Saturday, April 28, 2012


By Adrian Neibauer
Staff Writer

Neil Barton is your typical thirteen-year-old: he’s unsure of himself, awkward, shy, and spends most of his time alone with his nose in a book.  AMERICUS, written by MK Reed and illustrated by Jonathan Hill, is a coming of age story set in a small town in Anytown, USA.  Neil, our main character, uses the local library in his small home town of Americus as a safe-haven to the discomfort of junior high school.  There, he and the young librarian introduce us to the fantasy world of Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde, the Huntress Witch, a Dungeons and Dragons inspired young-adult novel series.  However, it isn’t too long before the conservative Christian citizens in town begin publically ousting the Apathea series as “unfit for the souls of our youth.”  Neil must battle the town’s conservatives to prevent the Apathea series from becoming banned in the library; meanwhile, Apathea must battle her half-dragon brother in order to save her kingdom. 

MK Reed does an impressive job blending these two stories as each protagonist battles his/her own conflict.  Themes of censorship and adolescent rebellion are prominent throughout AMERICUS, and can be great launching grounds for classroom discussion.  Reed’s characters and setting are believable.  Readers can assimilate into the anonymity of Americus and its town’s residents, while simultaneously feeling sympathy for Neil’s teenage angst. 

Although Reed writes believable dialogue, Jonathan Hill’s illustration style creates actual human beings with actual problems and true emotions.  He doesn’t draw a lot of details, yet his use of black and white makes the book realistic in its depiction of Middle America happenings.

As the AMERICUS flashes into the story of Apethea, Hill begins to use more generous strokes of ink wash.  He illustrates more shadows and varying shades of gray, giving the fantasy world a very appropriate Lord of the Rings look. 

What is most intriguing is how Hill blends the fantasy and reality using his pen.  Readers have no difficulty in discerning which story one is reading, but the combination of these two different worlds is never drastic and shocking.  It is as though both sets of characters co-exist simultaneously to give refuge for uncomfortable teens looking to escape to a different world. 

It would be very easy to steer clear of AMERICUS, due to the controversial themes presented.  Especially in elementary school, teachers don’t usually jump into discussions on censorship at the hands of conservative Christians.  There is talk of the sin of homosexuality; in fact, Neil’s best friend, Danny, gets shipped off to military school because of his love of the Apathea series and the fact that he is gay.  His parents don’t seem to place either on a spectrum, but instead claim that one is the cause of the other.  Nonetheless, I think AMERICUS is a great tool for teaching the more sophisticated technique of writing a frame story.

Frame stories, or a story within a story, are an effective way of comparing and contrasting different characters, settings, and themes.  Successful writers have often used this technique to show the reader how people are not only influenced by their interactions with other characters, but storytelling (think Hamlet’s play within a play, i.e.: The Mousetrap).  Since AMERICUS does such a fantastic job visually representing a frame story, it makes sense to use this graphic novel to teach students how they can incorporate one in their own fiction.

Before reading AMERICUS, either as a read aloud or graphic novel study, I would introduce the idea of frame stories. It is important to emphasize the visual aspect of frame stories (how characters are “watching” another story) by using film examples.  As you progress through AMERICUS, use questions to deepen students understanding:

  1. How do you know we are entering the world of Apathea?
  2. When do we enter this world? What purpose does it serve the main plot?
  3. How are these two sets of characters related?  Compare and contrast.
  4. How are these two settings related? Compare and contrast.

It is oftentimes appropriate to dissect the two plot-lines so that students can see them running parallel to one another.  You can use a Flow Chart to map out the key plot points of each narrative, while noting when and why they intersect. 

AMERICAS plot   >   AMERICAS plot   >   AMERICAS plot
APATHEA plot    >    APATHEA plot    >    APATHEA plot

As Neil fights to save his beloved Apathea series from being banned, Apathea fights her own battles.  Both characters grow from the process and emerge stronger. Students should start thinking about other narratives that either offer similar thematic elements, such as conflicts, or similar characters to their own narrative piece.  Incorporating one story into another takes time and trial and error, but I feel that AMERICUS is a good model for doing this well.

