic novel to explore. My exploration of the relationship between reading time and assessment scoring even sparked a Chicago newspaper to cover a story about my usage of the graphic medium.

As teachers in a sea of sub-par classical adaptations, we have to find the gems. An adaptation of a long-taught classic that is engaging and relatable, Beowulf is a great translation and students dig it. The art and lack of text make this book work wonderfully in the classroom as an entryway into classic literature!

Using Beowulf In the Classroom

1.) Literary Analysis: While reading and discussing this title, students can engage in discussions on tone, mood, symbolism, pacing, plot, characterization, etc. If discussing character and author intent are your things, you need to teach this book; it has everything an English teacher needs.

2.) Art Analysis: The book is crafted in such a way that this title can also be an educator’s entryway into teaching the graphic novel medium. Along with the normal English classroom discussions going, you can layer discussions of color shift, graphic weight, panel layout, inference, etc. Add as much or as little as you like based on your conformability with comics and graphic novels. On his website, Hinds even provides sketches and a teacher’s guide as materials for classroom application.

 

3.) Engaging Different Types of Learners: Students can write about this title with as much familiarity and confidence as if they had read the classic epic poem. As someone that has used this book in an AP Literature class in which half of the students read the graphic novel, and half of the students read the adapted poem after which the graphic novel is created, I can say with certainty that, when the students write about the story, you will be hard-pressed to discover which student read which version.

 

4.) Text Pairing: If replacing the original text scares you or seems off-putting, pair them! Beowulf has the ability to be used as a paired text with the original version. Allow the images in the graphic novel to supplement the text and aid with understanding and comprehension. There are even some great essay prompts waiting to be created that will allow students to compare and contrast the text to the graphic novel, such as essays about characterization, Hinds’ edits, tone, and so on.

In Conclusion

If you are interested in learning more about the book and its classroom application, my fellow teacher Ronell Whitaker and I will be the Keynote speakers with Gareth Hinds at the closing of NCTE (National Council for Teachers of English) discussing our continued work with his books in our classrooms. It is a great honor to have been asked, and it will be an amazing opportunity to continue to speak about this fantastic book and its benefits to educators.

As you can see, there is a lot that any excited educator can do with this book. I implore you to check it out if you have not done so already. Let me know if you dig it, what you do with it, and how your kids like it. I wish you the best of luck and hope you see the success with this book in the classroom that I did!

 

Eric Kallenborn is a Chicago-based high school teacher and comic book aficionado. He can be contacted on social media @comics_teacher and over email at e.kallenborn@popcultureclassroom.org.


American Born Chinese, Review

 

By Michael Gianfrancesco

 

REVIEW

The brainchild and signature book of author/artist Gene Yang, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, the graphic novel American Born Chinese has won its share of awards. For students and educators alike, the novel offers a wonderful story that touches on many common themes, motifs and content areas while providing students opportunities to engage in critical analysis and self-examination within your classroom.

The novel contains three stories that begin separately, intertwine throughout the book, and eventually converge at the end, bringing all the themes together into a single resolution.

The first story introduced is that of the Monkey King of Chinese legend and his quest for respect and humility.

The second is about a young boy named Jin Wang and his struggle to be accepted as one of few Asian students in a primarily white school.

And the third is a pseudo sitcom featuring Danny and his (offensive) Chinese stereotype of a cousin Chin-Kee.

Without giving too much away, American Born Chinese finds its way to a compromise for all the characters and offers surprising twists, particularly in terms of how the three stories unite into one in the last chapter. Each story has its own compelling characters, a focus on the ups and downs of culture traditions, and a need to forge a path that includes, but is not dominated by, familial heritage.

The characters learn that, while we are at least partially defined by our cultural traditions and upbringing, it just one component of who we are. Likewise, we cannot ignore our heritage, no matter how much we wish we could. The characters are forced to find a balance between their personal desires to be like everyone else and their Chinese ancestries, or, in the case of the Monkey King, his species.

The book is colorfully illustrated and draws on religious and spiritual iconography, particularly when following the Monkey King’s story. Though sometimes jarring, the transitions between each individual tale are well crafted and readers will find themselves moving quickly from one page to the next.

