A Story of Suffering… and Resilience All that Thazama and his friends want is to grow up peacefully in the safe community of their remote jungle tribe, the Zomi. What they get at the hands of Myanmar’s ruling military is the exact opposite—oppression, capture, imprisonment, slavery, and torture. Thazama’s harrowing journey, first as a fugitive and then as a persecuted refugee, both highlights the tragedy of a specific nation and echoes human rights abuses that occur around the world. A modern epic with powerful storytelling from Sophie Ansel and striking artwork by Sam Garcia, Burmese Moons is a compelling addition to your library or independent reading list.
This guide follows themes and essential questions.
Myth and Culture: How does faith in the power of stories sustain us?
Separation: How do people deal with the acute pain of separation?
Love: What lengths will people go to for the ones they love?
Resilience: How can we overcome adversity when pessimism seems like the most logical course?
Cruelty: When people are driven to harm and kill others, have they relinquished their humanity?
Connection: How can relationships make us stronger?
Following the Discussion Questions—which can also serve as writing prompts—are two pages of ELA and social studies activities as well as teaching ideas for the all-important area where these disciplines overlap. In fact, with its varied text types, historical accuracy, and rich backmatter, Burmese Moons is an ideal text for “reading across the curriculum.” The guide concludes with extension activities and suggestions for further reading.
Use the following to guide your small or whole group discussions of Burmese Moons. These items concentrate on prominent themes/essential questions through a close reading of story elements— plot, character, setting—as revealed through both the print text and the artwork.
1. Why do you think the book begins with precepts such as “Act like a hero to become one” and “You must always respect those who struggle, even if they are defeated”? (The text is foreshadowing some of its major themes.) (pp. 7-9)
2. Throughout Burmese Moons, evil characters are visually portrayed with wide-open eyes and sharpened teeth—as if both sadistic and animalistic. Is this approach effective? How would the tone be different if an alternate approach had been taken? (Answers will vary. Some may respond that dehumanizing any group of people prevents us from fully understanding them.) (pp. 17, 19)
3. The first significant separation of many occurs when Moonpi is taken, leaving Thazama without his best friend. How would you expect a young person to react when so many key relationships are taken from him? (One might expect Thazama to shy away from connecting with others, but he does not.) (pp. 29-30)
4. When Thazama travels to Mandalay he does so for his people and for Kim. What “internal journey” does he take once there for similar, compassion-driven reasons? (He realizes a calling to become an activist leader, not simply raising money for the ransom.) (pp. 39-45)
5. From what does Thazama draw strength when in solitary confinement? In general, what cultural traditions are important to the Zomi and help sustain them? (He draws strength from a mythic connection to nature. Clearly important to the Zomi are shared stories, tattoos, songs, and tribal artwork e.g., masks.) (p. 64)
6. How does the graphic violence as depicted by Sam Garcia add to the story? Does it sometimes detract? Why or why not? What is the cumulative effect? (Answers will vary.) (p. 75)
7. What does Papou give Thazama, both figuratively and literally, after the escape by motorcycle? (He gives him hope and inspiration by reminding him of his cultural and spiritual roots—as symbolized by the hornbill necklace.) (pp. 91-93)
8. In thematic terms, why is Sim’s death particularly tragic? (He was already separated from his father in life, and now he will be separated in death as well.) (pp. 106-108)
9. Do you think Thazama is actually visited by Papou’s ghost—or is just an inner voice that he hears during times of distress? (Answers will vary; accept those that are supported by textual evidence.) (pp. 115, 119-120)
10. Why is the reuniting of Kim and Thazama psychologically encouraging for the characters? (Not only have they found a loved one again, but doing so shows that their worst fears do not always come true—Kim says she thought Thazama was dead.) (pp. 125-127)
11. In what ways are the construction boss and the pirates parallel characters? (Both are willing to exploit vulnerable refugees to make money.) (pp. 131-132)
12. Why is it appropriate that Moonpi and Thazama reunite while singing? (The song represents both their shared Zomi culture and their idyllic childhood.) (pp. 136-137)
13. Why is the panel-less “splash” page on page 151 an effective way to illustrate Kim and Thazama’s bond? (The page design signifies how the characters connect via their thoughts of each other even though they are physically distant.)
