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Recommended Comics for Schools: Annie Sullivan, Mystery Boxes, Anna & Froga

One of the exciting things about the start of the school year is the opportunity to add new books to reading lists, to curriculum, to classroom libraries—you name it. With this in mind, I thought I’d launch a series of posts highlighting some terrific 2012 graphic titles that I think would work particularly well in schools. Of course Good Comics for Kids highlights works of merit all year long, and in fact I’ve done a guest post there along these lines as well as covering graphic nonfiction in the print magazine on a couple of occasions. To distinguish this series, then, from those past efforts, I thought I’d include some specific teaching strategies/topics along with each recommendation, focusing on various media and visual literacies as well as core ELA and content-area skills.

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller

Not just one of my favorite graphic titles for schools, but, with beauty and creativity abundantly evident on every page, this is one of my favorite graphic releases of the year—period. The Center for Cartoon Studies has consistently put its name on quality books, and, like those others, this one includes historically-minded endnotes that other publishers should probably emulate… even more so because of today’s CCSS-driven emphasis on informational text. Moreover, cartoonist Joseph Lambert is somehow able to make seem brand spanking new a story that to many of us is quite familiar.

Teaching Topics

Transliteracy: Are you already working with (or considering working with) The Miracle Worker (the play and/or film) or Helen Keller’s memoir The Story of My Life? Then Lambert’s comics version is the perfect curricular addition in that it can help students gain a 360-degree view of the same topic. Ask: What information is included in Lambert’s book that is missing from other accounts? What information is simply presented differently, thus changing its meaning? Which aspects of the comics medium allow it to convey ideas and information in ways that other media can’t?

Nonfiction vs. Fiction: Guide students to understand that, despite the centrality of real people to the narrative and the aforementioned endnotes (which suggest the massive amount of research Lambert conducted), the overall treatment of the book’s subject is fictional. Point out how the dialogue, as well countless visual details, though based on actual situations, embellish and extrapolate on historical facts far more than a nonfiction approach would.

Subjectivity: The most arresting thing about Lambert’s work—and something that would be difficult to achieve in other media—is the transition into and out of Helen’s subjective experience of events. Since she can’t hear or see, word balloons and standard images would be hard pressed to convey her experiences. Instead, Lambert uses a combination of abstracted shapes and blocky labels against dark backgrounds to express what she feels or senses. Have students analyze how this technique both makes the storytelling more engaging and gives readers greater insight into the character’s personality.

(P.S.: in terms of Differentiated Instruction, you should bear in mind that the cursive-style lettering in some passages will be difficult for some students to read, especially given the relatively small trim and panel size of the book.)

Anna & Froga: Want a Gumball?

Charming without being precious, hilarious without being overly goofy or random, Anouk Ricard’s adventures of a girl and her animal buddies represents a classic case of “deceptive” visuals in comics. To be clear, that’s not a judgment on what may very well be a faux naïf style (again, it’s charming), but more of a caution to those who conduct a flip-test of this book and mistakenly conclude that it’s for early elementary; “upper elementary” would be more accurate in terms of reading level (the vocabulary and verbal playfulness can be quite high), and of course middle schoolers (not to mention adults) are apt to enjoy its humor and surprises.

Teaching Topics

Media-Critical Literacy/Anthropomorphism: Much of the time we don’t question why the “funny animal” approach is so prevalent in picture books, classic comics (e.g., Carl Barks), and kid-oriented animation, but students can get some insight into how this pop culture convention positions them by addressing the topic head-on. Ask: How does using animals make content more “universal”? How does it avoid certain issues of human representation? How is it that animals can be “likable” even while saying and doing things that would make human characters unlikable? How is reader identification with Anna enhanced by making her the only human being in these stories?

Idioms/Slang: Expertly translated from the original French, the text might not strike readers as a translation unless you explicitly mention this fact. Consider leveraging this aspect by having students identify colloquial expressions that most likely did not have the same literal meanings in French. These might include exclamations (Rats!), slang (slowpoke), and idioms (we need some tips).

Differentiated Instruction/Making Predictions: In case you do opt to use Anna & Froga with young or below-readers, you’ll want to boost comprehension via the “making predictions” strategy. Indeed, Ricard’s stories are full of ideal pause-and-think moments, usually at the bottom of a page. Examples: pp.  5, 7, 11, 18, 39, 30.

Explorer: The Mystery Boxes

Editor Kazu Kibuishi is certainly no stranger to compiling terrific anthologies or understanding what works in terms of graphic fantasy geared toward young readers. Still, what’s been accomplished here—with stunning, and memorable, short stories from Emily Carroll, Johane Matte, and others—can’t be praised enough. With a unifying theme signaled by the title, this collection would work well in a classroom library (a single story could easily be read and discussed during a reading block) or as a reading circle book, with students comparing and contrasting the separate tales, identifying their favorites, and so on.

Teaching Tips/Topics/Moments

Visual Literacy/Style: Since the individual stories are comparable in length, audience, and theme, they present a terrific opportunity to focus on what makes them look and feel so different from one another. Draw attention to the various color schemes, levels of detail, uses of light and shadow, number of panels per page—and then encourage deeper critical thinking by asking what the effects of these stylistic elements are on issues of tone, pacing, and so on.

Perspective: Rad Sechrist’s wonderful story “The Butter Thief” uses a conceit familiar from The Borrowers as well as the fairy-tale/Disney device of a character transforming into the Other (Brave, Brother Bear)… yet manages to tell its tale in a fresh way, complete with a touching conclusion. Explore with students how the change in the protagonist’s perspective alters readers’ perceptions of the other characters and their actions. Ask:  What information might be included if the story were told from the grandmother’s point of view? And what if it had been the grandmother who’d turned into a spirit rather than the girl—would the story’s themes have been so effective?

Genre/Speculative Fiction: While the book’s premise pretty much necessitates a speculative fiction approach, each story provides a different take on what constitutes “the fantastic.” Prior to reading, then, consider having students identify various genres and subgenres solely by flipping through the pages to get a sense of the visuals and by scanning for basic narrative elements (e.g., types of characters, settings). In this way, you can chart common features of science fiction, comic fantasy,  high fantasy, horror/paranormal, etc. As students read the stories they (and you) can track whether they were accurate in terms of where they slotted them generically.

(P.S.: Full disclosure—Explorer: The Mystery Boxes is published by Abrams, a client that has often hired me to create teaching guides for its YA and graphic books; and this is not the only Abrams title I’ll be covering in this series. However, I am going to pass on calling out any worthy books published by Capstone since I’m probably going to work on an upcoming project for the company; of course Good Comics for Kids would be an excellent resource for reading about that publisher’s graphic line.]

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