Luke and Me Episode 3

October 13, 2014 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog

My friend and brother-in-law Luke is making his first comic! He asked me to help him along the process, and we’ve decided to post our interactions here.

In case you missed it, here are the previous posts in this series:

Luke and Me Episode 1

Luke and Me Episode 2

Luke recently sent me the plot summary of his first four chapters.  He built it using the Post-It method I described in episode one.  Here’s what he came up with, followed by my notes:


by Luke Chaya

First Draft

Chapter 1

Set in alternate universe of humans/humanoid/monsters

A city at the base of a mountain, not particularly modern but overtly crowded with housing apartments atop each other like building blocks. While overlooking a great expanse leading to the ocean, there remains many a dark alley and hidden spaces amidst the city. From one of these dark corners our character is moaning in pain but from what it is not clear. As the eyes adjust to the darkened room, we come to realize our character is in a small back room of a popular ‘opium’ den.

A young lady comes in to tend to our character from time to time but activity outside the room continues to grow as there is screaming and shouting coming from the streets. The city is being set afire by an army. The young lady is unable to lift our character to safety and he is unable to even pick himself up. It is here we see a large bandage covering his forehead and other areas of his body, injuries sustained from an attack.

The flames have now reached the small room and the young lady is unable to stay without injury as embers begin to singe her clothes. She reluctantly leaves, tears down her face, to safety. The entire city is aflame with many citizens trapped inside and all who’ve survived without homes. 

Chapter 2

The arm remains at the base of the city, overlooking what’s left of the city. Panning over the faces of the soldiers we see not all are human but a mix of humanoids and monsters. Two sentinels return from the interior of the city to the army’s leader. Heads bowed down, both sentinels shake their head negatively but as to what we’re not clear of yet. The army’s leader then turns away and the soldiers follow.

Returning to the small room, we see mostly burnt and collapsed beams but a small sign that our character has survived the fire without harm. The young lady now has returned but with an elder gentleman with blackened hands and cloaked face. Together they pull the young man from the rubble, still unable to stand but alive, taking him away from the city.  

The young man’s previous injuries are being tended to and the bandage covering his forehead is taken off to be cleaned, revealing a large scar at the center of his brow. The elder is surprised by this and places his hand over it. His blackened hands begin to change in hue as patterns emerge from the dark and change shape, receding to expose a pattern of an eye in the palm of the elder’s hand. The elder then pulls back the cloak to reveal his face, a third eye in same space where the young man’s scar exists. 

Some of the Post-Its Luke used to build his plot summary

Some of the Post-Its Luke used to build his plot summary

Chapter 3

A ship in open sea.

The army’s leader meditating in his private room, awakens with the realization the young man is still alive . Soldiers are instructing to return to the burnt city to finish the job.

The young man begins to regain consciousness but only to the intense pain as the opium is no longer in his system. His memory fragmented we see just little glimpses of what lead to his attack and injury. The pain so immense from the injuries and withdrawal the young man is unable to speak. The young lady reaches for the drug/pipe to aid his pain but the elder gently motions for her to let him be. They both quietly sit there as the young man writhes in agony.

We see many days pass from the vantage point of outside this modest wooden home along the walls of a secluded valley. The only activity is daily chores handled by the young lady and elder.

The young man is now able to stand on his own, ventures out from the home for the first time to see daylight. That evening there is a modest dinner with the three eating in silence.

At night, the elder sits outside the house as the youths are asleep inside. The soldiers from the ship have tracked the young man to this house and confront the elder. The elder stands, not allowing the soldiers to enter and search the house. A fight ensues with the elder’s third eye now open and the color from his blackened hands now covering his entire being. The young man and lady exit the house to see the elder has killed the three soldiers but not before seeing his altered state. We see the elder shift back to this normal self but the third eye remains. The young man collapses in shock.

Chapter 4

Inside the house we see a series of esoteric tools and talismans. The elder is now seen huddled over a black-stone pouring water, making ink. The elder is shirtless, and we can see far more markings than previously seen, moving and changing shape atop his skin. Once finished, the elder then turns around, picking up one of the tools and begins tattooing the young man’s chest. (the style in tattooing I’m referencing here is traditional Japanse, tebori). Close up of the young man’s face, we see resolution and calm.

The ceremony is complete and the young man is meditating alone inside the house. We pan in to the see the details of the tattoo but what we notice is the pigment is now fading and is being absorbed by the body to where no mark can be seen.

The following morning the young man is given provisions and is sent off, leaving the young lady and elder.


Hey Luke!

