by Sharon Kane
Joan of Arc was my way in.
I have been planning to read Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints (2013, First Second) for a while. The two books in this set have won major awards, and Yang is presently the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. But the books never seemed to make it to the top of my “To Read” pile. I’m not totally comfortable with graphic novels, nor am I comfortable with books about war—especially when the violence is depicted visually.
I admit that I struggled through Boxers. I cringed as I, along with Little Bao, watched a Christian cleric smash the village’s sacred idol, accompanied by the caption, “This is Good News of Jesus Christ!” (p. 19). Readers encounter much blood and too many deaths, and it was especially hard to read knowing that the work was well researched and based on actual events that took place during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899.
I found the beginning of Saints very sad—a young girl so rejected and abused that she chose to embrace her devil self. When she found acceptance in a Christian missionary community, I was glad for her. She had been called Girl-Four since infancy, when her grandfather refused to even give her a name. Now she was Vibiana; she had an identity and a purpose, caring for children in an orphanage. And she had a spiritual guide—Joan of Arc! Joan had had visions several centuries earlier, and now she was appearing in Vibiana’s visions.
I won’t go into how Little Bao’s and Vibiana’s stories intersect. Rather, I’ll reflect on the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. As soon as Joan came into the picture (literally), I was engaged in a new way and could make valuable connections. At one point Vibiana has the opportunity to save her life if she will deny her faith; there could be no better guide as she makes her decision than Joan of Arc, who was offered that same choice as she faced being burned at the stake in 1431.
I finished Saints and went back to Boxers, able to tackle it with new appreciation. I was amazed at Yang’s ability to describe the Boxer Rebellion from opposing perspectives, without ever tipping the scales in terms of which side was better or more right. Readers are the winners as they learn Chinese history through art and story.
Appropriate for high school
history, ELA, art, religion