For struggling readers, the simple act of finishing a book can be a challenge. In addition to obstacles that reading ability may present, some students are so discouraged by past classroom experiences that the sight of a high school textbook instantly turns them off. Additionally, the emphasis that Common Core places on complex and nonfiction reading leaves many students, and even some teachers, feeling that nothing they read in class can be interesting or relevant.
To help these students, my department created a class focused on graphic novels. We wanted to provide students with accessible—and relatable—nonfiction that would align with CCSS standards. After reading Max Brooks’s The Harlem Hellfighters last year, I decided to include it in our class. I was intrigued to learn about a part of history that was previously unfamiliar to me, and I admired the author’s honest depiction of war and its portrayal in the media. It seemed like the perfect complement to a more traditional graphic novel like Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
Initially, I wasn’t sure if the students would like it, but I was surprised by how much they did. Students who hadn’t completed an entire assigned book in years practically read it in one sitting. There were still a few struggles. They had some difficulties keeping characters straight. There are a lot of characters squeezed in there. The context of the war was also a bit of a struggle since they had picked up something about a dead “archdude” in history class, but didn’t remember much else. Yet, without fail, every student was able to identify the themes of discrimination and the impact of war and felt confident enough to discuss them. In fact, we had to implement a standing gag order in order to prevent any spoilers from being leaked!
The sharp writing fits perfectly in combination with the stark imagery of the book. The strength of the narrative helped the students to interpret and analyze the purpose of the author’s choice of realistic illustration. Students were awed by this particular combination of text and imagery, which allowed them to have a better understanding of the stunning cost and lasting impact of “the war to end all wars.”
Furthermore, Brooks’s ability to balance necessary contextual information and plot helped the students to recognize the universal elements of the text. Without prompting, the students were able to make connections between the subjects represented in the book and parallel contemporary issues. Students who might typically come back from the library with a magazine instead of a novel were captivated by this book.
To cap it all off, Max Brooks skyped with my students. His Skype session was lively and energetic. He answered questions provided by the students. They were nervous to talk to a guy who wrote a Brad Pitt movie, but Max’s warmth instantly put them at ease. His energy and passion kept them engaged and proved that what they learn in class matters beyond the classroom walls.
Studying The Harlem Hellfighters was a great experience for my students because it revealed a world beyond the one that is so familiar to them. Many books about race and war are studied in high schools, but I haven’t found another that is as appealing to students and as able to inspire a deeper understanding of the human experience as this one.
Rolla High School
Click here to watch author Max Brooks discuss The Harlem Hellfighters with educators in New York City.