After reading Maker Comics: Make a Comic! I checked out JP Coovert’s website to see what else he had to offer and I’m SO glad I did! I think that both Arc Dogs and Broken Summer could be incredible mentor texts for anyone taking on graphic novel writing with their students right now or even next school year.
You can see me talk about these books in the video below or read the write up underneath.
These comics will be accessible mentors for kids for a few reasons.
They’re only about 20 pages long. This length feels less forboding than using a 100 page graphic novel as a mentor.
They’re black & white. It will be wonderful for kids to see that a comic book does not have to have color to be engaging and clearly tell a story.
The story focuses on four characters. Sometimes when kids are first starting their graphic novels, they want to create these epics that involve a cast of 20! Beginning with a more manageable cast might support writers in creating a clearer narrative.
JP Coovert expertly uses the tools of the medium to tell this engaging story; he plays around with fonts to give characters voice, he changes up panel shapes to create a sense of action, and his cartooning creates personality in his characters through their facial expressions and body language.
I would guess Arc Dogs would be considered book one, so read it first. Broken Summer is an anthology of seven short stories that you read on their own, but together create a continuous narrative using the characters from Arc Dogs.
When Andrea Bell mentioned that her next project was an installment of the Maker Comics, I realized I had never read anything from the Makers Comics series. This was something I needed to rectify immediately. I scanned over the topics included in the Makers Comics series; Fix a Car!, Bake Like a Pro!, Grow a Garden! and then I spied Draw a Comic! I think the ending writes itself.
Makers Comics: Draw a Comic! by JP Coovert was a delight to read. As I was reading this book, I had Melissa Stewart’s Five Kinds of Nonfiction in mind. I don’t have Melissa’s expertise in nonfiction, but Draw a Comic! feels like a hybrid text to me, a mix of informational fiction and active nonfiction.
The active nonfiction parts were my favorite. Draw a Comic! includes 5 comic book activities that are connected with a fictional narrative (that’s the informational fiction part.) The way that Coovert uses the images in the panels and the dialogue of the characters to give clear, step-by-step directions is something to admire. His clarity of storytelling and teaching is something I strive for.
I learned SO much from this text. I finally know what the T square I own is for! I also know I’ll be purchasing a long-reach stapler in the near future. (No idea what I’m talking about? Read the book to find out!)
If you’re teaching the TCRWP writing unit that Hareem Atif Khan (@hareematifkhan) and I wrote called Graphic Novels: Writing in Pictures and Words, I highly recommend this text as an additional resource. (…and before you ask, No, the unit hasn’t been published yet. Last I heard from Heinemann, 2023 was the expected release year.)
To wrap up, I’m excited to check out another Maker Comics book to see if they all live up to the quality of work of JP Coovert. Perhaps I should check out a topic in which I’m novice? Fix a Car! perhaps? I truly enjoyed Coovert’s cartooning and I can’t wait to read more of his work. So I checked out his website to order more of his work (and MAYBE a Rex I love comics pin). You should too!
Genre: Nonfiction, but if you want to specific…hybrid text: informational fiction & active NF
Units of Study: nonfiction, active fiction, how-to, comic book/graphic novel
“THIS BOOK WILL SAVE LIVES” reads the quote from Jarrett J. Krosoczka on the cover of Flamer and I couldn’t agree more. Growing up, I felt the same feelings that the protagonist, Aiden, feels in this book; the feeling of isolation, of being an outsider, or being “wrong” somehow. You have kids in your school that feel this way too. They NEED this book.
Aiden is a fully realized character. He struggles every day with his own self-worth and the burden of trying to fit in. Everything he does makes him stand out when all he wants to do is blend in. The rest of the characters flesh-out the world of Flamer; the hunky crush, the acquaintance who slowly becomes a friend, the well-meaning scoutmaster. The interactions between these characters feel so real, I think I may have actually had these exact conversations with people.
Curato uses several visual storytelling techniques of note. Throughout the story Aiden has several different fantasies or dreams. During these the panels no longer have the sharp corners of rectangular panels and instead have rounded corners. The gutters also become black during these dreams. The combination of these two techniques make it clear what is happening in the real world and what is in Aiden’s mind.
Color is also used to great effect. The art is black, white and red. Pay attention to the items that Curato chooses to make red; the letter, the knife, the flames. Does red always symbolize the same thing? Or does it shift from scene to scene?
I read Flamer in one sitting. I think you know several readers who will do the same thing. Be sure to check out Curato’s blog post about Flamer found here.
