General comments about Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon
Visual literacy is a vital skill in today’s digital and connected world. Students of today will need to be competent readers of both print and image literacies because, already, their world is a multi-modal one where text and illustrations interact continuously.
Graphic novels offer a way of teaching these vital skills which is both engaging and instructive. Because text and image merge and blend, students are easily able to decode and comprehend subtleties of the narrative such as symbolism, point of view, puns, intertextuality, intermodality, character, plot, setting and timing.
Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon by Brenton McKenna (who is both the writer and the artist) offers a delightful romp through the Broome of the late 1940s just after World War II, and just as the town’s pearling industry is going into a decline. The town is explored through the antics of various teenage gangs and nefarious characters from a variety of differing ethnicities and backgrounds. However, the two main cultures that are juxtaposed are Aboriginal Australian and Chinese, which is interesting given our long and shared history.
This graphic novel begins with a cast of characters: good, bad and in between – and it pays to examine these in close detail as they appear and disappear with lightning speed. The Prologue (depicted, as all histories are in this book, in sepia) leads up to the events of the beginning of the story proper and is set largely in Ancient China, with an interesting foray into Australia and Australian mythology.
Briefly, the story is mostly concerned with the activities of two teenage gangs: Ubby’s gang of motley ‘underdogs’ from all corners of the world, and the Pearl Juniors, who are uniformly European. Ubby’s gang recruits the new arrival, a Chinese girl called Sai Fong, to become their fifth member, and this addition brings a wealth of intrigue and magical powers to the usual gang rumblings of the town. The story ends abruptly with the disappearance of Sai Fong, and the action is then continued in the second of the trilogy, Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings.
In the section after the Prologue, entitled ‘Setting the Scene’, McKenna writes: ‘It is the late 1940s and Broome is recovering from the Second World War. Nearly one hundred years earlier, the Pinctada maxima, the largest pearl shell in the world, had been discovered in the waters of Roebuck Bay. It was the beginning of Broome’s heyday when the town supplied nearly all of the world’s pearl shell, and a fleet of over 400 pearl luggers worked out of Roebuck Bay. But times are changing, and Broome’s prosperous era is coming to an end.’
Activities prior to reading
Some suggested activities to assist students understand the context of this story include.
- Students could create a website, imagining it is to promote the town of Broome as it appears at the time of this novel (in other words, in the late 1940s) or as it is now. The home page could be set out with general information about Broome taken from sites and pictures which already exist, and links could involve headings such as: Broome in World War II (research needed); the pearling industry (research needed); multicultural Broome; a map of Broome (one under ‘Setting the Scene’ section); a map of Western Australia; Indigenous people of the region; Chinese in Broome; early conflict in Broome; fauna and flora; a history of tourism in Broome, etc.
- Students could take any of the ideas above, and instead of turning them into a website, they could research the individual topic and present it as an illustrated poster. Other topics they could use include: Chinese legends, Chinese dragons, Aboriginal legends and mythology, Broome today, street gangs – to name some of the many issues with which this book deals.
- Students could take several of the above items, or one, and expand on them/it in the form of a documentary, slide show, PowerPoint presentation.
- Students could choose to research the author, Brenton E. McKenna – his life and his work and the significance of both.
The above activities could be done singly, as in a homework/classwork project, in pairs or in small groups. All presentations need to be shared with the whole class prior to beginning reading.
(ACELT1619) (ACELY1725) (ACELY1728) (EN4-4B) (EN4-2A) (EN4-8D)
Personal response on reading the text
Looking first at the book cover
- Ask students to write down every single thing they can observe on the front cover, including colours used, figures of people – their facial expressions and stance and relationship to each other, clothes, symbols and anything else they notice. Worksheet provided: Front cover worksheet (PDF, 123KB).
- Sun Pictures still exists as a movie house in Broome. Ask students to find out what is showing there now – at the time of this activity. How many years has it been going?
Brenton E. McKenna dedicates this book, the first of the Ubby’s Underdogs trilogy, to his grandmother. Ask students to pretend they have written a book, and then write out the dedication. To whom would they dedicate their books and why?
Read the Prologue in pairs, looking at the text in the boxes, the frames and their borders, the pictures in the frames, and the use of colour.
Ask students to answer the following questions and discuss the points raised.
- What was the Great Empire of China?
- Who were the Barbarians?
- Who is the narrator?
- What colours are used in the first nine pages?
- Look at the black frames and notice on the third page, there is just one big frame with the picture of the Phoenix Dragon, plus an inset frame in the top left hand corner. What does the inset frame tell the reader?
- Where is the Island of Komodo?
- Where (which country) was even further south than the Island of Komodo?
- How did the Sandpaper Dragon make the fire?
- What did he do with it once he had made it?
- What role did the Warrior Woman play in giving back the Phoenix Dragon his ‘Druga’?
- Why, suddenly on the 10th page of the Prologue, is there a panel with colour?
- What effect does this sudden colour have on the reader?
- On the 11th page of the Prologue, there are two small frames at the bottom left with no speech bubbles or words of any sort – what is happening in these two pictures?
- Look at the full colour picture on the opposite page. Students should discuss what is happening on this page and speculate where the boat is going. What point of view/perspective is given by placing the viewer/reader behind Yupman Poe – in the boat, as it were?
Cast of Characters (before the Prologue and before the illustrations of characters)
Still in their pairs, students are to read the section titled, ‘Cast of Characters’ (first page of the book, before the character sketches) and answer the following questions in discussion form.
- In which time period is this writing set?
- Any suggestions as to what the Secret Council of Magic might be?
- What does the term ‘Ruffian’ mean? Look the word up in a dictionary.
- Why would a small gang need ‘speed, aggression, strength, patience, agility and grit’?
- Ubby is the leader of the Underdogs and the central protagonist in the novel. What is unusual in this?
- What is the dictionary definition of the term ‘underdog’?
- What is the significance of the four different ethnicities depicted by the children on this page?
