Did you know guidelines from the United Nations limit the use of solitary confinement to 14 days maximum, yet incarcerated people in the United Staes have spent years or even decades in isolation?

Created collaboratively by the Stanford Graphic Novel Project class of 2018-2019, Flying Kites tells the story of a fictional family caught up in the real events of the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strike. Balancing education with emotional impact, the book follows college student Luz Santiago and her incarcerated father, Rodrigo, as they begin to speak out against and challenge the human rights abuses of solitary confinement in California prisons.

Rodrigo has been incarcerated for most of Luz’s life. The book is vague on the details of his initial crime, though there are references to him having stabbed or possibly murdered someone. For the last ten years, Rodrigo has been confined to the SHU, or Secure Housing Unit, meaning he spends 23 hours a day in a very small space by himself. The single hour a day he is allowed out of his cell is spent alone in a slightly bigger enclosed space where he can “exercise.”

Luz, who is now in college, knows only a little about her father’s circumstances and mental state. She works hard to juggle a job, her classes, socializing with peers, and driving nine hours to visit her father on a regular basis. She diligently communicates with Rodrigo through hand-written letters, but he hesitates to share with her the raw details of how much he and the other inmates in solitary confinement truly suffer on a daily basis. When Luz and Rodrigo learn about a planned hunger strike to protest the use and abuse of the SHU, they each become involved in their own way: Luz attends protests, spreads the word, and speaks to the media, while Rodrigo participates by refusing food with his fellow inmates. Each hopes the strike will lead to lasting change that will help not only their family, but incarcerated people throughout California and the United States.

According to the notes and materials at the end of the book, the most of the specific named people in Flying Kites are composite characters, bringing together details of real people’s lives into fictionalized characters who can tell a story. The comic makes good use of these composites, allowing the story to have personal impact and a clear emotional narrative. As a result, the real information woven throughout doesn’t feel too heavy-handed and deliberately educational, and readers have an entry point to connect with events that might otherwise seem distant from their own lives.

The events and issues described by Flying Kites are extremely important and are still relevant today. The information isn’t popular knowledge, and there is still a lot of work to be done around prison reform and the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. The members of the Stanford Graphic Novel Project have clearly done their research, and provide a wealth of resources after the conclusion of the story in a number of appendices and notes, so it’s easy to take the book as a jumping off point for further exploration of the topic. I began reading the comic with only vague knowledge of the issue, and came away feeling much more informed and concerned about the widespread use of a practice that is considered torture by the United Nations.

I also found the creation process behind this comic very intriguing. The Stanford Graphic Novel Project is a two-semester undergraduate college course focused around the creation of a graphic novel. As a group, the students choose and research a topic, develop a story, then write and draw the entire comic. For the most part, the quality of the book is comparable to those by professional creators. Some of the notes in the back of the book provide more details about the course and the creation of the comic, and more information about the Stanford Graphic Novel project can be found on their website.

My only real complaint about Flying Kites was the variability of the artwork, likely due to the collaborative nature of the book. The style and quality of the art changes often, sometimes even from page to page, and there were some styles that I liked much more than others. Though the characters are still recognizable, and it didn’t affect my understanding of the story, I found it a little jarring at times, and was not a fan of some of the more simplistic, sketchy illustration work.

This book is an excellent choice for anyone interested in the topic, concerned with issues of social justice, and who enjoys comics about real historical events. It can also be used effectively in a classroom setting to begin or further a discussion of the issues of prison reform and human rights abuses. Nothing is graphically depicted, but readers should be aware there are mentions of death, suicide, self-harm, mental illness, and other disturbing effects of the psychological torture that is solitary confinement. Flying Kites is freely available on the Stanford Graphic Novel Project’s website for reading online or downloading as a high resolution PDF.

I hope this important book can receive the attention it deserves, and I look forward to reading more of the Stanford Graphic Novel Project’s work from both past and future years.

Flying Kites
By Stanford Graphic Novel Project
ISBN: n/a
Stanford University, 2019

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Black, Latinx
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator, LGBTQIA+ Creator

  • Sharona Ginsberg

    Past Reviewer

    Sharona Ginsberg is the Head of the Terrapin Learning Commons at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her work fits where technology and learning intersect, and she is especially interested in makerspaces and creating. She is also interested in issues of equity and social justice, serving LGBTQ patrons, and her dog, Bilbo Waggins.

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