I was torn about whether or not to go with Persepolis for one of the two graphic novels I want to use in a ninth grade English class. It’s a powerful book, very well done, and covers some really important thinking ground. But I was reluctant to commit for a couple reasons and I thought I would give another book a try: March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell.
The only graphic novel to win the National Book Award (so far), March is a truly collaborative book by a famous politician and civil rights activist, an award-winning comics writer, and an award-winning graphics illustrator. If I had to guess, I would say that the writer (Aydin)—a Turkish-American who wrote his thesis on Martin Luther King Junior—had the idea for Lewis to tell his story and approached him with the idea and then Powell got on board to illustrate. The book was published only in 2020 but it is already on a number of the lists of high school novels ideas I saw. Technically, March is a trilogy: March: Book One; March: Book Two; and March: Book Three. I read and will be teaching from March: Book One though I will be encouraging the rest of the series for the teens.
If you don’t know who John Lewis is, ahem, Congressman John Lewis is a top-ranking politician who has been on the frontlines of the civil rights and human rights movement for like half a century. The story of the first book of March is his childhood in rural Alabama, his rough road to college, his encounters with the Jim Crow South and racism, a trip to the North, a meeting with Martin Luther King Junior, and the early days of the Nashville Student Movement and lunch counter sit-ins. The story is interrupted occasionally by the meta-story, which is a woman coming into the office of John Lewis with her two, young sons on the day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration. The story, then, becomes an elder Lewis telling these two boys about his life and about their history, all from the vantage point of a brighter, more triumphant future. The kids ask about the chickens in his office and Lewis stops his rush out the door to reminisce about those chickens…
One of things you will notice first about March is that it is in black and white. This is normal for graphic novels, though people tend to praise colorful graphic novels more. While this is acceptable at all times, it makes extra sense here, where the story is from a time of black-and-white images (at least at the beginning) and also the story is about literal Black and White. The illustrations are solid. I didn’t really find them ground-breaking or exciting, and yet I don’t know why that might be a criticism. They’re—yup, still—solid. As is the writing. There is perhaps a cheesiness or pop-fiction feel to some of the plot development and moments, but it’s still a story worth telling. It also can come across at times as dry simply by being an historical account. Both lend the project levity, even though there are moments of real pain and struggle. And I understand that the idea of using a graphic novel (series) to introduce people (kids) to civil rights was inspired by a 1957 short comic book called Doctor Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. This is what makes this book special: it’s a solid work of art that is also historical and is also relevant. It is a great choice for just about any classroom from middle school through high school and perhaps even upper elementary. There is heavy stuff, but it’s very approachable for growing minds.
I will be using this book this year. We will talk about its literary merits and we will have discussion about the civil rights movement and about John Lewis.