- What do the colour bubbles on the left of the characters mean?
Seventeen more characters appear before there is any mention of the other main gang in town, the Pearl Juniors.
The Pearl Juniors
- Who is in the Pearl Juniors Gang?
- How does this gang differ from Ubby’s Underdogs?
There are thirty-five characters in all. Students will often need to refer back to them as they read the story.
Reading the story
Graphic novels are different. In order to guide students in their reading/viewing of Ubby’s Underdogs, it might be wise to introduce them early to a definition of graphic novels, and a glossary (PDF, 102KB) of the terms used in this unit.
Definition: According to Scholastic – A Guide to Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens, the definition of a graphic novel is:
In this context, the word ‘graphic’ does not mean ‘adult’ or ‘explicit’. Graphic novels are books written and illustrated in the style of a comic book. To be considered a graphic novel, rather than a picture book or illustrated novel, the story is told using a combination of words and pictures in a sequence across the page. Graphic novels can be any genre, and tell any kind of story, just like their prose counterparts. The format is what makes the story a graphic novel, and usually includes text, images, word balloons, sound effects, and panels.
This basic way of storytelling has been used in various forms for centuries – early cave drawings, hieroglyphics, and medieval tapestries like the famous Bayeux Tapestry can be thought of as stories told in pictures.
The term ‘graphic novel’ is generally used to describe any book in a comic format that resembles a novel in length and narrative development. Graphic novels are a subgenre of ‘comics’, which is a word you may also hear people use when referring to this style of book.
This is a dense and complicated graphic novel, especially in the last quarter of the story where a multitude of plot twists, characters and settings are introduced in rapid succession.
Suggestion: encourage the students, at this stage, to read only as far as the end of the part where Ubby’s gang attend the Sun Picture House and sit on the roof. This takes in the high point of action, the Game of Gruff, as well as exposing many subplots. This reading could be done in class time with different students taking different parts, and someone else doing the sound effects and inserted instructions, (within the text boxes).
As students read, introduce them to the terms used in graphic novels such as: panels, balloons, borders, framing, colour (Glossary of terms (PDF, 102KB)) as well as to the importance of character aspects such as gesture, facial expression, gaze (Graphic Novels/Comic Terms and Concepts (PDF, 120KB)) plus angle of the shots and perspective (Teachers’ Guide: When Kids get Life).
Obviously the entire story will need to be read later. This could be set as ongoing homework. Students will need to keep an ongoing plot outline summary or graph which will need to be checked, as one of the major tasks in the Informed Reaction – The Experience flows on from the completion of this first book of the trilogy.
Activities whilst reading
- Students to replicate the map (drawn below the Setting the Scene section) on a large poster or A3-sized paper. Several of these could be put up around the room, and as the action occurs, students could fill in with bubbles what is happening and where.
- Another way of keeping track would be for students to create a depiction of a dragon or snake and fill in events as they occur, in pictorial style. This could even be turned into a dice game of Snakes and Ladders.
- Students could use a big piece of butcher’s paper and create a story map of events as they occur.
- Students could create a concept map with the central climax of the action (so far) being the Game of Gruff. This could be placed in the central circle, and events/characters leading up to it could be placed around it.
- Teaching Strategies for Graphic Novels contains a wealth of interesting activities to stimulate and challenge students as they read.
All the above methods should be helpful in that they are pictorial.
- Get two volunteers to explain the Game of Gruff clearly to the rest of the class. (There is a detailed explanation at the back of the book.)
- Get two others to explain how Sai Fong managed to trick the Pearl Juniors Gang into losing the game, against all expectations.
The following questions and points of discussion could be done singly, in pairs or in small groups. It could be done as a writing exercise or as a partner/class discussion.
- Ask the students which character they most identify with and why.
- Ubby’s Underdogs and the Pearl Juniors are both gangs. What constitutes a gang? How does a gang differ from other collections of people such as tribes, clubs and teams? Look up and write down the definitions of all these words.
- Does anyone in the class belong to a gang, or know anyone who does? Would anyone like to be in a gang? Ask the student(s) to elaborate.
- What do students think of the punishment given to the losing gang after the Game of Gruff?
- How realistic, in present day Australia, is it to find such a multicultural group of students in one small town/suburb/school?
- Where is the presence of adult supervision or school? How can the lives of these youths be so unstructured and free?
- How does their sort of life compare to present day ways of growing up?
- Which is the better way to live? Why?
- Sai Fong uses magical powers on the boys of the Pearl Juniors Gang. Is this fair?
- Which gang would be most attractive to belong to, at this stage – and why?
- Why was the Secret Council of Magic set up? What role did it play in the life of the town? How could something like this work in today’s troubled world? Who would/should belong?
Outline of key elements of the text
In graphic novels, formatting is as important a component as plot, character and themes. In fact, as much can be learnt about these elements from the formatting as from any written words. The pictures provide at least fifty per cent of the understanding, perhaps more.
- Ask the students to look at the first page of the story, after the map of Broome page (Setting the Scene). On this page, there is only one speech balloon, yet a lot is happening.
- Students are to discuss with a neighbour what is happening first in Chinatown, and secondly at the top of Kennedy Hill. Either together, or singly, students could write out exactly what is happening on this page. Model provided (PDF, 103KB).
- Ask students to explain how they inferred this meaning.
- Who is speaking at the top of Kennedy Hill?
- Who is the figure in the bottom right-hand corner of the bottom panel?
The central plot/action line in this novel is the antagonism and continual sparring of the two main gangs: Ubby’s Underdogs and the Pearl Juniors. However there is a host of subplots, and (as mentioned) the last quarter of the book gets a life of its own as regards the action. Students have already plotted some of the fast moving action whilst working on the ‘Activities while Reading’ section above. Now ask students to make a list of all the subplots they encounter up to the end of the part where Ubby’s Underdogs attend the movie at the Sun Picture House, for example: Ubby’s Underdogs’ quest to find Medinga (Safa’s friend, the chess-playing baboon). There are many others: Gabe’s quest to retrieve his teeth, Yupman Poe’s quest to find a cure for Sai Fong, Paul Donappleton’s shady business deals, the Council of Magic, tensions between various groups in the town that had been festering for years, the background hunt for the Sandpaper Dragon – to name but some.
