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Find more Classroom Connections
As a highly visual medium, graphic novels can put stories with diverse, multicultural elements into a new perspective for young readers.
As ideas and perspectives are exchanged across cultures with greater speed, in greater variety, and to wider audiences than ever before, it is crucial that young people grow up with an ability to see how they are connected to a vast diversity of neighbors. At the heart of a multicultural reading experience is the opportunity to open a young reader’s world and engender a deeper understanding of the lives and outlooks of others. Graphic novels have the unique advantage of putting those perspectives into a visual perspective, allowing readers to see the world through the eyes (and heart) of someone leading a radically different life. The visual element, when paired with a nuanced story, adds another level of connection and comprehension and strengthens the line of empathy between cultures.
As fortune would have it, the graphic-novel format has recently begun to cultivate a garden filled with diverse outlooks. The brief sampling below, including both stand-alone graphic novels and several superhero comics that meaningfully engage multicultural topics, is a great way to get started in the classroom or the library and let students explore this garden themselves. Each book was chosen with the Common Core curriculum in mind, and the accompanying classroom activities will help bring these new perspectives into full bloom. In reading titles from the list below, students will have an opportunity not only to see the vast differences between their own and others’ cultures, but also, and in the most important ways, they can realize how much they have in common.
The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West. By Steve Sheinkin. Illus. by the author. 2006. Jewish Lights, $16.99 (9781580233101). Gr. 3–6.
Over the course of three volumes, humble Rabbi Harvey applies ancient Jewish wisdom and folklore to problems ranging from romance to dastardly varmints. Sheinkin’s quirky figures wonderfully capture the gentle humor of his characters and stories, as what seems like a recipe for a surefire culture clash ends up proving that wisdom, insight, and humor transcend cultural differences.
American Born Chinese. By Gene Luen Yang. Illus. by the author. 2006. First Second, $23.99 (9781596433731). Gr. 7–10.
Yang weaves together three tales centered around Asian culture, stereotypes, and characters, and ties them together in a revelatory twist that lays bare the damage people can do when they belittle others and themselves. A work of fantasy, humor, drama, and profound understanding.
The Arrival. By Shaun Tan. Illus. by the author. 2007. Arthur A. Levine, $19.99 (9780439895293). Gr. 4–8.
A traveler leaves his family to make his way in a grand, fantastical melting pot of peoples, cultures, and customs. In this wordless masterpiece, the titular arrival must contend with unfamiliar landscapes, customs, and indecipherable signs and navigate through a world where even the vehicles are impossibly weird. Along the way, he meets others who tell him their own stories of making the same journey. The universalizing effect of Tan’s unique visual choices will easily draw readers into a complex emotional experience and a deeply empathic connection.
Blue Beetle, v.1: Shellshocked. By Keith Giffen and John Rogers. Illus. by Cully Hamner. 2006. DC, o.p. Gr. 6–8.
Latino teenager Jaime Reyes finds himself in a world of superheroes and head-spinning sci-fi trouble when the mystical scarab of the Blue Beetle attaches itself to him. Jaime’s friends and family figure prominently in his story as he comes to rely on their support over the course of several volumes’ worth of adventures, standing proud and tall among the pantheon of DC heroes.
Boxers. By Gene Luen Yang. Illus. by the author. 2013. First Second, $18.99 (9781596433595). Gr. 7–11.
Saints. By Gene Luen Yang. Illus. by the author. 2013. First Second, $15.99 (9781596436893). Gr. 7–11.
Yang brings his signature combination of fantasy and humanity to this historical look at the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising against religious and cultural oppression in nineteenth-century China. These paired graphic novels tell the same story from two perspectives, those of Little Bao, who leads his community against Peking, and Four-Girl, a social outcast who devotes herself to the Christian faith. In both, Yang digs deeply into the emotional forces that can drive cultures and people against each other.
Calamity Jack. By Shannon Hale and Dean Hale. Illus. by Nathan Hale. 2010. Bloomsbury, $19.99 (9781599900766). Gr. 4–7.
