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Interview: Jessica Lee on Running a Graphic Novel Book Club

As part of the research for the SLJ article “Teaching with Graphic Novels,” I interviewed a number of educators and librarians, and since most people only got a brief quote, I’m running the interviews in full at Good Comics for Kids. Today, Jessica Lee, teacher librarian at Willard Middle School in Berkeley, California, talks about the graphic novel book club she runs in her school library.

How do you use graphic novels in your classroom?

I host a weekly graphic novel discussion group in my school library. I preselect the titles and purchase about 10 copies of each with support from grants, the California Center for the Book’s Book-Club-in-a-Box program, and the Berkeley Public Library. We usually have more than 10 students in the club, but quick reading allows the books to circulate rapidly amongst the club members. When the books are distributed, I include a slip of paper with about 5 discussion questions.

We meet one day a week during lunchtime. Kids bring their lunch and talk about the books. Sometimes we stick to the pre-written discussion questions, but more often we have an animated and free-flowing conversation. Occasionally we will have a dramatic read-aloud of a few panels. Often a teen librarian from the Berkeley Public Library attends the meetings to co-facilitate.

While my school is for grades six through eight, I only hold the club during our seventh and eighth grade lunch. And I only host the club every other year, so I never have students repeat it. I just don’t have enough books for a two-year rotation. Not having sixth graders in the club makes it easier for me to select age-appropriate titles. There is a huge jump in maturity between sixth and seventh grades.

What advantages do you think graphic novels present over text-only books?

The most obvious advantage for me with graphic novels is the speed with which students can read them. With text-only books, kids read at such different rates and often struggle to finish a novel in a timely manner. When I host novel clubs, often only a couple of kids have finished the whole book, while a couple have gone and read the whole series. It makes conversations so difficult.

With graphic novels, we are all on the same page. It is very rare to have a club where everyone has not finished the reading. For a few longer titles, such as Persepolis, we break the reading over two weeks. This allows us to go a little deeper into the story.

Also, there is so much to talk about. “Notice how the artist changes the perspective from this panel to the next. Why do you think she did that?” “Did anyone notice the background colors? How do you think they affect the mood of the story?” “What happened between these two panels? Why did the artist decide not to show that event but have you assume it happened?” We also have all the juicy topics that are available for a standard book club: characters, settings, themes, plotting, etc. Graphic novels offer so many points of entry for students. And they are fun! Kids love to read them. Because there are so many genres available in this format, I get to expose kids to a wide range. Since we skip quickly from one book to the next, no one ever feels stuck with a long slog. If shoujo manga isn’t your thing, next week we have historical fiction, then a touch of superheroes before we delve into personal memoirs. Since it is an optional club, not a class, kids also can opt not to read certain books. To encourage continuity, the kids who read the last book get first dibs on the next book.

Have you ever had a parent or a staff member object to or challenge a graphic novel? If so, what was your response?

Never. Because it is an optional club, no one feels like they have to read anything. My principal was very supportive, and a couple of teachers have popped in from time to time if they liked the book we were discussing. I have had students complain about the titles that were selected. A few books were about tough, mature subjects. Some of my kids have said a book was too much for them. I always give them the opportunity to come to the discussion even if they are not comfortable reading the book. I also invite them back to the next week and ask for their input in the next book we read. Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons is one such example. This is an example of a book that I use in my discussion group but do not have in my general library collection. I feel it is a great conversation starter, but I have had a couple kids tell me they weren’t comfortable reading about drug use. I can understand that. Kids should not be forced to read something that makes them uncomfortable.

I have had one graphic novel in my library brought to my attention by a parent. It was not a formal challenge. She very respectfully brought the book to me and asked if I had read it. It was part of a series of which I had only read the first few issues, not this volume. She was troubled by the images of a rape, and I agreed that it was more than we should have available. I had felt the series, Lone Wolf and Cub, was on the edge of being too violent, but the beautiful artwork and the fact that it tied in well with our seventh grade study of feudal Japan convinced me it was a good fit. The parent also complimented the artwork and agreed that it was an interesting doorway into their history lessons. She was not adamant, simply informative: “Have you seen this image? I find it troubling.” I decided to remove the volume from my collection. If I had read the book beforehand, I would not have opted to purchase it. The first few volumes I kept.

What steps do you take to avoid challenges?

I pre-read every title we read in the comic book club. When I distribute the books, I forewarn the kids: “This one deals with war. It can be pretty graphic and painful.” Or “The characters curse a lot. If your parents will be upset that you are reading a book with strong language, you might skip this one.” Also, I have the support of my principal. I gave him a general overview of the club and talked about the books I use. He has not pre-approved each title, but he supports the club and graphic novels in general.

We read Americus, a graphic novel about book banning, early in the school year. It provides a point of reference that we can return to throughout the year: “How would that lady in Americus feel about this one?”

Also, since it is an optional club, kids have complete freedom about whether or not they want to participate and can take or leave each title as they see fit. For the club, I have more risky titles than I would put in the generally circulating collection because I will talk about them with the kids. I give them context. We can discuss the poor decisions we see characters making or how the author may have intended a disturbing event.

I have considered and rejected a few specific titles. Pride of Baghdad has great potential for discussion, but the violence against animals may be too disturbing for some students, and the lion sex scenes would be a huge, unnecessary distraction. I look for titles that will appeal to my students, that have content they will relate to, and that will engender a quality discussion. Most titles I do not choose because they do not stand out.

We don’t use Maus because it is taught at the high school in 10th grade.

Some of our titles (if a series, we use just volume 1):
American Born Chinese
Anya’s Ghost
The Arrival
Astro Boy
Fullmetal Alchemist
I Kill Giants
One Hundred Demons
Persepolis (volume 1)
Scott Pilgrim
Skip Beat!
Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (when Miles Morales is introduced)
X-Men (both from recent series reboots)

Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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