Graphic Novel Review: Amelia Rules! Series by Jimmy Gownley (Simon & Schuster)

Birds’ eye overview:

Ages: While these books are geared for 7-12 year olds, they are wonderfully entertaining for readers of all ages, and provide summer, school, or any-time fun.

Genre: fiction; humor

Highlights for classroom use: Wonderful word play, wonderful nuanced characters

Story themes include:

  • The ups and downs of friends, frenemies, bullies and group stereotypes;

  • Learning how to live and navigate through divorce;

  • The fears and challenges of moving;

  • Whether or not Santa Clause is real;

  • Dealing with death and fears of funerals;

  • How people with disabilities are often treated differently;

  • The affect a “bad” label can have and the importance of perspective and being true to oneself;

  • Finding what makes us happy;

  • Coming of age and learning to balance dreams, flaws and life’s challenges;

  • How to deal with real and imagined dangers (from camping, to games like Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle, to a parent deployed for a year overseas).

Juicy Details:

One thing I noticed about grown-ups…They’re not funny!” – Amelia, The Whole World’s Crazy by Jimmy Gownley


While the quote may hold true for most adults, it certainly does NOT hold true for Jimmy Gownley. His Amelia Rules! series is full of laughs, insights and loads of fun.



Amelia Rules! is a New York Times Bestseller. It received nominations for thirteen Eisner Awards (four nominations in 2008 alone), five Harvey Awards, and was a short list finalist for the Howard E. Day Prize in 2002. In 2007, Volume 3: Superheroes won the Cybil Award for best graphic novel for readers aged twelve and under. In 2008 Gownley won the Pennsylvania Library Association One Book Award, and in 2012, Volume 8: Her Permanent Record became the first Amelia Rules! Book to make the New York Times bestseller list.



There are eight books to the Amelia Rules Series:

  1. The Whole World’s Crazy

  2. What Makes You Happy

  3. Superheroes

  4. When the Past is a Present

  5. Amelia Rules!: The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular

  6. True Things (Adults Don’t Want Kids to Know)

  7. The Meaning of Life and Other Stuff

  8. Her Permanent Record


OVERVIEW

Amelia Rules! is an empowering heart-warming story about Amelia Louise McBride who moves with her Mom to a small town in Pennsylvania to live with her uber-cool aunt Tanner after her parents’ divorce. Amelia, along with her friends Reggie, Pajamaman (or PJ), and Rhonda Bleenie (Amelia’s best frenemy) tackle what the world throws at them with some guidance from Tanner, Amelia’s aunt-confidante and former rock-star. Through laughs, challenges and spills, we all learn about friendship, family, about the “truths” of life, and about the joys of not taking anything too seriously – as long as there are people (as flawed as they may be) to provide support when necessary.


Throughout the series, Amelia and her friends deal with divorce, bullies, death, stardom, and more. From beginning to end, the series shows us how to gracefully and not-so-gracefully embrace life.



Aside from the wonderful “truths” and laughs that fill these pages, Gownley also creates a rich visual world for us to savor. While his characters are simply drawn (much like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes), they are by no means simple. The images, panels and page designs are dazzling. They’re vibrant, colorful, and casual, and the overall panel elements are brilliant as Gownley scaffolds levels of insight and storytelling through image, font, color, design and text. Gownley (seeming effortlessly) weaves present, past and future, with references to Scott McCloud, Bob Dylan, and other glorious and not-so-glorious pop culture references.


While these books are geared for 7-12 year olds, they are wonderfully entertaining for readers of all ages, and provide summer, school, or any-time fun.



SERIES SUMMARY


The Whole World’s Crazy – Nine-year old Amelia and her mom move from New York City to small-town Pennsylvania before the start of fourth grade. Together, Amelia and her friends survive bullies, gym class (barely), Halloween, Christmas, and camping with Amelia’s dad.


What Makes You Happy –Tanner, Amelia, and her friends all discover what really makes them happy as they reflect on their pasts and futures. They continue to deal with school, successes, failures, dreams, spin the bottle and even a brush with death.


Superheroes – Amelia faces the prospect of having to move, Reggie uncovers the evil Legion of Steves, and the friends play a frightful game of Truth or Dare.


When the Past is a Present – It’s a new school year and Rhonda wants to start it off “right” on a new foot. This year involves, a school dance, and a friend having to deal with her father being deployed overseas. At the same time, Amelia’s mom is starting to date – which sends Amelia thinking about her past and her family’s past. In the end, Amelia realizes that life’s all about moving on, accepting what must be accepted while facing what needs to be faced.


The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular – It’s a wonderful ‘handbook’ about the dangers and dramas of middle school and the social mine fields that tween-hood entails. It’s about evaluating “good” and “bad”, about having perspective, and about tackling “image” and the “popularity problem.”


True Things (Adults Don’t Want Kids to Know) – Amelia helps Tanner revive her music career, Rhonda comes to terms with her newfound popularity, Reggie discovers that you can’t remain a kid forever, and Amelia discovers the crushes can be crushing. Through all this, readers learn a lot of truths about life including the fact that disappointment, while painful, is a fundamental part of life.


