Interview w Andrew Aydin, Scripter of The March, Part III: Diversity in Indie Comics

And here is the rousing conclusion to my chat with Andrew Aydin, in which we discuss diversity in publishing, awesome authors/books, and why all of this is so important! (Check out Part I and Part II if you missed them! And comment to win a copy of The March.)

Me: So, one other big question. The diversity of voices (or lack thereof) in the children’s book publishing world right now is a huge topic of conversation, but I’ve noticed that in the past six to eight years that the same publishers who won’t publish diverse voices and narratives in their traditional books are publishing wildly diverse writers and stories in their graphic novels. And it’s not coming from the old comic book world because that seems to be like an old boys’ network.

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely.

Me: Not that I don’t love Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and all them, but I was wondering if you had any insight into why so many diverse narratives—GLBTQ stories, international stories, racial minorities, stories about mental illness—are coming out of the more traditional publishing world right now?

Andrew: I can’t really speak to the whole children’s publishing community, but I think in terms of graphic novels, the indie comics’ world was the haven of the maladjusted. And it has given birth to a true cross-section of America in this class of creators that we see working today, whether it’s Alison Bechdel, Gene Yang, Raina Telgemeier . . . I mean heck, I’m Turkish-American. I’m pretty sure we haven’t had any Turkish-American graphic novelists before.

I think about it in my own sense. I was able to just pitch a publisher over the table with my idea and he liked it and he was willing to take a chance with it. Now, I know I had an easier time because Congressman Lewis was involved. So that sort of overcame the hurdle that I can’t draw, but it wouldn’t have worked if there wasn’t a story there. So with some of these other creators . . .if they show that they’re able to express themselves fully as master’s of their page, so to speak, then all that matters is the stories and it’s easier to get them out there. All I think that you’re seeing now, is the market having to reconcile that there is a demand for this.

When there couldn’t be a quality piece put out there because it was controlled by a certain few, you would never know that there’s a market because nobody every tried to tap into it. But today because of independent comics, the barriers for entry are lower. At the same time, it’s also made it more competitive. And that’s made the stories better. That’s made the storytelling better, and it’s just a matter of time before everyone else has to catch up. They went and made a play out of Fun Home that got nominated for a Pulitzer.

The ripple effect of this explosion from Independent Comics is going to move through the entire entertainment industry and through literature. You look at what schools are reading (in comics) and you see a story about the holocaust, the Iranian Revolution, a coming of age story like Fun Home dealing with brutal and yet beautiful LGBT issues. They’re reading American Born Chinese about growing up in America but having foreign born parents and what it’s like to be a minority that’s a little different than most other minorities. Or in our case, dealing with the Civil Rights Movement, which has been largely unapproached in a direct way.

We’re on the verge of something bigger, I think.

Me: I definitely agree. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk. Do you have any other words of wisdom, or anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t covered?

Andrew: I don’t know. I guess the only thing I’d say is that, the best part about this whole journey for me is that we’re really opening up the door in many schools for using a graphic novel as part of their curriculum. When I was a kid, I never got to read a graphic novel in class. I can remember one teacher telling me, “take that comic book off your desk. That’s not a real book.” And now I’ve had the experience of that same teacher teaching my graphic novel to her class. It’s really meaningful to me that I get to be a part of changing that. At the same time, being able to bring someone else’s story, like John Lewis that’s so important and so necessary to the classroom. In the Southern Poverty Law Center Report, it says that 47 states need to improve their Civil Rights education standard and how they teach the Civil Rights Movement. And we have to give them the tools to do that. Being able to do that and give them that tool . . . I’m just incredibly lucky to be part of that.

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Review Wednesday: Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

There are a lot of amazing graphic novels that I would love to talk about but Skim, like The March, really makes you feel the experience of someone-probably-not-you. It builds empathy in readers for a novel situation, which is what I’ve been going on about all month. And it is breathtakingly illustrated.

I first read it while studying at Vermont College of Fine Arts. One of my teachers there was the book’s editor and I was focused on studying graphic novels and how to put them together. But this book has stayed with me for a number of reasons. Perhaps most because I was once a troubled teen in love with my drama teacher. It’s not a story you see told often.

