Powerful Picture Books & Graphic Novels (Possibly overlooked in the classroom but not by censors)


When I was a new teacher, I often overlooked the power of picture books and graphic novels in my junior high classroom. I was afraid that if an administrator walked in and they saw me using a picture book or a graphic novel, they would think I was crazy and that I was babying my students. I fear that many new teachers miss out on sharing these powerful books with their students due to this stigma.

The fact is that these books are powerful for students of all ages. They also offer an additional access point for students who may shy away from the traditional novel. I have seen this in action as I use picture books such as The Butter Battle Book, Terrible Things, and The Lorax each year.

Although I may have overlooked these types of books as a new teacher, those that challenge books haven’t. The picture book The Librarian of Basra and the graphic novel Persepolis have both been challenged.

The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter:

Prior to teaching 7th-grade world geography full-time, I also taught Language Arts. There were few things that brought me greater joy than putting the “right” book into the hands of students, igniting that love of reading. No one has this happen to them more than librarians. They get to this day in and day out, and I know I’m forever in their gratitude.

The Librarian of Basra, a picture book, tells the true story of Alia Muhammad Baker, the chief librarian of Basra’s Central Library, in the city of Basra, Iraq. She knows the power of books to bring people together. When the 2003 war in Iraq begins, Alia fears that the books in her library will be in danger from the bombs and fighting. She, along with the help from her friends and neighbors, rescued 70% of the library’s collection nine days prior to the library being burned to the ground during the war.

This book has been challenged on the grounds that it promotes Islam and is too violent for young readers. I scoured each page to see on what grounds these claims could be made. There appear to be only two references in the whole book to Islam. The opening page has this quote from Alia Muhammad Baker: “In the Koran, the first thing God said to Muhammad was ‘Read.’” The only other reference was stating that in the library’s collection was a biography of Muhammad that was seven hundred years old. This, to me, comes nowhere close to promoting a religion. In regards to it being too violent, there isn’t a single image of a person getting hurt or injured, which we know is the biggest horror of war.

Books have power to not only bring people together, but to also promote empathy for others. Alia Muhammad Baker knew this and protected her books. We should take heed and do our part in our communities to protect books from senseless challenges and banning. You never know what book will be the “right book” for the children in your life.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

When we think of countries, we often associate the country with the government that is in charge of that country. This is true for adults, not just students.

The U.S. relationship with the nation of Iran has been strained since the overthrow of Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran), a U.S. ally. In 2002, President George W. Bush even labeled the nation of Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil.” With this negative rhetoric, students and citizens often forget there are huge populations in these nations and that many of these people don’t support the present administration.

Often, introductions of books get zoomed past or skipped in order to get to the first page of Chapter 1. I try to get my own students to slow down and read these introductions.

The intro to Persepolis is important. Marjane Satrapi details life after the overthrow of the Shah: “Since then, this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. This is why writing Persepolis was so important to me. I believe that an entire nation shouldn’t be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists.”

This graphic novel begins in Iran in 1980, when Satrapi was 10 years old. The revolution overthrowing the Shah had happened the previous year. The reader gets to see what life was like in Iran for those that didn’t support the views of the new government.

What I loved about the book is that Marji is engaging. She daydreams, questions the rules at home and as well as the norms and rules of the society in which she lives. She loves rock music and was overjoyed when her parents smuggled Iron Maiden as well as Kim Wilde posters after a trip abroad. As an Iron Maiden fan myself, I connected even more to Marji. And this is what makes this graphic novel so powerful. Students will connect with Marji.

This is a novel that will help students see that nations are not just borders on a map or a government in a far-off capital city. Countries are inhabited by people, many of whom share the same feelings and interests that you do, because humans are far more alike than different. Our diversity should be celebrated, but our connections shouldn’t be overlooked either!

National Geographic Education is recognizing Banned Books Week with resources, news, and shared experiences of educators.

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