IN THE CLASSROOM

Educators will want to pace their students to ensure that they are spending as much time analyzing the artwork and the subtleties of what Yang is “showing” as they are on reading what he is “telling.” Some potential uses in the classroom include:

  • Talk about the themes of heritage and culture. Have your students create minicomics or short stories that explode a cultural moment in their lives. Have them share them with the class and create a sort of “international week” out of the unit.
  • The theme of identity is very strong in this novel. In particular, the book talks about changing the way you look in order to either set yourself apart or to hide within a sea of identical faces. This could be a part of a sociology unit where the class discusses what happens when you cannot hide how you look (unlike the characters in the novel who literally change their physical appearances) and must face the potential discrimination on the basis of the way you look.
  • The character of Chin-Kee is an offensive stereotype of someone of Chinese descent. This can spawn conversation about parody and the nature of exposing ignorance through the use of a stereotyped character or situation. Have them debate the appropriateness of Chin-Kee and discuss how and why this character exists in the novel and what Yang is trying to say through his presence.
  • Have students research the Chinese Gods featured in the novel or, alternately, you can assign other ancient mythological deities (Norse, Roman, Greek, Egyptian) and have students create a story or comic featuring characters derived from those sources and include how they might interact with modern humans.
  • Pair this text with YA novels like the Percy Jackson series that utilize ancient gods in a similar manner. Have students compare/contrast the authors’ choices in each work.

IN CONCLUSION

American Born Chinese is a relevant and poignant story about personal understanding that does not pull its punches when it comes to taking on racist concepts levied against those of Asian descent. The novel exposes these stereotypes and forces the reader to confront their own conscious or unconscious prejudices, while at the same time offering an empathetic view for anyone who might feel that their culture has made them a target.

Though it may seem simple in nature, Gene Yang’s expertly crafted graphic novel takes on these complicated themes masterfully and offers a thought provoking narrative which will certainly offer you and your students plenty to talk about.

 

All images (c) Gene Luen Yang.

Review of Sisters

 

By Ronell Whitaker
Written & Art by Raina Telgemeier
Appropriate for grades: 2nd grade and up

 

Review

When I first read Raina Telgemeier’s 2010 graphic novel Smile, I had trouble relating. As a high school teacher, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was not the intended audience. “This is kids’ stuff,” I remember thinking to myself. And even though I read and liked the book, I still couldn’t shake the fact that maybe Telgemeier’s books just weren’t for me.

Until, that is, she wrote Sisters.

The second of Telgemeier’s graphic novel memoirs, Sisters – a New York Times bestseller and Eisner Award Winner – is a poignant and expertly told story about Telgemeier’s wish to be, and eventual regret at becoming, a big sister. Set during a weeklong drive from San Francisco to a family reunion Colorado Springs, Sisters invites readers into the humorous and often cringe-worthy intricacies of her family life and the bonds that form, break and then reform between them as a result.

As we travel with Telgemeier’s family, what really makes the book sing are the little familial moments to which any reader can relate: the annoyance of road tripping with a sibling; that one cool older family member you look up to; arguing over what fast food restaurant to eat at; even worrying about your parents’ marriage.

But perhaps what most helps this book go above and beyond the typical graphic memoir tropes is how fun, honest and full of heart it is. The writing is both accessible and engaging, which is important given the target demographic for this book of elementary and early middle schoolers.

In addition, Telgemeier’s art is clean and completely in service to the story. Think of it as a director who really wants the viewer to experience the story more than relying on visual flash to carry the film; that’s what she’s doing with this book. Both of these combined allow the reader to join this family on a journey that is simultaneously touching and hilarious.

Clearly, Sisters is a great comic for kids who don’t think they like comics, or don’t think comics are for them. Yet, what Sisters does well is tell a relatable story, and gives first time comics readers an easy entrance into the comics world.

In the Classroom

Creative Writing: Sisters would fit well with a memoir unit or as a mentor text for teaching students how to write their own memoirs. Using Telgemeier’s text as a guideline, students could tell their own stories about their family or experiences they’ve had on family trips.

Literary Analysis: There are also opportunities to discuss literary devices like flashback, foreshadowing, and the frame story. Students could analyze how the creator uses these devices to tell her story, and what effect it has on the narrative.

Thematic Connections: Although this is a book for younger kids, this might be a great place to start if you want to teach older students concepts like theme. Telgemeier’s books wear their themes on their sleeves, and this leads to a quick and easy way for kids to identify and analyze those themes in what they might consider a lower stakes text.

