Graphic novels are not just for students. Although the genre tends to appeal to a younger audience, some authors such as Anya Ullnich, who writes for an older audience, uses the genre in order to literally illustrate the complexity of her personal immigration story.
We recently read Ullnich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel and were amazed by the multiple story layers the immigrant artist and author was able to deliver. In the story, Ullnich creates a memoir of a young Russian Jew arriving as a refugee in her teens. Through flashbacks and a series of failed relationships (including two divorces and some uncomfortable on-line dating) the creator succeeds in depicting a view of American culture seen through immigrant eyes. At times humorous and at times serious, the novel immerses the reader in the immigrant experience and is particularly adept at portraying how a new arrival is tortured by nostalgia, as well as a desire to fit in.
Lena Finkle is most definitely not for classroom use, but educators who read it on their own time won’t be disappointed. The book was on the New York Times Best of 2014 list and it is a truly moving story told creatively in both words and illustrations.
Graphic novels uniquely capture the immigrant story in part because they travel between two worlds, the old and new, the real and imagined. Books like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Peter Sis’s The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain or Gene Luen Yan’s American Born Chinese are perfectly appropriate to use with students. They engage students in an accessible and provocative format and serve as a meaningful conduit to spark discussion about immigration, social justice, race, and topics that are sometimes hard to approach.
ELL teachers have used graphic novels in their arsenal of teaching tools for years and innovative teachers have done the same with unmotivated students and reluctant readers. More recently, an article from the National Council of Teachers of English shows that the popular genre of graphic novels is a proven tool that helps bridge literacy gaps and can act as a point of reference in teaching specific historical topics. Notably, Congressmen John Lewis seized on this trend by depicting the story of his life, including the historic March on Washington, in the graphic novel, March.
- Recently Teaching Tolerance put together a comprehensive guide, The Social Justice League, that explains how to use graphic novels in the classroom. Author Pam Watts states that “graphic novels are the new superheroes of literacy instruction.”
- GetGraphic.org houses lesson plans, book lists and other resources to help teach how to read a graphic novel. The Arrival a popular graphic novel is a perfect place to start an immigration unit for 5th grade- 8th grade, and the lesson plan at Get Graphic has appropriate questions and activities. The graphic novel American Born Chinese can be used for 8th-12th grade and the Get Graphic lesson gives students ample opportunity to discuss stereotypes and debunk myths about immigrants.
- Penguin Publishing has an excellent teacher’s guide, You Can Do a Graphic Novel, that demonstrates how students can create their own graphic novels. According to the author Barbara Slate students benefit in developing skills in logic, problem solving, team work and task completion.
Share with us the ways you are teaching with graphic novels and reach out to us if there is an immigration-themed book you or your students would like to review. Follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration, our education blog, and our website for related resources and lessons to #teachimmigration.