There are thirty-five characters in this graphic novel. Some are not human. Some have relatively small roles and only appear towards the end.
- Ask students to make two columns and head one column Good Characters and one column Bad Characters. Assign each character they come across in their class reading (up to the end of the movies part of the story) to one column or the other. They need to be be able to explain why they have assigned the characters thus.
- Ask students to choose a character from one of the two main gangs, and using the character description from Cast of Characters at the beginning, plus any information gleaned from what they say in the novel, their gestures, facial descriptions, clothes and commonly depicted traits, write a character sketch/outline of one or two paragraphs. Students need to be alerted to the constant background interactions – such as frames depicting casual and affectionate interactions between Gabe and Sel, or the strange nose-picking habits of Fin. A Model character sketch (PDF, 227KB) is provided.
- Why does Fin say, ‘spitting is something you do when you mention the British’?
- How many gangs are there in Broome at this time? Make a list.
- Why is each member of Ubby’s Underdogs from a different nationality? Why are they called ‘the Underdogs’? What point is Brenton McKenna making by creating an all-white gang as the main rival of the Underdogs?
- What is Sel terrified of? And why?
- Who began the Council Of Magic, and why? Who is the leader of the Council of Magic, and why?
- Aboriginal legends and mythology
- Chinese history, legends and mythology
- Teenage gangs
- Intercultural relationships
- Race-based discrimination
- Magical realism
- The pearling industry
- Australian history
Students are to work in pairs: Student A and Student B.
- Provide all Student As with a couple of pages of a graphic novel/comic with all the written text blocked out: speech balloons, thought bubbles, sound effects and setting/time instructions.
- Supply Student Bs with just the written text from speech balloons, thought bubbles, sound effects, setting/time instructions – and any other writing there is.
- Student As are to fill in the written text.
- Student Bs are to fill in the graphics and frames. They could use stick figures, or provide instructions as if briefing an artist how to do it.
- Students are then given the originals to compare with their own efforts.
The writer’s craft
Students could watch an Interview with Brenton McKenna. In this interview he talks about his own difficult experiences in mainstream education and how he coped.
Discuss with students:
- How did he learn his literacy skills?
- What was the result of his being empowered by comic books and superheroes?
- Who is the character Ubby based upon?
- What were McKenna’s other sources for the book?
- Write down five questions you would like to ask Brenton McKenna – about anything: life, craft, inspirations, future plans, ambitions, ideas…
In graphic novels, the artist’s craft is as important as the writer’s. In the case of Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon, Brenton E. McKenna is both artist and author.
- Students are to watch Brenton McKenna in Corrugated Lines: A Festival of Words.
- In this YouTube clip, McKenna describes and demonstrates his skill as a cartoonist. He always begins with stick figures and then pads them out. Students could spend some time trying to emulate this technique in their own notebooks, on A4 paper, butcher’s paper, or in a drawing program on their laptops.
- Then students are to view Ubby’s Underdogs. In this, some of the action from the novel is set to music and in a series of wonderful graphics, and episode headings, the story is very colourfully summarised. (Note: a couple of the scenes are from the sequel.)
The joy of using graphic novels in the classroom is that because of their structure and formatting, students are able to pick up cues visually. They can in fact follow the storyline visually, and make assessments about characters without having to decode descriptions or direct speech with its convoluted punctuation. However, there are terms used in graphic novels which are not used in other ordinary fictional stories, and it would be useful for students to be able to speak technically about the structure.
- Panels and gutters: Ask students to look at pages two and three of the story proper where Ubby’s gang is supposed to be looking for Medinga, but is sidetracked by Gunada.
- Ask students what they notice about the panels and gutters (frames) on these two pages. For example, they might comment on the fact that the ‘Missing’ notice interrupts a gutter on the first of the pages, and that there are two small insets at the bottom of the next page. What explanations can they give for these irregularities?
- Word balloons, text boxes and sound effects: Ask students to think about how the dialogue appears.
- Look at the page they have just looked at re the absence of a gutter. On this page, the voice boxes are coming from outside the frame. How do we know who is speaking? Likewise on the first page of the story when someone says, ‘Look, you mob. I gonna get em.’ How can we tell who is speaking – without turning the page? What are the visual cues?
- How can we tell whether someone is just thinking?
- How are sound effects written?
- What is always in oblong boxes?
Every cartoonist has a unique style. It is always unrealistic to a degree.
- How easy is it to identify all of the many characters in Ubby’s Underdogs?
- What helps us to identify the characters so readily?
- Choose one frame – any one – and comment on how the facial expression and gesture depicted gives insight into that character’s personality. Compare your ‘reading’ of the character with the character description at the beginning of the book.
- Angles: There are many examples of ‘bird’s-eye’ views and ‘worm’s-eye’ views. Ask the students to find at least one of each and comment on how they assist the understanding of the situation, or add to the story’s progress.
- Why are the clothes important? What can we tell about a character by observing the clothes they habitually wear?
- Colour: The Prologue is all coloured in sepia tones. Find other sections of the story where regular colour disappears, and everything is in sepia. What does this choice of colour signify?
- How are inside scenes different to outside scenes?
- Blue and orange/red colours are predominant in all the outside scenes. What impression of the town of Broome and surrounding area do these colours give?
Approach to characterisation
Brenton E. McKenna’s characterisation is immediately accessible, humorous and vivid. Apart from his comprehensive character bank at the front of the book, all the main characters have unspoken traits and quirks that make them instantly recognisable and thoroughly human.
Why, for example, does Fin sometimes wear a red scarf around his face, and sometimes not? What other strange habit does Fin have? Why does a heart appear as Fin is about to describe his special gift to Sai Fong?