Conclusion

Never has the term “all ages” been more appropriate than with Sisters. Despite my early apprehension, the book is positively brimming with genuine laughs along with a good dose serious, poignant moments. My advice: Give this book a chance, you won’t regret it.

Still not sure? You can read the first seven pages of Sisters here and see for yourself!

El Deafo Review



Review by Chloe Anderson

Written and Illustrated by Cece Bell
Winner of the John Newberry Medal 

Pop Culture Classroom | El Deafo Review

SYNOPSIS 

El Deafo is perfect for new readers as a bridge between sight-word books and more complex stories. It tells the story of Cece Bell, who loses most of her hearing at the age of 4. New schools and making friends can be scary on its own, but it’s even more complicated when everyone sounds like they are speaking under water.

Ms. Bell has distilled her experience growing up with a hearing disability into a touching story about perseverance and the meaning of friendship. Aimed at younger kids, this graphic novel utilizes cute art and simple language to communicate its heartfelt point. 

Even if the reader does not have a disability, El Deafo offers a poignant window into what our friends in the deaf community experience every day, and raises important questions about how to be helpful and kind to people who are “different.”  

Themes: Growing up, New school, feeling alone, make believe, different kinds of friends, kindness 

REVIEW OF EL DEAFO

Kids are way smarter than we often give them credit for. Books written to young audiences often fall into the trap of being so simple as to bore kids right to sleep, or even worse, right into hating to read.  That’s why books like El Deafo are so important to include for new readers.   

Cece Bell channels her memories of young life into a story that is simple enough for young readers to identify with, and poignant enough for older readers to be fascinated with. Tracking life from when Cece got Meningitis at four years old all the way to sixth grade covers a lot of ground.

Pop Culture Classroom | El Deafo Review  

But the all-encompassing theme of the book is, “what do you do with adversity?” While the Meningitis took most of her hearing, Cece is still an imaginative little girl who loves sleepovers and learning just like her classmates. When she sees a bully on TV call another child “El Defo!” Cece can’t stop her giggles – it sounds so funny. And yet she reasons that she must be “deafo” too.

Pop Culture Classroom | El Deafo Review

And so, her super hero alter-ego of El Defo is born.  This alter ego enables her to think about challenges in an empowered way; for instance her hearing aid isn’t a handicap anymore, it’s like one of batman’s cool gadgets giving her super hearing.  This winsome attitude towards facing her disability is one that any child can easily identify with. Ms. Bell presents her characters in ways that are beautifully relatable thanks to their common desires for friendship, independence and belonging. 

Pop Culture Classroom | El Deafo Review

Despite her disability, the issues that Cece encounters throughout the comic are universal. She feels isolated when other students don’t include her.  She wants friends who see her for who she is. She struggles with the nervous butterflies of liking a cute boy. Cece’s emotional experience is like the experience that any child might encounter while growing up, changing schools and making friends.

Ms. Bell’s keen empathy with how young students see the world offers up small stories within El Deafo that make great touch stones for discussion for any student, either in class or at home.  

IN THE CLASROOM 

This text will be most useful for elementary aged students. 

  • Lessons on Feelings: As kids grow into new social settings, often they encounter new and powerful emotions.  Fear, excitement or anticipation can be hard to explain because they are so abstract, but kids know it when they see it, whether presented in a story or encountered in real life. Discuss how Cece is feeling in different scenarios. Ask kids if they have ever felt that way, or even if they have friends who might feel that way.
  • Learning to Work with Students with Disabilities:  This is a subject that many people often struggle to address. Kids often don’t know how to treat a student who learns or plays  And teachers must walk the line between accommodating the disability, and treating the student like the rest of their peers. El Deafo offers an insider’s perspective about how our actions help or hurt someone who experiences life with a disability. Discuss what Cece’s friends did that helped her and hurt her. Are her feelings different than anyone else’s? What are ways we can all be kind to each other? What can non-disabled people learn from girls like Cece?
  • Friends, Bullies and Social Skills: Sometimes friends are the best, sometimes they are the worst.Cece, as El Deafo, encounters both kinds of friends. But, with insightful parallels to real life, the conflicts are presented in such a way as to suggest empathy for all parties involved. When her friend Giny tries to accommodate Cece’s hearing loss by speaking too slowly and too loudly, Cece finds herself wondering if the rude loudness is because Ginny is trying to help.  Discuss what makes a good friend.  How can we learn to listen to our friends for how they would like to be treated? How can we learn to ask our friends to treat us respectfully? What makes a bully? What can we do about bullying behavior?

