September 04, 2014


My Grandfather’s Coat. Retold by Jim Aylesworth. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Scholastic. $17.99.

Reading with Pictures: Comics That Make Kids Smarter! By Josh Elder. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     An amusing story retold from a Yiddish folk song and universalized to apply to the immigrant experience in general, My Grandfather’s Coat is all about thrift, adjustment, generational communication, and the importance of family. Jim Aylesworth’s words are right in line with the original story of a coat made by an Old World tailor that journeys with him to the New World, wears out, and is remade by him again and again – each new item containing less material as the years go on, but the story itself growing to encompass more and more experiences shared by him and his family. It is Barbara McClintock’s illustrations that really lend this version of the tale so much warmth and personality. She shows the increasingly aged tailor moving through life and from place to place, always retaining his skill with needle and thread and his love of the garment that he originally made as a young man, for his wedding day, and liked so much that he never stopped wearing it even when “little bit by little bit, he frayed it, and he tore it, until at last he wore it out.” Hand sewing gives way to use of a sewing machine, the young man gives way to a young father, and the coat gives way over time to a jacket, then a vest, then a tie, and eventually to a small toy for a grandchild’s kittens – which promptly tear it apart. “Nothing has been wasted,” the grandfather tailor assures the little boy, and indeed, a mouse finds the remains of the cat toy and uses it to make a nest for her family, while the human family makes something else: a story. This story. The book ends with the grandchild, now older but still able to sit on his mother’s lap, being read this very tale – a lovely final picture and a wonderfully warm concluding sentiment for a narrative that emphasizes how little is lost when families create their own traditions and maintain them through the years, wherever life may take them.

     The teaching is more direct and overt, and very cleverly designed, in a collection of comic strips gathered by Josh Elder under the title, Reading with Pictures. The intent here is a super-serious one: to engage students in learning by using comic strips to teach them Common Core State Standards elements of math, science, history and other subjects through a visual medium that will grab their attention more effectively than other methods. To that end, there are 15 stories in this book, by a wide variety of cartoonists with highly varying styles – and for those not familiar with comics, there is even a guide to how to read them and what the different structural elements of them are called. The material here draws visually on just about all comic-book designs currently in use, from fairly straightforward, similar-sized panels to elaborate, artistically interesting collections of multiple panel sizes and shapes. The various genres of comics are well represented, too: a story about similes and metaphors features an alien who misunderstands Earth figures of speech; one about Newton’s laws of motion has the famed scientist’s head in a jar that is carried around by “Dr. Sputnik” as he and his assistant, Spud, repeatedly miscommunicate; an attack by the monstrous Emperor Genghis Kong is foiled by an understanding of the square-cube law; a Pokémon parody called “Probamon!” explains probability; an oddly intriguing tale of George Washington identifies him as “Action President!” and shows him at one point as a marionette manipulated by Alexander Hamilton (reflecting some actual opinions from late in Washington’s life). And so on. Reading with Pictures is specifically designed for classrooms, resulting in some cartoonists’ use of stilted dialogue and duller-than-necessary characters. But other writers and artists get very much into the spirit of the project, and the result is salutary: there is genuine learning here, and there is a great deal of fun as well. Certainly other comics have led to many teachable moments – classes have used Art Spiegelman’s Maus graphic novels to explain the Holocaust, for example – but the works in Reading with Pictures are designed expressly for instruction. And while that somewhat limits their impact and leads some of the contributors to produce less-than-compelling work, it focuses other cartoonists on just how much this visual medium can communicate – leading them to create stories that are both information-packed and a lot more enjoyable to read than are most textbooks. Few textbooks would contain language like this: “That’s enough, you metamorphic menace! You remember the last time? Absolutia melted you into a puddle of goo. It took you 183.2 days to regenerate!” Isn’t that great? Now the Lost Scroll of Eratosthenes is safe! (And what might that be? Read the book – and look at it, too!)

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