Summary:

“Skim” is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a not-slim, would-be Wiccan goth who goes to a private girls’ school in the early ’90s. When her classmate Katie Matthews is dumped by her boyfriend, who then kills himself — possibly because he’s (maybe) gay — the entire school goes into mourning overdrive. It’s a weird time to fall in love, but that’s what happens to Skim when she starts meeting secretly with her neo-hippie English teacher, Ms. Archer. But then Ms. Archer abruptly leaves the school, and Skim has to cope with her confusion and isolation while her best friend, Lisa, tries to pull her into “real” life by setting up a hilarious double-date for the school’s semi formal. Suicide, depression, love, homosexuality, crushes, cliques of popular, manipulative peers — the whole gamut of teen life is explored in this poignant glimpse into the heartache of being 16.

Review:

Like every book I talk about on here, this book speaks to kids who struggle in one way or another or don’t have an easy time of it. There is school bullying, depression, Gay stuff . . . the MC is overweight, a racial minority, and a self-described freak. Not someone who is having an easy time of it. Sort of like The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner. But there’s more to Skim than that. 

The situation is not one that I have seen portrayed elsewhere. SPOILER ALERT: She kisses her (female) teacher, and then she has to deal with the reality and the emotional repercussions of that. I think that the folks who made and published this book had some courage. But I also think that non-traditional, sort of heart-breaking stories like this are coming out in Graphic Novel format far more often than in traditional all-text stories. And the illustrations really do something powerful here. You can see in the pictures that Skim looks different from her classmates. You can see that she carries herself hunched over–you are literally seeing her discomfort with herself and in her world. And you can see her affection for her teacher and her desire to be something other than she is.

I think any good book transports us into the mind and the heart of someone other than ourself. I think that’s a big part of the point of literature. But as Andrew Aydin said in his interview here a few days ago comics are powerful. We live our lives visually, but unlike movies, graphic novels leave something to the imagination. And when done well, they transport us into the minds and hearts of people wholly different from us, in some cases, in a way that no other medium can do. Skim is a wonderful example of that.

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Interview w Andrew Aydin, Scripter of The March, Part II: Comics as a Tool for Social Change

This is a follow up to last week’s interview with Andrew Aydin where we talked about how to write a graphic novel. Today we talk about the use of comics in the Civil Right’s Movement. If you are a teacher, today’s bit will give you quite a lot to work with. And stay tuned for the conclusion on thursday when we talk about diversity in Indie Comics.

Me: You said that you had the idea for this because it was a comic book that inspired John Lewis and I know you wrote your Master’s Thesis on the history of comics in the Civil Right’s Movement, right?

Andrew: I actually wrote it on Martin Luther King & the Montgomery Story. I wrote the first long-form history of it. So we figured out that Dr. King helped edit Martin Luther King & the Montgomery Story. You never imagine Dr. King sitting down at a table pouring over a comic book script. And yet, that’s what he did in the fall of 1957. Just after his first child was born.

It was edited and largely written by Alfred Hassler. But one of the guys who was integral to its creation was a guy named Benton Resnick who was formerly employed by a publisher who went out of business because of the comic book hearings.

It was interesting for me to trace this whole lineage from congress being . . . Umm . . . I don’t know how to say this without getting in trouble . . . But congress not being good. And then the ramifications of their actions hurting people. Destroying jobs. Destroying careers. Vilifying a wonderful medium because they were looking for a scapegoat on the rise of juvenile delinquency. I mean, we were finishing WWII. Everyone was horrified by the casualties that were coming back. Modern medicine had advanced to a point where we could keep people alive who had suffered these horrible wounds and then people are shocked to see them when they come home. And we’ve got the fears of the atomic age. I mean there are so many reasons for juvenile delinquency to surge. First of all, you had more juveniles at home—I mean, more 18 and 19 year olds were enlisting in the army previously.

