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December 12, 2011

Feature Story: Talking Comics: Graphic Novel Discussion Questions (unpublished)

Posted by tom

by Jack Baur (teen services librarian for the Berkeley Public Library, as well as the president of BAYA: The Bay Area Young Adult Librarians) and Jessica Lee (a teacher-librarian at Willard Middle School).

Combine a new librarian with a love for comics with a more experienced school librarian with a passion for programming. Add a few kids and some free comic books, and an instant and exceptionally popular book club was born. Jack Baur has been a teen services librarian for the Berkeley Public Library for the past three years. On his first venture out from the safety of the library to bring library programming to middle schools, he met Jessica Lee, the teacher-librarian at Willard Middle School for the past seven years.   

Jack and Jessica have been coordinating the Comix Club for the last three years. The club meets weekly during lunch at the Willard Middle School library and has attracted a large, diverse, and dedicated group of attendees. Every week, members of the club get to take home a new graphic novel, which is then discussed at the following meeting. Discussion questions are handed out with the books, giving the kids something to think about as they are reading and help provide some structure to the often freewheeling conversations

Jack and Jessica share the discussion questions they developed for their graphic-novel book club in the interest of giving teachers, librarians, and book club leaders resources for starting their own comic-centric club, or integrating graphic novels into their standard book club. Though these questions were developed for a middle-school audience, they can be used as-is or adapted to use with readers of any age.  

We welcome your feedback, comments, questions, and requests! Comment below, or email or directly.
And now, here are book-club guides for three of our favorite and most beloved Comix Club selections!

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Note: Persepolis is available as two separate volumes and as a single collected edition. Our club just reads the first volume, though they are encouraged to pursue the more mature second volume/second half of the story if they enjoy the first. In addition to handing out the book, we held an open screening of the beginning of the 2008 film adaptation as an introduction to the history of Iran and as a way of getting the kids into the book.
Synopsis: Author Marjane Satrapi tells of her experience growing up during the Iranian Revolution, the subsequent war between Iran and Iraq, and the rise of the Islamic Republic. Against these tumultuous events, readers get a glimpse of Satrapi’s teenage angst and her struggles to express herself under the burgeoning social repression of the new regime.

Themes: Coming-of-age, becoming self-aware in times of social upheaval, other cultures, freedom and repression

Content Advisory: The book contains several scenes of rioting in the streets, warfare, and torture. Satrapi’s art style throughout is cartoony and understated, so the violence isn’t terribly graphic, but it does pack an emotional punch.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Satrapi says, “Every situation has an opportunity for laughs” (p. 97). What parts of the book made you laugh?
  2. At the core of the book is Marji’s family. What is this family like? What is important to Marji’s parents? What kind of an environment do they create for their daughter, despite living under an oppressive regime and through a brutal, prolonged war?
  3. What role do women play in the story? How are the roles of the women different from the roles of the men?
  4. “In spite of everything, kids were trying to look hip, even under risk of arrest” (p. 112). What acts of rebellion have you done as a teen? In what ways is Satrapi—who grew up during the ’80s in Iran—similar to a normal kid in 21st-century America?

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Raina trips and smashes her face into the pavement, knocking out her front teeth, adding painful dental surgery and orthodontia to the already daunting list of things she has to contend with during her awkward early teenage years.

Themes: Fitting in, overcoming physical ailments

Content Advisory: The scene where Telgemeier loses her teeth could skeeve out the squeamish (like Jack), but other than that, this is a lighthearted book suitable for all ages.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How would the story of Smile work differently in a regular prose novel than it does in graphic novel form?
  2. While you may not have had your two front teeth knocked out in an accident, there are probably parts of Raina's story that relate to your own life. What part seemed the most like your own experiences?
  3. What is your most horrible injury?
  4. The book is set in the Bay Area. What specific places did you recognize in the pictures?

American Born Chinese by Gene Yang

Synopsis: A multifaceted story about the pressures of growing up different, told through three seemingly unrelated stories that come together in a dazzling way by the end. In the first, a young Chinese boy runs into conflict with his best friend when he tries to change himself to become cool. Then, a white high school student faces embarrassment when his grossly stereotypical Chinese cousin Chin-Kee comes to town. And finally, after being embarrassed at a party for the gods, the Monkey King sets out to prove that he is “The Great Sage, Equal to All Heaven” in a story borrowed from Chinese folklore.

Themes: Racial stereotypes, changing oneself to fit in, self-acceptance

Content Advisory: The book confronts some disturbing stereotypes, and talks bluntly about American impressions of Chinese culture. Some jokes about bodily functions.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some of the stereotypes presented in American Born Chinese? How are the stereotypes presented? What do you think the author is trying to say about those stereotypes?
  2. On the surface, the character of Chin-Kee is incredibly disturbing as he embodies the worst kind of racial stereotypes. Who is Chin-Kee? What does he represent in the story?
  3. How do the three stories relate to each other?
  4. In the sections of the story about Danny and his cousin Chin-Kee, the author uses a lot of laughter and applause sound effects that seem to be coming from nowhere. What do these sound effects remind you of? Why would the author use these effects?
  5. The Transformer toy in American Born Chinese represents the many alterations or transformations the characters go through in order to fit into American society. How do the characters “transform” themselves? How do you transform yourself to fit into the American mainstream?