Graphic Memoirs—Reading about Diverse Lives, Learning about Ourselves
Another reason that I enjoyed They Called Us Enemy because it was a memoir, rather than a fictionalized account of Japanese internment, which personalizes a distant story of U.S. history. I believe young readers would also appreciate it for this reason since memoirs evoke a divergent evocative transaction between reader and text than fictional texts (see Yagoda, 2009). A memoir is a particular creative narrative that presents a memory of one’s life. I once taught a course on story and memoir with my doctoral advisor, Bill McGinley, and he explained memoir on the syllabus as the “difference between recollection and autobiography, between truth and honesty, between the past and present. Memoirs are occupied more with emotion than they are with information; they are often less panoramic than autobiographies, but more purposeful than recollections. Most important, they are not really about the past, even if their primary impetus is the act of remembering. The memoir is about how our past selves continue to inform our present selves, who we might become, and what we might be called to do.” Following this definition of memoir, I argue that youth deserve to engage with memoirs to not only learn about the diverse lives of distant others, but also to learn something about themselves. The confusion that young George Takei felt while imprisoned, followed by the indignation he felt as a young adult about what his country did to his family, can inform readers how oppressive acts have ripple effects in peoples’ lives beyond the singular moment. Here are a few other memoirs that might that explore aspects of living and dying that are worthy of consideration to include in an English language arts or social studies curriculum.
In Waves--AJ Dungo (2019)
In alternating chapters set off by distinct blue and tepia tones, Dungo weaves together, in one braid, the story of his partner’s battle with cancer and, in another braid, the history of surfing’s rise as a cultural rite and, ultimately, a recreational sport. Surfing was a shared passion between Dungo and his partner, and he reveals that he couldn’t tell the story of his partner’s life and death without talking about surfing, which is adroitly expressed, both through his written words and sweeping illustrations, within the novel. The overarching theme of Dungo’s memoir is written in the title—that memories of a lost one come in waves, which are often followed by waves of heartache and loss. That theme is felt by the reader, even in the chapters relating the history of surfing’s move to prominence in the sporting world. It seems clear that Dungo crafted this graphic novel as part of his recovery and anyone who has experienced the helplessness one feels when a loved one is ill would value reading about his experiences.
Poppies of Iraq--Bridgitte Findakly & Lewis Trondheim (2017)
Findakly reveals the tensions she has with the problematic history of her homeland, particularly in terms of her family’s religious traditions since she was raised Orthodox Christian in a mostly Muslim society. Through her story, she provides a broad history of Iraq during the time when Saddam Hussein was gaining control of the religious and political landscape. His rise to power forces her family to immigrate to Paris where she and her family, particularly her father, struggle with holding onto the past in Iraq and the new reality of being exiled from her own country. Findakly’s memoir jumps around chronologically and thematically, which some readers might find confusing, but the story is worth the effort. Trondheim is an accomplished artist and his choice of simply drawn characters and scenes resonates with the themes of loneliness and loss present throughout the novel.
I Was Their American Dream--Malaka Gharib (2019)
Gharib relates a humorous account of growing up as a first generation Filipino-Egyptian in a society that privileges whiteness. She grapples with balancing both of her parents’ cultures as part of her multicultural identity (her mother and her family were forced to leave the Philippines due to political strife, and her father chose to leave Egypt to leverage the economic possibilities present in the U.S. but still spends much of his time in Egypt). Gharib’s struggles with identifying with both her parents’ heritages will resonate with all bi-ethnic/racial readers. As well, she shares an important story about the fascination with whiteness with which many immigrants probably wrestle. Second generation immigrant readers will identify with her struggle with becoming “all-American” and fulfilling her parents’ dreams, even when they don’t necessarily match their own desires and dreams. Gharib’s story is both authentic and poignant, and she promotes an asset-based view of diversity and immigration—a story much needed in our current sociopolitical moment. The artwork creates a vibrant and colorful reading experience, particularly the use of red, white, and blue as a metaphorical backdrop to the “becoming American” theme. The art also matches the whimsical perspective Gharib has on her childhood memories, which she presents as overly positive in shaping who she is as an adult.
Short & Skinny--Mark Tatulli (2018)
During middle school, two phenomena dominated Tatulli’s life. First, he worried over his height and weight, for which he was tormented by bullies and lowered his confidence. Second, Star Wars was released in the summer of 1977, and consumed the lives of himself and his friends. In an attempt to use the pop-culture phenomenon to mitigate his (in his mind) biological deficiencies, Tatulli decides to make his own Star Wars-based movie. The memoir is both humorous and uncomfortable for the reader following along Tatulli’s middle school life. There are moments when Tatulli seems heavy-handed in expressing his themes of self-confidence and resilience, but any young reader who follows the Star Wars universe will find that aspect of the story intriguing
Lost Soul, Be at Peace--Maggie Thrash (2018)
In a continuation of her award-winning Honor Girl, Thrash presents a wonderfully emotional memoir that explores her depression in a way that complicates how many might view those who struggle with mental illness. Her parents are deeply flawed—her mother seems uncaring to her mental state and her father is a workaholic with little time for her—which could lead to some interesting conversations about family. I do wish the love interest aspect of the story was focused on more, since that seemed to be part of her process of recovery. The story also includes a ghost tale and a missing cat, both of which are important to how Thrash grapples with her recovery.
Graphic memoirs have become a robust category in young adult nonfiction. I encourage everyone to add these to their reading list.
Bakis, M. (2012). The graphic novel classroom: Powerful teaching and learning with images. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Cook, M. (2017). Now I “see”: The impact of graphic novels on reading comprehension in high school English classrooms. Literacy Research Instruction, 56, 21-53.
Chun, C. W. (2009). Critical literacies and graphic novels for English-language learners: Teaching Maus. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(2), 144-153.
Connors, S. P. (2015). Expanding students’ analytical frameworks through the study of graphic novels. Journal of Children’s Literature, 41(2), 5-15.
Dungo, AJ. (2019). In waves. London, UK: Nobrow.
Findakly, B., & Trondheim, L. (2017). Poppies of Iraq. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly.
Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2004). Using graphic novels, anime, and the Internet in an urban classroom. English Journal, 93(3), 19-25.
Gharib, M. (2019). I was their American dream. New York, NY: Clarkson Potter.
Griffith, P. E. (2010). Graphic novels in the secondary classroom and school libraries. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54, 181-189.
Moeller, R. A. (2011). “Aren’t these boy books?”: High school students’ readings of gender ingraphic novels. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(7), 476-484.
Smetana, L. (2010). Graphic novel gurus: Students with learning disabilities enjoying real literature. The California Reader, 44(1), 3-14.
Versaci, R. (2001). How comic books can change the way our students see literature: One teacher’s perspective. English Journal, 91(2), 61-67.
Takei, G., Eisinger, J., Scott, S. (Authors), & Becker, H. (Illustrator). (2019). They called us enemy. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions.
Tatulli, M. (2018). Short & skinny. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Thrash, M. (2018). Lost soul, be at peace. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Yagoda, B. (2009). Memoirs: A history. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.