1. Students are to fill in the character table (PDF, 114KB) listing the various character traits of the central characters, and ascribing significance to them for their part in the overall story. Provided here is a Teachers’ copy (PDF, 147KB) of the completed character table.
After completing the chart, students compare responses and then discuss the following questions:
- Why does Ubby wish to recruit Sai Fong to her gang the minute she sees her, before she even knows who she is?
- Of all her gang members, which is Ubby closest to? Justify your response using textual and visual evidence.
- How does Ubby demonstrate her leadership of her gang? Again, ask students to use both dialogue and imagery in their response.
- What impact has the death of Ubby’s father had on her?
2. Sai Fong has superhuman powers and after the snake has bitten her, she transfers her powers to Ubby (‘What is mine I give to you’).
- How is this exchange of powers shown visually?
- Students are to research a female superhero of their choice and then create a Venn diagram. Using Sai Fong for one circle, and their choice of female superhero for the other circle, list the special powers of each, with the overlap listing what they share.
3. Characters in graphic novels do not have to say anything to become fully alive and recognisable. Their facial expressions, body language and gestures can speak volumes.
- Students choose any one frame where a single character is depicted and no words are used – and do a ‘reading’ of this character based on the above list of cues.
- Ask students to write down a state of being/emotion on a piece of paper (examples might include, being surprised, amused, shocked, angry etc.). Working in pairs, students are to act out their emotion with no words allowed. Expression, gesture and movement must say it all. The partner is to guess the emotion being mimed and then they swap roles.
- Students could create a story strip entirely out of emoticons, and swap it with that of a neighbour. Each to ‘read’ the story out aloud.
The setting(s) are important in this novel – and there are many of them. Obviously Ancient China, Modern China and Broome in Australia are the main settings.
But within the Broome area, some areas have special significance.
What, for example, would be the significance of:
- Hai’s House of Refuge
- Back Camp
- Broome Courthouse
- Donappleton’s Estate
- Little Nihongo
- Sun Picture House
Use of parallels and contrasts
There are several striking parallels in Ubby’s Underdogs.
1. The contrast between the Chinese dragon, known as the Phoenix Dragon, and the Australian dragon, called the Sandpaper Dragon.
- Students should read the character blurbs below the individual dragons in the Cast of Characters.
- Discussion – which dragon is the most powerful, and why?
- How do the two dragons differ physically? Look at the pictures.
- How does the Sandpaper Dragon help the Phoenix Dragon?
Can students read any symbolism into this Prologue tale of two dragons? It might be useful to do some research on ancient lands, ancient rocks, earth crust, etc.
It could be useful here to show the students a short extract from Ang Lee’s movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Apparently the title refers to a Chinese idiom in which the tiger and the dragon refer to people with special talents and warns never to underestimate anyone. How does this warning relate to Ubby’s Underdogs?
2. The contrast between China and Australia. Again, encourage students to look closely at the Prologue.
- What sort of views of China do we get?
- Compare these to the terrain and population of the Australia depicted.
- What conclusions can one draw from these pictures about these two lands at the time of the dragons?
3. The contrast between white and non-white North West Australia in the middle of the twentieth century.
- Research has already been done on the pearling industry in Broome during the Initial Responses section. Advise students to recall this, and also to read through this webpage about pearling in the Kimberley. In this article, it states that after 1913, only British citizens were allowed to own pearl luggers.
- Students are to create a concept map with the bubble in the centre containing the words: ‘British – represented by Paul Donappleton’. They can then fill in the rest of the concept map bubbles with each of the nationalities working in Broome in the mid-twentieth century, and the name of the character from Ubby’s Underdogs who represents that nationality.
- What was the White Australia Policy?
- Why did Broome receive an exemption from the White Australia Policy?
- Discuss the risks that the divers faced.
- In the light of this history, write a paragraph on the significance of Ubby and her gang.
Point of view
Read the students a short extract from an ordinary print text written in the first person – and ask whose point of view is being privileged.
Read a short extract from a story written in the third person – and discuss point of view.
Ask students – who is the narrator in Ubby’s Underdogs?
Is any one point of view being privileged in this novel? If the answer is yes, how is it happening? Or are all points of view given equal weight?
Brenton McKenna uses humour throughout this book, both visually and within the written text.
The sudden appearance and disappearance of alarmed tourists towards the end is one example of this. Direct students to this section and discuss both dialogue and images.
Ask students to find other examples of each and explain to a neighbour, or to the class, why they were amusing.
However, McKenna also uses humour to critique.
As a class, do a close reading of the two spitting incidents. Apart from being amusing, this carries a powerful message. What is McKenna directing his readers to think/notice with this small detail?
Language and style
Compare the language of Yupman Poe when he is received off the boat by Clancy Blanker at Hai’s House of Refuge:
‘Thank you for meeting us. You can see we are…how you say, fresh off the boat. But I shall get to work once we have settled into our quarters. I see we are staying at Hai’s House of Refuge.’
to Ubby’s language,
‘We Underdogs! We don’t care what we eat, as long as we wasn’t there when it got killed.’
Students might be interested in the AWAYE program broadcast on Radio National on Saturday, 21 January 2017 which deals with Aboriginal English.
This would be a good opportunity to discuss register with the class. Register applies to the sort of language used for a particular purpose or in a particular setting. Ask students to reflect on this by thinking about how their own language would be different according to different settings:
- in the playground,
- in the Principal’s office,
- at the dinner table at home.
Activity: Students to fill in the Getting to know characters by the way they speak (PDF, 107KB) table. Several boxes have been filled already as a guide.
Text and meaning
Exploration of themes and ideas
Ubby’s Underdogs, the gang, is led by a feisty Aboriginal girl who is the equal of any youth in the town. With her motley multiracial crew she takes on the all-male Pearl Juniors and fights for good causes, such as finding Safa’s baboon. Obviously, Brenton McKenna is interested in highlighting racism, both as it was in the middle of the last century and, because he is writing now, as it is today.