Congratulations on starting your comic!  You should feel good about the time and effort you’ve put in so far.  Many, many people dream of making a comic book.  Few ever actually put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

What you’ve sent me is essentially the first act of your story.  You introduce us to the world and the main characters.  Through the elder, you give a preview of what the future may hold for your protagonist.  You’ve also set up the central conflict between your protagonist and the army.

It’s very clear that you’re a visual person.  Even with these short paragraphs, I can clearly see how you want this story to look.  Not every story is meant to be a graphic novel, but yours certainly is.

You asked if you’re on the right track.  Overall, you are.  You might be giving a little too much detail for a plot summary, but that’s not one of the main issues I want you to focus on.

For your next revision, concentrate on these two things:

First, make your protagonist active. When I finished reading Chapter 1, I wasn’t sure if the young woman was supposed to be the main character or the injured young man.  Protagonists must be active.  Your protagonist is not.

For most of the piece, he’s injured and almost inanimate.  The young lady, the elder, and the antagonist are all much, much more active than the protagonist.  This can’t be.

By the end of the first act, we need a clear sense of the protagonist’s deepest desire.  We need to have seen a call to action, what folks refer to as a spark or an inciting incident.  This is an event that turns the protagonist’s world upside down.  This is Bruce Wayne’s parents getting killed, Peter Parker getting bitten by a radioactive spider, Buzz Lightyear landing on Andy’s bed.

We also need to see the protagonist’s response to that call to action.  That’s what sets the second act in motion.  All of this requires an active protagonist.

I’m not entirely sure what your call to action is.  It could be the fight that caused the protagonist’s injury, the one that happened before the story begins.  Or it could be the introduction of the elder.  If it’s the first, it needs to be included in the story.  If it’s the second, we need to see the protagonist’s response to the elder.  Almost always, the protagonist resists the call to action by ignoring it, or running away from it, or compromising with it.  That’s what we do in real life, right?  Nobody wants to leave their comfort zone.

Bruce Wayne compromises by trying to fight crime without dressing up like a bat.  Woody ignores by pretending everything’s going to stay the same after Buzz’s arrival.  Peter Parker runs away by becoming a performer who only cares about money, the exact opposite of a superhero.  You have to show us your protagonist’s struggle with his call to action.

Now, the protagonist’s activity doesn’t have to be entirely physical.  It can be in his thoughts, in his words, in small and subtle actions.  Other characters can be more physically active, but the greatest emotional movement must belong to the protagonist.  He must experience the strongest emotions throughout the first act.  That’s how we know he’s the protagonist.  That’s how we know where to put our hearts.

More of Luke's Post-Its

More of Luke’s Post-Its

Second, give more information. When it comes to withholding information, you have to walk this fine line.  You must intrigue without confusing.

You want to raise questions in the minds of your readers because that’s what keeps us reading.  In Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy, a whole host of questions compels us to the last page.  Will Wolf get his comeuppance?  What’s wrong with the children of the Shining People?  What *really* happened to all the magic in the world?  And most importantly, will Oscar ever rise above other people’s low expectations of him?

You want to hide, but you don’t want to hide so much that your readers question what questions they’re supposed to ask.

I can tell you have good instincts in this department.  However, in the intrigue/confusion balance, you’re erring on the side of confusion.  Not by much, mind you, but we do need a little more.

Think hard about what more information you should reveal.  This may or may not help:  Think of your protagonist as a new friend.  What basic information would you need to feel attached to him, to feel like inviting him out for coffee to learn more?  Give that information in the first act, but nothing more.

That’s it.  Next time you send this along, please give me a revised first act and a first draft of the second act.  As always, let me know if you have any questions!


So This Crazy Thing Happened…

October 9, 2014 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog

This past Tuesday, I got tweets and texts from folks saying that I was on Jeopardy.  Clearly they were mistaken– I am completely unqualified to be on Jeopardy unless they limited it to comics- and 80′s-cartoon-related categories.  (And even then, Jesse Hamm and Jerzy Drozd would wipe the floor with me.)

Then a friend sent me a screenshot:


That’s just NUTS.

ICYMI: Shadow Hero Essays for

October 6, 2014 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog


This past July, First Second Books released The Shadow Hero, a graphic novel written by me and drawn by the amazing Sonny Liew. Together, we tell the story of the (arguably) first Asian American superhero.

Lots has happened since then. The Shadow Hero stayed on the New York Times bestsellers list for a whole month! The Green Turtle, our main character, even got his own action figure from Fresh Monkey Fiction!

During the six months prior to The Shadow Hero’s debut, I wrote seven essays for In case you missed it, here they are:

They Came Here Not to Save Us, But to Live Among Us

On Spider-man, Puppet Monkeys, and Saturday Morning Chinese School

Parental Expectations, Practical Majors, and Advice for Making Art

Is Art Selfish?

