Germantown Friends School ninth graders Lindsay Shinn (left), of Blue Bell, and Eliza Cohen, of Mt. Airy, with the graphic novels they wrote for their English class Heritage Project. (Photo by Laura Jamieson)

by Laura Jamieson

While “the classics” are valuable in the pantheon of literature, ninth graders at Germantown Friends School are looking beyond the usual tomes to more modern works and formats. This fall, they studied the graphic novel “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in Tehran amidst the turmoil of the Islamic Revolution and Iraq War.

At the end of this lesson there was no pop quiz or book report – instead, the students created their own graphic novels.

“We looked at how Satrapi is influenced by her heritage. We asked the students to think about some part of their heritage, using a broad sense of what heritage might be,” said English teacher Connie Thompson.

The students then wrote a short essay and turned it into a graphic novel.

“I believe in the power of personal narrative writing,” Thompson said.

The students had a wide variety of stories to tell: One student, following in the footsteps of a grandfather and great-grandfather, who were both osteopathic doctors in China, wrote about her decision to pursue medicine.

Another student illustrated how each member of her family taught her a new aspect or form of music. She wrote, “a real family doesn’t need the same blood pumping in everyone’s veins – it needs an understanding of the rhythms beating in each others hearts,” and one ninth grader, using few words and mostly illustrations, showed how he connected to his Jewish heritage on a trip to the American Jewish Museum with his grandparents, just days before his Bar Mitzvah.

The students enjoyed working in a format that is very modern and popular right now.

“This is only the second year we have been teaching “Persepolis” as part of our literature program, so it’s relatively new for us to be including a graphic novel,” Thompson said.

She noted that a graphic novel made The New York Times Book Review’s 2012 “Ten Best Books of the Year” list. “The ninth-grade teachers all believe, however, that this is first-rate literature in the comic format.”

Both the students and faculty agree that graphic novels have come a long way from newspaper funnies and “comic books” that students used to hide behind their textbooks to covertly read during class. For their assignment, the ninth graders rose to the challenge and created impressive works of both literary and artistic merit.

A number of the graphic novels are currently on display in the GFS Friends Free Library, 5418 Germantown Ave., which is open to the public. Stop by, relax and enjoy the artistry of these students’ words and images.