“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.)
Flash Facts: Ten Terrific Tales About Science and Technology brings together my love for well-written nonfiction and graphic novels. I’ve always felt that I learned a lot of science from comics books. I also learned a lot of “comic book science” too! (Super-Soldier Serum, anyone?) The science in Flash Facts, however, is totally legit!
Neuroscientist, Mayim Bialik, also of Blossom and The Big Bang Theory fame, curated a collection of short graphic stories featuring DC Superheroes that teach about science topics ranging from forensic science to virtual reality. The variety of scientific topics addressed makes this book feel like I’m taste-testing a bunch of topics to help me decide which I might want to learn more about.
After reading, I found myself wanting to know more about thermal expansion and definitely wanting to try out virtual reality goggles! And isn’t that the point of nonfiction? To spark interest and leaving us wanting to know more?
This text even helps kids with next steps. The back matter includes a list of resources so they can hop online to learn more and 7 experiments kids can conduct at home related to the topics in the stories.
Topics covered in this anthology:
Atomic & Sub-atomic particles
Zones of the Ocean
Genre: Nonfiction, Informational Fiction with a Narrator, Active Nonfiction
Pea, Bee & Jay had me smiling by the second page and laughing by the third page. Brian Smith, who both writes and draws this charming graphic novel for younger readers, takes the reader on an adventure that is humorous, but also shows the importance of working together to solve a problem.
Pea is dared to leave the farm and touch the big red tree. On his journey he meets Bee, an actual bee, and Jay, a blue jay. They become a band of unlikely friends who work together to tackle the challenges they face on their journey.
Smith’s panel layouts are easy to follow and will be supportive of younger readers. His cartooning brings personality to everything from acorns to raspberries. (The raspberries are a personal favorite!) By the end of the book, Smith has succeeded in developing the world of Pea, Bee and Jay. I look forward to revisiting this world as the series continues in Wannabees and Lift Off.
Genre: This is what I call a “Friendship Story.” It’s a story about making friends or going on an adventure with friends that largely follows realistic fiction tropes, but the fact that the main characters are a bee, a blue jay, and a pea make it difficult to call it realistic fiction.
Units of Study: Fiction, Adventure, Series, Friendship
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of another world. A world where I can discover who I really am, where I’m part of something greater than myself.”
This is how Alex Sanchez begins You Brought Me the Ocean. As someone who frequently chooses books based on the first line, first page, first sequence of panels…I was hooked.
The art delivers just as much as the writing. Maroh’s expressive cartooning helps strengthen the reader’s connection with the characters. You feel what they feel. You’re in it with them. The subdued color palette allows the cartooning to shine. This warm and muted color palette makes the blues pop and in a story called You Brought Me the Ocean this is no accident.
You Brought Me the Ocean is a coming out story, but not just a coming out story. It’s a story about identity and reaching for your dreams. Even when your dreams take you far away from everyone you love. It’s a story about the struggles you go through with friends and family as you grow into who you are, who you want to be.
There is a connection to the DC Comics/Movie Universe and as someone who is well-versed in the DCU, this helped to build out the world of You Brought Me the Ocean. Sanchez brings this DCU connection into this story so well, that it will not confuse anyone unfamiliar with DC comics continuity.
Genre: A realistic fiction story with fantasy elements, “fantasy in the real world”
Units of Study: Social Issues, Fantasy, Fiction, Identity