Award-Winning Books CORL (Check Off your Reading List) Challenge 2014 GB Challenges graphic novel Non-fiction Wednesday Nonfiction Reading Themes War, Poetry, Refuge, Peace

Nonfiction Middle Grade/ YA Graphic Novels that deal with War and Conflict: Briggs’ Ethel and Ernest, Abirached’s A Game for Swallows, Pyle’s Take What You Can Carry, Faulkner’s Gaijin, Yang’s Boxers and Saints

Myra here.

One of the things I discovered as I was doing my research for our current reading theme is how many graphic novels there are that deal with war and conflict – most are actually nonfiction titles. And so I endeavoured to do a compilation, a list of sorts, in keeping with “Scarred Souls and Bloodstained Memories: Tales of War and Poetry, Refuge and Peace.”


IMG_5760Ethel & Ernest

A Graphic Novel by: Raymond Briggs
Published by: Pantheon Books, 1998
Book borrowed from the NIE Library. Book photos taken by me.

This book is dedicated to Briggs’ parents, Ethel & Ernest Briggs. The book begins on a Monday back in 1928 when Ethel was still working as a lady’s maid and enamored with the dapper young man on a bike named Ernest. The story ends when they both die in the year 1971, one dying shortly after the other, as is usually the case among old married couples who have been together for a very long time.

They have endured a great deal together, from twenty-five years worth of mortgage for a house, to gradually building a home together…


… to finally having a son, and trying to make sense of what the war is about …


… and how they had to send Raymond off to the country during the war, as per governmental edict, to keep him safe:


The couple’s conversation is reminiscent of James and Hilda in Briggs’ When the Wind Blows and Gentleman Jim. The fact that the couple is not very highly-educated demonstrates the average individual’s ruminations about war, society, and life in general.


I was also pretty amused by how devastated the couple was when their son, Raymond, informed them that he will be attending art school:


I am amazed by how Raymond, as the author of this graphic-novel-memoir managed to effectively remove himself and his views from the essence of the storytelling, such that his parents’ views are paramount. Their thoughts, feelings, and voices are predominant here, rather than Raymond’s, despite the fact that his story is inextricably interwoven into theirs. Or more accurately, these are Raymond Briggs’ perceptions of his parents’ thoughts and feelings based on his nuanced understanding of who they are as individuals and as a couple.

I read this book several years back. I read it again to prepare for this post, and once more I am deeply affected by the story and moved again to tears despite myself. Briggs’ dry wit, matter-of-fact storytelling, no-nonsense approach that is almost like a parody of the truth for all its stark reality, continue to blindside me with its full impact, like a blow that comes out of nowhere. This is a must-have book, definitely a collector’s item.

A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To ReturnIMG_5338

Story and Art by: Zeina Abirached Translation by: Edward Gauvin
Published byGraphic Universe, 2012
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

Based on real-life events that happened to the author when she was only a very young girl living in East Beirut, the art and the storyline transport the reader to the realities of living in 1984 in Lebanon with the city cut in half: West Beirut for Muslims and East Beirut for Christians.


Zeina and her brother have never really known anything but sandbags, bricks, containers found in middle of alleys as protection from snipers’ bullets, as they were born at a time when the civil war in Lebanon has been going on for six years:

Buildings shut themselves away behind walls of cinder blocks and metal drums.

Inside these divided sectors, life is organized around the cease-fires.


As Zeina and her family live in the middle of a war zone, their apartment has been closed off to avoid the occasional bombs, and they have all moved into the foyer, the only safe room in the house. With just a few panels, see how this was portrayed by Abirached, sans drama, but all the more staggering with the blank spaces:


Soon enough, the foyer became a make-shift home, as Zeina and her family were trapped like refugees in their own home:


Zeina’s parents have braved the battle zone outside of their home to visit Zeina’s grandmother, who lives a few blocks away. However, it has already been over an hour, but they still have not returned. Whether or not they will return is the grand conflict at the heart of the story. In the interim, beyond the waiting, over and above the anticipation of their parents’ homecoming, the neighbors come to check on Zeina and her brother in one and twos, and this is where the real story happens. Anhala prepares sfouf, the children play their usual games…


… Chucri arrives shortly and Anhala brews coffee, Ernest Challita taps on the glass of their door with his key, then Monsieur Khaled and his wife Madame Linda came to say hello and share a glass of single malt aged 16 years, then Ramzi the architect and his pregnant wife Farah turned up. Soon enough, there were nine people in the tiny foyer, sharing stories, breaking bread, and all avidly waiting for the children’s parents, Sami and Nour to return, with an increasingly-loud Tic-Toc. And as they wait, the reader gets to know each one of the neighbors, their narratives, their failed dreams, their secret wishes, their heartaches.