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Units of Study: Realistic Fiction, Identity, Growing Up,
“For the Love of Truth” is the subtitle of Kate Reed Petty & Andrea Bell’s The Leak and the story contained within successfully represents this motto.
I picked up The Leak based on my love of Andrea Bell’s artwork from her prior works Diary of a Fifth Grade Outlaw and her mini-comic CapQuest that I purchased when I met her at a New York Comic-Con.
The story within is as well crafted as the art. Ruth Keller is an aspiring journalist who is thrilled when she discovers her brother’s new girlfriend, Sara, has an internship at the New York Times. Sara quickly takes on a mentorship role as Ruth learns about the journalistic oath.
Ruth is honestly one of my favorite heroines I’ve encountered recently. She is brash and impulsive, but she has good intentions at heart. Watching Ruth grow over the course of The Leak is so satisfying. You just keep rooting for her!
The story keeps you guessing. Just when you think you’ve predicted the ending, the unexpected happens. This story will pull you and your readers in. Definitely check it out!
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Mystery
Units of Study: Journalism, Mystery, Realistic Fiction
“Memoirs are not biography–they’re more like a recollection of past events,” Joel Christian Gill tells the reader in the afterword of Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence. In this memoir Gill shares how his life pushed him towards violence and how he took control of that violence to create the life he wanted for himself and his family.
This book is full of trauma and violence: physical, sexual, & racial violence. It was a hard story to read at times, but if he had to endure living it…I can endure reading about it.
Gill uses fire as a symbol for his anger, his rage. His technique of drawing an ever-growing flame above his head highlights the moments that caused his anger and pushed him towards violence. This symbolism is threaded throughout the book and is even used with other characters.
The cartooning in this book clearly and heart-wrenchingly depicts the events of Gill’s life. Some adults in the story are depicted more like the adults in Peanuts comics, with the camera never going above their knees or, in some cases, their shoulders. While other adults get their close-up to the camera several times. Gill’s mother is one character whose face we never see. I wonder if her missing faces symbolizes her absence in his life. She was present, but never “present.”
Gill also says, “I hope that when you see children acting out in ways that I acted out, this will help you understand that they might be in situations similar–or even worse–than what I experienced. This insight, I hope, will encourage you to try and learn their story.”
I will carry this story with me as I continue to teach children. Thank you for sharing your story, Mr. Gill. I imagine it will be incredibly powerful to others like me and people who find themselves in similar situations.
Units of Study: Memoir, Trauma, Social Issues, Narrative Nonfiction, Identity
I was lucky enough to chat with author and illustrator Dan Santat about his work, his process and his advice for aspiring author/illustrators. I left the interview with pages and page of notes. I hope you and your students find it as intriguing as I did! Check out our conversation below.
The viewing guide below includes timestamps that will help you navigate the almost 30 minute interview, links to texts mentioned in the interview, and my reflections on the impact of what Dan said on writers, teachers and classroom practice.
00: 34 The story 300 Words I refer to in Comics Squad #1: Recess.This is the first book in a wonderful comic anthology series from Penguin Random House. You can find more about the series here.
00:50 Question: What is the best part of being an author/illustrator?
1:31 Question: What does your “average” day look like?
2:45 Question: How does your creative process differ when you’re creating a picture book versus a graphic novel?
4:18 Dan mentions his upcoming graphic novel called The Aquanaut. You can read a blurb of this book on goodreads.
4:25 Dan is also working on a memoir. I highly suggest you check out his blog to see this piece in-process.
7:06 Dan describes his editor as his navigator. I found this fascinating. I began wondering how can we as teachers begin to position ourselves as “navigator” for our writers. Also, how could we leverage writing partners as navigators. Basically, communicating the idea that “You, as writer, are steering the ship. I am here to help you get where you want to go.”
9:18 Question: When you come up with the ideas for your stories, How do you do that?
11:48 Dan discusses how he uses his writing notebook.
13:10 “There’s not enough value in boredom.” This made me wonder if we could be promoting the kids going to their writing notebooks more than just during writing workshop. When they’re bored or when the have a moment between subjects. Could we loosen the reins on the notebook and allow kids to doodle, scribble ideas and random thoughts?
13:50 Question: Once you have your concept, how do get started on a project?
14:05 Again, when Dan spoke about his relationship with his editor, I wondered how we promote writing partners functioning as editors. (And I don’t mean checking spelling!) How could we set up writing partners to act as a sounding board for writers on new ideas? And teach them to provide more feedback early in the generation stage of the writing process?
15:02 “Don’t be too precious about your writing.” This made me think about revision. Sometimes you need to “blow it up” or “move pieces around.”