So, all that is to say that they used comics as a scapegoat and because of that demigogery it was more possible for an organization like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who created that comic, to secure good talent. To do something like that. In a sense to me it symbolized everything that was right about the Civil Right’s Movement because they were taking something that mainstream America had thrown to the curb and they were using the medium and working with the people who had been vilified to create something beautiful and useful and inspirational. And the comic went on to be used in South Africa where it was banned for being incindiary and it was used in Latin America and Vietnam and as recently as 2011 an Arabic translation was used in Cairo, Egypt during the Tahrir Square Revolution.

So it’s got this long history of really getting people to do stuff. Getting people to move. Act. It was totally contrary to everything that the comic book hearings said about it. The only thing that the hearing affirmed that was true was that comic books could be influential. And were influential when done well, but this whole notion that they somehow contributed to people behaving a certain way to the detriment of society was just totally false. So that was the comic book and that was the brief synopsis of its history.

Me: So I get why there was a rise in juvenile delinquency. That makes sense. I get why comic books were vilified. I get why there was a surplus of talent. But why do you think they can be so powerful? Why was that comic book written? Why is The March so powerful? Because that’s what I noticed immediately upon opening it was that I felt like I was there in the Civil Right’s Movement the way no other book has ever made me feel. Why do you think that is? Why do they work like that?

Andrew: Well, comic books have a dimension that no other printed material has. You can sort of trace the history of sequential storytelling all the way back to Rembrandt’s paintings of the deeds of hercules. There’s an ability to communicate on two levels that provides an immersive experience. It surpasses any other print form. I think at the time FOR was trying to reach the broadest possible audience, and they saw this as a way to reach people who were in communities where they didn’t have the education that many affluent communities had, so they couldn’t read as well. And here was a way to speak to those readers in an easy to digest format that was . . .

I think every generation has this moment where they talk about the next generation and their attention span and how short it is getting, and what it really is, I think, is that kids just have a short attention span. And a lot of people do. It’s a great art to hold someone’s attention. And this had that. It held peoples’ attention. And yet, you could still digest it in a short amount of time, which I think in particular helped it spread. You could read the comic and then hand it to the guy next to you and he could read the comic. The guy next to you read comic and then you’ve reached three, four, five people. Leave it on your dresser or table and see how many people come over.

I just think comics as a medium are so powerful. I think that’s why you see them being adapted so much as movies these days. Because it’s the closest thing in print form to a movie and yet it also allows for an added dimension of imagination. In a movie everything is spelled out for you but in a graphic novel or a comic page there are beats that you have to imagine. You read between the panels and that just engages your mind in an engrossing way. So that you get sucked in.

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Interview w Andrew Aydin, Scripter of The March, Part I: How to Write a Graphic Novel if You Can’t Draw!

I’ve been traveling, but this interview is definitely worth the wait. Last week, I got to chat with Andrew Aydin, co-author of the amazing GN The March which I reviewed last week. (A copy of which is still very much up for grabs to the person who comments the most this month.) He’s also some sort of fancy political person. His current job title is: Digital Director & Policy Advisor to Rep. John Lewis. But I’m not very political, so I’m more interested in the writing bit.

There was so much information and wisdom in our chat, that I’ve decided to break it down into three Parts. Today’s piece focuses on the craft of writing a Graphic Novel and how you work with an illustrator and tell someone elses’ story. Monday I’ll post the bit where he talks about the history of comics in the Civil Right’s Movement (did you know Martin Luther King edited a comic for the movement, himself?!) and why the medium is so powerful for social action. And next thursday I’ll finish it off with the section where he talks about why independent comics are so diverse compared to traditional comics and the Children’s Publishing world. I hope you enjoy!

Me: First I wanted to ask you about the process of making The March because a lot of my readers are children’s book writers and they find the process of writing a graphic novel kind of mystifying. So I wondered if you could talk about how the book came into being, who did what, and how you actually wrote it.

