Since 2013, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of her childhood during and after Iran’s Islamic Revolution has rather unexpectedly become one of the most frequently challenged graphic novels in U.S. classrooms and school libraries. Despite the book’s critical acclaim, some parents and even educators or school administrators react to the few profanities and scenes of torture by trying to get it removed from schools. In at least two cases that we know of, Islamophobia also played a role in the challenge. In hopes of preventing any future bans of Persepolis, we’ve put together these resources for librarians and educators who may need to justify and defend the inclusion of the book in library and classroom collections.
Since its initial publication in French beginning in 2000, Persepolis has become a modern classic. Its U.S. publisher Pantheon provides this synopsis:
Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.
Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life. Marjane’s child’s-eye view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family. Intensely personal, profoundly political, and wholly original, Persepolis is at once a story of growing up and a reminder of the human cost of war and political repression. It shows how we carry on, with laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity. And, finally, it introduces us to an irresistible little girl with whom we cannot help but fall in love.
Reviews for Persepolis
Satrapi’s great-grandfather was Iran’s last emperor, the one overthrown by the father of the shah overthrown in the 1979 Islamic revolution. Doubtless their pedigree of former greatness somewhat shielded her leftist family from the Ayatollah Khomeini’s authoritarian regime, and her extraordinary autobiography in comics, which reflects her perspective from ages 10 to 14, probably understates the violence that swirled around her, cresting in the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. At first, the revolution freed an uncle who idolized her and some of her parents’ friends from prison, but soon the tide turned, and the former prisoners had to flee (at least one was killed before he could). Her father and uncle explained modern Iran’s past to her, all but dispelling her childish religiosity, and she joined her parents at political demonstrations. When an Iraqi missile destroyed Jewish neighbors, however, her parents determined to use their upper-middle-class means to get out. Satrapi’s cursive, geometrical drawing style, reminiscent of the great children’s author-artist Wanda Gag’s, eloquently conveys her ingenuousness and fervor as a child. YA/Curriculum Support: Excellent supplementary reading for studies of the modern Middle East.
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Satrapi’s autobiography is a timely and timeless story of a young girl’s life under the Islamic Revolution. Descended from the last Emperor of Iran, Satrapi is nine when fundamentalist rebels overthrow the Shah. While Satrapi’s radical parents and their community initially welcome the ouster, they soon learn a new brand of totalitarianism is taking over. Satrapi’s art is minimal and stark yet often charming and humorous as it depicts the madness around her. She idolizes those who were imprisoned by the Shah, fascinated by their tales of torture, and bonds with her Uncle Anoosh, only to see the new regime imprison and eventually kill him. Thanks to the Iran-Iraq war, neighbors’ homes are bombed, playmates are killed and parties are forbidden. Satrapi’s parents, who once lived in luxury despite their politics, struggle to educate their daughter. Her father briefly considers fleeing to America, only to realize the price would be too great. “I can become a taxi driver and you a cleaning lady?” he asks his wife. Iron Maiden, Nikes and Michael Jackson become precious symbols of freedom, and eventually Satrapi’s rebellious streak puts her in danger, as even educated women are threatened with beatings for improper attire. Despite the grimness, Satrapi never lapses into sensationalism or sentimentality. Skillfully presenting a child’s view of war and her own shifting ideals, she also shows quotidian life in Tehran and her family’s pride and love for their country despite the tumultuous times. Powerfully understated, this work joins other memoirs-Spiegelman’s Maus and Sacco’s Safe Area Goradze-that use comics to make the unthinkable familiar.
School Library Journal
Marji tells of her life in Iran from the age of 10, when the Islamic revolution of 1979 reintroduced a religious state, through the age of 14 when the Iran-Iraq war forced her parents to send her to Europe for safety. This story, told in graphic format with simple, but expressive, black-and-white illustrations, combines the normal rebelliousness of an intelligent adolescent with the horrors of war and totalitarianism. Marji’s parents, especially her freethinking mother, modeled a strong belief in freedom and equality, while her French education gave her a strong faith in God. Her Marxist-inclined family initially favored the overthrow of the Shah, but soon realized that the new regime was more restrictive and unfair than the last. The girl’s independence, which made her parents both proud and fearful, caused them to send her to Austria. With bold lines and deceptively uncomplicated scenes, Satrapi conveys her story. From it, teens will learn much of the history of this important area and will identify with young Marji and her friends. This is a graphic novel of immense power and importance for Westerners of all ages. It will speak to the same audience as Art Spiegelman’s Maus (Pantheon, 1993).
