Tag Archives: Award-Winner


Author(s), Illustrator/Photographer: Art Spiegelman

Publisher and Year Number of pages: Pantheon Books, 1991, 296 Pages.

Genre: Fiction, Autobiography, Memoir, History and Biography.

Descriptive Annotation: The cover features two Polish Jews (Spiegelman and his father) cowering under the shadow of a giant swastika, modified by the imposition of a German-stylized cat’s head emblem. This is a combination of both standard Holocaust imagery and the use of animals as metaphors, which can be seen for the entirety of the graphic novel. Maus is the heartbreaking story of a Polish-American man and his aging father’s experiences in the Holocaust as a Polish Jew, and the continued regret of Spiegelman “using” the death of six million Jews to sell his book to some extent in his mind. As the Holocaust is described to him via his father, Spiegelman also continues to express guilt that didn’t talk to his father more about his experiences on a frequent basis when he had the opportunity to do so when the former was alive. The whole of his father’s trials, from growing up in moderately anti-Semitic Poland to the German invasion in 1939 and the ways in which the population react (or don’t react) to the actions the Nazi regime takes against the Jewish population, are covered in the book. Prior knowledge of what the Holocaust was, and perhaps reading of some more traditional fare on the era such as The Diary of Anne Frank, would certainly be useful in the scenario of students reading this novel in the classroom.

Classroom Application: In this graphic novel, the characters are all played by different animal personas based on nationality, which would be ideal for some upper-level social studies settings. For instance, the Nazis/Germans are cats, the Jews are mice, Americans are dogs, and the French are frogs. The metaphors purposefully don’t work for large portions of the story, i.e. when a mouse is a veteran of World War I for Germany and he flickers back and forth between being a mouse and a cat. This is a teachable moment, since it’s Spiegelman’s way of saying that race and racism, or discrimination of any kind, is very arbitrary because the categories we apply really don’t hold water when held up to scrutiny, or when you consider that people can belong to more than one category.

Linguistic and Cultural Diversity Analysis: Spiegelman covers the different ways in which the Holocaust is remembered, and notes that when he published the novel, nobody had used a comic book format to do so before: “I’m not talking about YOUR book now, but look at how many books have already been written about the Holocaust. What’s the point? People haven’t changed…” (Spiegelman, p. 34). Exasperation with people not being able to get the message with traditional mediums of literature drove Spiegelman to write this book, and that is why 27 years later, this is still a widely taught and used piece of work, both in the US and Germany, the latter of which had to be lobbied to permit the public sale of this book due to the display of the swastika being an illegal offense in that country. Another source of controversy is that the animal chosen to represent the Poles was a pig, since that is a common stereotype of people from Poland and from Eastern Europe in general, and the Germans are universally seen as a brutalizing force in the novel as well. The author speaks through one of his characters as unrepentant on the latter, though, stating “Let the Germans have a little what they did to the Jews” (Spiegelman, p. 226). Such an attitude may seem severe to certain readers, but in the context of the experience of Spiegelman’s family and millions of others, it is understandable that they are biased against their erstwhile oppressors and architects of the genocide.

We’re all wonders

Author(s) Illustrator/Photographer: written and illustrated by R.J. Palacio

Publisher and Year Number of pages: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017, 29 pages.

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Descriptive Annotation: The cover features a simple artistic rendering of a boy with a facial deformity inside a giant white astronaut’s helmet, very similar to the cover artwork of another famous book by R.J. Palacio, Wonder, which features similar cover artwork in a less elaborate design. The lush sketches featured on the cover continue for the whole of the book, and the results are pleasing to both the eye and the heart. As for the book itself, it involves the story of Auggie Wonder, the protagonist of Wonder, who is used to being an ordinary kid that just happens to have an extraordinary face, and a lovable dog named Daisy. Whenever Auggie is sad about how he is not the same as other kids at his school, he is reminded by his family of his true potential: “My mom says I’m unique. She says I’m a wonder. My dog, Daisy, agrees!” (Palacio, p. 10). Eventually, despite this encouragement, Auggie has to decide whether or not to face the bullies who say cruel things about his condition face to face, or take a break from it all. Auggie goes with door number two: “It hurts my feelings. It hurts Daisy’s feelings, too. When that happens, I put on my helmet. I put Daisy’s helmet on, too. And then we blast off!” (Palacio, pgs. 14-18). Out in space, Auggie gets a much better perspective of how big the world is, and sees that “Earth is big enough for all kinds of people” (Palacio, p. 24). He takes this knowledge back down to his fellow kids, and they start to realize that they, too, are all wonders in their own special ways and should treat another with care and respect. No background knowledge is necessary to enjoy this book, but leafing through this wholesome tome may spark an interest in the full novel to be read, which is never a bad flame for an educator to spark.