Top Ten Asian Pacific American Comics Characters

In Praise of Mahjong

Advice to Aspiring Comic Book Creators

Luke and Me Episode 2

October 4, 2014 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog

Luke's drawing of an awesome bird demon monster guy

Luke’s drawing of an awesome bird demon monster guy


My friend and brother-in-law Luke is making his first comic! He asked me to help him along the process, and we’ve decided to post our interactions here.

In case you missed it, here’s how we got started:

Luke and Me Episode 1

Luke’s been at it for about a week now.  Here’s our latest exchange.


Hi Gene,

     Well, the outline isn’t quite finished yet but I’ve amassed a sizable collection of post-it notes with different ideas or plot-points on them. Obviously there are more ideas than can fit, I think, into the outline but will keep at it and hopefully have a first draft for you soon. A few questions came up during this process that I’d like to ask now.

     Given that I’m far more a visual person than a literary one, I’m constantly imagining how these things will be drawn and what style of drawing will best serve the story. Throughout the years due to the different jobs I’ve taken on I’ve never fixed myself to a single style of drawing. And while my preference is for darker imagery, I am capable of drawing both pretty and cute things too. Perhaps this is too early in the process to be making any decisions but how much visualization do you do while writing the story? And how much of these early ‘visual ideas’ actually play out to the final outcome? I guess another question I have is more on the pragmatic side is whether I will be able to keep consistent the style of drawing throughout the process and do I pick a style that’s efficient to match the limited time I may have.

     So I’ve attached a few examples of drawings that I’ve done recently for my kids as they are now getting into super-heroes. I do my part to share with them the characters that I grew up on both from the US and Japan. And given my time is limited with a fulltime job, wife, and a kids, I’ve started to go to bed much earlier so I can wake up at 4-5am to work on this with complete silence and focus. This gives me roughly an hour to 2-hours before the kids wake up. I’ve found that when I try to work at night I’ve got too much on my mind built up from the day and when I’m able to get up super early, it’s like I pushed the reset button on my brain and things move along much smoother.

      Will be in touch soon but would love to know your thoughts on my questions as I progress on the writing portion.

Best regards,

Luke's drawing of Dormammu

Luke’s drawing of Dormammu


Luke's drawing of Batman

Luke’s drawing of Batman


Luke's drawing of Hobgoblin

Luke’s drawing of Hobgoblin



Hey Luke!

Sounds like you’ve got your comics-making factory in gear!  That’s awesome, but make sure the habit you’re establishing is sustainable in the long-term.  Waking up at 4-5am every morning is pretty rough.  Ask your wife to keep you accountable.  Give yourself predetermined breaks during the week – don’t wake up that early every morning! You ever read this book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg?  It’s all about making new habits for yourself.  One of his suggestions is to attach a reward to your new habit.  For instance, if you’re trying to get yourself to workout, give yourself a smoothie after each successful workout.  Your brain will start associating pleasure with the habit, making it more likely for the habit to stick.

Whatever you choose, remember that art is a long haul.  Have the support in place to get you to the end.

Also, I hear you about working at night.  I’m not 22 years old any more.

Now for the other stuff you asked about:

Sketches during the outlining process. Doing sketches can definitely help in the outlining process, especially for visual people.  Sketches, especially sketches of entire scenes rather than individual characters, can trigger plot ideas.  However, building an outline is still a words-based process.  If you’re sketching, give yourself a sketching time limit.  Don’t spend too much time making a detailed sketch.  The bulk of your time should be spent on the words of the outline.
Here’s my cockamamie theory about all this:

Unless you’re Jason Shiga, your stories are going to be sequential.  First this happens, then this happens, then this happens.  Words are sequential, pictures are not.  With words, your brain has to process the first word before it moves onto the next.  With pictures, your brain can do a random access.  It can jump from one spot to another in whichever direction it chooses.

When we make comics, we’re getting something inherently random access – pictures – to act sequential access.  That’s why Jessica Abel and Matt Madden refer to making comics as “writing pictures.”

By writing an outline, you’re forcing your visual brain to think sequentially.  You aren’t just hammering out the plot of your story, you’re also prepping your brain to do the hard work of breaking your story into sequential panels.

Drawing style.  Given your subject matter, I think a darker tone would be appropriate.  Even beyond that, though, this is your first comic.  Do it in a style that’s “native” to you so you can put your energy in other places, like story structure and character design and panel composition.  Give yourself home court advantage for your first game.  I know you, man, and “pretty and cute” is definitely not your home court.

