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Recommended Comics for Schools: Pippi Moves In, An Inspector Calls, District Comics, A Chinese Life

Yep, this is part four of this series. Sorry if it seems to be dragging on, but can I help it if so many great graphic titles have been published this year?

Pippi Moves In

The iconoclastic Pippi Longstocking, who doesn’t quite see the purpose of adult institutions and yet remains the “strongest in the world” (that’s right—there’s no qualifier for the phrase), holds undeniable appeal for readers of any age or gender. I recently proved this by sharing some of these stories with boys nine and twelve years old and hearing them crack up… and of course it gave me a great excuse to re-read them myself. The truly amazing thing about these comics from more than half a century ago is that if they appeared on the indie scene today they’d be praised for their delightful simplicity, bold colors and design, and quirky narratives with quietly profound themes.

Teaching Topics

Read-Alouds: …all of that said, these comics might best be used for library or classroom read-alouds at the lowest grade levels. You’ll have fun delivering the near-constant punch lines, and the artwork is uncluttered without being minimalist—it’s like a really fun picture book condensed down into its core goodness. I’m a big believer in reading comics aloud to kids, and if you’d like to see some specific strategies here’s a piece I wrote a couple of years ago—and please know that Pippi Moves In allows you to implement pretty much everything I describe therein.

Humor: When it comes to humor, we’re often missing an opportunity for analysis and post-reading reflection; the tendency is to chuckle and sum things up as, “Hey, it’s funny.” But with young readers you can use texts such as Pippi Moves In to help them identify the sources of humor, a skill that they can transfer to other texts and, of course, to their own writing. Ask: What exactly about that part makes it funny—is it the situation, the words, or the drawings… or some combination of these?

An Inspector Calls

While Classical Comics is justifiably renowned for its leveling approach to its lit adaptations—each title appears at three different readabilities—it’s the “original text” version of J.B. Priestley’s classic play that I’m focusing on here; that’s because to me the language seems on par with the content itself in terms of being a solid fit at the higher grade levels of secondary. A curriculum staple in the U.K. and probably deserving more inclusion in U.S. classrooms, An Inspector Calls is a work that, in its graphic incarnation, benefits enormously from the range of expressiveness in Will Volley’s art. In short, if you aren’t already familiar with Classical Comics, this may be a terrific place to start as the publisher’s strengths are in full effect. (If you want to see what I mean, here’s a substantial free download for you.)

Teaching Topics

Visualization: Any time that comics creators provide their take on canon lit, or any prose source text really, there’s a chance to practice visualization skills in the service of comprehension/appreciation: Is this how you pictured these events or characters? Why or why not? What passages of the source text do you think served as the basis for the artist’s interpretation of specific story elements? Why? An Inspector Calls, however, allows you to build on this approach since it’s a play, which means there’s an inevitable “opening up” of the setting to include images that a theater audience could not possibly see. The script by Jason Cobley is particularly adept at this, as one never loses a sense of the stage origins of the drama but never feels confined by them either.

Dialogue: It can probably be stated with some confidence that most drama is dialogue-driven, but with an important caveat—apart from directions included in the text, the delivery of those lines of dialogue is up to the actors, so drama is also driven by the interpretive aspects of the performance. In prose narratives, dialogue tags and delivery descriptions help readers “hear” spoken text. However, unable to incorporate either prose descriptions or audio/performative signals for emotion and emphasis, comics must rely on its own formal elements to convey the same meanings. With this in mind, have students identify how An Inspector Calls embeds its “acting” within the medium’s conventions such as segmented word balloons (p. 88), red-bordered balloons, gestural language, and, of course, bold face. In fact, you could compare and contrast the performance of the same scene acted out in a readers theatre format when read directly from the stage play and when read from the comic.

District Comics

Nicely designed antho comics on “niche” themes have become popular in recent years—they allow up-and-coming talents to contribute short pieces on a topic for which the publisher/editor feels there is a built-in audience. Well, District Comics from Fulcrum and thoughtfully edited by Matt Dembicki, succeeds wildly in this regard and, moreover, is one of the top graphic titles of the year for use in social studies classes. That’s because while it maintains a disciplined focus on Washington, D.C., it really presents a far-ranging cultural and political portrait of an entire nation.

Teaching Topic

Journalism: To call even a portion of a graphic history such as District Comics “comics journalism” is, I admit, a stretch: most of the individual pieces are not firsthand accounts by the cartoonists or reportage for which they conducted primary source research/interviews. However, one of the most compelling selections is Max Ink’s “With a Poet’s Heart,” which features text taken from an actual journal—Walt Whitman’s personal, and heart-wrenching, observations of the Civil War. Another highlight is Jason Rodriguez’s and Charles Feterolf’s “National Pastime” (especially timely given the Nationals’ appearance in the post-season this year), which features a couple of pages—and a related text excerpt—about a reporter covering baseball back in 1867. Such narratives suggest a teaching strategy by which comics journalism is not addressed from the “current events” angle but as a way of presenting history through eyewitness testimony. With this in mind, you can have students script, thumbnail, or create-in-full their own examples of historical-fiction-flavored comics journalism from the point of view of historical figures by using direct quotes from firsthand observers as the basis for their “journalistic” accounts.

A Chinese Life

A tremendous achievement by any measure, Li Kunwu’s autobiography might arguably qualify as vital reading material for secondary curricula even if it weren’t in graphic form. That is, the story that he and co-writer Philippe Ôtiè tell works entirely as a lucid, sometimes shocking, and always eye-opening account of the Mao and post-Mao years in China—as a bonus, Li’s stunning artwork and powerful visual storytelling then launch A Chinese Life into “instant classic” territory. Indeed, the teaching opportunities with this text are boundless, extending easily into higher ed. Sweeping and yet exquisitely detailed, A Chinese Life is the kind of book you’ll want to discover on your own… and so my attempt at suggesting teaching topics below is really just a skimpy teaser for that process: you’ll start generating teaching ideas yourself as soon as you get a few pages in. (Oh, and please note that there are some sexual incidents recounted along the way… just thought you should know.)

Teaching Topics

Critical Media Literacy/”The Other”: How did Chinese people in the twentieth century view the “exotic” Westerners with whom they occasionally came into contact? Well, let’s just say that there a couple of accounts in these pages that should prove very enlightening for students. In fact, you might want to expand on the culturally-constructed notion of “the foreigner” by asking students to speculate based upon their prior knowledge as to how other isolated regions or groups might view them physically and psychologically, either now or in the past—in other words, to look at themselves through a filter that labels them as Other.

Comparative Lit: There are any number of ways you can go in this respect. You can pair A Chinese Life with a film such as Blue Kite or a prose memoir such as Ji-li Jiang’s widely acclaimed Red Scarf Girl… or contrast it sharply with the Chinese-American experience as featured in the graphic masterwork American Born Chinese. Of course a more internationally-minded curriculum would do well to connect this text to the works of Solzhenitsyn or, more recently, the growing-up-with-the-Taliban memoir My Forbidden Face, with which it shares some intriguing themes such as governmental attempts at total thought- and culture-control.

About Peter Gutierrez