In honor of ALA’s recently released 2014 Banned Books List, I can’t help but recommend the second most banned book Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis was one of the three graphic novels that made the top ten list this year. The book is criticized for its use of gambling, offensive language, and political viewpoints as well as for being “politically, racially, and socially offensive” and for having “graphic depictions.” In reality, this graphic memoir isn’t afraid to tackle the horrifying and at times comedic realities of growing up in a community faced with political turmoil. After all, Satrapi wanted readers to recognize that Iranians are normal people, just like everyone else. They enjoy music and parties and clothes; the difference is that the characters in Persepolis are living during the Iranian Revolution. Satrapi begins her narrative at six years old, relaying the stories of every day life as the Shah’s regime is overthrown, the Islamic Revolution takes hold, and the war with Iraq destroys her community.
What I love most about Persepolis is its ability to attract my reluctant readers, particularly my students who would otherwise steer clear of the international shelf in my classroom library. These students are drawn to the simple black-and-white cartoons and the rebellious teen protagonist. They love her quirky sense of humor and her obsession with American music icons like Michael Jackson. Like many of our students, she is an angsty teen coming of age. The difference is that she grows up during political conflict and war. Her world is changing around her, war has becomes standard, and she, as a teenager, is attempting to find normality in completely abnormal circumstances. But it’s Marji’s ability to navigate this morbid world and go through complex transformations that make her come alive on the page.
I tend to use graphic novels towards the beginning of the year when my students are becoming acclimated to analyzing writer’s craft (or even when they need a refresher on it). Oftentimes students are more in tune to looking at the details of drawings than of writing; they find it easier to pick out the eccentricities of images yet rarely do they question why the artist made the choices they did. Graphic novels give them the opportunity to do just this.
I have students work in small groups to analyze the artistic decisions of the illustrator. For example, in the scene to the right, Marji has been taken into custody by the Women’s Branch of the Guardians of the Revolution, a group in charge of monitoring women’s wearing of the veil. When they stop to study the images, students notice the repetitive stern expression of the guardian and the way Marji’s face appears to melt into squiggly lines as the frames progress. They notice the transition of the lines surrounding the word bubbles from smooth curved lines to sharp zig-zags. They recognize changes in font size and effects as well as the underlying narrative strand at the bottom of the frame that shows internal dialogue. As they analyze these details, they also begin questioning the choices that lead to the depictions of these conversations and emotions and what they ultimately mean in the context of the story. By the end, the graphics take on a more complex tone. The images come alive, the artist’s intentions become clearer, and they have immersed themselves in a new lens that allows them to take a second look at literature.