Thursday, September 10, 2009

Graphic novels for junior high

Reader Submitted Question (sorry, I'm robbing this from you, Megan): I am teaching grade 7 & 8 language this year and I would like to assign a graphic novel book report. I was wondering if you could give me any recommendations for graphic novels that might appeal to 12, 13, 14 year old boys and girls and that are NOT based on or derived from the comic book world. About the only one that I ever come across is 'Bone'. Thought you might be able to help and I appreciate any input you have. Any ideas for assignment parameters couldn't hurt either if you're feeling ambitious/bored.

Despite the fact that I have thousands and thousands of comic books, this is actually a much harder question than I thought at first glance. First of all, I have no concept of what's appropriate for a Grade 7 or 8 class. When I was that age I was reading Spider-Man, X-Men and the Fantastic Four. Novel wise I was reading Arther C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Stephen King.

There are websites I can recommend. The American Library Association has a nice list for the past three years of graphic novels that are worth taking a look at for teens. Scholastic has this PDF on teaching graphic novels, with one that focuses on Jeff Smith's Bone. Abebooks has a list, although I disagree with some of their selections, considering them to mature to be used in a junior high setting (Black Hole being taught to 13 year olds? Uh, no).

Just typing the phrase "graphic novels for teens" into a Google search will get you any list of recommendations.

But what do I like? What do I think someone in Grade 7 or 8 might like? Here's a few of my suggestions. Although the person said nothing derived from the "comic book world" - I assume he means standard super hero comics - I'm going to include a few that I think are worth taking a look at.

1. Bone is pretty much the gold standard. You have to be not right in the head to dislike the comic. The story of the three Bone cousins who get stuck in a strange valley with dragons, princess and stupid, stupid rat creatures. It's bright, fun, scary and vastly entertaining.

My only reservation is that I think it might be a touch too "young" for a junior high class. I think it's one of those books you love when in elementary school and then don't realize exactly how brilliant it is until you go to university. For teens, it's touchy.

2. Maus by Art Spiegelman is the one I'm sure would be all right for junior high. For one thing, Scholastic sells it. At its most simplistic, it's the story of a father telling his son what he went through as a Jew during World War II. The Jews are all mice, the Nazis are cats. And that doesn't even begin to cover the wonder and the horror of this story. It also won a Pulitzer Prize.

I remember when I saw Schindler's List and a lot of my friends couldn't handle it. A couple walked out part way through and those that made it were crying and pretty shaken up. I'm not saying I wasn't, but certainly not the same as them. When someone asked why I wasn't as affected I simply said, "I read Maus six months ago. This experience was easy after reading that."

3. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is the story of her experience in growing up in Iran before, during and after the revolution. Like Maus it is black and white, and a historical biography. There was also an animated movie adaptation a few years back that was nominated for an Oscar.

It's also funny and poignant. It shows the struggles of a girl trying to deal with an oppressive revolution and also what happens when she finally gets to live in the west for awhile. It's been years since I've read either Maus or Persepolis, but I have positive memories of both and I think they would work in a classroom setting.

4. If you want some Canadian content, then Louis Riel by Chester Brown is also worth a look. Yes, I seem to keep coming back to historical biographies, but Brown's story of Riel's life is surprisingly captivating. And it's also in black and white. However, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

5. Runaways by Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alphona is a Marvel super hero book, but by god it's a got a great high concept kick that teens will love. Many teens think their parents are evil, but what if one day you discovered your parents were actually super-villains out to destroy the world. What would you do?

The concept is great, but Vaughn's story also ticks along nicely, the dialogue is believable, the characters are very human (if you don't love Molly there's something wrong with you) and the art is beautiful. Yes, Captain America and Wolverine make an appearance at one point, but honestly, the super heroes are few and far between. It's fun and worth a look.

6. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is the story of a ronin rabbit wandering around feudal Japan getting into misadventures. And if that sounds silly and not your thing, then you are honestly missing of the greatest comic books of the past 25 years. This series is beloved in the comic industry. Sakai is a machine who keeps putting out this beautiful and deceptively simple comic year in and year out. It's practically a guide on how to tell a story in graphic form. Not to mention a wonderful introductory guide to Japanese history, folklore and culture.

My only reluctance is that, well, it's a rabbit with a sword. He kills people. It's never particularly graphic, but it is something to keep in mind.

7. Amelia Rules by Jim Gownley is a series I love and I'm happy I got to meet him, and get a sketch, in New York last year. I suspect the series will be more popular with girls then boys and that it might be like Bone in that 8-12 year olds will love it, and then rediscover how cool it is when they're 20.

Amelia has just moved to a new town after her parents divorce. So she has to deal with that, weird new friends, her cool aunt, boys and other things. It's really funny (a sequence in gym class still cracks me up after the 20th read). But you also get quietly devastating stories like one of Amelia's new friends dealing with her dad being deployed to Iraq.

8. I really, really want to recommend something by Alan Moore, who is perhaps the greatest graphic novel writer alive. But stuff like Watchmen, From Hell or even League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are all too mature with language, sexuality or themes.

I think it's skating the very edge of appropriate, but if you can get away with V for Vendetta then give it a try. It still has language, nudity and violence, so I don't know. But my god it's a stunning book. Forget the movie, which was fine for what it was, the book has much deeper themes. The movie pretty much eliminated the idea of anarchy, which was a central theme to Moore and Lloyd's graphic novel.

Read it first and see if it's appropriate, but it remains one of my all-time favourite books.

9. Blue Beetle by John Rogers and a host of artists is a super hero book. But during the 24 issues Rogers wrote or co-wrote the series, he turned in a little gem in the field of teenager becoming a super hero. Yes, there is a bunch of appearances by the Teen Titans, Batman and others. Still, it's a nice take on what happens if you're a 16-year-old who suddenly finds himself with super powers.

The nice twist is that his parents and best friends know and they're all trying to deal with this change as well. It's smart, funny and has lots of themes of trying to be responsible when given great power.

10. I'm staring at my bookshelf now, trying to find a 10th. I mean, there are lists that recommend books that I think could do the trick, such as John Thompson's Blankets or American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. I've heard nothing but good things about them, but have never read them.

And then there are books I like, such as Courtney Crummin, The War at Ellesmere or the Scott Pilgrim series, but I'm not sure if they would work in a school. But they're certainly worth taking a look at.

The person who asked this question was from Toronto. I really recommend going to The Beguiling on Bloor Street. It is one of the best comic stores in Canada with a tremendously knowledgeable staff. Tell them what you're looking for and I have no doubt they can point you in the right direction.

Finally, you'll notice the absence of Manga on this list. Simply, I know very little about Manga. There is, I'm sure, a ton of age appropriate Manga out there that would be excellent for the classroom, but I just don't know enough about it to make any recommendations.

If anyone else has any suggestions about graphic novels they think would work in a classroom setting, by all means leave a comment. I'd love to hear what you think.

Last Five
1. Substitute - The Who
2. Guided by wire - Neko Case
3. Rhythm and soul - Spoon
4. You won't find me - Amelia Curran*
5. Take this waltz (live) - Leonard Cohen


Anonymous said...

I am not very familiar with North American stuff but I do read a lot of Manga. Naruto is very popular among that age group, but it's a very long ongoing series so maybe not fitting for a class. I would recommend checking out the manga section in any bookstore, though - there are some great reads.

Michael said...

I am eight years old and I loooooove Bone. It's cool. And you forgot the part when there's sometimes blood. My favourite is Bone 9, because Thorn almost dies because King Dock almost bites her leg fully off. I do not like Thorn. I like smiley Bone.

Adam Snider said...

Maus is a great graphic novel. One of the best, in my opinion. While I don't think the subject matter is too much for a junior high class, I almost wonder if the writing might be too complex.

There are a lot of different layers to the story: narrator is untrustworthy (he lies to his father right at the start, so is he lying to us, as well?); meta-fiction throught out, but especially at the beginning of Maus II; characters who are very far from black and white (dad was in a concentration camp, but he's still a bigot toward other groups of people, for example).

I'm not saying that kids in that age range wouldn't get it---kids are smart; some are certainly smarter than I am---but I think that, for most people, you have to be a little bit older to fully appreciate it. Hell, I studied the book in university and I still find new layers of complexity when I read it.

Like you said, there's a lot more going on here than just a father telling his son what he went through during WWII.

Then again, maybe it's one that you can give to kids that age that will affect them enough that they'll re-read it multiple times as they get older and are better equipped to uncover the various different layers within the story.

towniebastard said...

Thank you, Michael. I'd forgotten about the blood in Bone.

I'd also encourage you to ask your mom to buy you the "Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius" digests. I think you would enjoy them a lot because they're pretty funny.

And Adam, I agree, Maus really is a university level book, but I think you can easily read it in junior high and reread it in university and get something completely new out of the experience. It's an astonishing book and deceptively simple.

Michael said...

I can't believe Bones can bleed. It's messed.

I really like Bone and I am glad you do, too. And King Doc is cool, also.