I simultaneously grimaced and grinned as one of my less academically inclined 9th grade students handed me back my latest copy of this title – the second one I’ve purchased over the last two years after the first magically disappeared from my shelf.
Wondering if he was serious or if he was, well, bullshitting me, I engaged him in conversation about the graphic autobiography of rapper M.F. Grimm.
“What do you think of the main character?” I then asked, “Do you think he changed? Why do you think he wrote this book?”
My student went on to explain that Percy, or Grimm, wanted to portray his life as realistically as possible to point out that he learned from his mistakes. His poor decisions in his youth — drugs, dealing, violence, feeling invincible — led him to his current condition, and he wants readers to learn from his experiences to avoid the same mistakes.
Sure, Sentences will mainly appeal to adolescents for many entirely wrong reasons, but isn’t that part of the joy of reading in the first place? The media specialists at my school have noted that this text is amongst their most circulated titles, and in my own classroom, dozens of students breeze through it for independent reading each and every semester. If it weren’t for the obvious – and necessary – vulgarities and depictions of violence and drug dealing, this could be a perfect text for a group of “non-readers” to enjoy as well as explore for literary merit.
To begin, this text presents a legitimate and useful teaching tool to distinguish between narration and dialogue: something every English teacher has observed striving readers struggle to understand fully. As the text begins with a prelude before moving into a typical starting point for a memoir, the text could be used to examine narrative structure as well as to scaffold the contents of memoir and autobiographical narrative. The novel moves the reader through Carey’s entire life, including his experiences in high school which I will assume appeal to adolescent readers.
As Thompson points out in Adventures in Graphica, “Graphica is read from left to right and top to bottom, just like traditional texts. Creators may veer from this pattern at times to draw readers to something specific or because it is a more effective way to support the meaning of the text. The directionality, speech bubbles, and panels in comics are extremely meaning driven” (2008, p. 29). Sentences presents such key pages early in the text. These two pages appear side by side to depict the intensity and confusion of the shooting that led to Carey’s coma, which is later thoroughly detailed in the narrative. While the narrative boxes read left-to-right, top-to-bottom here, the immediate attention is on the snow and onomatopoetic “blams” scattered throughout the page. Each boxed in panel portrays the event in frame-by-frame memory: likely the only way to remember such a traumatic event. The final panels on the page portray steaming bullets laying on the ground as four unidentifiable shadows disappear into the distance. These first few pages conclude with a blank panel that is preceded by increasingly splotchy panels to indicate Grimm’s slow drift into a coma. But the full meaning of these pages is further layered by the setting which includes a metaphorical layer of snow that confuses each panel as much as it invites the reader to feel how cold and ultimately empty Grimm’s body must have felt as he lay paralyzed, snow piling upon his body, waiting for authorities to stumble upon the scene of the crime.
These introductory pages are perfect examples of how graphic texts invite readers to investigate layers of meaning to go beyond just the words and even images on the page to truly analyze the intended effects of language and art – to investigate themes and messages being communicated by the author and how they manifest in the reader. This is a skill that experienced readers engage with regularly; this is not a skill that striving readers would even be all that conscious of. This multi-layered meaning is what Versacci refers to in This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature when he writes, ” … comic books are not a mindless but a mindful form of escapism that uses a unique kind of language — ‘graphic language’ to invite us into different worlds in order to help us better understand our own” (2007, p. 6). The more I read titles like Sentences, the more I begin to realize that proficient readers are already fluent in translating text-only pieces into “graphic language,” whereas striving readers not only need motivation but also high-interest examples to guide their imaginations and mental processes toward effective reading habits and practices.
I want 25 copies of Sentences for classroom use, and I just might buy them on my own knowing that few if any supervisors would ever spend taxpayer money on this title. As a protagonist, Grimm is the perfect dynamic character, and the strong narrative voice combined with Wimberley’s illustrations create a powerful read rife with possibilities for deep character analysis, examination of character motivation, internal and external conflict, and ultimately thematic analysis. The text portrays Percy/Grimm as a reader, even picturing him with To Kill a Mockingbird in his hands as his friend chastises him for wasting time with books. As a writer, Percy/Grimm is often pictured as serious, determined, and reflective, and several verses scattered throughout the text offer readers a chance to examine skillful uses of language for dramatic effect. A depiction of a high school classroom’s discussion of slavery poses a great opportunity for writing and discussion of individual perceptions of the high school experience, and the presentation of historical accounts of hip-hop’s growth in New York City in the 1980s invites research opportunities. While students will be most drawn to portrayals of famous rappers including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Nas, and others, the novel’s ultimate positive message can easily become the central focus in the classroom in the hands of a caring instructor. In the novel’s resolution, Grimm becomes an advocate for prisoner rights and the epicenter of literacy amongst prisoners. In what amounts to the novel’s epilogue, he says, “But most important, I want to show the youth that there’s other options out there that don’t involve guns and crime. You CAN make it in this business — and any business for that matter — without taking the route I took. If I can help one person, then this project has been a success” (Carey, 2007). By the same token, if taking a risk and housing a potentially controversial book in your classroom leads to even one student gaining an enjoyable, meaningful experience with literature, then you have succeeded.