In the character of Ubby, based on Brenton McKenna’s grandmother (Alberta Dolby), and her followers, such as Sel, he exposes small town racism and simultaneously subverts it.
- Ask students to find an example of racism directed at Ubby’s gang, and an example of personal racism, directed at a particular person.
- Would such racism be tolerated in Australia today? Perhaps as well as giving personal views and evidence, students could look up topics such as:
NB: There are many documentaries one could use to use to illustrate the appalling racism that existed in early white Australian history:
- John Pilger documentary called The Secret Country – The First Australians Fight Back.There are seven in the series. Note to the teacher: These documentaries are extremely confronting and should only be used at the teacher’s discretion.
- The movie Rabbit-proof Fence might be more appropriate for Years 7/8 age groups. There is also a Reading Australia teacher resource for the actual book on which the film is based.
- Another useful resource could be Episode Five of First Australians called ‘An Unhealthy Government Experiment’
Create an atmosphere (PDF, 117KB) where students can talk over and reflect on their experiences of racism in this country. They may have also experienced casual racism such as jokes stereotyping and denigrating specific races, or this might be a good time to direct them to think about this. They may share with the class if they wish, or perhaps express their thoughts in writing.
Not only is Ubby Aboriginal, but she is also a girl – and a leader of a tough gang. Sai Fong (Chinese – also a minority and discriminated against group) is another very powerful female figure, as is the Warrior Woman who appears in the Prologue and passes on the Druga to the Phoenix Dragon (though her role is small).
Initiate small group or classroom discussion on the way that these three females use their power.
- Is it always used for good?
- Who benefits by Ubby’s strength of character?
- Who suffers because of it?
- Who benefits from Sai Fong’s special power?
- Ask students to re-read the ‘Backdoor Singing Session’ punishment that is handed out to the teams who lose in the Game of Gruff. Students are to go to one side of the classroom if they think this constitutes bullying, or the other side if they think it just typifies normal rough and tough gang/schoolyard behaviour. Get a spokesperson from each side to explain their positions.
- Create a Discussion forum (PDF, 115KB) where students form small groups and choose one of the statements supplied in the Forum sheet. Teachers could add as many as they please to the list. As a group students decide which statement to present and how to justify their choices/preferences – to the rest of the class. A spokesperson should be chosen to represent the group. Perhaps imposing a time limit would be a good idea.
Paul Donappleton is obviously corrupt. Ask for a volunteer to explain his form of corruption to the class. There is also blackmail involved. Who is in a position to blackmail whom and how?
Discussion topic: Could this happen nowadays, or do we have laws preventing this sort of thing?
What is colonialism? Students are to look up the concept and then be prepared to explain how this situation impacted the town of Broome – and in fact all of Australia – in the mid-twentieth century.
- Look up the words: ‘invasion’ and ‘settlement’. How do invasion, colonialism and settlement go together?
- Which nationality were the colonisers of Australia, and which nationalities were the colonised during the time of Ubby’s Underdogs?
- Has anything changed since this time?
- Is Australia still a colony of Britain?
- Has Australia ever colonised another country? (Papua New Guinea)
- Who were the most disadvantaged under the colonial system operating within Broome in the late 1940s?
- Are any of the nationalities mentioned in Ubby’s Underdogs discriminated against today? Why and how?
- Who has the power in Australia today? Why and how?
- How does Brenton Mckenna subvert this seemingly natural order in his graphic novel?
- How is gang warfare understood today? Give some examples of gangs existing in Australia today.
- What sort of gangs existed in Broome in the 1940s?
- List all the gangs in the book if this hasn’t been done already in the Initial Response section.
- How many gangs were multigendered and multicultural?
- Why is the Game of Gruff so important to the gangs?
Activity: Choose one of the gangs from Ubby’s Underdogs and create one of the following:
- a banner advertising your gang
- a rap poem/song celebrating your gang
- a special handshake for the gang
- a chant
- a slogan
- a logo/symbol.
Although the Year 7 students in your school have been allowed to study Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon, your school librarians have refused to stock graphic novels in the school library, citing they ‘dumb down the art of reading’ and are ‘not worthy of the title “Literature” because they are unrealistic, shallow and promote mindless and irresponsible behaviour’.
Your task is to create:
- A YouTube clip or Powerpoint presentation where, using specific illustrations and text from Ubby’s Underdogs, you persuade your librarian(s) and any doubting teachers or parents, that graphic novels could indeed be classified as ‘Literature’ because of their accessibility to readers, themes, humour, graphics, characterisation…or any other virtue you wish to point out.
- Full staff meeting
- Parent/teacher meeting
- National Librarians’ conference
Ways of reading the text
In Ubby’s Underdogs: The legend of the Phoenix Dragon, Brenton E. McKenna joyously overturns accepted norms and stereotypes of colonial Australia as it was in the mid-twentieth century.
Colonisation: the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.
‘Traditionally Postcolonial literature often addresses problems and consequences of the decolonisation of a country, especially questions relating to the political and cultural independence of formerly subjugated people, and themes such as racism and colonialisation.’ (Wikipedia)
This definition is problematic when applied to Australia because British settlers did not see themselves as colonisers per se. Terra Nullius implies that the land was empty, so the British simply moved in and they have never officially granted ‘political and cultural independence’ to Aboriginal people.
Students have already done research on: the White Australia Policy, Broome in the late 1940s and the pearling industry. Additional research areas could include:
- the 1967 referendum
- Land Rights Act
- The current ‘Recognise Campaign’ to have Indigenous people recognised in the Preamble to the Australian Constitution.
Nevertheless, in colonial Australia, themes such as racism, colonisation, oppression and dispossession certainly did (still do?) apply.
‘Postcolonial literary theory re-examines colonial literature, especially concentrating upon the social discourses between the coloniser and the colonised.’ (Wikipedia)
Ubby’s Underdogs plays with the discourses (ways of being) between coloniser and colonised. The text vividly represents the British dominion of township life in Broome in the late 1940s. Paul Donappleton holds a seemingly unassailable position of racial superiority over every other person of differing ethnicity in the whole town.
