Speaking Graphically

by | Apr 1, 2020 | Graphic Novels | 0 comments

Woah! It’s almost been a YEAR since I last posted, and the main reason for that is my happy, healthy almost one-year old-son! I can’t even believe how fast the last eleven months have gone, but they haven’t left much time for reading or writing. That changed this past week when I, along with most of the rest of the continent, was asked to stay home for weeks (or months?) to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. I imagine you’re like me in that you’re trying to make sense of this mind-boggling situation, and you might even be struggling to find your purpose. I’ve come back to this blog because it gives me such a feeling of joy to read and create experiences for myself based on the books I read, but even more, I feel the need to connect with other readers and maybe even inspire you to plan some of your own Plot Driven Life experiences. Over the next weeks I am at home, I plan not only to share some of my Plot Driven Life experiences, but I’ll also share some of my favorite STEAM Challenge ideas and introduce you to some fun tech tools you can test out if you or someone you know needs some mental stimulation. I welcome your comments, book recommendations and questions, and I’m hoping you and your loved ones stay safe and use this time to rest and re-examine what’s important. 

So, here is my first Plot Driven Life experience: quarantine style! 

I had the awesome opportunity to attend the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) bi-annual conference this past fall in Louisville, KY with some of my favorite librarian friends. One of the workshops I had the chance to attend radically changed my thinking about graphic novels. I’ve never been very interested in reading graphic novels, and I’ll admit that I was one of those educators who thought graphic novels were “cheat” reading. When I left this session at AASL, speakers Alicia, Kate and Amanda had convinced me not only to respect the graphic novel but also to commit to reading 25 graphic novels as part of my initiation into this genre. These librarians made one powerful case for reading graphic novels in one hour! One of the first books I chose to read as part of their challenge to me has been popular amongst my students for several years: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. And yes, it’s about THAT Dahmer. Here’s my review:

 Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the most notorious serial killers of all time, a predator who not only cut up the bodies of his victims but also experimented with necrophilia and cannibalism. Author Derf Backderf was a neighbor, classmate and friend of Dahmer’s in the 1970s. In this graphic novel, Backderf recounts what it was like to grow up with the shy and awkward Dahmer whom he met for the first time when both boys were in seventh grade, but the book also includes insight into the parts of Dahmer’s life that Backderf wasn’t privy. Backderf uses extensive research to show how Dahmer’s behavior escalated from a fascination with roadkill to cold-blooded murder as he was overpowered by his devious sexual fantasies. Most fascinating are Backderf’s memories of how he and his close group of friends formed the “Dahmer Fan Club,” and egged on Dahmer to pretend to have violent fits in public, an act Backderf would later learn was inspired by Dahmer’s mother’s debilitating mental illness. The book includes evidence of a prank pulled by Backderf and his friends: having Dahmer pose in a number of yearbook photos for clubs in which Dahmer was never a participant. Backderf shows that Dahmer lacked any responsible adult in his life during his teenage years leading the future serial killer to medicate his deteriorating mental state with large amounts of alcohol even while at school.  My Friend Dahmer is a skin-crawling look into the childhood of a monster and it encourages readers to ask, “what if?”

Only a couple of other books have given me such an uneasy feeling due to the dark content: Columbine by Dave Cullen, an in-depth look at the first mass school shooting in the USA (he has a newly released book called Parkland if you’re also interested), and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, the story of the Chicago World’s Fair killer named H.H. Holmes who built a crematorium in the basement of his hotel so he could easily destroy the evidence of his numerous ghastly crimes. 

Two of the most chilling nonfiction books I have ever read.

I had to get especially creative with a #plotdrivenlife experience for My Friend Dahmer. Dahmer’s hobbies included liquifying roadkill in acid and hiding in the bushes to hunt for victims, so, just no. Instead, I thought about how the book’s author/illustrator, Derf Backderf, had chronicled a memorable part of his high school experience through art and text. I’m no fine artist, but I do know of a great tool that anyone can use for free to create storyboards: Storyboard That. With tons of free scenes, characters and props and the ability to edit scene environments and character poses and expressions, this is a super tool to summarize content or tell a story using panels like a graphic novel illustrator. I used the basic six-panel template to tell a very short story of how I experimented with several different extra-curricular activities in high school before I found the best fit, an activity that ultimately made it possible for me to move from my hometown in Canada to St. Charles, MO. Check it out:

My mini graphic novel about my high school experience.

My high-school years were super cringe-worthy (shyness + acne + braces = super nerd), and I SO wish I could go back and mentor my teenage self. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I ended up working as a high school librarian– to help the kids who are currently feeling cringe-y.  

If you’re curious about the other graphic novels I’m reading as part of my 25 book challenge, check out my just-started Graphically Speaking podcast, and I challenge you to give Storyboard That a try. And if you’re up for it, I just learned there is a movie version of My Friend Dahmer. Check out the trailer here. Finally, Alicia, one of the presenters who convinced me to stop disrespecting graphic novels, has her own blog called Readers Be Advised which I highly encourage you to check out.

Happy reading,


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