A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return by Zeina Abirached

swallowsA Game for Swallows is a non-fiction graphic novel that depicts the Civil War in Beirut, Lebanon in the 1980’s. The graphic novel centers on one memorable day during the war when Zeina’s parents are stuck at a relative’s house. Beirut is divided into East and West with Christians living on the West and Muslims living on the East of the demarcation line.

The graphic novel is told in stark black and white. Zeina is a young child, eight or so, and the conflict is told through her eyes. The story is certainly about war, but it is more about the relationships with the people in her building. While her parents are away, all the people in the building gather in their foyer, not only to stay with children, but because it is the safest location. Their conversations and actions prove this is a weekly, if not daily, tradition. Zeina tells the story of all the people—how the war affected them, who plans to leave, who plans to stay, who has died, and who will die.

All except for two pages are drawings. (The book does not exactly what media the novel is done in). There are two pages near the end that are pictures from the war the word that are graffitied on a wall. “To die, to leave, to return. It’s a game for swallows”—Florian. The war in the novel was already very real, but the pictures help drive the point home. This is a true story. This is what happened to these people in this war.

This graphic novel sheds light on a war that many American readers probably know little to nothing about. The book can be used in a variety of wars. Not only can it be used as an introduction to the Lebanese civil war, but it can also be used as a discussion point for any war. The book is not about military strategies, defeats, and victories. It is about the regular, every day people who are stuck in the middle of a war, the people who are often forgotten by history books. This concept can be applied to any war to get children, and adults, questioning what went on behind the walls of the buildings. How does life change when a war is fought in your country? For an American audience this is an intriguing questions as it has been centuries since a war has been fought on American soil.

The novel does provide both an introduction and an author’s note at the end about why she decided to write and illustrate the book and a little bit of background about Beirut, the war, and the after effects.

The book will have great appeal as more and more children are gravitating toward graphic novels and more non-fiction graphic novels are being published. Non-fiction graphic novels are an innovative way to entice reluctant readers, or even avid readers who don’t like non-fiction, to try something new.

School Library Journal recommends the book for grades 5-8.

Bibliographic Information:

Abirached, Zeina. A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return. New York: Graphic Universe, 2012. Print.

A Bag of Marbles: The Graphic Novel by Joseph Joffo (WWII; grades 6-9)
The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown (1930’s Dust Bowl; grades 5+)
Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Donnor Dinner Party (1840’s America, survival tale; grades 3-6) Also, this is a series of non-fiction graphic novels that cover different historical events.


Jane, the fox, & Me, written by Fanny Britt, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, and translated by Christelle Morelli.

Jane, the fox, & Me is a graphic novel told mainly through black and white colors. The graphic novel is done using mixed media (pencil, color crayon, gouache, ink, and watercolor), and some were assembled or touched up digitally.

janethefoxandme_coverThe novel focuses on Helene, a young girl who is tormented by her schoolmates. They scribble means things on the bathroom walls and whisper that she has body odor and weighs 216 pounds. But Helene has one escape: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. When Helene reads Jane Eyre, all her troubles drift away and her drab, black and white world fills with color. Helen identifies with Jane’s problems, but when Helene is humiliated on a class trip, it’s going to take more than Jane Eyre to heal her.

Parts of this were a little confusing. Helene goes on a four-day nature retreat with her classmates and sees a fox while she’s there. The bit where the fox appears may confuse reads at first, but as the fox is the only color in the book that isn’t about Jane Eyre, the fox represents Helene’s desire for a friend. But when another girl who is sleeping in her tent scares the fox away, Helene blames herself. She scares boys, friends, and even foxes away. Helene does make a friend, a brave girl who stands up for her and becomes an outcast like Helene is.

What is most striking about the book is the subtle commentary on weight and body image. Helene is nowhere near 216 pounds, but views herself as a sausage. There’s a heartbreaking illustration where Helene is trying on bathing suits, and instead of seeing a person, there is a sausage in a swimsuit. She refers to herself as a sausage multiple times, and while this is not the focus of the novel, it is an important conversation on how easily bullies’ comments can become what you believe. Then, there is a scene at the doctor where Helene is weighed.

