Talking about War with Kids: Conversation Starter

20901532 My kids have been painfully naive about the refugee crisis and ongoing turmoil in Syria and surrounding nations. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of a TV or the privilege of living their White middle class lives here in Austin, but with Sadie’s love for graphic memoirs growing and my commitment to having these tough talks with kids, I think I found a conversation starter during my last trip to Austin Books and Comics. In my last post, I bemoaned the lack of graphic memoir offerings for 2-5th graders and I believe Abirached’s I Remember Beirut can go on my rolling list. In stark black and white frames, she contrasts moments of confusion, wonder, loss, and discovery, structuring the story through I remember…stems and juxtaposing memories of pop culture, invention, commerce, and play with anxious movements, bullet holes, and shrapnel collecting.

The lyrical collage, while seemingly childlike, offers more of an adult’s protective filter on daily happenings in conflict-riddled Beirut of the 80s during the Lebanese Civil War. Nevertheless, the filter makes this a perfect jumping off point for inquiry into past and present religious conflicts, children in war (times), middle east geography, and other storytellers (authors and filmmakers) depicting war and childhood.

I did wonder about all the ways people might misread the text as dismissing the gravity of living in conflict. I had moments myself as I read that she remembered Kit Kats foil paper double linings. But the book starts with bullet holes in a windshield and ends with a burgeoning shrapnel collection. This is to say that there are opportunities for readers to ignore the gravity of the situation in their conversations and focus on all the trivia in the memoir salad.  Seems the shrapnel is just as “regular” and “everyday” as Kit Kat and I think that’s her point. This trauma gets normalized for some kids and living with that is what kids living in more secure circumstances get a chance to wonder about and try on in this read. I think it forces some perspective taking that can and should go further. It’s a strong, “safe” start.

Graphic Memoirs are THE Best

Another game changer and genre love builder

Yesterday after work and school I was sitting with Sadie (8) and Nina (5) on the porch. Sadie looked at me with her arms out to the side, big smile, exclamation points all over her voice.

“Mom, I just need books where the author writes about when she was a kid. Those are the books I like to read.”

And with that phrase, a genre love was marked (Goodbye library book passion vacuum we’ve been experiencing since we got sick of the Critter Club and hello focus, desire, exploration, reading!!)

“You like the ones where the author writes and illustrates their childhood, right? Those are called graphic memoirs.”


“Graphic memo?”


“Graphic memwa”

“Yes. This is so exciting! It means we know what kinds of books to look for when we go to the library or the bookstore”

“My friend has a book by the same Raina. It’s called Sisters. It’s about the same girl and her sister and a time when…”

What makes this an amazing moment? Since El Deafo wrapped it’s warm, weird arms around us we’ve been on a hunt for something else to read. And we do not just love graphic novels blanketly. We scoped TONS of them at the book fair (Hello Kitty ones, Science Fiction ones, Non Fiction ones). In this moment, Sadie had a realization. She made a connection between her love for one book and the next, for what really motivates her to keep reading. She likes digging into these books about adults reflecting back on their childhoods and moments of turmoil and in the case of these two books, two girls’ experiences with bodily trauma (resulting in physical change) and the social implications living after the change (loss of hearing, loss of teeth). Both books illustrate the pain of childhood. Both books illustrate the ways youth and adults love and ostracize and isolate and include and ignore and feel living with visibly different bodies (missing teeth, wearing a hearing aid) and in some cases, when the difference is invisible, but palpable (no hearing aid in, but can’t hear what’s going on around me).

For now, we will read and likely pick up Telgemeier’s Sisters and now I have a great reason to read Persepolis, but in researching this genre, I’ve realized there’s a real dearth of these graphic memoirs for late elementary readers. There’s a lot of coming of age work, but not a lot of just straight memoir of those late childhood years. Even Smile, while engaging, was a bit of a middle school social stretch. Wack stuff happens to kids of all ages. Let’s hope graphic novel artist authors keep writing and this post inspires more. Maybe I can get Nina and Sadie to collaborate on something today?

Game Changing Read: El Deafo

For a moment this summer, I had the pleasure and pain of peering through a tiny window into a piece of the life my daughter lives sometimes. I devoured it in a plane ride and a late night wrap-up with twins and a five year old in tow, so anyone can do it. Since, it’s served as a family conversation piece; communicating to EVERYONE in our tiny nuclear from age 2 to 39. I get that it’s got a Newberry, so I’m late and it’s a graphic novel memoir, so it’s what everyone’s already been blown away by, but just watching my two year olds and my husband read the same book together, hearing my five year old ask about the symbolism of the protagonist’s imagined identity in the superhero cape, and getting my own insight into some of the awkward insecurities and pure rage my eight year old lives with when she can’t hear us reminds me why I need to read more for pleasure.

This Fall I discovered (as I completed a reading survey alongside my students) that I didn’t spend enough time reading for my own pleasure. While there are certainly elements of my professional reading that give me a little of that jouissance, I mean the kind of self-directed choice making that has no pressure. no requirements. no helicopters. no expectations. And that is precisely why I was so blown away. I did not know what to expect. And there it was, like a rainbow unfolding in our family and beyond. I left a library copy by accident with my friend James who accidentally gifted it to a bereaved family member. We didn’t ask for it back and he didn’t want to return it. Then it appeared in the summer reading rewards bookshelf at the library and Sadie (with a little of my motherly urging), picked it up and brought it home for everyone to fall into as I already had. Thank you, Ce Ce Bell. Thank you to all authors who put themselves and their lives into composition. Thank you to all the artists who push boundaries that are, in my opinion, slowly eroding when it comes to what counts as literature and what counts as scholarship. Your work is a gift.

Visual note taking

It’s one of those things I’ve always known is good for you, but had never really tried to do. Then, all of a sudden, I was reading and taking notes about the (im)materiality of literacies, looked down, and I was doing it – organically – and it felt really useful and I wanted to tell the world all about its power and how it forced me to slow down and really think about how I could capture the mini idea the authors were talking about in a quick sketch I might return to at a later date. It’s one of those things I had always known is good for you. Makes me wonder if there was ever anything to all those doodles I worked on during lectures in high school and college.

The Book that Scared the *#%~ Out of Me

IMG_7189It was a warm summer evening when I tore open the long anticipated yellow envelope from my soon to be graduate school program. The summer reading list had arrived and I was eager to preview what we would be studying. I figured it would give me a sense of what to expect. It had been a while since I’d been academically challenged and I wanted to “warm-up” and get ready. I dove in and clicked my way to a couple of amazon purchases. When the Kuhn here arrived in the mail, I stared at it and left it on the shelf. Only when I had moved into the dormitories, a week out from the first day of classes, did I crack the cover and read in bewilderment. Paradigms? Science? What had I gotten myself into? I pushed through, took notes, and tried to talk with my partner about why I would be reading it. Luckily he’d read it in undergrad and had some ideas about why it would be assigned as an early reading for a doctoral program. To me it just seemed like a filter; filter out the students who “can’t hang” and reel in or allow in the students who are willing to struggle. Like a “good” student, I struggled through and finished with my notes and showed up to class, but the book left a yucky taste in my mouth. Looking back, I get the concepts and how they apply to what I studied, but this reading “invitation” was more of a wall to scale than a warm welcome to engage in a new field.