Lions and Tigers and Buffalo: Students Make Comics in Myanmar

A student team at the International School Yangon (ISY) brainstorms their storyboard retelling of a Burmese folktale.

If the Thief comes, I can deal with him.
If the Tiger comes, I can deal with him also.
But if the Daywaw comes, I shall be destroyed.”
—from “The Coming of the Daywaw”

in Maung Htin Aung’s Burmese Folk-Tales (1948)

Now that’s a good hook for a story. Especially if you, like the Thief and the Tiger, have no clue that the ominous “daywaw” means not “deadly monster” but “rain” in the Pali language. As happens so often in life, everyone in the story ends up dashing around in a cartoonish frenzy borne of misunderstanding.

Dianne Baasch, teacher and librarian at Myanmar’s International School Yangon from 2012 to 2015, saw the wit and wisdom in this and other entertaining Burmese folktales. For starters, these tales had all the ingredients essential to a lively read-aloud: a digestible length, humor, plenty of dialogue and jaunty repetition. The characters were often animals: lions, tigers and buffalos, sure, but also crows and puffer fish. To Dianne, the stories cried out to be retold and shared as comic strips, or graphic novels.

Sometimes the best ideas are dreamt up on the classroom floor.

Creating comics would be a fun, collaborative activity for her third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students, many of whom were the children of diplomats from 39 different countries, and some who were local Burmese students, the children of U.S. Embassy workers and school staff. Dianne wanted them to understand as much as possible about the rich history of Myanmar, also known as Burma, a Southeast Asian country of more than 50 million people that was just beginning to open up to the West. She felt that diving into these age-old folktales would be an inviting window into one of Myanmar’s diverse storytelling traditions. While the old tales were new to most, Dianne was always thrilled when one of the local students would light up and say, “Hey, my grandfather used to tell us that story!”

You could say the power of story is how I met Dianne Baasch in the first place. In October of 2019, about 190 of us—university professors, schoolteachers, librarians, authors, illustrators, editors, translators, publishers and other book-industry professionals—had gathered in Austin, Texas, for the 13th regional meeting of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), a “non-profit organization which represents an international network of people from all over the world who are committed to bringing books and children together.” (Eighty different countries are represented in IBBY, including the U.S. “section,” USBBY.) Dianne was there at the conference to share her story of story.

Dianne Baasch at the USBBY Regional in Austin, TX. 2019

I found Dianne and her easel sidekick in the back corner of Salon AB, one of those vast, high-ceilinged, boldly carpeted conference hotel rooms bathed in brownish-gold light. She was participating in a poster session, which will always remind me of middle-school science fairs where people stand nervously at the ready to field probing questions about lava or photosynthesis. This session was advertised in conference literature thusly: “Think of it as ‘Speed Dating’—but with a focus on international children’s literature.”

Dianne’s poster drew me in with the striking, colorful artwork from her Myanmar comics curriculum, all drawn by her students, all inspired by stories in Aung’s Burmese Folk-Tales. I thought this Ox image in particular must be a Picasso. And who doesn’t want to know why poor Buffalo has no upper teeth? (I will tell you. The stodgy Buffalo loaned his upper teeth to his fun-loving cousin the Ox, who got duped into loaning them to a performing Horse, who ran away laughing, never to return.)

I also admired this student’s graphic interpretation of “The Rabbit Has a Cold,” a Burmese fable where a murderous Lion King tests the character of Bear, Monkey and Rabbit by asking each of them if he has bad breath. (He definitely does.)

Sometimes the folktales have a hint of a lesson, but they are often more about the clever outwitting the foolish. As Aung says about this particular story in Burmese Folk-Tales: “The stress is laid on the wisdom of the Rabbit, the hero of Burmese animal tales, rather than on any moral.” (The Burmese rabbit is a sort of trickster, much like the Malayan Mouse-deer.)

Dianne was happy to answer questions. She is soft spoken, but her voice is high and musical, and, like her eyes, full of life and humor, with a hint of adventure.

Though Dianne grew up on a farm in Iowa, she feels her travel bug must be genetic, and, she laughed, “Iowa is beautiful, but limited if you’re dreaming of faraway places.” As a child, stories of far-flung places from her European relatives and regular visits from adventurous family friends nourished her, as did National Geographic magazine, the Encyclopedia Britannica (“No one expected that I would read each one!”) and a copy of The Arabian Nights she would sneak up into the attic to read. She devoured both Life magazine and Look magazine, an oversized, photo-rich publication which, randomly but interestingly, launched the career of then-staff photographer Stanley Kubrick.