Consistency.  This is something that I struggle with.  No matter how hard I try to prevent it, my characters always change as my stories progress.  This one’s nose gets a little longer, that one’s head gets a little more square.  It drives me crazy, and sometimes I end up redrawing early pages to get them to match the later ones.

There are a couple of things I do to mitigate this.  First, I draw model sheets for all my major characters.  This is something they do in the animation industry to get all the animators to draw the same.

A model sheet is a page that shows a full body front view of a character, a full body side view, and a few of his/her most common facial expressions. Here’s one I did for Prime Baby:

Model Sheet of Thaddeus K. Fong

Model Sheet of Thaddeus K. Fong

I keep these taped up by my desk as I draw.

Second, when I design my characters, I think of them as the letters of an alphabet.  You can tell that an A is an A and a B is a B because their designs are so distinct.  You can write them kind of messy, you can write them in different fonts, and you’ll still be able to tell them apart.

I try to do the same thing with my comics’ characters.  I give each a few distinguishing characteristics – a nose shape, a hairstyle, something – so that even if I’m having a bad drawing day the reader will still be able to tell my characters apart from one another.

This might be why superheroes work so well in comics.  Pointy ears and a utility belt means Batman regardless of the artist’s style.  Bulky and green means the Hulk.  Tiara and lasso means Wonder Woman.

Osamu Tezuka is a master of this.  Most of his stories are not about superheroes (as an aside, I consider the Mighty Atom a superhero) but he still applies this comic-characters-as-letters ethic to his designs.  With all of his stories, you can tell who’s who even in silhouette.

All that said, consistency is still something I struggle with.  With my first comic, my characters and style changed wildly from the first page to the last.  I imagine the same will be true for you.  This is okay, though.  The primary point of this comic is your growth as a cartoonist.

Also, maybe consistency in comics is overrated.  Comic books aren’t animation.  Ever read The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar?  That dude is proudly, purposefully inconsistent, but you never get lost.  His comics are heartfelt and beautiful.

Finally, thanks for sending those drawings to liven up the posts.  It’s been a while since we drew together– I’d forgotten what an amazing artist you are! Can’t wait to see your art in something sequential!

Luke and Me Episode 1

September 24, 2014 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog

Luke's son playing next to Luke's drawing of a Demon

Luke’s son playing next to Luke’s drawing of a Demon


My friend Luke and I could not be more different.  He’s got full sleeve tattoos.  My arms are as unblemished as a newborn baby’s butt.  He sports a stylish goatee.  I can’t grow connectors (the hair that connects your mustache to your beard) to save my life.  He’s really into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and it shows in his build.  I’m really into watching cartoons on Netflix, and it shows in my build.

But we do share three things in common:

  1. We married into the same gene pool.  (Our wives are sisters.)
  2. We both love comic books.
  3. We both have Asian fathers who disapproved of our love of comic books.

Luke and I are children of the eighties.  We grew up reading the same stories – Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Todd MacFarlane’s Spider-man.  We discovered the wider, more diverse world of American independent comics at around the same age.  But despite being a lifelong comics fan and a gifted artist, Luke hasn’t yet made a serious attempt at making a comic.

Luke's drawing of a dragon

Luke’s drawing of a dragon


Luke’s always been a creative person.  He currently runs his own line of men’s jewelry.  But lately, his childhood love of comics has been calling.  A story idea popped into his head and won’t leave him alone.  He e-mailed me to ask what he should do next.

I love working with other comic book creators, in part because I learn so much in the process.  That’s why I joined the faculty of Hamline University’s MFA Program.

Luke’s project sounded interesting.  I asked him if he’d be willing to work with me in public, so other folks could see what the development of a comics creator looks like.  I knew I was asking a lot.  The creative process is so intensely personal.  To expose it to strangers, especially when you’re just starting out, is more than intimidating.

But Luke agreed — he’s nothing if not brave.  I guess all those tattoos aren’t for nothing.

So here’s how it’s going to work.  Periodically, Luke is going to e-mail me his work-in-progress.  I’m going to review it and give him notes, similar to what my editors do for me.  I’ll also give him assignments, things that will help him get his comic done, or improve his work, or both.

Then I’ll publish our exchanges here, for you all to see.  If you have anything to add, please chime in in the comments section below.

Now let’s get started!  Without further ado, here’s Luke’s first e-mail to me:


Hey Gene,

I wanted to approach you about being a mentor to me in producing my own comic from the ground up. In my younger days I made many attempts to draw comics but without a developed storyline that resulted in mostly action sequences. Now that I’m older with wife and kids, I’d like to revisit this dream to produce something that reflects my experiences, interests and most importantly a final product that I can share with my family. I believe my drafting skills are adequate but most importantly I want to tell a good story and is why I’m approaching you about.