The sense of community, of steadfast faith, of clear-eyed connection and compassion are keenly felt and experienced, almost in a visceral fashion in this graphic novel. Whether or not Zeina’s parents would return, I shall leave for you to discover. I was riveted by this book when I chanced upon it several months back. Portrayed in startling and deceptively-simple black-and-white, there are moments when I found myself just halting and putting my hand in my heart. There is power in the pages of this book, making colours superfluous.


In the Afterword, there is a short note of what inspired the author to write her story:

While surfing a French online news archive, she came across a television documentary made in Beirut in 1984. The reporters were interviewing the residents of a street near the demarcation line that cut the city in two. A woman whose home had been hit by the bombings spoke a single sentence that startled her: “You know, I think maybe we’re still more or less safe here.”

That woman was her grandmother. At that moment, she knew she had to tell the story of their lives in Beirut.

IMG_5786Take What You Can Carry

Story and Art by: Kevin C. Pyle
Published by: Henry Holt and Company, 2012
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

The story is told in alternating shades of colours. The setting of the sepia-toned one is in Berkeley California in December 7, 1941 – around the time when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese army. As the story moves forward, one sees that the setting changes to Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California; then eventually to the Manzanar Internment Camp. The cyan-toned one has 1978 and the suburb of Chicago as its setting.

The older narrative depicted in aged sepia colours is told in absolutely wordless panels – with only signs, posters, and the occasional captions informing the reader about what is going on; whereas the more contemporary story as told in the cyan-colored panels has dialogues and the usual text-narrative.


The characters in Chicago of 1978 were a group of young hoodlums who made it a habit of playing pranks around the community in escalating episodes of juvenile delinquency which began with destroying things, to stealing things from a Japanese American store, until it reached the point that you can see in the above photograph. The sensation of free-falling and just going with the ugly flow despite one’s self as one takes on the free ride to nowhere just for the thrill of it was fully captured in this panel below:


Try as I might, I could not connect to these group of kids who were evidently bored and had too much time with their hands that they resorted to self-destructive behaviours.


The story above, on the other hand, is one that is familiar to most readers, but does not make the story any less powerful and moving. It also showed how some of the inmates coped with their situation as evident in the arts and crafts below:


In the detailed Historical Notes found at the end of the book, this kind of activity was described as follows:

Unable to have any control over their situation and with hours of idleness on their hands, many of them turned to arts and crafts such as calligraphy, wood working, weaving, pottery, painting, stone carving, and artificial flower making. They used scavenged materials such as unraveled gunnysacks to make rugs, and they carved tiny animals out of peach pits or scrap lumber.

Author Delphine Hirasuna, a third-generation Japanese American (Sansei) and daughter of internees, has called this the art of gaman, a Japanese word that means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.”

While the art in this graphic novel did not particularly appeal to me, I still think this is an important story that needs telling for young people to fully appreciate the freedom that they often take for granted.

Gaijin: American Prisoner of WarIMG_5772

A Graphic Novel byMatt Faulkner
Published by: Disney Hyperion Books, 2014
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

I am a fan of Matt Faulkner’s work ever since I reviewed his picturebook A Taste of Colored Water here. When I learned that he has just recently released a graphic novel that is in keeping with our current reading theme, I immediately looked for this title in our library and was so pleased to discover that we already have a copy of this gorgeously-illustrated comics.

The story of Koji, pejoratively nicknamed as Gaijin (which means half-caste or more accurately, ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’), is based on the true story of Faulkner’s great-aunt named Adeline Conlan, a celebrated Irish American singer back in 1920 who married a Japanese man named Ichiro when she had a tour in Japan. In the Afterword, Faulkner shared how difficult it was to trace this particular lineage in his family, but he did what he could, and thanks to the Internet, he was able to craft a story that is roughly based on his great-aunt’s and her daughter Mary’s experience.

In this graphic novel, Adeline has a son named Koji who experienced racial prejudice and discrimination back in 1941 when the Japanese army bombed Pearl Harbor, notwithstanding the fact that Koji was born in the US and is an American citizen by right. Koji’s father, who was in Japan at the time, was suspected of being a spy. Thus, Koji and his mother’s lives, as they knew it, was over, the minute Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and they were ordered to relocate to the Alameda Downs Assembly Center. The only way that Koji was able to communicate with his father was through his colourful, bizarre, and seemingly-inexplicable dreams such as the one found in the full spread page below.