Classroom Application: Since the book makes the mutual respect of all an enormous priority by depicting kids of completely different backgrounds on the playground and in its text, it’s an ideal text to teach lessons on being decent to one another and not bullying. The author/illustrator also demonstrates that sometimes it is right and just to withdraw from a situation to decompress and take stock. Direct action towards bullies is never good if pursued in anger; one must “look with kindness and…always find wonder” (Palacio, p. 29). One possible lesson after reading the book would be to tie it into school anti-bullying campaigns, and then also review the classroom bullying standards and see if they need to be revised in any way, shape or form. Students would also do well to recognize, as Auggie does, that minds can be changed, and perceptions altered, and how to best go about changing them is always dependent on the situation.

Linguistic and Cultural Diversity Analysis: The book is diversely cast; on page 8, children of every race and faith are depicted with a high degree of accuracy and tact. The unique cultural blend of each school, therefore, can easily fit into the framework of the picture book and be used to great effect in any classroom, regardless of subject. Palacio does a great job explaining how tolerance works to the reader through the simple depiction of all the different groups peacefully coexisting; the only outlier is Auggie, and eventually, the children overcome that difference as well.

The Wall: Growing Up Behind The Iron Curtain

Author(s), Illustrator/Photographer: Peter Sís.

Publisher and Year Number of pages: Frances Foster Books, 2005, 50 Pages.

Descriptive Annotation: The cover features two awards-one Caldecott, and one Robert Siebert, along with a Czech baby in the middle of a giant red star. As a send-up of the sort of books the Soviet and Communist presses made during the Cold War, there are many parodies of Communist Party imagery, the red star on the cover being the first example. This is a combination of both standard Soviet imagery and the kind of cartoons and political drawings that appeared in plentiful quantities in the Prague Spring of 1968, in which control by the Czechoslovak Communist regime was briefly loosened and the free press came roaring back temporarily. The wall is the story of that spring and the effect it had on the author, a Czech-American man and his visit that he took to his homeland with the children he raised in the United States. Their experiences in the city of Prague are much different than those of their father’s: “Now when my American family goes to visit my Czech family in the colorful city of Prague, it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion and lies” (Sis, p. 49). As his childhood under Communist rule is described to the reader by the use of comic strips on the top of the page and captions on the bottom, Sis also continues to express the fears that tormented him as a young man in the old country, and how he and his family didn’t talk about certain things for fear of the secret police hearing them. The whole of his trials, from growing up in the tightly repressed Czechoslovakia, to experiencing true freedom in the second half of the 1960’s and the subsequent Soviet invasion in August of 1968 and the ways in which the population react (or don’t react) to the actions the Red regime takes against the previously free media and citizenry, are covered in the book. Prior knowledge of what the Cold War and Prague Spring were would certainly be useful in the scenario of students reading this book in the classroom.

Classroom Application: In this picture book, the comic strips depict what is and what is not permitted by the Soviet puppet government at various stages of its existence, which would be ideal for some social studies settings which have students that perhaps had relatives behind the Iron Curtain back in the day, and didn’t get to experience some of the freedoms that we as Americans take for granted. This is a teachable moment since it’s Sis’s way of saying that his life in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s through the 1980s was so drastically different from what students today have to experience (mandatory participation in a scouting movement and collection of scrap metals), it can be hard to teach in some ways. We must try as educators to do so, however, because if we don’t, the same mistakes of the past could easily be repeated again.

Linguistic and Cultural Diversity Analysis: Sis covers the different ways in which the Cold War and Prague Spring are remembered, showing the contrast between East and West through maps and exclaiming what a unique experience having the Beatles and Beach Boys was in his country: “But out of the dark came a glimmer of hope. The Beach Boys arrived. America to the rescue!” (Sis, p. 27-28). Exasperated with the new youth movement and fearful that the colorful styles of the West will destroy their socialist paradise, the Czechoslovak police maul and arrest concertgoers who saw the Beach Boys at Prague’s Lucerna Hall in 1969 as they leave. The return of people not being able to get the music they want from the West through traditional means results in a huge black market forming, one that persists in Sis’s telling until his departure for the US in 1984. This should be a widely taught and used piece of work, both in the US and around the former Eastern Bloc, since it shows the profound failure of the latter and the absolute oppression which results from authoritarianism. In the context of the experience of Sis’s family and millions of others, it is necessary that they are brought some peace of mind that this kind of system can never rear its ugly head again and make people scared to live their lives in peace. Artists like Sis, who was a radio DJ and actually toured with the Beach Boys when they visited his country, can never be truly suppressed by the jackboot of hate, but they need our help whenever possible to keep their creative flames alive.