I have a basic idea of elements that I’d like to include but I’m not sure how to begin putting these parts together. I’d like to follow a similar story arc as Lone Wolf & Cub of revenge/redemption, but in a world of monsters/creatures. The main character is a martial arts student on the cusp of becoming a master, but is betrayed and framed for the downfall of his school. It’s on this journey for revenge that he evolves through each experience/challenge/battle that he faces.

Luke's design for a BJJ Academy logo

Luke’s design for a BJJ Academy logo


The idea was sparked by a term coined in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community, “Creonte”. It’s a name that has been adopted to represent or mean ‘traitor’ in the worst way. What I find interesting about this label is that the circumstances are not always so clear or clean as to what constitutes a creonte. The character is named this but over the course of the story, we may relook at what aspects are true about this character and how it’s not entirely black and white.

I know this is not a small request but any help would mean a great deal to me. Thanks.



Hey Luke,

First, this is awesome!  I’m so glad you’re taking the first step in making a comic book!  “Creonte” sounds like an interesting concept with rich possibilities.

But first things first.  Making a comic book is a difficult, time-consuming task.  It’ll take a lot out of you.  I sometimes tell people that if you want to make a comic, you have to give up all your TV and half your friends.  You really have to be disciplined.  You have to force yourself into certain habits, because halfway through a project you’re going to feel like quitting.  We all do.  Habits are automatic and will get your through these times.

When Toyota designs a new car, they don’t just design the car, they also design the factory that makes the car.  You have to do the same thing.  You’re not just making a comic, you’re making a way of life that supports making comics.  Your life is the comics-making factory.  You need to come up with a writing/drawing habit and stick to it.  Set aside time on a weekly or even daily basis to work on your comic.  Get your family, especially your wife, to buy into it and keep you accountable.  This can be an hour every evening after your kids go to sleep, an hour every other morning before you go to work, three hours two times a week, whatever works for you.   And for the first year at least, you have to be a zealot about this.  Eventually, your habit will become a part of you.  It’ll just be the shape of your life, and even when things disrupt it, your life will return to its comics-making shape when the disruption is over.

But in the beginning, be a zealot.

Next, you need to write a plot summary (or outline) of your story.  This is a description of every major incident that happens in your story.  You’re not worried about pretty language or dialog here.  You just want to get your ideas down and organize them into a satisfying structure.

Here’s an example. This is the plot summary I did for American Born Chinese.

You’ll notice, if you’ve read American Born Chinese, that the final book differs significantly from the plot summary.  The plot summary ultimately will guide, but not restrict, your writing.  It’s like a road map, but you’re allowed to go off-road.  We’ll talk more about how to write the actual story from the plot summary when the time comes.

It’s going to take several passes to get your plot summary right, so don’t worry if you feel like flushing your first draft down the toilet when you’re finished with it.  There’s a reason people sometimes call the first draft the “vomit pass.”

There are lots of ways of writing a plot summary.  For you, because you mentioned that you have a bunch of elements that you want to put together.  I would suggest using the Post-It method.  Here’s what you do:

  1.  Write down your story beats on Post-It notes, one beat per Post-It.  What’s a story beat? It’s just something that happens.  It can be a verbal exchange between two characters, or a fight, or a kiss, or a discovery, or a revelation that a character has in the quiet of her head.  One per Post-It.  Your desk should be covered in Post-Its when you’re done.  It’s okay to put every crazy thought that comes to your mind on a Post-It.  Not all of them are going to make it into the plot summary.
  2. Arrange your story beats (i.e. Post-Its) into a three act structure.  What’s a three act structure?  I’m going to recommend a book that I kind of hate: Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need is about screenwriting, but many of his principles can translate to comics.  I’m recommending it because he gives a concise, understandable explanation of three act structure.  Snyder describes the structure beneath most stories we tell in the West, whether it’s through books or comics or film.  I hate Save the Cat because it’s so formulaic, so paint-by-the-numbers.  If you fully embrace everything Snyder says, your stories will end up stiff and predictable and lifeless.  Save the Cat is a great place to begin a conversation about story structure, but it’s not a great place to end.  It is definitely NOT the last book on any kind of writing you’ll ever need.
  3. Write a plot summary based on your Post-Its.

So that’s it for now: (1) Create a habit, (2) read Save the Cat, and (3) write a first draft of a plot summary.  E-mail me when you’re done and we’ll go from there!

This is gonna be awesome!