Jack encounters his beanstalk in a steampunk city under attack by an evil giant and other mysterious foes. In the sequel to the Hales’ Rapunzel’s Revenge (2008), Jack is recast as a Native American who relies on his wit and ingenuity to solve problems. In the full spotlight this time, Jack comes alive as an engaging character with whom readers will quickly identify.
Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War. By Michel Chickwanine and Jessica Dee Humphreys. Illus. by Claudia Davila. 2015. Kids Can, $17.95 (9781771381260). Gr. 4–8.
The true story of Michel Chickwanine, who was abducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and pressed into the service of a rebel militia. Here is a terrifying situation that will seem utterly alien to most readers, and yet the immediacy of the story makes it instantly (and sometimes uncomfortably) accessible. By striking the style of a picture book, Davila’s artistry accomplishes a small miracle, preserving the weight of the story without graphic imagery or unbearably intense details. Chickwanine’s courage and the safety he eventually finds (he currently lives in Canada), as well as the power with which the book makes a distant problem feel so urgent, make this story impossible to ignore.
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant. By Tony Cliff. Illus. by the author. 2013. First Second, $16.99 (9781596438132). Gr. 6–8.
The scandalous, swashbuckling Delilah Dirk sweeps Selim, a rather staid member of the Turkish Janissary Corps, off on an adventure through a lushly envisioned Turkey. The engaging characters have motives and behavior that any reader will be able to relate to, and Cliff’s gorgeously realized locations beautifully evoke a foreign land and its customs.
Fairy Tale Comics. Ed. by Chris Duffy. 2013. illus. First Second, $19.99 (9781596438231). K–Gr. 2.
A wide array of comic luminaries present fairy tales set in a range of countries and amid a variety of cultures, including the Middle Eastern “The Prince and the Tortoise” and the Japanese “The Boy Who Drew Cats.” The archetypal fairy-tale themes and lessons are a great way to introduce young readers to the fact that powerful ideas cut across all cultures and peoples. The mixture of nationalities makes the book feel like a miniature melting pot all on its own.
A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return. By Zeina Abirached. Illus. by the author. 2012. Lerner/Graphic Universe, $29.27 (9780761385684). Gr. 6–8.
Following in the footsteps of Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed adult graphic novel Persepolis (2003), Abirached uses a similar high-contrast black-and-white art style to relate the story of her childhood in war-torn Beirut, Lebanon. Huddled in the foyer of their apartment building during an intense period of bombing, Zeina and her brother wait for their parents to return. Woven throughout are flashbacks and explanatory asides that provide context to the tense events of the story.
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword. By Barry Deutsch. Illus. by the author. 2010. Abrams/Amulet, $17.95 (9780810984226). Gr. 3–6.
An Orthodox Jewish girl, straining against the confines of her family and her culture, faces off with a talking pig and a local witch in order to earn a sword—and respect. An often lighthearted adventure that nevertheless sews the details and expectations of Mirka’s world seamlessly into the story, this offers up a protagonist that young readers of every persuasion will root for.
Little Robot. By Ben Hatke. Illus. by the author. 2015. First Second, $16.99 (9781626720800). Gr. 1–4.
While off on her solitary adventures through the backfields, a young girl of color comes upon a little robot who has lost his way. The two form a burgeoning bond, threatened at times by the robot’s instincts to find someone like himself and, finally, by a much larger robot on a mission. Hatke’s skill as an artist and storyteller brings sincere meaning and emotion to this almost wordless story, unobtrusively touching on issues of race and class, and ultimately highlighting the strength of a friendship that grows beyond the barriers of simple appearance.
Lola: A Ghost Story. By J. Torres. Illus. by Elbert Or. 2009. Oni, $14.99 (9781934964330). Gr. 5–8.
Jesse has inherited the same gift his Lola (grandmother in Tagalog) had: the ability to see the dead. He works hard to keep this secret hidden, even from his own family, but when he must return to a small village in the Philippines for Lola’s funeral, he is contacted by the ghost of his cousin, pleading with him for help. In addition to spending time with Jesse and his family, Torres weaves fascinating pieces of Filipino supernatural lore into the story, a highly engaging way to explore a culture’s dreams and nightmares.