Praise for Persepolis
“A dazzlingly singular achievement. . . . Striking a perfect balance between the fantasies and neighborhood conspiracies of childhood and the mounting lunacy of Khomeini’s reign, she’s like the Persian love child of Spiegelman and Lynda Barry.” —Salon
“This is an excellent comic book, that deserves a place with Joe Sacco and even Art Spiegelman. In her bold black and white panels, Satrapi eloquently reasserts the moral bankruptcy of all political dogma and religious conformity; how it bullies, how it murders, and how it may always be ridiculed by individual rebellions of the spirit and the intellect.” –Zadie Smith (The Autograph Man, White Teeth)
“You’ve never seen anything like Persepolis — the intimacy of a memoir, the irresistability of a comic book, and the political depth of a the conflict between fundamentalism and democracy. Marjane Satrapi may have given us a new genre.” –Gloria Steinem
I grew up reading the Mexican comics of Gabriel Vargas, graduated to the political teachings of Rius, fell under the spell of Linda Barry, Art Spiegelman, and now I am a fan of Marjane Satrapi. Her stories thrummed in my heart for days. Persepolis is part history book, part Scheherazade, astonishing as only true stories can be. I learned much about the history of Iran, but more importantly, it gave me hope for humanity in these unkind times. –Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street, Caramelo)
I thought [Persepolis] was a superb piece of work, not only for the child’s eye view — the developing child’s eye view — of a society unknown to many of us in the west, and feared and suspected in proportion to being unknown…. Satrap has found a way of depicting human beings that is both simple and immediately comprehensible, AND is almost infinitely flexible. Anyone who’s tried to draw a simplified version of a human face knows how immensely difficult it is not only to give the faces a range of expression, but also to maintain identities from one frame to the next. It’s an enormous technical accomplishment.” –Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass)
I cannot praise enough Marjane Satrapi’s moving account of growing up as a spirited young girl in revolutionary and war-time Iran. Persepolis is disarming and often humorous but ultimately it is shattering.” — Joe Sacco (Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde)
This witty, moving and illuminating book demonstrates graphically why the future of Iran lies with neither the clerics nor the American Empire. –Tariq Ali (The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity)
“I found the work immensely moving with depths of nuance and wisdom that one might never expect to find in a comic book. It’s a powerful, mysterious, enchanting story that manages to reflect a great swath of Iranian contemporary history within the sensitive, intimate tale of a young girl’s coming-of-age. I didn’t want it to end!” —Diana Abu-Jaber (Crescent, Arabian Jazz)
“A rare and chilling memoir that offers every reader a personal, honest portrait of Iran’s recent political and cultural history. Ms. Satrapi’s provocative, graphic narrative of life in Iran before and after the Islamic revolution is an extraordinary testament to the level of human suffering experienced by Iranians tossed from one political hypocrisy to another. Aside from the humanistic dimension, the beautifully minimalist Persepolis gives further evidence of Marjane Satrapi’s sensitivity and superb skill as an artist.” –Shirin Neshat, visual artist/filmmaker
“Readers who have always wanted to look beyond political headlines and CNN’s cliches should plunge into this unique illustrated story. Let Marji be your trusted companion, follow her into the warmth of a Persian home and out along Tehran’s turbulent streets during those heady days of revolution. Persepolis opens a rare door to understanding of events that still haunt America, while shining a bright light on the personal humanity and humor so much alive in Iranian families today.” –Terence Ward (Searching for Hassan)
Blending the historical with the personal is not an easy task, to blend the individual with the universal is even more challenging. But Marjane Satrapi has succeeded brilliantly. This graphic novel is a reminder of the human spirit that fights oppression and death, it is a witness to something true and lasting which is more affective than hundreds of news broadcasts. –Hanan al-Shaykh (Women of Sand and Myrhh)
Awards and Recognition
- ALA Alex Awards 2004 [list]
- Booklist Editors’ Choice: Adult Books for Young Adults 2003 [list]
- New York Times Notable Books 2003 [list]
- Time Magazine Top 10 Comics 2003 [list]
- New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age 2004 [list]
- School Library Journal Adult Books for Young Adults
- YALSA 2004 Best Books for Young Adults [list]
- London Times 100 Best Books of the Decade
- A.V. Club Best Comics of the ‘00s: The Top 25 [list]
Using Graphic Novels in Education is an ongoing feature from CBLDF that is designed to allay confusion around the content of graphic novels and to help parents and educators raise readers. In this column, we examine graphic novels, including those that have been targeted by censors, and provide teaching and discussion suggestions for the use of such books in classrooms. You can view the column for Persepolis here.
Furor erupted in 2013 when Chicago Public Schools sent an email to local principals, directing them to remove all copies of Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning graphic novel Persepolis. CPS backpedaled on the initial email, but the book was removed from Grade 7 classrooms and use in Grade 8 -10 classrooms now requires additional teacher training. Possibly as a result of publicity from the 2013 CPS ban, Persepolis faced three more school challenges in 2014, landing it the #2 spot on the American Library Association’s Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books for that year. More…
What should I do if Persepolis is challenged?
Most challenges to comics in libraries come from well-meaning individuals, frequently parents, who find something they believe is objectionable in their local public or school library. These challenges are often difficult and stressful for the library staff who must manage them, but there are resources to help them in the process. Below we’ve identified a number of tips and links to assist libraries to increase the likelihood of keeping challenged comics on the shelves.
1. Make Strong Policies.
Strong selection and challenge review policies are key for protecting access to library materials, including comics. The American Library Association has developed a number of excellent tools to assist school and public libraries in the essential preparation to perform before books are challenged here.
2. Face the Challenge.
What do you do when a comic is challenged? Much of the material in this post can be used to help defend Persepolis against a challenge. The American Library Association has developed these helpful tools to cope with challenges:
- Conducting a Challenge Hearing
- Strategies and Tips for Dealing with Challenges
- Sample Request for Reconsideration of Library Resources
CBLDF can also help by providing assistance with locating review resources, writing letters of support, and facilitating access to experts and resources. Call 800-99-CBLDF or email firstname.lastname@example.org at the first sign of a First Amendment emergency!
3. Report the Challenge.
Another essential step in protecting access to comics is to report challenges when they occur. By reporting challenges, you help the free expression community gather necessary information about what materials are at risk so better tools can be created to assist. To report a challenge to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, call us at 800-99-CBLDF or email email@example.com. You can also report the challenge to the Kids’ Right to Read Project, a CBLDF-sponsored program from the National Coalition Against Censorship and one of our frequent partners in the fight against censorship. Finally, you can report the challenge to ALA here.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.