We have a Winner!

September 16, 2014 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog

I know it’s been over a month since Comic-Con 2014, but man, I’ve been busy.  Secret Coders got announced, I just finished the script for the next Avatar: The Last Airbender GN, and a new school year began!

Anyway, I finally got around to picking a winner for my Twitter contest, and it’s Deb Aoki!  She found the Green Turtle on the convention floor.  Here’s proof:


Find The Green Turtle at Comic-Con!

July 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog

Pro cosplayer Alvin Duong has graciously agreed to help us promote The Shadow Hero by cosplaying the Green Turtle!

When I first talked to Alvin, I told him we could find a way around the Green Turtle’s bare-chestedness.  Alvin wouldn’t hear of it — staying true to the source material is key for him.  So here he is, embodying the Green Turtle in all his goofy Golden Age glory:


Alvin made that entire costume himself!  From scratch!  Impressive, isn’t it?

So the Green Turtle (i.e. Alvin) will be walking around Comic-Con — giving you the chance to win original art by me!

Here’s what you have to do:

1.  Find The Green Turtle at Comic-Con 2014.

2.  Take a picture of you with the Green Turtle.

3.  Tweet the picture and tag me (@geneluenyang) in your tweet.

After Comic-Con is over, I’ll randomly select one of you and send you my original art!

Boxers & Saints in the Classroom Part 4

May 29, 2014 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog

Comics educator Joan Hilty (who also happens to be one of my editors for the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics) included Boxers & Saints on her syllabus for a class titled “Violence in the Pursuit of Justice” at John Jay CUNY!

Thank you, Joan!  You’re the best!

Here are some projects created by her students!



Boxers & Saints in the Classroom Part 3

May 28, 2014 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog



Teachers Robby Griffin and Darcy Caldwell continue to share about their experience teaching Boxers & Saints at The Peck School in Morristown, New Jersey!  Check out Part 1 and Part 2.

by Darcy Caldwell, The Peck School

Today a fellow teacher and I concluded our study of Boxers & Saints.
As a thirty-year veteran English teacher, I can say that co-teaching this book to 7th graders with young history teacher Robby Griffin (Harvard ‘09) has been one of the most exciting collaborative teaching experiences of my career.

This fall I moved from teaching high school English to teaching middle school English, and I learned that if you treat 7th graders like sophisticated thinkers, they will be sophisticated thinkers. The capacity of middle school students was fully demonstrated in our conversations about Boxers & Saints.

This text was a wonderful way to confirm that 7th graders know how to embrace shades of meaning and opposing ideas. They know how to recognize dualities in characters. They know that even the most minor characters in Boxers & Saints demand to be seen as having more than one story, more than one identifier or label. Minor characters (as well as major characters) force the reader to look beyond nationality or religion. The 7th graders could see that even Cousin Chung– who appears only briefly at the beginning of Boxers and the end of Saints– is enormously problematic and divided by different loyalties, and these characters make Boxers & Saints a treasure-trove of teaching moments and conversation topics. It is a text that lends itself to teaching students about stereotypes and assumptions, about xenophobia and myth-making, about identity, community, and family.

With this end-of-the-year unit, Boxers & Saints allowed our 41 7th graders to bring together their year of study. Early in the year in English, they were introduced to theories of narrative structure, and this spring they applied this understanding of narrative structure to explore the trajectories of Bao and Vibiana’s character development. We had intense conversations about the main characters’ rupture moments, moments that evoked change and new perspectives on the world.

Mr. Griffin and I also noticed that more than any other time during the year, the students “went to the text.” That is, they were –more often than ever before—using evidence to back their claims, an exercise they sometimes needed to be reminded of earlier in the year. Their attention to detail, their recognition of moments when the words and graphics seemed to be in conflict, allowed them to grow as readers as they were worked to make sense of the contradiction. Their ability to connect moments that are separated by hundreds of pages—even separated by volumes—showed that they were able to bring together disparate bits of evidence into a cohesive theory about meaning in Yang’s text.

For their final project, students were asked to explore Yang’s point by writing Boxers & Saints in two volumes. In this essay, they were required to explore the connections and disparities between 282 Boxers and 158 Saints as well as 2-4 pairs of other panels that capture the importance of perspective. We required our students to conclude their papers by exploring how Yang’s purpose moves beyond Boxers & Saints. To prepare them for this, we briefly mentioned conflicts: Muslims vs. Hindus in Bengal 1930 (followed by their joining in cultural pride through language, art and music in 1939). We discussed ongoing conflicts Hutu vs. Tutsi in Rwanda, Sunni vs. Shi’a in Iraq, and Dinka vs. Nuer in Sudan. We also showed Chimamanda Adichie’s amazing Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”

Today in our final discussion we pulled together ideas even as we recognized some questions can never be answered. We spent a long time on the final panel in the epilogue. We know some of the things that happened in China following the Boxer Rebellion, but unless Gene Luen Yang writes a third volume (which many of the students yearn for), our questions about Bao in China and Vibiana in heaven can never be answered. It is this richness of ideas that are so relevant to our lives combined with the uncertainty of the future that makes Boxers & Saints so meaningful.