Students are to make a list of all the different races represented in Broome. Then in pairs or small groups, students should list all the ways in which Ubby’s gang and its various associates undermine this British authority.
The list could include:
- Ubby, young, black and female being the leader of the gang.
- Ubby’s followers – all of different ethnicities, all male – accepting her leadership.
- Sai Fong choosing to join Ubby’s gang.
- Sai Fong’s intelligence, ability and magical powers.
- Medinga’s prowess at chess.
In Australia, the date chosen as the day the nation celebrates its (colonial) beginnings is problematic. People of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent have always resisted the fact that in order to celebrate our national day, white Australia has chosen the day on which the First Fleet under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, berthed at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson.
Why would Australia Day celebrations on this particular day offend some people?
Students watch BabaKiueria.
After watching this movie, ask students to look up a definition of the subject/word, ‘anthropology’. One definition is: the scientific study of the origin, development, and varieties of human beings and their societies, particularly so-called primitive societies. This film, BabaKiueria (1986), though old, works because Australian settlers from the 1770s (largely white until recently) ‘studied’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a ‘primitive people’.
After watching the film, students work in pairs or groups and discuss:
- What is this particular genre (mocking) called?
- How effective is this movie in making us look at accepted norms in a different way?
- BabaKiueria was made in 1986. Ubby’s Underdogs was published in 2014 and is written about events which occurred in the 1940s. What (apart from fashion) has changed for Aboriginal people in Australia between the 1940s and now? This might be a good time to check the latest Closing The Gap Report (2017).
A gendered reading considers the way in which characters conform to or subvert the traditional gender stereotypes of the society depicted – in this case, the Australia of the 1940s/50s. Within this world, both Ubby and Sai Fong would, according to the ‘natural order’ (Note: link is dense and academic and for teacher use only) of the colonial and sexist world of that time, be at the bottom of the rung – socially.
1. Sai Fong is particularly interesting in that she (unlike Ubby) does have adult supervision. And at first, she is depicted as a stereotypical Chinese girl of that era, as being meek and compliant.
- Describe three frames where Sai Fong is behaving in this way.
Yet, she defies her uncle, Yupman Poe, in a variety of ways.
- Describe three ways in which she deliberately misleads Yupman Poe.
- List her supernatural powers.
- How does she demonstrate the particular bond she has with Ubby?
- How does Sai Fong transfer her special powers to Ubby after the snake bite incident?
- Why is Sai Fong suffering from a mysterious illness?
After discussions in small groups, ask for a volunteer to describe the reason and the way in which Sai Fong is abducted. Students need to have read to the end of the book by this time, and should have been creating their plot summary (PDF, 133KB) (provided) as they read.
Comparison with other texts
Looking at the genre: comics
Students are to research manga comics in general. A good place to start would be the Manga Bookshelf website. If possible it would be a good idea to bring a few manga comics into the classroom and pass them around.
Then students are directed to How to Read Manga, or the teacher can project the site for the entire class to look at.
- What are some of the essential components of manga comics?
- What similarities/differences are there between Ubby’s Underdogs and manga comics in general? Students to look at visuals, sound effects, themes, plot, panel style, balloons, borders, inserted text, vividness of characterisation (facial expression, gesture, etc.) use of colour, symbols, caricatures, humour. This could be done as a Venn diagram.
- How commonly featured are dragons? Are they an essential element of manga?
- Ubby’s Underdogs contains aspects such as violence (low level admittedly), a quest, magical powers – how common are these elements to other comics?
- Is there always a superhero?
Students read the Brenton McKenna presentation in Art Talks – Deadly Vibe.
- What role did comics have in shaping Ubby’s Underdogs?
- How many comics did Brenton McKenna have in his collection?
- What does he mean by the term ‘visual literacy’?
- What are hieroglyphics?
- McKenna talks about ‘political cartoons’. How is Ubby’s Underdogs political?
- Could Ubby’s Underdogs belong in the manga genre, or is it something completely different?
Versions of the text in other modes, media and contexts
Other Aboriginal writers such as Dick Roughsey have highlighted Aboriginal themes in picture books, if not in graphic novels. Sally Morgan’s classic My Place highlights Aboriginal disadvantage in print memoir form.
- Students to view the pictures contained in The Arrival here and read the accompanying notes. What themes are similar to both books?
- Themes noted: belonging, dispossession, cultural identity, Chinese in Western Australia, problems faced by migrants, etc.
- Students are to explain which form of text they find the most powerful?
- They should also explain which they prefer and why.
Requiem for a Beast by Matt Ottley ‘is a multimodal work consisting of the formats of graphic novel, picture book, novella and musical work’. This clever and award-winning book (CBCA Picture Book of the Year: 2008) deals with controversial themes of white power, and the dispossession suffered by Aboriginal people. If possible, it would be well worth while exposing students to this provocative graphic novel.
NB: A list of graphic novels has been put out by Knopf Doubleday Publishing and Reading Australia has entries for the following graphic texts: Blue, The Great Gatsby, The Deep: Here be Dragons, as well as teaching units for The Arrival and Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero.
(ACELA1528) (ACELA1764) (ACELA1763) (ACELT1619) (ACELT1622) (ACELY1721) (ACELY1765) (EN4-2A) (EN4-4B) (EN4-3B) (EN4-8D) (EN4-1A)
Evaluation of the text
Representative of Australian culture
Australia prides itself on being one of the most multicultural countries on earth.
- Students could look up the Bureau of Statistics website and compile their own data: how many religions? How many nationalities? What percentage of Australians are born overseas? etc.
- It might be interesting to conduct the same research into their own classroom make-up.
Brenton McKenna’s depiction of Broome as a multicultural melting pot (in the 1940s) is atypical of the Australian population in this period.