16:45 I had never heard of a creator who used Dan’s technique of drawing individual panels and then placing the individual panels on pages to “compose the page.” I’m fascinated by this and, honestly, want to try it. This technique would only work if the artist drew digitally, because the artist would need to easily resize panels.
17:43 Dan discusses using panels to influence pacing.
18:13 Dan mentions “composition of the shot.” I believe this refers to your choice of frame. Would a long-distance, middle-distance, or close-up short work best?
18:47 Question: Any advice for kids who would like to grow up to be author illustrators?
19:17 Aspiring creators should find art they like and ask”Why do I like it?” to help name the qualities that draw you to a piece. Then you can begin by emulating it, like fan fiction.
20:00 I LOVE Dan’s suggestion of starting small with even a one-page comic to start in order to hone pacing.
21:38 Dan’s point about avoiding redundancy in picture books and graphic novels is huge. That the art and the text should harmonize.
22:33 Dan’s new picture book with Brad Meltzer, A New Day.
The more I read Fox & Rabbit, the more I fell in love with it. Fox and Rabbit are best friends who face their fears together.
Fox & Rabbit reminds me of the Poppleton series, a collection of stories that build on one another about friends having humorous adventures together. Ferry writes the 5 stories included in Fox & Rabbit so they could stand alone, but if you remember what happened in the earlier stories you’ll get added complexity. This structure would be incredibly supportive of a reader transitioning to chapter books, as accumulating text and story become more of a challenge.
Each story is titled with a collection of 3 alliterative words that preview the plot of the story i.e. Story 4 Gardening, Growing, and Groaning. (My favorite!)
Dudás is a master as manipulating the size of the panels to control pacing. Some pages contain 9 panels while other pages contain only one panel, allowing the story to breathe.
I definitely want to read on in this series in hopes that I’ll get more of Sparrow, one of the minor characters, who fights with seagulls and overindulges in lemonade and the rest of the animal friends in Ferry and Dudás’ magical and inviting world. The next two books in the Fox & Rabbit series are titled Make Believe and Celebrate.
Genre: This is another example of a “Friendship Story.” Its a story about friends going on adventures that largely follows realistic fiction tropes, bu the fact that a talking fox and rabbit are the main characters add in a bit of fantasy.
Units of Study: Fiction, Adventure, Friendship, Fear
Writing is hard. Lucky for Sara Varon she has her pencil. Her pencil is there for her when she doesn’t know how to get started or when she is worried that what she writes isn’t good enough. Don’t you wish you had a pencil like that? I do!
My Pencil and Me is chock full of great advice for young writers like go around and collect ideas with your sketchbook, your work doesn’t need to be perfect, and add some conflict to your story. Varon shares this great advice while also keeping the story fun and charming.
My Pencil and Me straddles the line between picture book and graphic novel. It physically looks like a picture book, but it incorporates comic book elements like speech balloons and panels. No matter how you classify it, this book would be a wonderful read aloud to launch a fiction writing unit or even independent writing projects.
I highly recommend you check out this playful graphic novel that teaches kids how to deal with writer’s block.
Unit of Study: Fiction & Personal Narrative Writing
There are stories that tell how we wish the world was and there are stories that tell how the world is. Nubia: Real One tells how it is in the real world for a young African-American woman.
Nubia is filled with so much potential this is misunderstood by most of those around her: her classmates, the cops, the woman at the convenience store. Nubia, however, is loved and protected fiercely by her moms and her best friends.
The story in Nubia: Real One includes racial profiling in policing, sexual harassment, and a school shooting. These topics may steer some readers away from Nubia, but it would be their loss. These are issues that teenagers are dealing with on a daily basis. These are the kinds of stories teenagers are yearning to read.
Even with addressing all of these serious topics, Nubia still manages to be a fun read. McKinney and Smith handle the juxtaposition of serious topics and teenage antics so well that this book feels like it could easily be adapted into a TV series. The scenes of Nubia hanging out with LaQuisha and Jason are some of my favorites.
As with all of the DC Graphic Novels for Young Adults, this book has a connection to the larger DC Comics Universe. When Wonder Woman appeared, I was worried that Nubia would lose all of her agency, but McKinney wrote Wonder Woman in a way that she was a true support to Nubia on her journey.
I would love to read more of Nubia’s adventures and I’ll definitely be seeking out more work by L.L. McKinney and Robyn Smith.
Genre: Realistic Fantasy (Basically a realistic fiction story if you remove Wonder Woman and the Amazons.)