Recently, I came to work with a 9th grade English class who had just read the young adult novels, Speak and Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Both are books about learning to express yourself when everyone around you has already decided who you are. I was asked to help/inspire them to create a short comic based on the reading. I didn't want the students drawing plot points or quoting from the stories, I wanted their comics to deal with a bigger picture. I had to find a common theme.
I settled on the INVISIBLE PRISON. A phrase swiped from the culture blog, HiLoBrow with full credit to Joshua Glenn for creating this striking motif. As I understand it, the Invisible Prison appears when a character is overwhelmed by social, cultural or financial restrictions. It seemed to fit both Speak and Part-Time Indian. I presented the idea to the class and, without a formal definition, the kids immediately found a point of reference. They found something they wanted to say.
The results were mixed. Some were caught in plot tangles that muddled their work. While others, despite a good idea, were drained from the drawing. Comics take stamina, you know? A few of them, already versed in illustrative art, did great work. In the comics that came out of the project I saw lonely moments and yelling teachers, mean words and hashtags, messy bedrooms and wrong answers. I saw teenagers being honest.
One day, I walked into a room of 9th graders holding a lunchbox full of non-photo blue pencils and Micron Pens. I asked a class full of busy high school kids to take time of out of their lives to draw me their Invisible Prisons and they were cool enough to do it.