- How was it that Broome could be so different to the rest of Australia?
In Ubby’s Underdogs, there is evidence of problems associated with multiculturalism – previously discussed within the unit.
- Are there still problems associated with multiculturalism in modern Australia? Perhaps students could research the controversy stirred up by the 2017 Australia Day Lamb advertisement put out by the Meat and Livestock Association.
Activity: (Worksheet (PDF, 129KB) provided)
Students could work in small groups to explore these issues. Each group could be representative of a different ethnicity (researched previously on the Bureau of Statistics site). If there are different nationalities represented within the class, they may wish to explore their own history. Examples of different ethnic groups who have faced problems adapting to Australian life include: Sudanese, Syrian, Rohingya, Iranian, Lebanese, Afghans, and many others. Some research would be necessary. Students could prepare a short fact sheet outlining difficulties faced by their chosen ethnic group and the steps undertaken to overcome these difficulties, or a poster or an informal oral presentation to the rest of the class.
- Linked to the activity above, students could do some research on various government policies which have been implemented over the years in an attempt to deal with problems associated with multiculturalism, for example, the White Australia Policy (if not researched already), the Policy of Assimilation and the Policy of Multiculturalism. Which solution do students feel would work best? Do they have any suggestions for a new way of integrating and making new groups of people feel welcome?
2. Larrikinism/Australian sense of humour
- Students to look up and write down a dictionary definition of ‘larrikin’.
- Why and how is the word ‘larrikin’ linked to Australia?
- Does this term only apply to males?
- Is there a link between larrikinism and Australian humour? Explain.
- Do students feel this is an old-fashioned concept of Australian humour, or does it still exist?
- Find an example of ‘larrikinism’ in Ubby’s Underdogs.
- Students to look up and write down a dictionary definition of mateship.
- Why and how is the word ‘mateship’ linked to Australia?
- Is the term ‘mateship’ more appropriate to last century Australia than this century Australia? Why or why not?
- Does ‘mateship’, as a concept, only apply to males?
- In Ubby’s Underdogs, who manifests the most profound example of ‘mateship’? Explain.
Significance to literature/the world of texts
Some of the most significant books in the English Canon have been turned into graphic novels, including Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, Great Expectations, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. If creating graphic novels out of serious and important adult texts has made them accessible to a wide range of learners, that can only be beneficial. Ubby’s Underdogs, though at face value seems a rollicking book of teenage gangs and Chinese magic, also contains some provocative and timely themes, as pertinent today as they were in the 1940s.
Identifying and justifying language/stylistic techniques for specific narrative or dramatic purposes
This has already been looked at in some detail during the Close Reading section, however, as the Rich Assessment Task section below relies on students understanding the terminology used to describe the crafting of graphic novels, a revision of terms and their meanings may well be in order.
‘Graphic novels can be a way in for students who are difficult to reach through traditional texts.’ (Scholastic) Indeed, they are rich in both language and stylistic techniques, many of which only reveal themselves slowly on second or third readings.
Approaches to literature and literary devices
All the usually taught ways of approaching literature: character, theme, plot, setting, etc. are just as obvious in graphic novels as they are in conventional text-only fiction, but some of the more elusive elements of decoding literature may also become more accessible in graphic novels. These include literary devices such as: symbolism, metaphor, puns, satire, intertextuality, inference and onomatopoeia.
- Symbolism – Broome is a hot town, near the equator in Australia’s north. The locals wear singlets. What is the significance of Donappleton’s servants, Bruno and Casper, wearing Russian general-type trench coats?
- Metaphor – consider the strange idea of a baboon being more intelligent than an Englishman.
- Puns – Ubby states at one point, ‘Safa don’t deserve to have his best friend baboonnapped.’
- Satire – the spitting incident, already discussed previously.
- Intertextuality – ‘Warrior Woman’. Students do some research on the many warrior women there are: in comics, films and serious fiction.
- Inference – after the Game of Gruff, Fin states, ‘That’s right. We here all week.’ What does he mean by this statement?
- Onomatopoeia – Ensure students understand the term, then ask them to look at the sound effects depicted periodically throughout the novel and explain how they are onomatopoeic.
Revision of reading/decoding visual/spoken text
Refer students to the 11th page of Ubby’s Underdogs.
Students may work together to brainstorm how written and visual cues work together to make meaning. Points to consider:
Frame 1 – there is no writing in this frame, just the picture of the lizard – yet it speaks volumes. What is happening here?
Frame 2 – consider Sai Fong’s use of language, as well as what she actually says. What does it demonstrate about her?
Frame 3 – why is the lizard called Boo?
Frame 4 – Ubby’s proclamation? Fin’s folded arms? What meaning do you get from this frame?
Frame 5 – why is it sepia coloured?
Frame 6 – why has Fin taken his red scarf down to speak to Sai Fong? What does his reaction imply?
Frame 7 – look at Fin’s face in the next frame. What sort of emotion is he showing?
Frame 8 – in the lowest panel on the page, there is no gutter separating Sel and Gabe. What does this picture tell you about both these characters? Where is the lizard? Who is speaking?
Entire page – why are there no text boxes on this page?
Rich assessment tasks
NB: The following Task 1 is adapted from the Scholastic Site: A Guide to Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens.
Provide students with a collection of images and portraits of various heroes, heroines and villains from an array of graphic comics, novels, films and the internet. Students to examine and discuss the ‘trademarks’ of how each character is designed: for example, body type, expression, clothing, colours used, gestures, angle of ‘shot’ of character, speech, etc.
- How easy is it for students to differentiate between hero and villain?
- How do they do this?
Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon combines the traditional comic/manga style genre with the subtle exposure of social issues of the era.
Students to do one of the following tasks:
- Create a character (either hero, heroine or villain – as in manga comics or Ubby’s Underdogs) and using the above list – ‘fill out’ this character as fully as possible.
- As in ‘Cast of Characters’ at the beginning of Ubby’s Underdogs, provide a picture and a brief description of your chosen character.