Koji, being born of Caucasian mother and a Japanese father was twice-rejected: by his American ancestry because he was considered a “Jap” and thus, potentially a “spy” and an enemy; and by his Japanese ancestry because he was perceived as a “Gaijin,” a foreigner, someone who does not belong with his blonde hair and his evidently-Western freckles. Add the fact that he is an adolescent boy with excess energy, pent-up anger and aggression, and his raging hormones that he is not always able to keep in check, it is not surprising, then that life at the interment camp became even more difficult than usual.


The atrocities needlessly suffered by Japanese Americans were glimpsed through peripheral stories of those who were interned along with Koji and his mother, such as the story of Mr. Yoshi Asai who rented out his home only to be robbed blind by his tenants by virtue of his ethnicity:


My only peeve with this book is its highly abrupt ending that immediately transported the reader several years after with very little transition and lots of loose ends that have not really been fully resolved. That being said, I believe that this is an important graphic novel that personalizes this horrific period in American history through bold, bright colours that literally breathe with life, authentic dialogues, and a gripping narrative that would make even the most reluctant reader turn to the next page and the next. For teachers who wish to make use of this in the classroom, here is an extensive downloadable PDF link created by Disney Hyperion Books that includes an amazing discussion guide, pre-reading activities, and even possible common core alignments that teachers may wish to explore with their students.

IMG_0772Boxers & Saints

A Graphic Novel by: Gene Luen Yang
Published byFirst Second, 2013
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

Gene Luen Yang has managed to bring history to life and made it palatable to a contemporary audience in Boxers and Saints. His narrative and accessible comic panels (that are not screaming or all over the place or too overwhelming for a graphic-novel-newbie) would definitely appeal to young readers’ fascination with comics and thirst for action, with a blend of folk tale, mysticism, and magical realism thrown into the mix.

In Boxers, the reader gets to know Little Bao,  the youngest member of his family, quite dreamy, opera-loving, and generally hardworking and disciplined; and how he eventually tarnsformed to this seemingly-unlikely leader of The Big Sword Society which was eventually renamed as The Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist. This is a gang of “village rats” who trained in kung fu, whose intention is to free China from “foreign devils” and to punish the “secondary devils,” the latter being Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity.


I felt increasingly saddened as I witness how Little Bao became a ruthless assassin intent on pursuing his ideals, regardless of what it cost him or the people around him; how he gradually compromised the society’s edicts in the face of self-righteousness; and justified his destroying the weak and the helpless because they threatened his sense of order.


In Saints, the reader gets to know Four-Girl, the fourth daughter, who was essentially unwanted in her family as four is believed to be the homonym of death in Chinese, and so she was never given a proper name. Her grandfather dismissed her presence and believed that she would only bring misfortune and bad luck to the family. And so, this young and spunky girl who wanted nothing but to be loved and accepted by her grandfather embraced her fate, so much so that she dcided to perfect her devil-face:


I have to admit that Saints appealed to me even more because of Four-Girl’s character. She is hilarious without meaning to, and her attempts to gain attention, notwithstanding how much it usually backfires, spoke to me with its sheer honesty and refreshing candor. The strange circuitous ways through which she found her faith and calling in Christianity, by wanting to be the perfect devil, is such a brilliant play at irony and truth. The intersections between Little Bao’s story and Four-Girl, named Vibiana when she converted to Catholicism and became a baptized Christian, was at both turns comical and tragic. I knew very little about the Boxer Rebellion before I read this novel, and now I have a more intimate knowledge of this period in history through Yang’s masterful storytelling that is virtually unparalleled, particularly for the middle-grade readers.

My 12 year old girl read this graphic novel before I did, and she told me how she was able to share a few of the insights she gleaned from the novel for her 6th Grade Geography class when they were dicussing the Boxer Rebellion, further proving how graphic novels could be essential readings in the middle grade classroom. For teachers who wish to make use of this in the classroom, here is a comprehensive, 16-paged downloadable Teachers Guide created by Brian Kelley for First Second Press. Kelley is a Ph.D. candidate in the Language, Literacy, and Learning Program at Fordham University.



Reading Challenge Update: 203-207 (25)

We are linking this post to Alyson Beecher’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


Nonfiction PictureBook Challenge: 35-39 (25)

6 comments on “Nonfiction Middle Grade/ YA Graphic Novels that deal with War and Conflict: Briggs’ Ethel and Ernest, Abirached’s A Game for Swallows, Pyle’s Take What You Can Carry, Faulkner’s Gaijin, Yang’s Boxers and Saints

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