During my sophomore year of college, I was asked to design and teach a unit for a fifth-grade classroom based around the novel Listen Slowly by Thannhà Lại. The main character and narrator, Mai, is a self-centered twelve-year-old who complains constantly when her parents send her to stay with her grandmother in Vietnam for the summer. Her voice is smart, sarcastic, and somewhat insensitive.
Like all strong focal characters, Mai develops over the course of the book. However, her transformation is not sudden or obvious—it’s a gradual climb before she is able to appreciate her heritage and empathize with others. The evidence of this change can be seen with close attention to detail, but it is subtle and slow enough to almost be unnoticeable.
A character like this, I would argue, is the best for teaching character development. In life, there is rarely a single transformative moment after which one undergoes a total or even significant change in behavior or attitudes. For most people, even deliberate change requires time. A character that reflects the gradual transformative effect of living out of one’s comfort zone will typically be more relatable to students.
I had my students create Comic Strip Bookmarks because I wanted to draw their attention to the nuances of Lại’s writing as she creates this coming-of-age story. I wanted them to engage with the story and with Mai, and to recognize the implicit and explicit ways the author shows Mai’s character development.
Character development can be seen through many dimensions including changes in motivation, perspective, expectations, and attitudes. The bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, highlights character development through the maturation of the main character, but any well-written story will work well with the Comic Strip Bookmarks.
The basic idea is this:
Students create comic-style illustrations on a blank bookmark based on the first chapter of the book, using character motivations as inspiration, and use the bookmarks to trace changes in a character over the course of a story.
For my group of fifth-graders, I asked them to choose three things that Mai cared about most in the beginning and depict them using dialogue, word bubbles, and drawings. Periodically, in class and during independent reading, students compared their representations of what Mai cared about with the evidence from the page they were on to determine if she was the same, or different.
The bookmark served as an introduction and a scaffold for later learning and discussion. The students referred back to what they drew on their bookmarks often without prompting and paid closer attention to the details of Mai’s dialogue and actions, and the author’s diction.
Interestingly, even though the students did not like Mai, they were able to understand her character. They adapted to her voice when they were reading aloud, they made predictions based on what they perceived as Mai’s motivations, and they reacted with disbelief, annoyance, excitement or humor to the events of the story. Tracing one aspect of the story—character development—in an engaging way, impacted their investment in the story as a whole.
Comic Strip Bookmarks require little preparation. At minimum, students need a strip of paper wide enough to draw on and art supplies. (Even a pencil will do.) However, I recommend using a template, such as the ones available at www.printablepaper.net.
Many students are familiar with the format of a comic book, but it can be helpful to provide examples of word bubbles (different ones are used to express dialogue and thoughts, and even to convey the volume of the speaker) and writing styles (fonts, use of capitalization, and even the size of the words affect the way readers interpret tone).
Actual graphic novels, comic books, or even comics from a newspaper can be used to demonstrate these techniques, but images from a basic Google search are sufficient to get the idea across.
The most important thing is to show the main character’s core beliefs, values, or needs at the beginning. This can be done directly or indirectly. Students could depict scene that demonstrates what the character cares about more implicitly, or they could draw what matters to the character with dialogue to drive the point home. The main benefit of the assignment is not so much in the process of creating the bookmark, but in its value to the reader as he or she reads.
For grading purposes, it is better to take a picture of the bookmark rather than have students turn it in so that they can keep it with them when they are reading.
Finally, here are some examples of completed bookmarks for several different novels, with numbered descriptions below (used with permission):
- Based on a character in the book The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. Created by Rachel, grade 11.
- Based on the main character of Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. Created by me.
- Based on the main character in Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. Created by Alyssa, grade 7.
Using comic strips for teaching character development was inspired in part by strategies shared by Dr. Nichols and my fellow preservice teachers at Grove City College, as well as a project I completed in high school that involved making a comic book page representing the characters from The Crucible by Arthur Miller as animals.’