Andrew: Sure. I guess first the idea for this graphic novel came from another comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. The congressman told me about it when I was working for him on his campaign back in 2008. And when he told me about it there was just sort of a lightbulb moment where you’re like, “Oh my gosh. John Lewis, you’ve led this incredible life. You were 18 or 19 years old when you first sat in for Nashville and you went on to basically be part of every seminal moment in the Civil Rights Movement and you did it at an incredibly young age and now you’re telling me that you were inspired by a comic book? Woah. You need to write one.” It seemed almost self-evident and yet, to everyone I said it to, it seemed totally strange.

So I just asked him, “What if you write a comic book?”

At first he sort of demured and was very polite about it and said, “maybe” which, you know, in politics generally means, “no.”

I must have asked him a handful of times. Finally, he had an executive session with himself and he thought about it and he got what I was saying. Here we are trying to figure out how to get this next generation to participate in the electoral process and be an active citizen again and they’re frustrated and they don’t necessarily know how to fight back.

So, he said, “OK, let’s do it. But only if you write it with me.”

So that’s how I became a co-author. And it was tough finding a publisher because not everybody fully grasped the potential for what we were doing. We got shot down here and there. But finally we got introduced to Chris. I’ll never forget Jimmy Palmiotti—some call him the Mayor of comics—he said, “you’ve got to call Chris. Chris Staros is the only guy who will do this right.”

And lo and behold, we did. And Chris [at Top Shelf] has been an amazing publisher. Someone we’ve really been lucky to work with. And it was through him that we found Nate [Powell]. Because he worked with Nate quite a bit, and that was a real lucky break for us because Nate really brings so much to the project. And before we ever got a deal we started writing the script. Before anyone agreed to publish it.

It was sort of a weird process. I’d never written a graphic novel before and neither had the congressman {laughs} obviously. So we just sort of started from scratch. I was reading things like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and some of the old Will Eisner books. I’d always been a comic book reader myself. I’d been reading them since I was five or six years old. And it just started to take shape. You see how other people write scripts. I bought books of other peoples’ scripts just to see what the formatting looked like. You know there is no real set format for a comic book script. I’ve seen it get incredibly specific. Alan Moore scripts read like a novel in themselves.  But then you see other guys and they’re just writing the dialogue and a brief description of what’s going on which leaves it up to the artist’s imagination. So we tried to find a middle ground. It was sort of a movie-scriptish style. And I would lay out these outlines with which stories we would talk about. The congressman and I would discuss which ones to include. And we would take those outlines and I would put together lists of questions. “Tell me this story. Tell me that story. Do you remember when . . .?” And it was just nights and weekends for months and months and months and months. I think it took two years to put together the draft script for what became the trilogy (because we wrote it as one book.)

That was an interesting process because the congressman and I had worked closely on other things together but this was something totally different. Once we got it into the script format—that’s about the same time Nate came on board—so we sent it to Nate. He was like, “this is a very long book.” That’s where the idea for the trilogy came from because it was so much story you wanted to be able to show this to people sooner than five or six years, however long it would take Nate to sit down and draw four or five hundred pages.

So we did that. We tackled book one first. I re-wrote it into a single script draft, and then Nate started laying them out and putting them into rough pencils and bringing them to the congressman who would look at them and then Nate would ink the pages and we would look at those and then Lee and Chris helped edit the whole thing. It was crazy because we actually ended up finishing the whole book several weeks before our print deadline. Which is rare.

Because it is such a tight turn-around between book 1 and book 2 and all of us have been touring profusely, this is a really tough deadline and Nate’s really just put his shoulder to the grindstone. I actually just read through a complete draft of the whole thing last night and there was a point where I just lost it and started crying and I knew it was going to happen.

Book 2 is to book 1 as Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars. It’s gonna rip your heart out. It’s just brutal, but it’s so beautiful at the same time. I’m really excited to show it to people.

Me: In the traditional Children’s Publishing world, and it’s picture books usually, but the writer and the illustrator never talk. So basically the writer gives the completed manuscript to the publisher who matches it with an illustrator who does whatever they want with it. But it sounds like there’s more conversation between the two with comics. So did you do the page layouts or did Nate come in and do that?

