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.
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.
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.