March 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Sparking the Conversation Through Graphic Novels

Graphic novels are a surefire way to attract readers, but with their copious use of visuals, they’re also the perfect way to make daunting issues comprehensible. These recent titles skillfully examine a range of complex subjects making headlines and dominating current conversations: the Syrian refugee crisis, the growing awareness of sexual harassment and assault, and the stigma of mental illness.

With Escape from Syria (Firefly, Oct. 2017; Gr 8 Up), journalist Samya Kullab draws on her experience reporting on the Syrian refugee crisis, crafting a poignant, illuminating fictional tale. Amina and her family’s life in Aleppo City is disrupted when war erupts. After the marketplace is bombed, they journey to a refugee camp in Lebanon. The family’s money begins to run out, and the marginalization of Syrians by the Lebanese government leaves them vulnerable. Eventually they get the chance at a new life in Canada.

Kullab presents a clear time line of events, lucidly describing the long-term causes of the war and its effects. Jackie Roche and Mike Freiheit’s gentle cartoon artwork tempers the upsetting elements (bloodshed, warfare, a harrowing attempt to flee by boat) without glossing over the horrors. The illustrations emphasize concrete details, such as Amina packing a teddy bear or helping her dad navigate the bus in Toronto, making the story all the more relatable. Copious endnotes offer additional explanations (definitions of Arabic words, discussions of the rise of ISIS). Readers will be both moved and enlightened by this insightful introduction.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak occupies a crucial place in the YA canon. Nearly 20 years after the book’s publication, Speak: The Graphic Novel (Farrar, Feb. 2017; Gr 7 Up) captures the essence of the original and is especially relevant in light of #MeToo movement, which encourages women to expose sexual harassment and assault. High school freshman Melinda is adrift, retreating inside herself, speaking as little as possible, and neglecting her schoolwork. Readers eventually learn that an older student raped Melinda at a party over the summer. Her attempt to call 911 and report the crime resulted in police breaking up the gathering—and branded Melinda a social exile before school even started.

This unflinching work hews closely to the source material, reproducing Melinda’s snarky, insightful commentary on the myopic adults and students around her. Speak conveys not only the pain of rape but the torment of keeping that trauma a shameful secret. Aptly, Emily Carroll’s graceful black-and-white illustrations quickly shift from mundane depictions of everyday life to monstrous imagery: Melinda’s face is rubbed out as she stares in a mirror; jagged trees threaten to overtake a peaceful memory of making snow angels. Yet there’s a sliver of hope here as Anderson and Carroll bring this devastating work to a realistic conclusion that will encourage readers facing their own obstacles to find their voices.

Though set in the 19th century, Lita Judge’s lavishly illustrated Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein (Roaring Brook, Jan. 2018; Gr 7 Up), like Speak, addresses sexism and misogyny, themes that resonate more than ever today. In impassioned verse, Mary describes her often lonely childhood and adolescence and her affair with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her once affectionate father turns cold, and 17-year-old Mary, pregnant, and Shelley flee, eventually meeting up with enfant terrible Lord Byron.

Shelley is tormented by dark moods, unfaithful, and callously indifferent when Mary’s babies die soon after birth. Yet in a world where art and writing are the purview of men, he’s also one of the few to encourage Mary’s literary talents. More deaths and unhappiness follow, but Mary draws on the pain to craft Frankenstein.

The vivid poetry and the elegant black-and-white artwork are suffused with gloom and a gothic flair, mingling images of love and romance with those of corpses and grotesque monsters. Judge infuses this narrative with a feminist sensibility, as Mary grapples with the legacy of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (who penned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and questions the sexism of the controlling Shelley and Byron and society as a whole, which shamed women for the unconventional behavior it condoned in men.

Ivy Noelle Weir’s Archival Quality (Oni, Mar. 2018; Gr 9 Up) blends the realistic and the supernatural for a sensitive exploration of mental illness, a topic about which misconceptions abound. Twentysomething Celeste recently lost her job as a librarian because of her depression. When she’s offered an archivist position at a museum devoted to documenting the history of a former orphanage, hospital, and psychiatric institute, she eagerly accepts, despite the odd stipulations (she must live at the Logan Museum and work the night shift). Cel excels at the job. But odd occurrences, such as vandalism in her apartment, alarm her, and she dreams about a young woman strapped to a gurney—a victim of the psychiatric treatment of a bygone era? Cel knows the Logan Museum conceals secrets, and she longs to help the woman haunting her unconscious life, but Cel’s boyfriend Kyle and her supervisor Holly worry that the job is overwhelming.

Too often, titles on mental illness resort to cliché, romanticizing disorders or depicting characters in need of saviors. Weir, however, offers a more nuanced treatment. Though Kyle and Holly’s concern is understandable, so are Cel’s frustration with their protectiveness, her initial avoidance of her problems, and her urge for independence. Steenz’s bright, cartoonish illustrations keep this unnerving tale from veering into the realm of disturbing, and readers will relate to the expressive characters. Cel’s experiences dovetail well with the glimpses of the Logan Museum’s past and the story of the mysterious woman—this is a rich look at both the past and current stigma against mental illness.

Looking for more graphic novels for teens? Read Mahnaz Dar’s October 2017 article “Dialing Up the Creepy: New Graphic Novels for Teens,” and take a look at Good Comics for Kids on School Library Journal’s blog network.

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar ( is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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