Luke on the Loose. By Harry Bliss. Illus. by the author. 2009. TOON, $12.95 (9781935179009). K–Gr. 1.
Luke, an African American tyke, runs off from his father while chasing pigeons in the park. Chaos ensues as Luke chases the pigeons on a mad tour through the city and winds up, exhausted, on the top of a water tower. A simple, energetic story told in simple, elegant sequential language. Naturally and unobtrusively, Bliss’ visuals paint a multicultural vision of the modern urban landscape.
Master Man: A Tall Tale of Nigeria. By Aaron Shepard. Illus. by David Wisniewski. 2001. Harper, $15.95 (9780688137830). K–Gr. 2.
Shadusa is the strongest man in his small Nigerian village—and the most boastful. Sure enough, it’s only a matter of time before Shadusa runs into a tiny baby who can lift heavier loads than he. The baby’s father is Master Man, who teaches Shadusa a lesson in strength and respect. But who, then, is even stronger than Master Man? The setting is about as unfamiliar as any American reader is likely to come by, but the story and its themes will be immediately recognizable and engaging. Wisniewski’s extraordinary collage artwork gives this picture book told in comic-book compositions a vibrant and distinctive visual texture.
Ms. Marvel, v.1: No Normal. By G. Willow Wilson. Illus. by Adrian Alphona. 2014. Marvel, $15.99 (9780785190219). Gr. 7–11.
Kamala Khan may be a 16-year-old Muslim girl from Jersey City, but when she acquires shape-shifting superpowers, she is plunged into the heart of the Marvel universe, supervillains and all. Never losing focus of the fast and exciting story, complete with all the hallmarks that superhero fans love, Wilson smoothly folds in ideas about diversity and culture, as well as blending in and proudly standing out.
The Nameless City. By Faith Erin Hicks. Illus. by the author. 2016. First Second, $21.99 (9781626721579). Gr. 4–7.
The titular city is a mythical land based on feudal China, forever unnamed by its inhabitants, but named over and over by the armies that conquer it, only to lose it to the following army. Here a boy who comes from the culture of the occupying army and a native street urchin form an uneasy bargain that becomes a burgeoning friendship, just in time to save the city from a frightening conspiracy. The realistic tension between the two cultures is balanced by Hicks’ highly engaging cartooning and high-energy parkour-based chase scenes. Within the fast-paced story rests the cautiously optimistic idea that cultures can come together one friendship at a time.
Pablo and Jane and the Hot Air Contraption. By Jose Domingo. Illus. by the author. 2015. Flying Eye, $19.95 (9781909263369). Gr. 2–5.
Investigating a scary mansion, two friends wind up hurtling into the ghastly monster world. The components needed to repair their transport have been hidden by the feline Dr. Felinibus, and they, along with the reader, must scour pages of Where’s Waldo?–like puzzles to find the parts and return home. Pure, nutty fun with the multicultural relationship at its heart an unspoken illustration of loyal, energetic friendship.
Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow. By James Sturm. Illus. by Rich Tommaso. 2007. Hyperion, o.p. Gr. 5–8.
A black sharecropper in the 1940s remembers his brief career in the Negro Baseball Leagues, when he faced off against the great Satchel Paige, who proves an inspiration to the farmer and, eventually, his son. Paige’s history, extraordinary skills, and his status as a symbolic force against Jim Crow laws come out in an emotional story and powerfully evocative black-and-white images. Not only a great multicultural read but also a fantastic choice for baseball lovers.
Trickster: Native American Tales. Ed. by Matt Dembicki. 2007. illus. Fulcrum, $25.95 (9781555917241). Gr. 3–8.
An array of independent comics writers and artists present a panoply of Native American folktales centering on the trickster archetype. A multitoned, fascinating, and entertaining tour of Native American social outlooks and spiritual beliefs, in which readers will easily find connections to the myths and stories of many cultures.
Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, v.1. By Brian Michael Bendis. Illus. by Sara Pichelli. 2012. Marvel, $19.99 (9780785157137). Gr. 6–8.