Author: MK Reed
Illustrator: Jonathan Hill
Pages: 216
Color: Black and White
Publisher: First Second
ISBN: 978-1-59643-768-5

I highly recommend AMERICUS for Writing and Literature classrooms grades 6 and up, especially for high school. I recommend with reservations using AMERICUS in the elementary grades due to the references to religion and homosexuality.  You could use the frame story technique in fifth grade, but only toward the end of the school year when students are more proficient writers. AMERICUS’ readability is targeted for ages 12+, and MK Reed writes with this demographic in mind.  Middle school students can easily relate to Neil, his adolescent woes, and his need to escape into the realm of fantasy literature.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


By Ellen Ma
Staff Writer

V FOR VENDETTA takes place in a dystopian England when everything has collapsed from war. The government has become “Big Brother” and the entire system is corrupt. However, on the historical day of Nov. 5, 1997, a mysterious man named V blows up Parliament. The reader is taken through V’s mission –– to take down the fascist rulers of England, as well as coming to know Eve, a young girl who is saved by V and taken under his wing.

Eve becomes a major role to the reader, as she is the most relatable character and goes through the most changes. Alan Moore is excellent with showing readers what Eve’s life has been like within dystopian England and David Lloyd is great with capturing haunting feelings, loss, and hope within his art. And Just like Eve, the reader will need to determine if V is an anarchist/terrorist or a freedom fighter for the people.

Grade 9 and older

There are a few disturbing images (violence, sex), but understandable in order to show the feeling of a dystopian story.

I’ve used this graphic novel in my freshman college English courses, mainly to see how students would react to being introduced to a political theme through the form of text and image. The students found the story to be rich and an extraordinary experience. Many students knew nothing about England in general or had much knowledge about government and politics. However, V FOR VENDETTA was very capable of presenting the situation –– what if you lost your freedom? –– and this made students start to think more deeply.

Overall, the outcome was successful. Students were discussing their individual freedom, whether or not V was an anarchist or freedom fighter, and wrote compare/contrast papers. The most rewarding for me was reading students’ perspectives and their opinions about the character V.

I would recommend this graphic novel, but hold back if this will be the first time using a graphic novel in the classroom. There are a lot of elements and themes going on within V FOR VENDETTA; this can either work against you or for you but probably the main thing to consider would be time. I only spent three weeks on this graphic novel and the students and I both felt there were still plenty to discuss.

Turn to PERSEPOLIS or PYONGYANG: A JOURNEY IN NORTH KOREA if you’re interested in introducing a political theme; these two graphic novels are slightly more simplistic in artistic style, but still very strong in content.

Author: Alan Moore
: David Lloyd
Publisher: Vertigo
Format: Paperback
Pages: 296
Color: Full color
ISBN-13: 978-1401208417


By Kevin Hodgson
Staff Writer

Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories have long held a hallowed place in literature in lower elementary classrooms. The stories of how animals came to be often give way to students’ own creative explanations of the world. A new series of graphic versions of the Kipling classics by Stone Arch Press revives that tradition in wonderful style, full of humor and insights.

HOW THE LEOPARD GOT HIS SPOTS is just one of the series, and this adaptation by writer Sean Tulien tells the story of the leopard on the African plains, and seeks to explain in a creative way how those distinctive spots came to be on its fur. A funny twist is how the animals talk back to the narrator of the story, showing a little sass at the direction of the story, particularly when the prey gets to escape. HOW THE LEOPARD GOT HIS SPOTS is nicely done, and as engaging (if not more so) than other Just So stories out on the market.

The illustrations by artist Pedro Rodriquez are vibrant, and full of energy, and bring to life the personalities of the creatures in this book. There’s a careful craftsmanship to the illustrations that perfectly complements the Kipling story.

As I mentioned, the Kipling stories are often a central part of many elementary classroom curriculums, and this graphic novel –– along with the others in the series –– would fit nicely into those collections. The graphic telling of the story is a nice complement to the many picture books and chapter books out there. There is also a nice biography of Kipling at the end of the book and some fascinating illustrations at the start and end of the animal habitats used as the setting for the story.

Format: Paperback
Pages: 40
Publisher: Stone Arch Books
ISBN-13: 978-1434238818

I would highly recommend this book for any elementary level classroom. It’s a fun and engaging retelling of a classic story.