- Write between one and one and a half pages of a story script, or partial story script. This only needs to be a first draft to indicate the idea of the plot. The character you have just created should feature in your script.
- Create a series of storyboard sketches with words pencilled into balloons. The characters at this stage only need to be stick figures. This should also look like a first draft.
Choose from the following ideas:
- Social justice issue: e.g. racism, bullying, sexism, treatment of animals, etc.
- Adventure story
- A day in the life of…story
- Historical occasion
- Any other ideas – in negotiation with your teacher.
- Create a character that may have no relationship to traditional comic characters – but who is going to fit your own idea for a comic/graphic novel.
- As in Task 1, create and briefly describe the main character. Write a one page beginning of a script, featuring your character, and then turn this into a rough storyboard.
NB: It might be helpful to both student and teacher if the student writes a short author’s note as a preamble to the task to clarify what they plan to do.
Instructions to students
Your teacher is going to be looking for evidence of the following:
- A character that fits a comic stereotype of hero/heroine/villain.
- Thoughtful depiction of this character, plus a brief, written description.
- The start of a story/plot that is typical to comics, involving action such as a quest, an evil deed that must be punished, mythological beings such as dragons or superhuman escapades.
- Some idea of dialogue and action in the storyboard.
- A character that you have devised to fit the genre in which you choose to write, e.g. an unfortunate child (bullying), a mistreated animal, an historical figure, an everyday child about to have an adventure, etc.
- Thoughtful description of your character.
- The beginning of a story/plot.
- Some idea of dialogue and action in the storyboard.
Synthesising core ideas
Graphic novels are an important tool for encouraging reading and firing imagination. They are immediately accessible to students who are constantly decoding and ‘reading’ both written and visual texts in their everyday lives. And because, to many students, they seem less threatening than densely written texts, they provide an excellent vehicle for teaching both structural and abstract aspects of literature.
Rich assessment tasks
Response to text – productive
Revisit the Scholastic description of a graphic novel.
Teachers and/or students may choose which of the following tasks suits their situations best.
Based on Ubby’s Underdog’s: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon, students are to create four pages in graphic novel format based entirely on this text. In their work, they need to demonstrate their knowledge of graphic novel writing by incorporating elements such as: panels, borders, framing, balloons for speech and thought, sound effects, text boxes, characterisation using expression and gesture, colour and angle of shot.
- Events leading up to the opening action of Ubby’s Underdogs. Ideas include: Gunada stealing Gabe’s teeth, Ubby recruiting gang members, Fin defecting from the Pearl Juniors in order to join the Underdogs, Medinga’s kidnapping – just to name a few.
- Events following on from the end of the story, such as the continuing quest to find Sai Fong, bringing in characters such as the Red Wolves, Snail, Frog and Crow and the Crown Spider. (Note: ensure the second book of the trilogy – Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings is not available.)
- Insert four pages into the novel, as life in the town of Broome unfolds. Ideas: Council of Magic, gangs, Medinga and Safa, Hai’s House of Refuge, Donappleton’s corruption plans or the Hunt for the Sandpaper Dragon.
Students are to create four pages of their own graphic novel, again demonstrating mastery of the various skills needed to create a graphic novel and not just a picture book or a comic strip. In order to do this they could create a new story line entirely, with new characters. This could be in the traditional comic form of hero/villain/quest.
They could take on some social issue and explore it in this format, such as producing a story about bullying, racism or sexism, or, in negotiation with their teacher, they could produce four pages of a graphic novel on a topic of their own choice.
Students who do not wish to draw could achieve the same ends by writing the script and then creating a storyboard where they use stick figures and provide extensive instructions to the artist, frame by frame.
Students who have easy access to computers and computer know-how, could use photographs instead of drawings to create their graphic novels.
Presumably, many students will choose to develop the ideas generated in the Rich Assessment Task from the previous section.
(ACELA1528) (ACELA1529) (ACELA1764) (ACELT1625) (ACELT1805) (ACELY1725) (ACELY1726) (EN4-2A) (EN4-8D) (EN4-4B) (EN4-6C)
Response to text – receptive
Teachers may choose from a variety of tasks.
1. Persuasive writing
Scenario: In your school there are many types of learners: some use English as second language, some are struggling with literacy and others do not see the point of reading for pleasure.
Based on your own class and personal study of Ubby’s Underdogs: Legend of the Phoenix Dragon, write:
- A letter to the Head Librarian, urging the stocking and promotion of more graphic novels to be used in your school.
- An article to be placed in the school newsletter (going out to parents and the school community) encouraging the use of graphic novels and explaining how/why they are needed.
- A poster plus a book review on Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon to be placed in the library or the ESL classroom, encouraging reluctant readers and/or those learning English as a second language, to read this book.
2. Spoken persuasive task: debate
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia is falling behind in both numeracy and literacy.
Topic: Setting graphic novels as serious texts to be studied in the English class is not going to improve Australian students’ declining literacy standards.
A traditional way to arrange school debates is to set up teams of six students: three to affirm the topic and three to refute it. Each student needs to write out their speech according to the format being followed, for example, speaker one defines the topic, provides the case line and outlines the main points to be raised. Rebuttal points are considered prior to the debate, students practise together, etc.
3. Opinionative/reflective writing
During this unit, students have watched a video where Brenton E. McKenna describes how studying comics and graphic novels helped him overcome literacy difficulties to the extent where he obtained a distinction in Creative Writing and became an accomplished author/artist.
Task: Write an article for inclusion in the annual school magazine where you, as a student who has studied Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon, give your own opinion as to how the study of this book has helped you.
(ACELA1782) (ACELA1537) (ACELT1619) (ACELT1620) (ACELT1621) (ACELT1803) (ACELY1765) (ACELY1724) (ACELY1725) (ACELY1726) (EN4-1A) (EN4-3B) (EN4-8D) (EN4-2A) (EN4-5C) (EN4-6C) (EN4-4B)