Graphic Novels – a Study

“Do kids still bring their comic books to school to read on Fridays?”  My father, who is now 87 years old, has asked me this question regularly since I became a teacher more than 23 years ago. When I reply that children today have choice over almost everything they read, so we don’t really need to have Comic Book Fridays any more, he harkens back to some wonderful memories of growing up in Brooklyn and having a special time in school on Friday afternoons to read the comics with his friends.  I’ve always thought this sounded like such a nice ritual. I can picture my dad and his friends scattered around the classroom sharing the latest comics, reading together, and maybe even trading comics for the following week. Maybe this is one of the reasons my father is such a voracious reader (and someone who still loves to read the comics in the newspaper)!

I, on the other hand, read a few comics when I was a child, but quickly moved on to books and left the comics behind.  It’s just never been my preferred genre. So when I was asked to purchase some graphic novels for our third, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms, I was at a loss.  I know kids are loving the graphic novels, but which ones were really good ones?  Which ones were worth purchasing and putting in every classroom? Which ones could the teachers use in their literacy work with kids? Which ones would interest kids and move them forward as readers and writers and thinkers?  I looked at some manga novels – too sexy and too violent (plus really hard to read – back to front and right to left).  I looked at a few others that were recommended.  Some seemed fun, but were they really good books?  Then there were the series that were filled with so much fresh and inappropriate language that I just couldn’t push myself to read on.  Do we really want kids talking to each other like that?  But in my study, I’ve started to find some graphic novels that are really interesting and filled with stuff to teach! One series I’m loving is Babymouse by Jennifer and Matthew Holm.  The main character is  well-developed (and she is an avid reader!), the issues are worth grappling with, and the books are filled with  references to classic books, movies and cultural innuendos.  This is a comic I can get interested in.

Maybe I’ll even bring back those Comic Book Fridays after all.  If I do, I’ll be sure to invite dad!

The Rent Collector

I recently read The Rent Collector by Camron Wright.  The story is set in the largest municipal dump in Cambodia, where the family of Sang Ly, Ki Lim, and their infant son, Nisay,  survive by picking through the trash, selling what they find to the junk collectors. Life is complicated further by the fact that the child, although seen by several doctors and healers, continues to suffer from an unknown illness. Amid this hardship, Sang Ly decides that she must do something to get out of the dump and save her son. Her answer comes in the unlikely character of Sopeap Sin, the ill-tempered rent collector most people refer to as “The Cow.”  But Sopeap, it turns out, has quite a backstory. Being a teacher in her earlier life, Sopeap knows how to read and think about literature. When Sang Ly learns of The Cow’s talents, she asks her to teach her to read.

This story, although maybe not a piece of great literature, uncovers for the reader the importance of teaching and learning, the need to think deeply about the books we read and stories we hear, and the power of story to bring hope and to develop community, even in the most destitute environments. This book is filled with beautiful quotes about reading and about words.  Here are a few just to whet your appetite:

“Words provide a voice to our deepest feelings. I tell you, words have started and stopped wars. Words have built and lost fortunes. Words have saved and taken lives. Words have won and lost great kingdoms. Even Buddha said, ‘Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”

“Just when we think we have our own stories figured out, heroes arise in the most unexpected places.”

“Stories that touch your soul, stories that change your nature, stories that cause you to become a better person from their telling-these stories always contain truth.”

If you are a teacher or a learner or a person who loves stories, you might want to read The Rent Collector by Camron Wright.  It will give you renewed hope about the power and importance of these endeavors.