In addition to all the great discussion points, this graphic novel utilizes cute art and simple language to communicate its heartfelt point. Ms. Bell has illustrated the story herself, in a style that is reminiscent of art that her target audience might make themselves. Cece and her friends are portrayed as humanized bunnies which play out their stories against colorful back grounds which evoke the emotion of each scene. 

Pop Culture Classroom | El Deafo Review

Even if the reader does not have a disability, El Deafo offers a poignant window into what our friends in the deaf community experience every day, and raises important questions about how to be helpful and kind to all the people whom we encounter in our daily lives, no matter how “different” they may seem.


About Chloe Anderson:

Chloe is a Colorado filmmaker and educator. She has worked both as a producer and actor, and is an award-winning screen writer with a love of mentoring young creators. Chloe has spent 10 years as a private tutor specializing in language arts. Chloe also has over a decade of experience working with, and advocating for, non-profits that support the arts in education, and now she is delighted to be contributing to Pop Culture Classroom’s mission of empowerment through creativity.


MARCH Review

By Eric Kallenborn

Last August, I was privileged enough to hear Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, co-authors of the award-winning graphic novel trilogy March, speak at Evanston Public High School in Evanston, Illinois. It was there, about three months before the Presidential election that I understood, that no matter the outcome of the election, we, as a nation, were going to be alright.

Listening to these men speak was nothing short of amazing. As they explained obstacles they faced getting the book published, Rep. Lewis and Mr. Aydin also told the story of struggle, persistence, community, and choosing love: not surprising, as these are some of the most powerful themes in March. Heck, they’re powerful themes in life too.

ABOUT THE BOOKS

There is a reason that March, the story of Rep. John Lewis’ life and struggles through the Civil Rights Movement, has seen much critical acclaim recently. The book series, which consists of three volumes, delves into issues that many in this country would like to keep in the dark corners of American history. March shines a light into those dark corners, forcing us to face the horrors of segregation and racism while also celebrating the brave men and woman of the Civil Rights Movement.   

MARCH Review - Comic Education Outreach - Pop Culture ClassroomThe art of March’s illustrator, Nate Powell, is a perfect juxtaposition to the writing of Rep. Lewis and Mr. Aydin; much like in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Powell’s choice of white, blacks, and grays for the color scheme forces the reader back in time and makes it easier to focus on the details of Lewis’ life and struggles.    

MARCH Review - Comic Education Outreach - Pop Culture Classroom

A recent winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the March series is quickly becoming a must-read in most circles, literary or not. While violent and heavy, this book can and should be read by anyone over the age of twelve. And if you have that certain someone in your life that still might question the validity of comics or graphic novels as part of the social lexicon, slip them a copy of March, and see if you can change their mind.       

IN THE CLASSROOM

I’m not saying that you have to put March in your classroom library, but I’m sort of saying that you should put March in your classroom library. It’s an important book, and much like the comic book that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to spread the news about the Montgomery bus boycott, it’s an example of how graphic texts can shape our understanding ofhistory and help us better empathize with cultures and people beyond ourselves.

  • For the history lesson alone, March should find itself in schools across the nation.  Not only can this book be taught in the English classroom, but it has connections to many different Social Studies classrooms as well. For the most part, at least in my experience, we do a poor job in this country of teaching students about the Civil Rights Movement; March helps get much-needed information into the hands of students while also keeping them engaged.
  • The complexity of the images allows for deep analytical conversation. As you may hear me say many times in the future, one of the best things about this medium is that we are adding to an already rich English classroom vocabulary. On top of tone, mood, symbolism, diction, etc., we are adding terms like “panel,” “special effects lettering,” “graphic weight,” etc. The inclusion of these new classroom terms allows for more complex discussion at all levels and Nate Powell’s artistic decisions are a perfect inroad into those discussions.
  • As you might have already guessed, this book would be an amazing companion piece to a multitude of texts that you may use in your classroom, both fiction and non-fiction. This includes films as well.  What a cool project it would be to write a comparative analysis of March with the film Selma.

CONCLUSION

Sometimes to get an important message out to certain audiences, we need to change the way in which that message is created. Delivered by Rep. Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powel, March is further proof that changing the construction of a message can take that message to people and places that might have not received it otherwise.

This is especially important in a time when many of us, on both sides of the isle, are unsure and often weary of what is to come, and messages like the ones found in March may be what we need to fuel our passions for persistence, community, and choosing love.