14. In what way is it a symbolic event when Moonpi baptizes Lotus Flower? (She represents a possible new beginning and innocence, and Moonpi’s words explicitly state that her name and smile metaphorically stand for the group’s “dreams” and “hope.”) (p. 176)
15. “The routine of those without rights is a continuous stream of tragedies, of abuse and crimes they are powerless to fight against.” How does this quote from page 190 encapsulate Thazama’s years of horrors? (Answers will vary, but should touch on the character’s time as a political prisoner, refugee, exploited worker, human trafficking victim, undocumented immigrant, and enslaved person.)
ENGLISH/ LANGUAGE ARTS SKILLS AND ACTIVITIES
Encourage readers to make text-to-text connections by recalling other works with characters, scenes, or themes similar to those in Burmese Moons. These might include Night by Elie Wiesel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.
Become the Character. The graphic novel effectively closes with letters from Zoya and Kim. As a wrap-up to their reading, have students write a letter by Thazama in response to either woman. Like those in the book, it should address not only personal matters, but the fate of the Burmese people.
Comics Creation. Review the “Roads and Detours” journal entries and images at the end of the book. Invite students to work independently or with partners to create a comics page that relates the same content, using the photos as reference for their own artwork.
The Poetry of Hope and Despair. Have volunteers read aloud Habib’s heartbreaking “I Have a Dream” poem at the conclusion of “Roads and Detours.” Then challenge students to write a poem from the point of view of any of the prisoners in Burmese Moons.
SOCIAL STUDIES SKILLS AND ACTIVITIES
“The entire world just sees us as illegals,” says Thazama when he’s in Malaysia (p. 163). Use this quote as a springboard for writing by having students compose an op-ed or other short-form essay that outlines how refugee settlement policy should be addressed. Prompt them to consider policy from a human rights standpoint per the emphasis in Burmese Moons.
Sketches in Democracy
Draw attention to the biographical sketches of “heroes and leaders” on page 46. Using it as a model, have students work in pairs to create similar galleries of activists and politicians who have furthered democratic reforms in a particular country or region.
If students have been moved by the challenges the Burmese people have faced, consider helping them organize a fundraiser for one of many potential worthy causes. In fact, GlobalGiving, the crowdfunding source for nonprofits around the world, lists many fully vetted Burma-based projects on its website (GlobalGiving.org).
Have students return to the text, this time focusing on the art alone. What is their favorite panel, sequence of panels, page, or two-page spread? Why? What uses of color are particularly memorable? Coach students to notice how Garcia uses different panel shapes and sizes for pacing and dramatic effect, and how he uses page layouts to guide the eye along a visual path.
Revisiting the Essential Questions
Having completed a close reading of the entire graphic novel, students can return to the essential questions on page 1 of this guide and answer them in a small or whole group setting. Would they change or clarify any of the questions? Add new ones? Prompt students to articulate the central “takeaways” the text has left them with.
FOR FURTHER READING AND VIEWING
For those interested in the human rights issues raised by Burmese Moons we recommend the following as they spotlight the same curricular connections, including the oppression of indigenous people, wrongful detention and imprisonment, political protest, and governmental violence. All titles listed below can be found in your ComicsPlus content!
After the Spring (With Teaching Guide!)
They Called Us Enemy (With Teaching Guide!)
Tiananmen 1989: Our Shattered Hopes
ADVISORY ON CONTENT
By virtue of its subject matter, Burmese Moons includes violence, including sexual violence, that may be distressing for some readers. As with any text, we recommend previewing the content with an eye to your institution and readers