“What Happened Next”: a graphic novel guides children to process adverse situations

UNICEF and Paradigm Educational Foundation publish a graphic novel to support children affected by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Zhanna Ulikhanyan
Աղջիկը կարդում է պատկերապատումը։
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Sahakyan
11 October 2022

Why a graphic novel?

During and after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it became apparent that it was difficult to provide psychological support to all children that were affected. While UNICEF was already working in the field to provide psychosocial assistance to children and caregivers, additional means and resources were needed to reach more children, from human resources to materials and time.

We partnered with the Paradigm Educational Foundation and Tigran Mangasaryan, a prominent artist, to create a resource for school-age children that would walk them through various scenarios of adverse situations, offering ways to cope with the hard feelings that come with it.

The graphic novel genre was selected due to a variety of reasons. First, it boosts exposure to diverse characters, settings and is socially relevant. It is perfect for reluctant readers or those who struggle with reading, including children with disabilities, as it offers age-appropriate content together with illustrations that aid comprehension. We also wanted children to use their imagination to think differently on how to deal with complex situations.

In our case, the graphic novel could also be effectively paired with other forms of psychosocial support for the greater benefit of children and adolescents. It also meant to provide time away from screen time in a period when television and social media were full of information that could perpetuate conflict-related anxiety.

Պարադիգմա կրթական հիմնադրամի համահիմնադիր Նարեկ Մանուկյանը, հիմնադրամի կրթական ծրագրերի ղեկավար Թալին Սաղդասարյանը, նկարիչ Տիգրանը Մանգասարյան, հոգեբան Սոլանժ Թամամյանը

What is ‘What happened next?’ about?

‘What happened next?’ is a graphic novel for children aged 8-15. It has three stories with subsequent exercises that facilitate the reader to think about the story, see how to deal with that situation, focus on things that are within their control.

The sadly special thing about ‘What happened next?’ is that the three stories were written based on true similar stories from what children had to face during the conflict. In the first story, we focus on processing what an adolescent can do in a situation of uncertainty. It is about a boy who is in a shelter with his mother. He feels very powerless and wants to do something useful, so he decides to leave the shelter on his own to bring bread for all.

The second story is about processing feelings of grief and loss of a loved one. It’s about a mother who is reading Hrant Matevosyan's ‘Green Field’ to her daughter and gets a phone call only to find out that her husband died in the conflict. The third one is about dealing with fear. An adolescent boy is faced with the situation when he has to drive his mother and sister far to a safe destination.

While the novel is created to respond to the post-conflict trauma that many children endured in Armenia, it can be used in many other settings.

Տղան կարդում է պատկերապատումը։
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Sahakyan
Պատկերապատման առաջին պատմությունից մեկ էջ։
UNICEF & Paradigma Educational Foundation

How to create a graphic novel for children?

In our experience, it was key to examine the material from various angles and perspectives – education, psychosocial, child protection, gender equality, to name a few.

We all agreed that at the end of any story or fairy tale, the good must always win, it must be kind and create positive emotions for the reader. This was challenging due to the nature of the true stories we had collected from families. We also put an equal emphasis on art to be aesthetically pleasing and tasteful. Here are the steps we followed!

Unpack the main issues before selecting stories

Together with a child psychologist, we identified three main issues based on the local context and our research in experience from other countries – uncertainty, grief and fears. The initial list was long, however, after determining the key ones, we worked with the psychologist to develop key approaches for the novel, targeting school-age children. After identifying the problems, long discussions were held on what stories to choose. We worked with a psychologist who was on the frontlines of humanitarian response and, together with colleagues, had heard first-hand many accounts of pain, loss, and grief.

The booklet begins with a girl who is drawing a butterfly and the butterfly goes off to unify the three stories together, having a butterfly effect for reflection, recovery, and growth. The girl’s words “I’m drawing a butterfly so that it can fly wherever it wants” are, again, from an account from a shelter that the psychologists visited, where a little girl shared that she wants to become a butterfly so that she can fly and go to her native places. Like this, all stories followed accounts from fieldwork or media coverage.  For the second story, to feature Hrant Matevosyan’s Green Field in the story, the team had to get approval from his son, David Matevosyan.

Պատկերապատման երկրորդ պատմությունից մեկ էջ։
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Sahakyan

Work on the scenario with professionals

Two important points were taken into account when developing the scenarios. First, this is a graphic novel based on dialogues only, however the text alone was not enough, a complete script had to be developed.

The team, again, worked with a psychologist to develop the dialogues, and then worked through an editorial process to make it child friendly.

About 20 different specialists were involved in the review process, looking it from various angles, such as gender equality, child protection, applied psychology. As a result, the initial scenarios evolved to become richer and age appropriate.

Պատկերապատման երրորդ պատմությունից մեկ էջ։
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Sahakyan

Ask children for feedback

Besides considering the observations from technical experts, it was equally important to also consider the observations from children and adolescents. The team visited four shelters, reading the script to about 40-50 children to receive their valuable insights.

As a result, we further simplified the language in the stories, validated them, and developed more illustrations for some parts.

Once the scripts were finalized, Tigran Mangasaryan did the immense job of drawing 40 pages in just 50 days. A single page in a graphic novel is usually produced within three to seven days. We relied on real pictures and situations in order to connect with the reader.

Հետո ինչ եղավ նովելի շնորհանդեսն է։
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Sahakyan

What we learned

We cannot emphasize enough how advance preparedness is key. When the conflict broke out, it became clear that there was a lack of age-appropriate and tailored materials for children, especially on mental health.

This graphic novel is the first Armenian material of this format and nature, but there is still a need for more such materials. In the future, it could be coupled with digital solutions for greater outreach. It could also be successfully integrated with psychological first aid programmes to be of help for teachers or peer support volunteers.

Make sure to download “What happened next?” today! It can be used by children alone as well as in-class by teachers, school psychologists and at home with caregivers.

Download the graphic novel