Boxers & Saints in the Classroom Part 2

May 27, 2014 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog


Teachers Robby Griffin and Darcy Caldwell continue to share about their experience teaching Boxers & Saints at The Peck School in Morristown, New Jersey!  Check out their first blog post here.

by Robby Griffin, The Peck School

For our third day on Boxers, the students have finished reading the book for homework and are ready to discuss its entirety in groups of 13 or 14 for a class period (they drop history for one day out of our 6-day cycle, so I joined the English classes for the day).  In addition to finishing Boxers, the students were asked to write the following:

Turn to the panel on p. 282 and write 2 paragraphs where you analyze the significance of this panel to Boxers and use three other panels or moments from the text to explain p. 282’s significance.

Not all of the students truly understood how to analyze this panel, but they made a valiant effort and many did a wonderful job with it.  We would have provided more guidance to ensure they all understood the basic elements, but they will be coming back to rethink their ideas in a week and once again a week after that.  Regardless of their individual writing, the students again came to class prepared to amaze us with their insight in discussion.  Every day has been progressively more impressive, making us extremely curious about the final discussions we will have once we finish both Boxers and Saints.  Here is an accounting of the discussions we had on this third day of our experiment.

The final chapter brought us to Peking with all its new sights, sounds, and ideas; the students began by considering how Little Bao and his compatriots interact with these new elements of urban life that are so separate from their prior rural experience.  One student noted how a Boxer picked up a bedpan thinking it was an extremely fine bowl out of which to eat.  After a couple of other observations on the differences of city life, I pulled the class’ attention back to our study of Buddhism and compared the four panels on pages 238-239 with the Four Sights of Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha).  The first three sights are depressing new developments for Little Bao, but the fourth sight is one of potential salvation in the new disciples to his group of Boxers (note, however, that the fourth sight of the Buddha was an ascetic and that ultimately asceticism was not the path to end suffering for Buddhism as the Buddha elected for a middle path between asceticism and indulgence instead – this speaks to the false hope the Boxers provide to Little Bao for the salvation of China).  Moments like this underscore how important it is to situate this reading in a broader context of learning about the cultures and beliefs of China and the West, especially when teaching a younger group like this.

Soon our discussion touched on why the characters’ faces were missing features when they appeared farther away.  This may seem obvious to some, but it is an important development for students of this age (and I would imagine older students as well).  Together the students revealed that too much detail on far away characters could be misinterpreted since it would be hard for the reader to make out the expression accurately.  Instead, Yang uses more obvious facial expressions like wide eyes when he wants to convey emotion – a technique exclusive to animation, which our students have not dealt with before.  This talking point helped the students further explore Mei-wen’s emotions as she and Bao were in the library and she had her revelation concerning Guan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion.  Our students noticed how this was a parting moment for Mei-wen and Little Bao because while they are united in their goal of unifying China, their previously aligned paths of doing so through force of arms have now diverged since Mei-wen sees the importance of compassion and understanding of all beings while Little Bao maintains his path of destruction as led by Qin Shi Huang.  One student noted how this played out through Mei-wen’s revelation on page 282 while Little Bao was asleep and oblivious to her transformation – an idea which is reemphasized through his lack of understanding for her treating wounded secondary devils while donning a drawn eye on her hand symbolizing a hamsa.  Another student compared her compassion and treatment of all wounded to the American Civil War where women would often tend to the wounded of both sides.  This idea will return in future conversations as we explore the role of women within Yang’s text, but for now they recognized the differing conceptions of China conveyed by Mei-wen’s comment, “What is China but a people and their stories.”

