Discussions around what an acceptable text for students is has been an increasingly contentious one as of late, with different political persuasions arguing for the inclusion and exclusion of specific texts from the curriculum. Schools may be weary of onboarding a new text aimed at young readers, even though said students are interested in exploring and discussing our political system. Thankfully, Why the People from First Second Books is an outstanding and gratifying read, exposing the core debates around democratic governance in an honest and dutiful manner.
Why the People is graphic novel written by Beka Feathers, focusing on two characters, Julie Anne Heidler and Shu Lin Chen, as they hold an extended conversation about democracy while navigating an airport. Our two central figures recount the various political conversations heard around their dinner table and begin to ask what these varying perspectives on America mean. On their path toward realizing their own political perspectives, they consider what makes for an ideal political society and how they see it reflected in America. The text successfully uses this conservation framing device to cut between different punctuating moments from history to provide historical context, giving this text a praiseworthy academic core.
The topic of this graphic novel is close to my heart, having taught US history to 14 year-olds for more than a decade. Students need to recognize that they are active participants in our democratic experiment and studying how democratic ideals have been practiced and undermined throughout history gives them context for how to form a more perfect union today. Why the People does a notable job tackling major questions around democratic governance without the text turning into a textbook. Additionally, while it clearly comes out in favor of democratic pluralism as a desirable political end, it is not a preachy text, and should be approachable to those with varying political perspectives. By focusing our attention on the two main characters and their perspectives of being American, it personalizes the philosophical debate, giving the text an approachable narrative core. In a brief 250 pages, the book covers a commendable amount of historical ground without making it burdensome.
What really makes this text approachable to young readers is the excellent art by Ally Shwed. Her style is minimalist, and visually in keeping with artists like Guy Delisle and Marjane Satrapi. Where Ally’s work truly shines is in the way conversations between the characters seamlessly shifts to historic movements and infographics to visually relate the banter to readers. One wishes many textbooks could communicate this dense conversation as effectively as Shwed’s line work. Gerardo Alba keeps the color palette simple, with pastel monochrome shades give the page some supplementary vitality.
Why the People is an excellent text for middle and high school students, as well as adults looking for an interesting way to discuss the benefits of democracy and pluralism in our contentious current political environment. Thankfully, First Second Books has a series of graphic novels planned to address these important debates, aimed at a similar demographic. If they are as strong as Why the People, this series of titles should be an incredible resource to civilly expose young people to the chief philosophical debates of our era.
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