Andrew: I always put in a page-layout, just sort of what the visual should be. Especially if I’m referencing a photo or something like that. But then Nate comes in over the top of that and breaks it up his own way. So we may end up some of the same images laid out a different way. Nate may change some of the images, and we’re talking constantly about this. Because Nate is a very gifted visual storyteller. He’s incredible at this. When you have that kind of talent on your team, you want to take advantage of it.

Me: So, would you recommend if someone is interested in writing a script that they do describe the visuals and give page-layouts?

Andrew: Yeah, I think it’s important to give cues so the artist knows what he’s going for, but I don’t think you should be rigid. Do your best and then talk to your artist. And listen to what they say because they’re the one who has to put it down on paper. You offer your suggestions and you trust the people you’re working with.

Me: So, short of having a congressman to grab and become best friends with, how do you think that somebody would get to write  a graphic novel, would get into that world?

Andrew: You just have to do it. Before Chris ever agreed to publish March we wrote what effectively became book 1 as a script. And when Chris read it, he said, “OK, this is good. I want to publish it.” But he wasn’t going to publish it without a script. And so even if you’re not an artist, if you write a good story, a publisher will se that. Again that’s what’s so great about Independent graphic novels. You can go talk to these publishers. You go to a show and they’re there. And if you seem like a pretty reasonable person with a good idea, and you can articulate that to them, then you can get them to read it. And if they read it and they like it, then your’e in.

And I think so many of us are like, “OK, where’s the form I have to fill out?” And it’s not. You have to go talk to people. You have to be sort of aggressive. You have to get out there. You can’t just do it via internet. You have to meet people and talk to them face to face and go to conventions. And put your work out there. And if you can’t get a publisher to do it, there’s all sorts of talented artists who haven’t had their big break yet who are looking for writers to work with. And that’s another reason to go to these conventions like SPX or APE where these artists are exhibiting and if they like your story, then maybe they’ll work with you. And you guys can put something together and then a publisher will publish that. I know a lot of the indie’s prefer to look at something completed. They like to have the team already together. They don’t want to have to go out and look for an artist for you. It differs from place to place, but the central point is just do it. Just start trying. Start writing. Start talking to people.

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Review Wednesday: The March, Congressman John Lewis and the Civil Rights Movement (w Giveaway!)

This fairly spectacular Graphic Novel gave me the idea to talk this month about how we build empathy with our young readers for events completely outside their realm of experience. I picked it up because it’s going to be featured beside an article I’m writing for Teaching Tolerance about using GNs in the classroom to teach social justice. And I noticed instantly that it is the best book about the Civil Rights Movement that I have ever read. And by “best book” I mean that while I was reading it, I could FEEL a little bit what it must have been like to be a young person who was a part of that movement. I have read many excellent books and seen many good documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement. I certainly know plenty of the history (although, did you know that comics played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement? Me neither, but Congressional Aide Andrew Aydin, who co-authored The March with John Lewis and Nate Powell (and will be on here later this month to talk about it), wrote his Master’s Thesis on the subject.)

Summary:

Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.

Now, to share his remarkable story with new generations, Lewis presents March, a graphic novel trilogy, in collaboration with co-writer Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell (winner of the Eisner Award and LA Times Book Prize finalist for Swallow Me Whole). March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation.Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.

Book One spans John Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, and their battle to tear down segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins, building to a stunning climax on the steps of City Hall. Many years ago, John Lewis and other student activists drew inspiration from the 1958 comic book “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.” Now, his own comics bring those days to life for a new audience, testifying to a movement whose echoes will be heard for generations.

Review: I think this book is epically important. It’s one thing to teach the Civil Rights Movement or to write about it. I think, after reading this book, that it’s another completely to feel like you might get itfeel it even a little bit. In the above page, for example, the word “niggers” is not blacked out in the actual book. And there is something about seeing it there on the page as a word being hurled casually at a group of kids that makes me, at least, recoil.