Her work has taken her far afield. She is an acclaimed artist and professional photographer, and currently is a teacher librarian at Mosaic Preparatory Academy in Harlem, a public elementary school. She helped plan a state-of-the-art school library in South Korea in 2008. She was evacuated from Cairo during the 2011 uprisings when she was working there as both the head of a school library media center and a photography teacher. Her work in Myanmar was a great adventure among many, making Dianne’s path as intriguing as the Burmese stories mocked up on her poster in Salon AB. Yes, we do want very much to know what happens to the Snake Prince and the Tickling Tree Spirit we see in those illustrations! We must know.

Dianne Baasch with David Wesner.

I was glad to learn that later in the conference Dianne would be talking more about her Myanmar project in a breakout session with author and artist David Wiesner, three-time Caldecott Medal winner (and three-time Caldecott Honor winner). Wiesner expertly outlined “A Brief History of Wordless Storytelling” from cave painting to classic wordless picture books like Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman and his own flying-frog book, Tuesday. Dianne’s presentation was matter-of-factly named, “Children Create Graphic Novels Retelling Burmese Folktales,” and here she explained how, with patience and time, the magic happens.

At first, Dianne thought, why not just let the children draw and write whatever story they wanted for their comics projects? Why thwart creativity? But when she tried her carte blanche approach, the children drew superheroes and aliens... lots and lots of aliens, and often, warring aliens. “The school principal in Yangon didn’t want drawings of anybody shooting anybody,” Dianne said. She soon realized that providing her students with some guidelines for the content of the comics might stretch their creativity in ways they didn’t expect.

The Burmese folktales worked splendidly in Myanmar, but later, in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Northside School, Dianne collaborated with a fourth-grade class on comics based on various causes of the American Revolution, such as the Boston Tea Party. Her fifth graders chose to retell stories from Dianne’s beloved Ancient Egypt. The children were fully engaged as artists and storytellers. They were learning history as story.

The story takes shape in the storyboarding process. Dianne distributes blank templates on 1 to 2 sheets of white paper, divided into 6 to 12 comic frames. Dianne has found it’s best to keep the comics short. “But this is their creative project,” she said. “I can give boundaries, but I don’t want to limit what they have to say.”

Each team has two storyboards, one for the writing of narrative boxes and speech bubbles and one for the artwork. The reason Dianne keeps the text and art separate is so she can later scan and adjust the images.

Students have to work together to decide what goes into the story and what’s left out, one of the essential crafts of storytelling. “The kids work well in teams with this project,” said Dianne. Sequencing, and the variety of composition, are also crucial to comics, and Dianne encourages her students to read as many graphic novels as possible to learn good design and story writing. For her, much of the fun is in the earliest stages of the project. With “The Coming of Daywaw,” she filmed the students in Yangon acting out the story to give them ideas for vivid, hilarious action illustrations, like running crazily around a tree. While working in Brooklyn, she invited George O'Connor to discuss the making of his 12-book Olympians series of graphic novels and to demonstrate how to draw simple illustrations.

After students complete their writing and drawing storyboards, Dianne scans the illustrations and crops them in Photoshop. Students use the Comic Life app (for Mac and Windows) to bring their art and words together in a comic-strip template, where they can choose backgrounds, colors and fonts. Using their storyboards as guides, they import their drawings in sequence, and type their stories into the narrator boxes and speech bubbles. Adding their byline is a particularly proud moment.

Dianne saves the completed graphic novels as sharable PDFs, and prints a copy for each student. Together they create an exhibit in the school library, and the classes host a slideshow for friends and families where the children read their stories aloud. Dianne, teachers and administrators are always delighted by the way these events bring generations together. She is frank, however, about how much time, energy, patience and technological resources her graphic-novel projects take. But she loves the children’s evergreen enthusiasm for drawing and writing, the rewarding collaborative process and of course, the resulting mini-masterpieces.

Students—already ardent fans of Garfield, Bone, Baby Mouse and the like—came away from their storytelling projects with a deeper understanding of how comics are created. In a post-project survey, a few children expressed their appreciation for graphic novels with comments such as “They are like movies” and “Speech bubbles are cool” and “I want to know what happened” and “I like them because I can imagine it.” Who knows, maybe under Dianne’s watch an artist or two were born.

If this story is a fable, here are its lessons:

  1. If you’re interested in storytelling in general and cultural exchange through international children’s books in particular, try attending an IBBY or a USBBY conference. You meet authors, illustrators, educators, translators, publishers... many fascinating people like Dianne who make the world better through the appreciation of story.
  2. Anyone can make comics out of any story.
  3. You may want to read a few Burmese folktales. Otherwise you’ll never know Why the Snail’s Muscles Never Ache, Why the Rabbit’s Nose Twitches, or How the Bats Escaped Paying Taxes. I don’t think you'll be able to stand not knowing.