The Meaning of Life and Other Stuff- As Amelia grows up, she learns that nothing lasts forever – not marriage (at least not her parents’ marriage), not Tanner’s support, not even G.A.S.P (the Gathering of Awesome Super Pals). She also learns that while not everything broken can be fixed, you can pick up the pieces and make something else.


Her Permanent Record – the friends are now eleven years old, still facing life’s challenges and learning that life is always full of challenges and surprises. But the most importantly, Amelia learns who she is, and is happy with it as she eagerly skips off to face life’s ongoing challenges.



In short Amelia Rules! is a story about life’s truths and challenges. It shows us it’s ever so much easier to face those challenges with friends, family and a sense of humor. And, while learning life’s lessons, the series is full of GEMS from literature, music, and philosophy. But most of all, it’s just PURE FUN.


Throughout Amelia Rule! Jimmy Gownley discusses:

  • The ups and downs of friends, frenemies, bullies and group stereotypes;

  • Learning how to live and navigate through divorce

  • The fears and challenges of moving

  • Whether or not Santa Claus is real

  • Dealing with death and fears of funerals

  • How people with disabilities are often treated differently

  • The effect a “bad” label can have and the importance of perspective and being true to oneself

  • Finding what makes us happy

  • Coming of age and learning to balance dreams, flaws and life’s challenges

  • How to deal with real and imagined dangers (from camping, to games like Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle, to a parent deployed for a year overseas).



TEACHING/DISCUSSION SUGGESTIONS: This section discusses how Amelia Rules! can be plugged into the various lesson plans you’ll find in Worth a Thousand Words: Using Graphic Novels to Teach Visual and Verbal Literacy


Discussing Books’ Plot, Themes, and Values Related

  • Discuss and chart the different themes Mr. Gownley presents in this work.

  • Compare and contrast how Gownley relates these themes in this series to the way others, such as Judy Blume has done it in traditional prose texts, or how Bill Watterson has done it in his comic strips.

  • Compare and contrast how the characters and their friendships have developed and changed throughout the series. Discuss different types of friendships one might have with others. Detail what it means to be a good friend. Discuss the challenges we have in determining and maintaining friendships and why this is so important.

  • In Superheroes, Amelia and her friends are pressured into playing Truth or Dare. Have students discuss what they might do if/when someone pressures them to do or play something they’re not completely comfortable with.

  • In Superheroes, Amelia meets a new friend with “ventricular septal defect.” Discuss why Tanner mentions her disability to Amelia and how this affects how Amelia perceives and treats her. Have students discuss people in their lives with various disabilities and how they are treated/perceived.

  • In Her Permanent Record, Amelia realizes exactly who and what she is, what she is good at and not so good at, and she comes to terms with all of this as she skips off into the sunset. Have students, as projects or group discussions, relate who they are – their likes, dislikes and quirks, and the skills they have to face life’s challenges.



Critical Reading and Making Inferences

These books have both surface and deep meaning as well as cultural references and make excellent books for close/critical reading. Any one of the series volumes can be used in for the following curricular units:

  • Close reading. Any volume of this series can be plugged into Worth A Thousand Words Chapter 6 Lesson: Close Reading. Using the rubric provided students can analyze the text, the images, visual and implied perspectives and the characters’ and the author’s intent.

  • Character analysis. Gownley’s characters have nice depth to them, making this series a good choice for character analysis. Please see Chapter 6 Lesson: Good versus Evil for lesson suggestion and accompanying worksheet to be used in analyzing Amelia and/or her friends and family.



Language, Literature, and Language Usage

These books are full of alliteration, puns, idioms, metaphors, smiles, and hyperbole. Any one of the series volumes can be used in curricular unit examining literary devices and can be plugged into Worth A Thousand Words Chapter 6 Lesson: Fun With Literary Devices.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Please visit Chapter 6 in Worth a Thousand Words as we discuss Gownley’s use of phonics and onomatopoeia and his use of literary devices..

  • Search for examples of Gownley’s word play (alliteration, puns, idioms, metaphors and similes).

  • Reggie forms a club “G.A.S.P.” (Gathering of Awesome Super Pals). Have students discuss/brainstorm the use of acronyms and what acronyms they might use for assorted types of clubs or groups.

  • Rhonda and Amelia, for the first few volumes are awesome frenemies . They frequently insult each other. Search and analyze their insults. Have students create their own. This can also be used to introduce Shakespeare’s insults.

  • Using Amelia and Rhonda’s insults as a springing-board, you may want to introduce the master of all insults – William Shakespeare to your students. See links below for resources on a William Shakespeare insult kit and more.