I think part of what makes the comics/Graphic Novel medium is that the artwork places you more immediately in the protagonists’ shoes. Scott McCloud talks about several reasons for this in Understanding Comics. One of these reasons is the process of “closure” in which the reader is forced to supply certain pieces of the story in order to make sense of the progression. For example, in the above page when the waitress says, “Oh my god, here’s the niggers,” the reader must supply the knowledge that the group of demonstrators has entered the store, before we see them in the next panel, in order for her comment to make sense. Perhaps that’s part of why this book would make the most effective Civil Rights teaching tool I have ever come across. Or perhaps it’s that John Lewis, as a child and adult, comes off as so warm and charming that you want to be his friend (or feel like you might already be, even though you’ve never met him). I’m not sure. But I agree with Andrew Aydin that this book belongs in every history class in the country. It is that good.

Aydin is on the right (that’s Nate Powell on the left.)

So have any of you noticed how immediate Graphic Novels can sometimes feel? Do you have another technique in your own writing or that you’ve admired in others that helps immediately build empathy for the protagonist? Let’s have a conversation.

Andrew Aydin, again, will be on here later this month to talk about The March and his experiences co-authoring the book. And the person who comments most this month will win a copy. Thanks for stopping by!

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Awesome List of Female Graphic Novelists from YALSA

This list was published by YALSA this morning and I wanted to share it here. And again, there are several non-traditional stories here. We have a story set in Japan, a story about a tomboy, a story about a birthright tour to Israel, another story about depression, and a Muslim Superhero. Also, Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki are mentioned but their far more controversial story, Skim, isn’t. That GN is an amazing story (breathtakingly illustrated) about a teen girl who shares a kiss with her female art teacher.

Basically, I think I’m on to something here. If you want diversity in the YA world, write it Graphic. Thoughts? Again, whoever comments most this month will win The March, Congressman John Lewis’ memoir of his experiences as a youth in the Civil Rights movement. Cheers!

As a big fan of graphic novels and comics, I read across many genres from superhero comics to nonfiction to humor and beyond. While I love the work of many different authors, today I want to highlight some of the best work from female artists who create comics and graphic novels. The list below includes some books I have read and some I can’t wait to read, but they are all written or drawn (or both!) by women who are among the best in the field.

Memoir
JapanAiJapan Ai by Aimee Major Steinberger (2009 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens2009 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults2009 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers – This book, drawn in Manga style, chronicles Aimee’s trip to Japan, where she immerses herself in Japan’s particular cuteness. More of a journal than a traditional comic, this is fun book that will leave you dreaming of a trip to Japan.

An Age of License by Lucy Knisley – One of my most anticipated books of the season, this is Knisley’s memoir of her recent European book tour. Though this book is sure to be great, I could just as easily have put any of Knisley’s other books, such as French Milk, Relish, or the upcoming Displacement, on the list. I recommend reading them all!

Tomboy by Liz PrinceTomboy by Liz Prince – This new book from Liz Prince, her first classified as YA, tells the story of her childhood as a tomboy who was teased, bullied, and pressured by those around her because she wasn’t traditionally girly. A great read for those who were tomboys and those who simply love great graphic novel memoirs.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden – When offered a chance to take an all-expense-paid “birthright” trip to Israel, Glidden jumped at the chance to learn more about this part of the world. In this memoir, she talks honestly about her conflicted feelings about the region and the way that she changed over the course of the trip.

persepolisPersepolis Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 by Marjane Satrapi (Best Books for Young Adults 2004 & 20052004 Alex Award2007 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) – Told in two volumes, this book offers a personal insight into Iran during the Islamic Revolution from the point of view of Satrapi, who grew up there. It is a powerful story of how rapid change came to the country and impacted the lives of everyone who lived there.

Contemporary
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki – Following two young friends, Rosie and Windy, while they are at the beach with their families for the summer, this book is a coming-of-age story as well as a family drama. It tackles the topics of growing apart from friends and dealing with parental conflict. All kinds of readers are sure to relate to the themes Tamaki touches on here.

page by paigePage by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge (2012 Great Graphic Novels for Teens) – When Paige Turner’s family moves to New York, she begins keeping a sketchbook to track her transition and to help her to find herself in the new city. This conceit allows Gulledge to tell an entertaining story of friendships in high school and also reflect on growing up as an artist. It also allows her to take more risks with the artwork in the book, including drawings that go beyond the average graphic novel.

Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault – Dealing with bullying, depression, friendship, and the importance of a life of the imagination, this book is not exactly a traditional graphic novel, being presented more as a picture book in some ways. It follows Hélène as she deals with her status as an inexplicable outcast at her school where her former friends have suddenly turned against her. It is a beautiful and ultimately hopeful book about difficult issues.

Fantasy
Zombies CallingZombies Calling by Faith Erin Hicks – Hicks is another example of an author so prolific that I could have included several different books from her, but this one is a fun story of a zombie attack on a college campus and is perfect for fans of zombies. Once you’ve finished this one, be sure to move on to one of Hicks’ other books, such as The Adventures of Superhero Girl, which won a 2014 Eisner Award. Also, be sure to keep an eye out for her upcoming collaboration with Rainbow Rowell. I know I can’t wait for it!

Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis with illustrations by Brooke Allen – Following five friends as they spend the summer at scout camp and fight monsters along the way, this book includes mystery, yetis, and all the fun you remember from your time at summer camp! This series is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face.

Anya's Ghost by Vera BrosgolAnya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol – Anya is on the lookout for a best friend, so when she stumbles upon a ghost down a well, she doesn’t really question their friendship. But, maybe she should have. This book is the perfect combination of fun, creepiness, and suspense, so it makes sense that it won so many awards, including an Eisner Award.

Foiled by Jane Yolen with illustrations by Mike Cavallaro (2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens) – Aliera Carstairs is a champion fencer, but she isn’t quite that confident at high school. However, when her mom buys her a new fencing foil, all her priorities may change as she gets drawn into a fantastical world which somehow involves the new boy from her biology class. Once you have torn through this fun and exciting fantasy, be sure to check out the sequel, Curses! Foiled Again.

Science Fiction
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle and illustrated and adapted as a graphic novel by Hope Larson – This new adaptation of L’Engle’s classic science fiction novel will bring the book alive for a new audience with Hope Larson’s beautiful illustrations. This adaptation will keep fans of the original book engaged and entertained, but is also completely accessible to those who have never read a Wrinkle In Time.

Robot Dreams by Sara Varon (2008 Great Graphic Novels for Teens) – This bittersweet tale of the friendship between a robot and a dog is told almost entirely without words. Despite this approach, Varon successfully conveys not only the point of her story but more importantly the emotions. A great story of the importance of loyalty and regrets that can result from friendship.

Brain CampBrain Camp by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan with illustrations by Faith Erin Hicks (2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens) – When Jenna and Lucas are asked to attend an invitation-only summer camp, it seems a little bit too good to be true. As they adjust to life at the camp, they realize that this might be because there is something sinister going on at this seemingly idyllic camp. This one is perfect for fans of both science fiction and horror.

Superheros
Birds of Prey, Vol. 1: Of Like Minds by Gail Simone with illustrations by Ed Benes – With her long and illustrious career that includes stories for Red Sonja, Batgirl, Tomb Raider, Secret Six, and Wonder Woman (to name just a few), it was hard to choose which of Simone’s works to include, but since I have a soft spot for Oracle, I went with one of her Birds of Prey books, which follows them as they battle Savant. A great book that highlights some great female superheroes.

Ms. MarvelMs. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson with illustrations by Adrian Alphona – When Kamala Khan took over as Ms. Marvel in this story written by Wilson, she became the first Muslim character to headline a Marvel book. But, apart from this, the new Ms. Marvel is also an exciting and entertaining read that fans of superheroes will love.

Captain Marvel, Vol. 1: Pursuit of Flight by Kelly Sue DeConnick with illustrations by Emma Rios, Dexter Soy, and Ed McGuinness – When Carol Danvers, the former Ms. Marvel, assumed the title of Captain Marvel, DeConnick was the one to illustrate the story. This book, which sees Captain Marvel traveling back in time to World War II, is a great introduction to the character even if you have never heard of Carol Danvers before.