Pride of Baghdad Review

By Michael Gianfrancesco

Brian K. Vaughan’s and Niko Henrichon’s 2006 masterpiece Pride of Baghdad combines fact and fiction in a way that not only creates an impactful and poignant story, but also makes serious and complex themes accessible to just about any reader. This text has been in my regular classroom rotation for years and has remained relevant and powerful due to its universal motifs of war, family, loss, and (dare I say it) skewed perception of what it means to be proud.

OVERVIEW

Based very loosely on events surrounding the bombing of the Baghdad Zoo by American forces in 2003, the story follows four lions that hop the crumbling walls of their shattered enclosure and seek freedom in the burning remains of the city. Vaughn has made these animals semi-anthropomorphic (not to the degree of the characters’ human dimensions and animal faces in Spiegelman’s Maus, but only in that they can talk to each other and other animals) and given each a backstory and role to play in the book’s sad but all too inevitable conclusion.

What makes this novel all the more special is the beauty of the artwork itself. Hernichon masterfully recreates post-war Baghdad in all its shorn grandeur. Present are the famous landmarks including the sword clutching arch known sometimes as the Hands of Victory and the not-yet-razed statue of Saddam Hussein. The abandoned streets are presented awash in deep red and orange sepia tones that invoke the bloodied and burning remains of what was once a bustling Middle Eastern city.

The text pulls no punches in terms of its treatment of war and the atrocities therein. Within the first few pages, readers are treated to a faithful giraffe getting his head blown off in graphic detail. The book’s mature themes don’t end there, and this is where I would caution any educators to vet Pride of Baghdad carefully. There is a scene implying sexual assault of one of the females, a bloody battle between a bear and the male lion, and an ending that will not send you home happy. You know your student population, your district and building culture, and what constitutes “appropriate” in your classroom, so tread carefully.

USE IN THE CLASSROOM

  • You can pair Pride of Baghdad with Maus as both share similar themes about how war impacts the individual and the family and its gorgeous color and panoramic artwork are a stark and welcome contrast to Spiegelman’s thick lines, claustrophobic panels, and black and white presentation.
  • You could also toss this into a unit with novels The Things They Carried, Night, Diary of Anne Frank, or A Thousand Splendid Suns to scaffold similar themes of the horrors of war and loss.
  • There is an opportunity to bring Pride of Baghdad to a social studies classroom as the text offers an accurate artistic representation of war torn Iraq. Pulling news articles and primary sources on the conflict and discussing the real story of the war and the bombing in and around the zoo can help students with their visual understanding of the consequences of war.
  • The motifs of feminism and the nature of a patriarchal society are certainly at play here and can foster discussion in your class about the cultural nature of the lions as representative of various human cultures.
  • As mentioned above, there are mature themes and scenes that should be considered before committing the book to your students.

IN CONCLUSION

To sum it all up, Pride of Baghdad is a brutally honest and heart wrenching book with enough conflict and action to engage even the most skeptical reader. It offers no quarter in terms of expectations of survival when war has come to your front door. Its brutal honesty is complemented with real characters with whom even the most stoic of readers will find themselves connecting on an emotional level.

The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation

 

Written by Johnathon Hennessey
Art by Aaron McConnell
Appropriate for Grades: Middle School and up

REVIEW

In interesting times such as these, the laws and traditions of the United States are finding themselves hotly debated on a daily basis. Coming of age in the 21st Century means that your students’ social feeds are filling with confusing political news, bold declarations by leaders, and loads of conflicting opinions. Questions emerge constantly about checks and balances, the limits of power, and the nature of our government. As teachers of social studies, it is incumbent upon us to help our students develop a clear understanding about the document that finds itself at the center of the struggle time and again: The Constitution.

At first glance, it may seem that breaking down a heavy primary source like the Constitution would be less appealing than the adaptations of novels and works of literature available to our friends in the English department. In actuality, Hennessey’s work divides into very intuitive chapters; it progresses just like the document itself with portions devoted to the Preamble, Articles, and Amendments respectfully. In addition, each section is accompanied by relevant details, illustrations (duh!) and entertaining stories!

Why This Graphic Novel is Awesome

Try this experiment: Call up friend and explain the 9th Amendment in detail to them. Unless your friend is a constitutional scholar or history teacher, it might look something like this:

Once you’re done holding them hostage, you might feel the pain and frustration that comes along with trying to teach the less “sexy” portions of the Constitution to students.