In the earlier books, Reggie inevitably explains the origins of some phrase/event/object with official word derivations, definitions, and diagrams. Search for Reggie’s explanations and dissect fact from fiction. Then, have students write/create their own. For example:


In The Whole World’s Crazy Reggie explains:

  • P. 24”Ssneeze Barf: “Sneezicus Barfona (the Common Sneeze Barf)”

  • P. 64 “Secret Origin: ”Sectariat OrangeJulius (the Common Secert Origin)”

  • P. 120 “Latch Key Kid: Latchicus Keykidius (the Common Latchky Kid)”


In What Makes You Happy Reggie explains:

  • P. 19 Pretentious Artists as “Artisticus Prententious (the Common Artist)”


In When the Past is a Present Reggie explains:

  • P. 154 Hanging Out as “Hangtavious Outacus” and that, “…Snacks are not required but are highly recommended.” His discussion distinguishes between hanging out, clubs and cults and is well worth a close look.



Modes of Storytelling and Visual Literacy

In graphic novels, images are used to relay messages with and without accompanying text, adding additional dimension to the story. In Amelia Rules!, Gownley brilliantly weaves story and background with image, and emotions and insights, through text, image and design. Reading Amelia Rules! together with your students allows you to analyze, discuss and learn how Gownley uses page and panels, text and images to relay complex messages.


For example any one of the series volumes can be used in curricular unit on visual literacy and can be plugged into the following lessons from Worth A Thousand Words:

  • Chapter 3 Lesson: Visual Literacy Assessment – select a few of Gownley’s very detailed images and use our rubric to evaluate what your students understand in terms of his use and choices around: color, icons, fonts, facial features, shading, perspective, and overall layout and page/panel design.

  • Chapter 3 Lesson: Critically Reading Images – Gownley’s images can also be used along with our rubric to evaluate your students’ skill at critically reading images and understanding the author’s intents.

  • Chapter 4 Lesson: Panel and Panel Frames. Gownley is wonderfully creative in his use of panels and panel designs. As a result these books are wonderful choices for this lesson on evaluating and designing panels and panel frames.

  • Chapter 4: Lesson: Text Balloons. Gownley is equally creative in his use of text balloons. For example, when Amelia is really angry, the text balloons have icicles dripping from them. As a result these books are wonderful choices for this lesson on text/though/dialogue/flashback balloons.



Suggested Prose Novel and Poetry Pairings

For greater discussion on literary style and/or content here are some prose novels about growing up, about being a pre-teen/teen, and about challenges of middle school and high school that you may want to read and pair with Amelia Rules!:

  • Smile and Drama by Raina Telgemeier –an autobiographical memoir about Telgemeier’s dealing with middle school, serious (and embarrassing) dental work, high school, friendships, and finding one’s voice.

  • Freckle Juice, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing; Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great – just a few of the books Judy Blume wrote about the honest and humorous trails of growing up.

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney – a series about a boy and his struggles in middle school.

  • Pippi Longstocking – a series by Astrid Lindgren centering around Pippi, an irrepressible nine-year-old girl with a unique way of doing things. Pippi, and her neighbors Tommy and Annika make everything into an adventure and are hard to put down.

  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – a series of books about sisters growing up in a time long past. Have students compare the stories, the characters and the way the authors address similar themes.

  • Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson – collections of comic strips about a rambunctious six year old with a vivid imagination and sharp intellect who shares “truths” with us much like Amelia.

  • Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud – an outstanding book and resource that brilliants explains fundamental concepts of visual literacy and the art of making comics.





Common Core State Standards (CCSS):

While this book has a reading level of Grade 5, it is appropriate for students in grades 4 and up. As it can be incorporated into language arts and content-area classes for a variety of grades, I will be using the Common Core Anchor Standards for College and Career Readiness for Reading, Writing, and Speaking and Listening. Reading Amelia Rules! and incorporating the teaching suggestions above promotes critical thinking and its graphic novel format provides verbal and visual storytelling across subject areas while addressing multi-modal teaching. Here’s a more detailed look:

  • Knowledge of Language: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, to comprehend more fully when reading or listening. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.3


  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials; demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meaning; acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking and listening at the college and career readiness level. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.4CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.5CCSS.ELA-Lieteracy.CCRA.L.6


  • Key ideas and details: Reading closely to determine what the texts says explicitly and making logical inferences from it; citing specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text; determining central ideas or themes and analyzing their development; summarizing the key supporting details and ideas; analyzing how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of the text. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3


  • Craft and structure: Interpreting words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings and analyzing how specific word choices shape meaning or tone; analyzing the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs and larger portions of the text relate to each other and the whole; Assessing how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.5CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6


  • Integration of knowledge and ideas: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually…as well as in words; delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence; analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.8CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.9


  • Range of reading and level of text complexity: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.10


  • Comprehension and collaboration: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively; integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively and orally; evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.3




ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:




Meryl Jaffe, PhD teaches visual literacy and critical reading at Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth OnLine Programs Division and is the author of Worth a Thousand Words: Using Graphic Novels to Teach Visual and Verbal Literacy (2018, Wiley). She used to encourage the “classics” to the exclusion comics, but with her kids’ intervention, Meryl has become an avid graphic novel fan. She now incorporates them in her work, believing that the educational process must reflect the imagination and intellectual flexibility it hopes to nurture.


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