She weighs 88 pounds.

Just think about that for a moment. 88 pounds. I thought Helene was in middle school, but with that weight, I’m thinking Helene is elementary school. Helene claps both hands on either side of her face and pretends to shriek like the woman in the cereal box ad. But Helene says her mother also does this every time she weighs herself before bikini season. To her mother’s credit, she is embarrassed as Helene argues with that doctor that she is fat. He reassures her that she is simply growing, that it is normal, and she has nothing to be concerned about.

This is where the book could have become saccharine. Helene could’ve told her mother everything that was said at school, and they would’ve had a touchingly sweet, yet unrealistic, moment. Instead, Helene keeps the bullying to herself as she realizes the less she thinks about it the less it’s true.

This graphic novel will appeal to both younger and older readers. There are no swear words and no inappropriate drawings (nudity, sex, or violence) to not make this an appropriate title for eight to nine-year-olds and up. Considering the prevalence of bullying, and the rise of young girls dieting, introducing this book to younger readers could help a young girl, or boy, find their selves in a book that ultimately tells them what the bullies say are wrong. That is not who they are. They get to decide who they are.

Bibliographic Information: Britt, Fanny, and Isabelle Arsenault. Jane, the Fox & Me. Trans. Christelle Morelli. Toronto: Groundwood, 2013. Print.

Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Babymouse by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm
The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams (not a graphic novel)

Little White Duck by Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez

littlewhiteduckLittle White Duck is eight short stories about the author and her sister’s childhood in China between the years 1976 and 1980. The stories reveal a much different China that why many American children would think of today and a much different China than what the author’s parents grew up in. The book is not about Chinese history, but is a snapshot of what it was like for two young girls to grow up in China during a transitional period. In an author note at the back, Liu calls her generation a transitional won as hers was the generation that grew up without the leadership of Mao Zedong. With his death, China became more open to other countries and the world. The graphic novel is fully colored with bold artwork that feels reminiscent of traditional Chinese scrolls with a sprinkling of propaganda style posters as some of Chinese history is revealed.

Liu’s life in the most densely populated city in central China is not much different than children’s lives in large cities. This is a theme that continues throughout the novel. While some things may seem strange and foreign—and a few are—her experiences in school and with her family transcend countries and nationalities. However, there are many elements that will be new to American readers, like needing to bring in rat tails as part of a school assignment. Liu goes outside to brush her teeth using water from a spout and only one of the children, her younger sister was allowed to officially attend school. Their mother was an elementary school teacher and Liu was able to go to work with her and obtain an education.

Though the book is set during just a few years, there is a lot of Chinese history through the stories her parents told her their childhood. Both of her parents received assistance from the government and their stories will be familiar to American readers as they closely resemble the “American Dream.” Her father was from a poor farming family, but walked miles to school and studied hard to be at the top of his class, which led him to getting a government scholarship to further his education. Her mother contracted polio as child and suffered from a paralyzed leg, but with free medical attention from the government, she was able to walk and run again.

The graphic novel serves as a good introduction for any child interested in Chinese culture or history. The legend of the Nian monster and the Chinese New Year is introduced, which is an excellent starting point for a child’s research. The book also raises many questions. If this is how China was the, what is China like today? How has it changed? How is it the same? How are we like them? Are these character’s lives different from me own? How?

The author also provides a glossary of Mandarin Chinese words and other names along with a brief timeline of Chinese history, a short biography, a map of China and her specific city, and a translation of the Chinese symbols used throughout the novel. The novel is sure to entrain those interested in Chinese culture, but it is also easily adaptable to be teaching tool or part of a lesson on Chinese history, culture, or an introduction to the language.

Bibliographic Information:
Liu, Na, and Andrés Vera Martínez. Little White Duck: A Childhood in China. Minneapolis: Graphic Universe, 2012. Print.

A Game for Swallows: to die, to leave, to return by Zeina Abirached (Beirut Civil War)
And the Soldiers Sang by Lewis J. Patrick; illustrated by Gary Kelley (WWI)
The Sons of Liberty series by Joseph & Alexander Lagos (Fantasy, Pre-Revolutionary America)
The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan (1937 American Dust Bowl)