To combat this, The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation takes that amendment and explains it clearly in just 2 1/2 illustrated pages. Among the relevant details of the Amendment, no less than SIX supreme court cases are referenced with cool nonchalance. There’s also the clarifying use of a superhero of the author’s design called The Penumbra. Immediately, The Penumbra provides a concrete retrieval cue in the minds of students that will make this otherwise painful moment of learning into a highlight!

Mr. Hennessey’s graphic novel gives this same treatment to every part of the Constitution, with an almost frenetic shift in imagery between each section to help keep students interested.

Use In the Classroom

When teaching, I’ve found that Social Studies comics tend to be most useful when divided into smaller pieces. I personally would never have students read this dense and intimidating graphic novel from start to finish. Be forewarned: This is NOT a beginner’s book; it’s better suited to being read a few pages at a time followed by an opportunity to digest and discuss.

Hennessey’s book goes in the same order as the Constitution itself, providing context and clarification. He took care to plan out clear markers and stopping points so that readers will definitively know when the topic is shifting. Use this to your advantage. Small, 20 minute reading activities over the course of a semester will work well here.

Some portions might also work well as full-class projects. In one team-taught classroom, we enjoyed success in organizing a jigsaw of the Bill of Rights. We assigned very small groups of students to analyze the pages of one specific amendment. This is followed by a creation of their OWN illustration accompanied by a short explanation for their classmates. I’ve tried this activity using other methods (e.g., guided internet research), but Hennessey’s book has generally proven to be the fastest, most easily accessible resource for students and teachers alike.

In Conclusion

Through this graphic novel, Jonathon Hennessey has created a new, unique, and exciting way for students to engage with the Constitution – a text that has and will continue to affect all of our lives for decades to come. Please support him by buying all of his excellent books like I did!


[1] http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/strategy/strategy036.shtml

Lumberjanes, Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy

Written by Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis
Art by Brooke Allen
Appropriate for Grades: 3rd grade and up

REVIEW

Full disclosure: When I was growing up, I was obsessed with all things related to summer camp. I loved Meatballs, and Salute Your Shorts, and sadly, even Ernest Goes to Camp. I lived for s’mores and spooky stories told around a campfire. The thing is…I’ve never been to camp in my life. I grew up in Chicago, and my family had very little money. The closest I came to camp was the free day camp at the local park (here, “day camp” is code for run around in the sun until you get tired and dehydrated). So when I saw the cover of Lumberjanes I was already on board.

So what is Lumberjanes? It is the story of five best friends spending the summer together at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types, the home of the Lumberjanes Scouts. As the summer goes on, they learn there’s more to the camp than meets the eye. The girls endure magical quests, mystical creatures, and a mysterious Bear Lady, all while celebrating friendship to the max and girl power! The creators describe the book as “Baby Sitters Club meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Scooby Doo Goes to Camp.” It’s supernatural, mystery and adventure all wrapped in a ready-for-Cartoon-Network package.

Lumberjanes really shines because of it’s humor and characters. Each of the mains are people the reader can root for and care about by the end of the book. Young and older readers alike will definitely gravitate to Ripley, the wild and hyperactive girl with an endearing innocence and kick-butt attitude that make it hard to not fall in love with her. That may be what makes this title standout the most: the emphasis on the friendship and love these friends have for one another. By the end of the book, readers feel like these girls are their friends, too!

IN THE CLASSROOM

  • Lumberjanes really handles character well, so one idea is to explore archetypes through the main characters and antagonists. Students could identify the ways the characters fit and break the archetypal character patterns, and then characterize themselves by connecting their own character traits to those of one of the main characters.
  • There’s a bit of mythology in this first volume as well, so students could explore the hero’s journey through Lumberjanes and connect it with texts from other cultural myths.
  • At the secondary level, students and teachers could examine feminist themes in the book, and explore the significance of the relationships between the young women in the book.
  • Throughout the series, women of historic importance are constantly getting shout-outs. It’s a great opportunity to pause the action and go look these women up, and talk about what their contributions were and why they are important to recognize.

Overall, Lumberjanes is a great book, that features a predominately female cast, and was created by an all-female creative team. The work they are doing is full of fun and adventure, and the characters will appeal to all genders, but this book does a great job of representation for all kinds of girls, from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds.