Wednesday, November 24, 2010


By Chris Wilson

TRICKSTER: NATIVE AMERICAN TALES is an anthology of authentic cultural stories from 21 indigenous tribes representing various geographic regions. The stories focus on the Trickster, a cultural icon in the Native American oral tradition.  

From the jacket: “Meet the Trickster, a crafty creature or being who disrupts the order of things, often humiliating others and sometimes himself in the process. Whether a coyote or rabbit, raccoon or raven, Tricksters use cunning to get food, steal precious possessions, or simply cause mischief.”

TRICKSTER: NATIVE AMERICAN TALES is the single best graphic collection of Native American folklore I have ever encountered.

Oftentimes attempts to bring indigenous stories to the masses end up with nothing more than culturally insensitive, stereotyped, sanctimonious tripe. When Matt Dembicki decided to create an anthology of comic-adapted Native American tales, he focused his efforts on three aspects: sensitivity, authenticity and storytelling.

Knowing the pitfalls of other attempts, Dembicki first located authentic tribal storytellers from geographically diverse tribes across the US and created a relationship with them. In keeping with the oral tradition, those storytellers conveyed their tales in their own way. Dembicki explained that some chose to scribe their stories and mail them to him while others dictated the stories over the phone. “The way they tell the stories is the way it was presented,” said Dembicki.

He then examined each story and storyteller’s voice and created a list of prospective artists whose style would match up with the oral story. Dembicki then presented that list of 3-5 artists, with samples of their work, to the storytellers.

In what seemed a rather surprising but collaborative effort, Dembicki gave the storyteller the final choice of artist. Giving editorial control over to the storyteller allows the reader to experience the cultural roots of the tribal story. In a back-and-forth process, the artist would send sketches to the storyteller to ensure accuracy and authenticity. The storyteller would make suggestions or comments. Not all of the art spoke to me as a reader, but the knowledge that the artist was purposefully chosen and the art was continuously verified for accuracy gave me a strong sense of respect for and connection to the tribe and its identity.

The art varies greatly in TRICKSTER, depending on the story, culture and purpose of the story. Above are a few examples of the different art styles.

The entire process took Dembicki four years, but it is a worthy four years. The outcome is an authentic and culturally sensitive volume telling the tales of a varied culture in a way that is accessible to children and adults. Some stories are obviously intended to teach young Native American children certain rules or lessons. Others are origin stories describing how the stars came to be or why the rabbit has a short tale. All of them have aspects for adults that will be lost on children. The art is as diverse as the tribes or the storytelling, which adds to the breadth of the varied native cultures represented. The audience is reflected in that diversity.

Every classroom that is charged with studying culture – elementary, middle school or high school or college – should stock a copy of TRICKSTER: NATIVE AMERICAN TALES.

Chris’ Rating: Ages 8 and older
Publisher’s Rating: Ages 8 and older

The study of various cultures is included in state and national standards. Oftentimes, Native American cultures are only lightly taught and it is often, unintentionally, culturally insensitive, especially when Native American studies are combined with Thanksgiving. A Skype session, email or letter exchange, blog conversation or Facebook discussion with some of these storytellers –– many of whom make a living retelling their tribes’ stories –– would be an authentic approach to understanding Native American culture and help the students understand the implications of the comic folktales in the anthology.

Editor: Matt Dembicki
Authors: Various
Illustrators: Various
Publisher: Fulcrum Books
Genre: Folklore

Format: Paperback
Pages: 232
Color: Full color
ISBN-13: 978-1-55591-724-1

Highly Recommended


By Chris Wilson

The cuddly and sweater-clad Red Ted finds himself in the lost-and-found at the train station. Unlike the other toys, he is not content to sit on the shelf and await rescue. He and his fearful crocodile inmate hopped off the shelf and sojourned through the busy city streets trying to get back to Stevie. Cat, who does as she pleases, decides she will help the two find Stevie.  On their way they meet an enormous barking dog –– enormous to them anyway –– Crocodile shows his teeth and scares the dog away. Eventually, Red Ted finds Stevie and everyone gets a new home that serves cheese, naturally.

RED TED is the COURDUROY-meets-PETER RABBIT for the 21st Century –– a timeless bear story that children will never tire of. RED TED is delicate and soft with the faintest hints of suspense and surprise that will imprint itself on the lives of future adults. It is a story that this generation’s children will buy for their children and their grandchildren.

The soft green, blue and red-brown colors of the characters are subtly accentuated by the monochromatic backgrounds. The ink work ever so delicately outlines only three characters: Red Ted, Crocodile and Stevie. Everything and everyone else is outlined with the same color as the background palette. Joel Stewart’s technique makes for the quaintest storytelling that humbly emphasizes the protagonists.

Chris’ Rating: Emergent reader and older
Publisher’s Rating: Preschool and older

RED TED provides a solid story for teachers to build reading motivation, comprehension and fluency in emergent readers. The basic elements of fiction (setting, character and plot) along with basic reading strategies (inferences, predictions, etc.) are ripe for the emergent reader to learn and understand.

Author: Michael Rosen
Illustrator: Joel Stewart
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Genre: Animal Fantasy

Pages: 40
Color: Full color
ISBN-13: 978-0-7636-4537-3

Highly Recommended

Saturday, November 20, 2010


By Peter GutiƩrrez
Reading with Pictures

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally written for a Reading with Pictures project and was intended as a brief rationale for using comic literature to teach reading skills in the classroom. This article and accompanying artwork is free to reproduce by not-for-profit endeavors.)

To those who have witnessed graphic novels come of age over the past generation, their ability to enhance reading skills, and literacy skills more broadly, should come as no surprise. After all, most rich works of art in a sufficiently sophisticated medium will provide texts that readers must decode linguistically, symbolically, and narratively. And these days there’s little doubt about the legitimacy of comics and graphic novels as a robust art form.

Some of these literacy benefits may emerge spontaneously for middle and high school students. Others require that specific attention be paid to them—either by adult facilitators or students who have some meta-cognitive awareness of their own approach to reading. With this in mind, the following reading skills and strategies are offered, presented in a roughly ascending order according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

At any point students can take a break in reading and verbally summarize what they’ve read up until then, a practice that both supports and assesses comprehension. The neat thing about comics is that the visuals can scaffold this process by aiding the recall of events and their sequence completely apart from the content of the print text. For example, you can ask students to scan the previous page, spread or section for a few seconds (or more, depending upon the text and the student) using the artwork as a prompt.

This is an area where research has shown the clear advantage of graphic storytelling in that young people are more likely to encounter new words, and words at a higher reading level, than when reading comparable texts for their age level. My own classroom experience confirms one important reason why graphic novels are so potent when it comes to vocabulary acquisition: in addition to providing the print-based context clues that prose works provide, they also provide visual context clues. Still, this is a two-way street—without explicit instruction, some below-level readers are likely to ignore unfamiliar words because they feel that the artwork helps “fill in the gaps” in their understanding of the print text. 

As with any extended narrative, stories told in comics form provide opportunities for readers to pause and reflect on where the story has been and where it might be headed. Graphic novels provide a powerful way to leverage this comprehension strategy because of their naturally occurring and easily recognizable structural breaks. Indeed, effective storytellers often exploit the most common of such breaks by using the “page flip” to both conceal unexpected plot points and then dramatically reveal them when they do occur. Coach students not to turn pages so quickly but rather stop and ask what will they think will transpire in the spread they’re about to encounter. In addition, graphic novels that are collections of serialized stories, such as Watchmen, allow readers to make predictions about upcoming events on the chapter level. Many such sections will therefore end with cliffhangers whose entire purpose is to encourage readers to speculate on future story developments.

Richly developed teen characters populate the graphic novel KATMAN, and their interior states are partly conveyed by an art-within-art device in which the protagonist Kit is depicted as a fictional manga character created by Jess. Note the effective use of the page-flip: the odd-numbered right-hand page ends with a moment that's perfect for readers to make a prediction ––"What do you think Jess will reveal?"––and the following left-hand page provides the answer. (KATMAN © Kevin Pyle. Used by permission.)

Wordless passages in graphic novels present a unique platform to practice oral language. Simply have a reader verbally narrate such a section, providing exposition and dialogue as necessary. If working in a group, others can be instructed to listen closely and then to express what they would change in their own narration of the passage. THE ARRIVAL by Shaun Tan, a 2008 YALSA “Best Book for Young Adults,” is an entire graphic novel without words. Furthermore, Stephen Cary’s book GOING GRAPHIC presents a variety of comics-based activities that support the oral language skills of English Language Learners—most of which could apply to native speakers as well.

If one looks closely enough, one finds that graphic fiction presents a wide range of text types, from in-art labels/signs to detailed maps, that can form the basis for reinforcing the formal aspects of such texts. And let’s not forget facsimiles of newspaper headlines and columns—after all, consider the occupations of both Clark Kent and Peter Parker. Also, graphic nonfiction routinely presents cutaway diagrams, timelines, charts, and so on, and does so in a meaningful, often interdisciplinary, context.

Graphic novels might seem open to criticism for their lack of interiority, a distinguishing feature of effective prose whether in novels or first-person nonfiction—the reader’s sense of being “in” the narrative via a point-of-view character. That’s because graphic storytelling shows the protagonist, who therefore appears as “external” and makes reader identification more difficult. Comics commonly give readers access to internal states though the device of thought bubbles. A fun activity, then, is to shift point-of-view in the middle of a reading by asking, “If we drew a thought bubble above Character X’s head, what would he or she be thinking?” At a more advanced level of literature study, readers can explore how well-regarded first-person works such as AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, MAUS, and PERSEPOLIS convey subjectivity (i.e., composition, visual symbolism, and the metaphoric use of black and white, respectively).

Another outstanding example of contemporary graphic literature about adolescence is REFRESH, REFRESH, whose theme is the impact of war on families and teens. Rather than employ thought bubbles or narrative captions to express a character's inner feelings, the storytelling uses the compositional space metaphorically to suggest isolation and loneliness. In addition, the in-story use of a different text forma––e-mail––provides an elegant way for readers to get a sense of a son's longing for his absent father. (REFRESH, REFRESH © Danica Novgorodoff, Benjamin Percy, and James Ponsoldt. Used by permission.)

For many years it was common to equate graphic storytelling with a single genre—superheroes. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case and those who look to the medium to help foster a lifelong love of independent reading know that they can offer young people works of merit in genres that range from memoir to mystery, from romance to reportage. In addition, such graphic titles can enrich instruction of traditional literature by approaching its themes with different emphases and from fresh angles. The selections in James Bucky Carter’s NCTE book Building Literacy with Graphic Novels makes just these sorts of connections between canon works such as Beowulf, Oliver Twist, and The Scarlet Letter and graphic novels by acclaimed creators. In addition, popular titles can reinforce or allude to motifs and themes from canon lit (Moby Dick in BONE) and classical mythology (X-MEN), providing motivation for students to explore the literary sources that the creators used as touchstones. 

The important thing to keep in mind is that any graphic work does not automatically bestow tremendous literacy benefits for every young reader. Rather, one needs to expose readers to quality texts that are age-appropriate. Then again, that’s what one would expect from a mature medium with a diversity subject matter and creators. After all, handing a young person any book at all is probably a step in the right direction, but when worthy titles are supported by medium-specific strategies such as those outlined above… well, that’s when magic can take place.

Peter GutiĆ©rrez writes on graphica and education for publications such as BookShelf, School Library Journal, and Graphic Novel Reporter. He can be found on Twitter at @Peter_Gutierrez  or by email at

Saturday, November 13, 2010


By Chris Wilson

This week the Graphic Classroom celebrates all of those who have served in the armed forces by showcasing two comics about war. The first, RESISTANCE, is a World War II story about a village in free France whose children helped the Resistance fight the Germans. The second is also a WWII story, this time focusing on the naval battle of the Japanese at Midway. 


By Chris Wilson

RESISTANCE is the story of the families in the free parts of France during WWII and the ordinary men and women –– but especially the children –– fighting the good fight in the most meager ways they know how.

Paul and Maria Tessier are friends with Henri Levy, a Jewish boy whose parents were taken away. The Tessier children, unbeknownst to their family, spirt Henri away and hide him. Then one day the two children meet a member of the Resistance and hatch a plan to 1) help Henri find his parents and 2) help the Resistance fight the Germans.

Ever since MAUS, I cannot pick up a holocaust comic without comparing it –– for good or ill –– to the Pulitzer Prize-winning, canonical oeuvre. Sometimes I shy away from such tomes because I have the “been there, done that” feeling, although I know that is entirely unfair as there are plenty of holocaust stories to be told.

Then I picked up RESISTANCE and pondered the cover beset with a cool, clay-colored concrete wall layered with the monochromatic German soldier facing off the page. Behind him a boy’s hand, armed with a bright red rubber-clad slingshot. Children fighting back –– what is that about?

RESISTANCE is no super hero story. The children do not don capes and KAPOW soldiers nor do they arm themselves with Rambo-style headbands and go medieval on the SS. The kids use their skills and innocence to smuggle secrets and messages to other Resistance members and help Henri find his parents. They do ordinary things for extraordinary outcomes and they do it authentically.

Paul smuggles secrets through German occupied France through his drawings, which are brilliantly depicted as ragged edged chalk on parchment. This small details gives life to the comic and authenticity to the story as it relates to the children’s point of view. The art is very … French although I’m not sure I know how to accurately define what that means except to say: It looks French and it works.

Chris’ Rating: Middle school and older      

It is a strong story containing violence more implied than depicted, with the exception of the one Jewish man shot on the train.

History comics lend themselves to the dual text approach in the classroom whereby the teacher uses a historical fiction graphic novel together with a nonfiction book about the event of the same time period. Students not only get a personal feel for the history but can connect themselves to the time period because of the fiction/nonfiction approach, giving a richer and longer lasting experience.

However, a dual text approach is not necessarily required. I am reminded of what TGC Staff Writer Nate Stearns wrote in his review of RESISTANCE:

“We grasp history best in the stories of the people who live it, and graphic novels like this make me wonder if all of our middle school history textbooks should be replaced by short graphic novel historical fictions.”

I think he’s right. So many students complain about the boringness of history because they have no connection, no relationship with the past. Graphic novels, especially accurate historical fiction comics, open the door to the real stories of real people living out their lives. Once students connect then they are open to the experience of learning, analyzing and understanding the past and therefore, the present.

Author: Carla Jablonski
Illustrator: Leland Purvis
Colors: Hilary Sycamore
Publisher: First Second
Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Softcover
Volume: 1
Pages: 128
Color: Full color
ISBN-13: 978-1-59643-291-8



By Chris Wilson

Military history publisher, Osprey Publishing, offers a series of comic adaptations of famous battles. THE EMPIRE FALLS revisits the World War II battle at Midway, which occurred after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  From the website:

“One of the most important naval battles in history, Midway marked a crucial turning point in the war in the Pacific, as the US dealt a huge blow to the Imperial Japanese Navy. This is a thrilling tale of espionage, luck, daring, and extreme heroism, shown by men such as Lt. Commanders Maxwell Leslie and Wade McClusky, leaders of the first successful attacks on the Japanese fleet, which ultimately led to the destruction of an Empire.”

The Japanese empire does, indeed, fall in meticulous fashion. Writer Steve White covers the mostly six-panel pages with scrupulous narration. The story unfolds to the timeline often delineating the details by the minute. 

The book begins with a prose introduction. The comic story reads like a novel relying on one  form of story telling –– narration –– sprinkled with an average of one dialogue bubble per page. This poses an interesting question: Who is the intended audience?

For history aficionados the story is straight and uncluttered with no bothersome storytelling to the point the art adds nothing to the story that is not well covered in the text. From a historian’s perspective, this may be advantageous as it strips away any bias to allow for the history of the event to shine through.

From a comic perspective, the story is a bit flat. The art seems an after thought and seems to get in the way of the story. Rather than a comic script, this reads as a prose novel broken apart with pictures of planes shoved between the paragraphs.

Naturally, nonfiction comics are going to include more narration than fiction. The genre typically demands such treatment. However, while I think these comics are interesting, I do believe they would have been better by using the uniqueness comics offer to tell a more engaging story.

For instance, on page 8, the third panel uses narration to describe the Japanese pilots situation: “Ryujo’s aircraft are luckier. They spot the harbor through a gap in the clouds, but they are seen by American radar.”

The same scene could be told without narration at all. Rather than another scene of a plane from the outside, the scene could include a pilot on the inside, looking out over the Aleutian Islands.

PILOT THOUGHT BUBBLE: “Finally, a break in the clouds. Now you are mine.”
PILOT’S DIALOGUE BUBBLE: “We see the target. Americans see us as well.

There can be no charge made against Osprey for dumbing down the story. The historical accuracy is remarkable. I just think most of the details could have been more comic-like. That is to say the story could have been conveyed using other literary forms other than narration, giving the story and art depth, and appealing to a wider audience.

In all, I liked the information presented, but not the storytelling.

Chris’ Rating: Ages 8 and older
There is nothing inappropriate in the title. It can be used with elementary, middle and high school students as a historical text that covers the battle in detail.

There is nothing inappropriate in the title.

THE EMPIRE FALLS is a fact-filled timeline of the Battle of Midway, down to the minute. Tactical information, a glossary, an introduction and an afterward provide an accurate picture of the battle that changed the war. It is perfectly at home in a history class as well as in the hands of the unquenchable history student.

Author: Steve White
Illustrator: Richard Elson
Cover Art: Gary Erskine
Genre: History and War

Format: Paperback
Pages: 48
Color: Full color
ISBN-10: 1-84603-058-7
ISBN-13: 978-1-84603-058-1

Google preview is available. More battles and wars are covered in the Osprey Graphic History series.



By Chris Wilson

A few weeks ago the Regional Consortium for Education and Technology –– Southwest (RCET-SW) contacted me about presenting my lesson plan on comics, math and technology. This is an exciting opportunity to promote comics to a larger audience and to show grade level teachers how to use comics to support the state and national standards.

The workshop focuses on a single lesson plan to teach elementary state math standards using a comic book and technology. Students will explore their own strategies for approaching math concepts, enhance Communication Arts and ISTE standards by reading the comic electronically, engage in cooperative learning and use technology to demonstrate their learning. Students will be assessed in groups and individually.

Tuesday, Nov. 16
4:30-6 p.m.
District Technology Center – 301 S. Main, Nixa


  1. All registration is online at
  2. Click on the Workshop tab at the top of the RCET homepage.
  3. Click on the appropriate month’s workshop registration form.
  4. Scroll down to “Click to Register” on my workshop.
  5. Enter your registration information.
  6. Include a phone number where you can be reached.
  7. You will be notified if a session has been cancelled or is filled up.
  8. If your school is not listed, choose Other and enter your district where indicated.


By Chris Wilson

From the website: “Sam’s little sister Michelle thinks there’s a ghost in the creepy old house their dad bought. With help from a couple of friends on the soccer team, Sam, Amy, and Michelle use an old ghost story –– plus measuring tools and calculations for distance, volume, and perimeters - to figure out the truth behind . . . The Secret Ghost.”

MANGA MATH MYSTERIES is not high quality literature in the sense of reading stories for pleasure. In fact, I would venture to say that most kids would not pick up and read them for fun. Unlike some other specialty books that try to trick kids into reading by subversively pushing an educational goal – which kids can always detect – it is no secret to the reader (children or adults) that these books have an agenda: teach children mathematics by connecting arithmetic to real life scenarios. I think that openness is where these books will work for teachers and for students.

I would never attempt to con kids into using these titles to promote a love of reading, unless the child is a serious math enthusiast. Those who are drawn to math may pick them up on their own, but most will not. However, I think elementary students will go along with the ride when a teacher is up front about using math comics as the basis for a lesson. Which would you prefer: mathematics textbook, math worksheets or an math-based comic with real world applications?

The art is designed specifically for children. Manga is big with many kids and adults for that matter. MANGA MATH MYSTERIES is brightly colored with limited background work. The text balloons are easy to read and the panel work is layered but uncluttered.

Chris’ Rating: Ages 8 and older
Publisher’s Age Rating: Ages 8-11
Publisher’s Reading Level: Grade 3
Publisher’s Interest Level: Grades 3-5

A teacher could use MANGA MATH MYSTERIES as a culminating event to an arithmetic lesson, which in this case is on distance and measurement designed for the grade level teacher. As the technology instructor, I used it to as a way to use technology to reinforce the grade level classroom curricular standards that must be assessed. Click here for the detailed lesson plan.

Doing so allows the students to stretch their limits and take risks regarding mathematics (or any other subject for that matter) and apply it in new ways without risking their classroom grade. However, I could (and should have although I didn’t think of it at the time) have offered the grade level teachers the solutions and strategies produced by the students, so the grade level teacher could assess which students were able to understand and apply the arithmetic skills in a new situation and which student required more one-on-one tutoring. Those types of collaborations are what build strong educational communities.

There are eight titles in the series, all addressing mathematics and all available in library binding or ebook format.

Author: Melinda Thielbar
Illustrator: Yuko Ota
Genre: Mathematics

Format: Library binding
Volume: #3
Pages: 48
Color: Full color
ISBN-13: 978-0-7613-3855-0