Monday, March 30, 2015

Serious Narrative Non-Fiction: One graphic novel about a mom surviving cancer. One traditional book about kids surviving war in Sudan.

Park, Linda Sue (2010) A Long Walk to Water  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.

Opening Lines:  "Going was easy.  Going, the plastic container held only air.  Tall for her eleven years, Nya could switch the handle from one hand to the other, swing the container by her side, or cradle it in both arms."

Nya lives in Southern Sudan.  She walks eight hours ever day to fetch water for her family from the pond.  The water is not particularly clean and her mother knows that she should boil the water to prevent disease, but boiling the water means there would be less of it to use.  As the dry season gets going, the pond begins to shrink.  When Nya's mother gets sick from the bad water, it is up to Nya to figure out what to do.

Salva lives in Southern Sudan.  One day when he is in school, he and his classmates hear gunshots.  His teacher rushes them out of the schoolhouse.  Soon  Salva finds himself in a group of refugees, fleeing for their lives and headed for the border with Ethiopia.  He finds a friend and a relative, but also finds violence and loss.

When their stories begin to intersect toward the end of the book, it is a moment of cool clear hope after a long drought full of despair and uncertainty.  Park does a nice job of adapting this true story narratively.  It is a story with some violence and some vague suggestions of sexual menace, but it should be suitable for sixth grade and up.  I think it would make a particularly good read-aloud.

Fies, Brian (2006) Mom's Cancer  New York:  Harry Abrams.

This graphic novel takes the reader from the moment that the author's mother had a small seizure and discovered she had a tumor growing in her brain, through how her three children (called in the book Me, Nurse Sis, and Kid Sis) walk with her through brain scans, diagnosis, waiting, understanding the depth of the problem, first appointments with doctors, biopsies, chemo, side effects, radiation, stages of grief, miraculous healing, and life after cancer.  The book is at least as much about how siblings cope with the illness of a parent as it is about the author's mom's journey. 

As you can see in the image above, the art is an interesting combination of caricature and realism.  Fies also uses visual references to things like the kids game Operation, and at once point talks about how when someone is struggling with cancer, their family becomes like superheroes in that their abilities, concerns, and passions are amplified.  He illustrates this with a brief superhero fight between caped crusaders based on himself and his siblings.  By alternating between gut wrenching realism and cartoonish comic relief, Fies helps the reader get through the difficult stuff.  He incorporates humor into the text as well.  Anyone who has dealt with cancer will smile at a section where he and his siblings call the doctor when their mother is coughing up blood, only to be told to relax, and that such a thing is normal, but then later, when she experiences an innocuous symptom (like a runny nose) they are chastised for not immediately informing the doctor. 

This is a sobering topic and, while there is nothing obviously offensive in the text or images, parents might reasonably object that it is too depressing of a story for young children.  This may be a good one for a teacher to have handy for a student struggling with a parent's cancer.  This one is ideal for high school and up.