During the remainder of class we explored ideas such as whether one can discern right and wrong during such conflict, the meaning of vows and edicts when confronted with difficult stakes and conditions, Little Bao’s inner conflict between his personal connections and the “good of China,” the possibility that part of Little Bao dies with Mei-wen in the library, whether this is truly Qin Shi Huang’s story and the parallels between them, and the idea of both hesitation and compassion being weaknesses in battle (as shown through the backfiring of the burning library and the backfiring of letting women and children survive on the train respectively).  Our discussions cover so many different points that it is impossible to give a full accounting, but that is what is so fascinating about dealing with a novel like this: there is no limit to the types of discussions one can have, so you can just choose certain major ideas to really emphasize and let the students take the class where they find the most meaning.  Every class has been filled with many insightful interpretations, impressive visual and textual connections (like the people in hell on page 279 with Lee Bao’s role models on page 308), and sometimes less impressive and more shallow observations that are necessary parts of the process of helping 7th graders understand a complicated text.  All of the past two paragraphs of observations were made by one section during a single 40-minute period; now I will recount some of the other ideas put forward in the other two sections with some more speed and less detail.

We started the other classes with the same questions about how Little Bao reacts to this grand city and how he is overwhelmed.  The students quickly brought us from his status as the only one left from his village to his love for Mei-wen to his reversion to a childlike state while watching the opera puppets on pages 266-268.  They also noted how Bing Wong-bing truly acts like Little Bao did at the beginning of the novel, illustrating a strange parallel that ends with Bing Wong-bing in a state more similar to Little Bao’s father after being beaten by foreign guards than to Little Bao himself.  The second class noted much more of how Little Bao reacts to the water of Qin Shi Huang, asking whether he feels like he’s drowning especially in light of the fact that he cannot swim and that he is shoved into the water by Qin Shi Huang on page 307.  They also explored very explicitly the parallels between the Qin Dynasty and Little Bao’s journey as both burned a massive number of books, both left fathers to die, both tried to unify China by force, and both had some explicit rules.  On that last note, however, we also made some distinctions between the Qin Dynasty’s extremely strict and specific rules of Legalism and the more broad edicts of the Boxers, which perhaps had more in common with Confucianism.  While discussing the edicts, one student made the observation that the edicts are in a different order on page 150 and page 261.  For the class, we treated this as an intentional choice on Yang’s part, but it is one of a few moments that might be a typo in the first edition.

We again explored the mutually opposing and interdependent forces of yin and yang briefly, but we are saving the larger discussion of this notion for after completing Saints.  Nonetheless, the idea of romance vs violence featured prominently here, and we tried to make some sense out of those conflicting forces.  A very interesting development during this discussion was the occasional over-reliance on Western notions; this will become a much bigger concern in Saints, but some students wanted to say that Qin Shi Huang already knew the foreign troops were waiting to ambush the Boxers after they burned down the library because gods are omniscient and can see what will happen.  We pushed back on this to ask for specific textual evidence (or “specs” as I call them) that Qin Shi Huang can foresee things rather than allowing it to stand on preconceived notions of what a god can and can’t do.  Thus, they noted that he knew it would be a “mistake” to let the women live from the train.

With the final section of the day, we visited many of the same ideas as the prior two, but the students also emphasized how there were two forces pulling on Little Bao: Qin Shi Huang (or perhaps China) and Mei-wen.  A large discussion ensued over whether or not people without the mystic vision can see the Opera Gods.  They offered some interesting evidence and debated with each other quite a bit.  It was a worthwhile exercise, but eventually we tabled the discussion since we’ll have many more thoughts on it after finishing Saints.  This group also explored what role Little Bao’s eldest brother played in Bao’s life and whether his influence could have shown a middle path to Bao had First Brother not been killed by the woman from the train.

This third day of discussion really emphasized just how deeply the students can delve into a novel and how much Yang’s work inspired them to fully engage with the discussions.  From here our plan was to continue on to Saints as homework over the weekend, but we were lucky enough to get an extra 45 minutes with the entire grade on Friday when a math project fell through.  So, we broke them into their small groups to discuss two questions before returning for a whole-grade discussion of those points.  I have added the two questions below which sparked much fascinating discussion in both the small groups and the larger group.

Question 1
In yesterday’s discussion, some of you felt that Bao is struggling with elements within himself.  Some of you felt that Bao is wrestling with elements outside himself.

Either way, whether Qin Shi Huang is internal or external, in the final pages (beginning with page 312) has Bao achieved any kind of resolution?  Psychologically, where is Bao before he dies?  Has he resolved his conflict?

Question 2
In yesterday’s discussion, one student took us to page 262 and noted the moment where a Boxer thought a bedpan was a soup bowl.  While they are both Chinese and both seemingly united by their Boxer affiliation, in this panel Lu Pai and the Boxer show their differences as an urban dweller vs a rural dweller and perhaps also as a government magistrate vs a poor village boy.  Consider the groups and factions that are represented in this novel.  Can you take this example as a starting point and identify groups of people (throughout the text) who unite or divide beyond the delineations of Boxers and Saints?

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