This post provides a rough draft of a book talk that you can re-purpose for your classroom, for the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
How does this work as a book talk for you? How would you do a book talk on Persepolis? Is there a best way to do a book talk?
How is the history happening today seen uniquely by you? If you were to draw or write your life today, what would your particular lens show that no one else’s could? Your answers to these questions reveal a truth no one can deny: history is much more than the facts and stats of encyclopedia articles, UN resolutions, and news headlines.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, the first of a two-part graphic novel series, takes you to a bygone time that still grips the imagination, through the eyes of one preteen and eventually teen girl. Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning book, translated into more than forty languages, tells the story of her childhood and teenage years growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. With this month’s theme of learning, this book is not only a great visual entrée into another culture’s history—it’s also a mirror to help you discover more about yourself and what else you might need to learn.
Learning history can be hard for two reasons. First, it can sometimes seem like a soulless list of facts. You could spend a whole semester just digging in to one decade of American history, and you wouldn’t cover all its details—which is why history teachers sometimes sprint through facts and figures, when all you want to do is stay and explore a while. So, if you really love history, and you know you can’t hop a plane or travel back in time, what better way to learn about other cultures than through pictures? Graphic novels—essentially, long-form comic books—capture thousands of words, those historical moments, in pithy panels, giving you great windows into time periods.
Second, history can also be a long list of crimes and hurts. Graphic memoirists have a way of capturing painful experience paced by the slowness of the reading experience (as opposed to the intense way movies can hit us with images), so a reader can more slowly absorb the beauty and horror of tough stuff, turned art.
Recommended for grades seven and up, this book includes some adult situations, graphic violence (such as torture), and adult language. The second book (not reviewed here) is recommended for grades nine and up.
History is whose story?
Maybe you already know something about the 1979 Iranian Revolution, or Iran’s history before that. But if not, Sartrapi’s pithy introduction will quickly set you straight so you can dive in. She quotes her father, who describes Iran’s history as “2500 years of tyranny and submission,” setting the stage to understand people’s pain and unrest with the Shah, a monarch installed by the American CIA’s interference. Sartrapi’s family—liberal, Western educated, and suspicious of religious fundamentalism—holds very different views than many citizens rising up to demand a religiously fundamentalist culture.
Satrapi wanted to share not only some facts, but also her daily experience. Persepolis highlights the ways historical events at that time upended her life—having to wear a veil, family and friends being imprisoned, schools adopting a religious curriculum, bombing raids. But the novel is more than her personal grocery list of events; it’s also her self-discovered truths along the way, ones she might even challenge later.
Marjane Satrapi may not claim to be a historian or politician, but when we, the people, not only write but also interpret the historical moment, telling our truths, we add an important piece to the puzzle. And when in a culture divisive forces exist both within and without, threatening to tear a country apart, which truths get to reign?
Why this book might challenge you
Assume whatever you already know about a particular country or a group of people is wrong. Why? Because unless you’ve lived there and are part of the culture, you’ve got only a snapshot. Satrapi explains how this novel is the result of wanting to tell her truth about Iran and bust open several stereotypes about being Iranian, Muslim, and a resident of a country undergoing a fundamentalist revolution.
It’s very important to not stop with just one primary source or one secondary source when we’re trying to understand a moment in history. Try to piece together more of the puzzle. What Satrapi’s done here is a great reminder to record our memories and bring them to life in ways that have meaning to us and our families. Others can learn from our individual lens on powerful moments in history.
How this book might relate to you
Marji is a troublemaker who certainly speaks her mind as a small child. Often she’s an outlier, a weirdo, and misunderstood by her peers and teachers. She talks openly to God and wants to be a prophet, she reads way above her grade level, and she imagines a different society than the one she lives in. “She’s crazy,” people say, whenever she talks about wanting a revolution or declarations like, “I wanted to be justice, love and the wrath of God all in one.” But here’s the deal: she does it in a society where she could be beaten in school or in the streets for bucking authority.
Check out how Marji tells her story through pictures—her childhood view of things, versus her teen view of things. As you dive into the images, and all the “shots” she provides (long shots, close-up shots, large panel, or small panel), think about how the way she sets up each frame captures a perspective that reflects both her age and the emotion she was feeling on the facts she experienced.
Part of why Marji was such a deep thinker is her household was a reading household. “To enlighten me,” she says of her parents, “they bought books.” Books and intellectual pondering, plus supportive parents, are her salvation. What gets you through tough moments in your history?
Check out other readings on Iran, recommended by Kamin Mohammadi in “Kamin Mohammadi’s Top 10 Iranian Books.”
If you don’t know StoryCorps, you should check it out. Listen to all the great personal stories of everyday people—the citizens of America telling their individual stories.