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4 Graphic Storytelling Activities from Graphic Novelist Laura Lee Gulledge

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Today on the podcast we’re sitting down talking graphic storytelling activities with Laura Lee Gulledge, the graphic novelist behind The Dark Matter of Mona Starr. She’s an Eisner Award nominated cartoonist, teaching artist, musical librettist, and collaborative muralist based in Charlottesville, VA. Her books include YA graphic novels The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, Page by Paige, Will & Whit, and the interactive Sketchbook Dares: 24 Ways to Draw Out Your Inner Artist.

If you’ve ever wondered where to start with getting students drawing and creating their own graphic stories and mini-comics, today’s episode is for you! Laura Lee has generously shared ideas and materials for four different creative lessons you can try with your classes. We’re diving into her graphic novel – The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, her creation process, and a wide range of activity ideas for class.

Ready to dive in?

You can listen in to episode 194 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

Laura Lee Gulledge read her first graphic novel at 27, a couple of decades after it would have been a revelation to her as a student, when she had to picture everything in her head as she read stories. As a highly visual person, she had always had to build fictional worlds herself to understand what she was reading.

There are a lot of great reasons why graphic novels are important, but let’s talk about a few now. Graphic novels provide an accessibility bridge for many students. They allow kids to simply walk right into a new world. Pictures also allow for the expression of ideas that words simply can’t capture, sometimes expressing things even the creator doesn’t fully understand until the idea is on paper.

Laura Lee spent years drawing emotions, building a visual language for feelings she had experienced, which eventually led into her work on The Dark Matter of Mona Starr.

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr

Graphic Storytelling Activities

In this book, the main character, Mona, is dealing with depression. She gets the idea from her therapist that she should study it and learn to understand her own patterns and needs, which she does throughout the book. Laura Lee has created a container for exploring mental health on the page that gives hope rather than reinforcing a sense of doom. The book provides strategies and tools for self-care, as well as pictures of healthy friendships. Yet it doesn’t feel prescriptive. The drawings of Mona’s emotions – stemming from Laura Lee’s own visual emotional vocabulary – are stunning.

As Laura Lee says, comics can help diffuse serious topics. Because the medium is inherently more digestible and accessible, it provides a venue for discussing more serious topics in a way that feels easier.

Teaching Workshops Using Graphic Storytelling Activities

Laura Lee shared a few different graphic storytelling workshop ideas to try in class – the first three connect really easily with Mona, the last one would work in any graphic novel unit or even as a stand-alone activity.

#1 Draw a Portrait of your Matter

Throughout The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, Laura Lee draws Mona’s “matter” (as in – “what’s the matter?”) as different kinds of swirls of black and white. To help student experiment with their own visual designs, you might invite them to draw their own matter. How do they feel when something is the matter? What does it look like? You can see Laura Lee’s handout on the left (which you can grab here) and my model beside it.

#2 Make a Self-Care Plan for a Graphic Storytelling Activities

Another activity that easily relates to The Dark Matter of Mona Starr is to make a self care plan using graphic design elements. Laura Lee put her own in as a model at the end of her book, and she also provides a printable copy on her website here.

You might also like my one-pagers for a simple and low-key version of graphic storytelling activities.

Graphic Storytelling Activities

#3 Represent the Well

In The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, Mona experiences her depression as a feeling like falling down a well and being trapped there. She has to use different wellness and support strategies to get out. Inviting students to create a visual well and artistic renderings of ways to get out – either on their own, with partners, or as a whole community – is another way to explore graphic storytellling with students. Below, see a page from the book alongside examples of collaborative well creation from schools.

Helping Students Create Graphic Stories (#4)

I’m giving this one its own section, because it’s so adaptable to any text.

Laura Lee suggests a few ways to help kids feel more comfortable with telling their own stories in graphic form.

For starters, she says, remind them of the language of emojis. They can use symbolism to tell their stories, like a text full of emojis that somehow expresses a mood or even a night out.

They can also skip drawing people if they find that too challenging. Any shape with arms and legs can be a character.

Finally, Laura Lee invites students to create something short at first, a mini-comic. Maybe it’s the story behind their name, the story behind how they got a scar, maybe the story of their first day of school in a new country. Origin stories are always popular in the world of comics!

You can find the materials for this project on Laura Lee’s website here.

As students begin to draw their characters, Laura Lee recommends focusing on gathering the ingredients of their story first. As they get to know their character, they can give it a name, think about what the character wants, who the other characters might be, what setting fits. For many students, having some post-its and jotting down ideas that they can move around later into a final sequence will be helpful. (This part of our conversation reminded me so much of our past exploration of the writing makerspace with Angela Stockman).

Laura Lee’s own process as a graphic novelist is similar. She begins by writing the elevator pitch for the book – the part you’d see on the back cover – and then begins to build bulletin boards full of images and scenes which she can later move around. You can see an example of one of her bulletin boards for The Dark Matter of Mona Starr below.

Graphic Storytelling Activities

You can show your students Laura Lee’s process of creation in this clip from one of her virtual school visits below.

Laura Lee’s Favorite Graphic Novels

Laura Lee Gulledge’s favorite graphic novels are the ones that push the envelope of the medium – books that could’t be told in only words, books that try something new with their visuals.

Meanwhile offers a choose-your-own adventure story, created by a mathematician-turned-graphic novelist.

Owly provides a unique experience as even the dialogue bubbles are made up of symbols and not words.

In Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller, Joseph Lambert portrays Helen’s journey of developing language through totally unique visuals. At first her world is black, then words appear, then shapes.

Lighter than my Shadow explores Katie Green’s experiences with an eating disorder using some parallel imagery to Mona’s – this book is much more mature than the others, with topics related to disordered eating, body dysmorphia, and abuse.

Finally, Laura Lee recommends the book Here for its totally unique storytelling, exploring one space on the planet along parallel timelines throughout history.

Connect with Laura Lee Gulledge

Laura Lee is a master of both words and images.”
–School Library Journal

Gulledge’s values are wholesome,
and her energy is up-to-the-minute fresh
.”
–Publisher’s Weekly

Visit Laura Lee’s website here, and check out the learning section for more education resources! You’ll also find information about virtual visit, visiting author visits, and various types of workshop options.

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