In Marvel’s side continuity, Peter Parker is dead and the costume and responsibilities of Spider-Man have fallen to Hispanic African American Miles Morales. Miles is a smart, sensitive teen with an entirely different set of family and social entanglements than his predecessor, but he steps up to prove that heroism doesn’t belong to any single culture.
Here are a few ideas for activities related to these graphic novels that implement the Common Core Standards. You can find out more about the Common Core State Standards at www.corestandards.org.
In the Classroom: After reading any of the graphic novels from the list, have students complete a short research project in comic-panel form. Assign or allow students to choose a culture or another country (this could be connected to the graphic novel they read) and research some basic facts about it. Rather than writing this up in report form, have them illustrate each fact in an individual comic panel; for example, creating visuals for the culture’s native dress (noting what materials are used), some of their customary cuisine (noting ingredients), native customs (noting what they mean and their origins), or a native folktale. When completed, the individual panels should fill out an entire comics page of 8 to 10 panels. These could be turned into a presentation for the whole class and are great for displaying in (or out of) the classroom.
Common Core Connections
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.9. Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.5. Include multimedia components (e.g., graphics, images, music, sound) and visual displays in presentations to clarify information.
In the Classroom: Using The Arrival as a springboard for ideas, have the class create their own two- to three-page comic book with the overarching plot of a new visitor arriving in a land they have never been to before. The story should be depicted through the main character’s literal point of view, so readers never see the main character but, rather, see directly what he or she sees. How is this land different or strange from the land we, the readers, know? How has the main character arrived, and why has he or she come here? What did the character bring along? What obstacles does he or she face in arriving? What sorts of people does the character have to confront? Who does the character seek out for friendship or companionship? What things does the character need to live here for a time, and how does he or she get them?
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.6. Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and explain how it is conveyed in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.7. Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g., graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem).
In the Classroom: Using Blue Beetle, v.1, Ms. Marvel, v.1, or Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, v.1, have students create their own superhero character based on a culture other than their own. They should develop superpowers, a costume, and an origin all based on this culture’s history, folklore, and outlook. With more time, they could continue the theme with the character’s headquarters, vehicle, sidekick, or even an archenemy. An enemy could prove a particularly relevant choice, as such a character would reflect something antithetical to the culture on which the hero is based. Alternately, students could create a superhero character based on a culture from their own heritage.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.6. Analyze how an author develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters or narrators in a text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.7. Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions for further research and investigation.
In the Classroom: Using The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey, Fairy Tale Comics, Master Man, or Trickster as a springboard, have students create a fairy tale or fable (a story with a lesson) focusing on a facet of a specific culture. The setting will be important and may lead directly to the lesson being taught; for instance, the importance of the weather in a desert or frigid climate. This could be coupled with more in-depth research on a particular culture to see which aspect of their history, beliefs, or outlook would lend itself to such a story. The fairy tale could be in comic form, in prose, or an oral presentation to the class.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.3. Write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.2.5. Create audio recordings of stories or poems; add drawings or other visual displays to stories or recounts of experiences when appropriate to clarify ideas, thoughts, and feelings.
In the Classroom: As an agglomeration of racial stereotypes, the character of Chin-Kee in American Born Chinese is very disturbing and a rich topic for classroom discussion. He forces readers to examine how deeply ingrained some prejudices are and how powerfully they can affect us. In discussion, explore the following questions: How do you feel when you see the stereotypical images in the book? Why do they make you uncomfortable, and are you personally offended or offended on behalf of someone else? Does embarrassment come into your feelings at all? Continue by examining each element of the Chin-Kee character in open discussion, focusing on his appearance, his language, and his behavior, and questioning why each one may be offensive.
Common Core Standards
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.6. Analyze how differences in the points of view of the characters and the audience or reader (e.g., created through the use of dramatic irony) create such effects as suspense or humor.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.5. Integrate multimedia and visual displays into presentations to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence, and add interest.
Jesse Karp is a librarian at LREI, an independent school in New York City. He is the author of two young-adult novels and the nonfiction title Graphic Novels in Your School Library (2011) and a regular reviewer for Booklist.
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