Classroom Teaching Guide
I Kill Giants
Written by Joe Kelly, and drawn by JM Ken Niimura, I Kill Giants is the story of Barbara Thorson, a fifth-grader who values nothing in the world more than fighting, and killing giants. But everything isn’t as it seems with our hero. While she is fearless in the face of mythological titans, the principal, her school counselor, and bullies, her relationships with those around her have suffered, due to an unwillingness to let anyone get close enough to her to get hurt. As we read, we begin to wonder who she’s protecting everyone from: the giants, or Barbara herself?
As the story unfolds, we are introduced to elements that make us question whether Barbara is actually experiencing the story the way we, and others in the story, see it. Barbara is the ultimate unreliable narrator. As she converses with fairies and imps, and prepares for battle with her beloved war hammer, Coveleski, we see things both as Barbara perceives them, and as they “really” are. Throughout, we have to judge what is real and what is in Barbara’s head. Meanwhile, Barbara is struggling with her family life, and a secret that she is afraid to confront.
No discussion of I Kill Giants would be complete without talking about the art of JM Ken Niimura. Niimura uses a unique blend of Manga and Western styles that adds dynamism and movement to the action on the page, while simultaneously capturing the heart of Barbara. It is the combination of the art and writing that makes I Kill Giants an immensely enjoyable read, that will engage students at any level.
Grade Level Recommendations
This book would work best with grades seven and up. It deals with subjects like isolation, loss of a family member, and bullying.
I Kill Giants is an amazing book, but there are a few things that may raise some eyebrows. Much like other YA titles, there are a few instances of profanity that fit the abrasive personality of the main character, however, members of the LGBTQIA (or Queer) community might be offended by Barbara using the term “bulldyke” to insult a gym teacher in her school. This could lead to very powerful discussion about the use of such language, and what the creators were trying to accomplish by having our main character speak this way early in the book. It should be noted that Barbara’s language and personality undergo significant changes by the end of the book, again opening the door for more teachable moments.
I Kill Giants is consistently well-received by my students. I like to capitalize on this engagement by pushing them to do more with this text than they have previously. Here are some of the ways I’ve incorporated I Kill Giants into my class:
I Kill Giants has many of the elements found in ancient mythology, even going so far as to incorporate elements from Norse mythology (Barbara’s last name, and her use of a hammer are nods to the Norse God of Thunder, Thor). With that in mind, I Kill Giants would fit perfectly in a mythology unit. Have students compare the elements present in ancient mythological storytelling: heroism, myths as explanations of natural/worldly phenomena, use of the supernatural, lessons learned about humanity, etc. How does I Kill Giants fit into common elements of ancient mythology, and how does it differ?
In that same vein, I Kill Giants is a great example of the hero’s journey. Have students track Barbara’s story as it relates to the elements of the hero’s journey. How closely does I Kill Giants follow this model? Where does it deviate from this mold, and why are those deviations important? One of the things I had students do was identify as many of the archetypes and elements of the hero’s journey (hero, mentor, herald, etc.) in I Kill Giants as they could. Then we compared it to another piece that closely followed the hero’s journey (for this purpose, I used Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and evaluate which story they preferred and why. We also analyzed what role the hero’s journey played in their evaluation.
Students often struggle with identifying themes and main idea, and comics tend to be a great antidote for this. A great way to have students practice these skills is to do what I call a “Five Page Gist.” Have students identify five pages from I Kill Giants that summarize the plot of the book, and get to the main idea of the story. Depending on access to technology, this can easily be turned into a multimedia presentation, or can be used as a part of a gallery walk using their class copies of the text, Post Its and index cards. For a more hands on variation of this, you can have students draw five panels to accomplish the same idea, and include a written reflection as the final panel of the project.
A really simple way to get kids to write about a piece is to have them review it. I am a huge fan of student reviews because it encourages student voice, and allows for authenticity because they have a specific audience for the project. However, students often need guidance for their review, and since this is often their first time reading a comic in class, I play on that sentiment and inform them that they are reviewing the text to determine whether it is an appropriate text for educational purposes. This is often where I have them evaluate the text based on how well it could be used to teach the skills and elements we had covered up to that point. This allows me to assess how well they have learned those topics, and it also allows me to assess how well they can write persuasively. You can build any parameters into a review assignment, and it allows students to feel like their opinions are being heard. I often share these reviews with higher ups, or if you are looking for a more authentic audience, you can share these on a class blog.