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After Persepolis: Graphic Novels Challenged in the Classroom

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Graphic novels have been in the news lately thanks to the Chicago Public Schools' restriction of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's graphic coming-of-age memoir which takes place against the back drop of the 1978 Iranian Revolution (Pantheon Books, 2003). In a series of moves surrounding the book challenge, CPS announced that the book would be banned from schools, then altered course to declare that the title would remain on library shelves but would be removed from middle and high school curriculum. CPS tweeted a screenshot of CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett's letter to principals regarding the book, which was said to be too graphic for 7th graders. The district position is that until further training and teacher resources are available, teachers are not equipped to handle student responses to the book.

The unfolding of events prompted reaction from publishers and comics cognoscenti—see this post at Truthout—and from CPS students, who staged a sit-in Monday to protest the book's removal from required reading lists. Marjane Satrapi, in a phone interview with DNAinfo.com, dismissed plans for additional teacher training, saying, "If you have to take a course to teach a book, you pick another book. It's a big insult to the teachers. It's insulting their intelligence, their integrity." The Atlantic published an opinion piece by Noah Berlatsky, in which he suggests that the oppressive regime depicted in Persepolis may have uncomfortable echoes in the current debate.

Persepolis is part of the Chicago district's official common-core curriculum and may be the first such title to be challenged. The common standards suggest broadening the scope of students' reading through greater exposure to informational texts and through encounters with nontraditional texts. As with many banned and challenged books, content, not context, is what proves objectionable to the plaintive party. (For more context on challenges to comic books, legal and otherwise, see The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's 2012 roundup, "The Year in Censorship," as well as Marc Greenberg's case study of the CBLD itself.)

Still, resistance to graphic novels themselves is by no means uncommon, even as the common standards seem to solidify their place in the cultivation of multiple literacies. A Chicago Tribune story profiled classrooms where graphic novels have been successfully introduced. While comics haven't exactly been a rare presence in schools, research on their place in curriculum is just beginning to enter the consciousness of the general public, with mixed results. In my next post, I'll discuss several new and recent papers examining obstacles to teaching with graphic novels.

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