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Building Empathy: Using Graphic Novels to Teach Critical Literacy

Panel from The March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell

I was asked by Teaching Tolerance to write an article about how educators can use graphic novels in the classroom to teach social justice issues. This will appear in their fall issue as a companion article to the piece that Andrew Aydin is writing about the history of Comics in the Civil Rights Movement and about the Graphic Novel, The March, that he co-authored with Representative John Lewis and GN veteran Nate Powell.

So I picked up The March for the first time and was struck instantly by just how close I felt to the experiences of the young John Lewis and the other early Civil Right’s activists. I have read many wonderful books about the Civil Rights movement and about the children’s role in it, but none made me feel it viscerally like this one. Which made me wonder why? It’s not just the first-person narrative or the charm of John Lewis, himself. There is something about the Graphic Novel format, the visual element, that forged an instant closeness to the material. And I’m wondering how that works?

From The Wall by Peter Sis

That was where the original thought for this post came from. I would love to talk about that and figure out why graphic novels work like that and what lessons we could take from them to incorporate into our fiction to help build reader empathy. But I also discovered something else kind of huge in the research for this piece. In working on this article, the editor asked me to think about the topic of Critical Literacy–how we teach our students to be aware of the POV biases underlying a work–and why Graphic Novels are uniquely cut out to teach this.

From The Arrival by Shaun Tan

I started to think about it and realized that there are a lot of diverse voices and stories right now in the Graphic Novel world. Alison Bechdel writes freely about GLBT issues. Maus by Art Spiegelman is about being a Jew during WWII. Nate Powell, Nadia Shivak, David Small, and Phoebe Gloeckner (among others) are all writing about mental illness and/or child abuse. Racial minorities are well-represented: Gene Luen YangCynthia Leitich-Smith, Spain Rodriguez . . . And the number of international authors represented or American writers telling stories about international issues is staggering: Shaun Tan, Joe Sacco, Emmanuel GuibertJoann Sfar, Herge, Marjane Satrapi, Peter Sis, and of course all manga.

So why is this? In a time when the traditional publishing world is struggling to put out any diverse narratives, why is the Graphic Novel world so very different? I asked a lot of people this question and got no satisfying answers. I looked at the history of graphic novels in our country and that didn’t help. DC and Marvel are a total old boy’s network. There are relatively few diverse voices (or even woman’s voices) there. So where are all these different narratives coming from? I started looking at the publishers and publication dates of these stories and I discovered something that sent me staggering. Wait for it. . . .

The SAME PUBLISHING HOUSES that aren’t putting out traditional text-narratives by minority writers because they don’t believe they will sell, are publishing radically diverse and risque narratives in Graphic Novels.  The very same houses. I discovered that nearly all of these authors/narratives have been published or re-printed in the past 8–10 years. So what is going on here?

From American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Here’s my theory: Graphic Novels are booming right now. The demand for them is huge. So all of these traditional publishing houses are trying to get in on the action. Many are starting whole new imprints for graphic novels–Scholastic has Graphix, Macmillan has First Second. And then some, like Top Shelf, are relatively new independent presses catering to this market. But unlike DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and all the other old school US comic-book publishers, the traditional children’s and YA publishers don’t really know exactly how all of this works and there aren’t nearly as many authors and illustrators who can do it well yet. So I think they are much more likely to publish non-mainstream voices and narratives.

So my take-home from all of this? If you have a strange narrative that mainstream publishers don’t want to touch or you are having trouble getting in the door as a minority writer . . . find an artist, tell it graphically. I’m serious.

Thoughts?

Let’s talk about this disparity this month. About Graphic Novels, how we write them, how they capture reader interest and make unfamiliar experiences feel real. About Critical Literacy and teaching. About how we can actually do this . . .

I’ll review The March later this month and have Andrew Aydin on here to talk about it. And I’ll send a copy to the person who comments the most. OK, 1, 2, 3 . . . Go!

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