Chicago Teens Ponder Big Questions in Graphic Novel ‘No Small Plans’

In the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s educational graphic novel “No Small Plans,” teens – past, present and future – traipse through Chicago neighborhoods to ponder some big questions: What makes a community? How does a city’s built environment shape its citizens’ lives? Who makes the decisions about how a city should look, and who is responsible for seeing those decisions into reality?

As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, the CAF created the 144-page “No Small Plans” as a modern take on Walter Moody’s 1911 “Wacker’s Manual,” a textbook commissioned by the Chicago Plan Commission to promote Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago to junior high students. But “Wacker’s Manual” was no dry didactic tome. Moody wove the histories of great European and American cities into a narrative that presented Chicago as the next great city – and it puts the responsibility for seeing Burnham’s vision through squarely on the shoulders of Chicago’s youth.

“Wacker’s Manual” sparked the idea behind “No Small Plans” for CAF’s Vice President of Education and Experience Gabrielle Lyon, who first used “Wacker’s Manual” as a text for students in CAF’s teen programs in 2015.

“Their response left a deep impression on me,” Lyon said. “‘Wacker’s Manual’ basically says, here’s a plan for Chicago, and if Chicago’s going to be great, you, young people, have to steward it to greatness. They really had a gut reaction to that – they were amazed that someone took them that seriously; they felt it was a heavy responsibility. A couple months later, our CEO asked the leadership team to come in with ideas for how we might celebrate the legacy of our 50th anniversary, and I suggested that we, in the spirit of ‘Wacker’s Manual,’ create a graphic novel and try to capture that spirit of helping young people understand that they were stewards.”

Lyon says the choice of a graphic novel format lets teens know that, like “Wacker’s Manual,” “No Small Plans” is meant for them. “It is a 21st century medium that young people respond to. By choosing a medium that young people really love, it shows that young people really are at the center of this endeavor.”

  • (Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

    (Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

  • (Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

    (Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

  • (Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

    (Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

  • (Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

    (Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

  • (Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

    (Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

  • (Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

    (Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

The novel is presented in three chapters that follow teen characters through their neighborhoods in 1928, 2017 and 2211. The past, present and future concept was proposed by the novel’s illustrators, the Chicago studio Eyes of the Cat, who were chosen through a design competition. From there, Lyon says, the ideas began to flow.

“We had a pretty clear idea of the themes that were going to be important – infrastructure, green space,” she said. “But we also knew the novel needed to be about decision making – who makes the decisions, and how do they get made?”

Conscious choices to depict Chicago beyond the Loop and a spectrum of young Chicagoans helped direct the narrative. “In Chapter 1, set in 1928, we have a young African-American boy from Bronzeville. That opens up a whole world of conversation around the Great Migration, around Bronzeville when it was really thriving. We have a young girl from Hull House – I don’t think people realize that most of the young people in Chicago at that time were first-generation or foreign-born. So she is an orphan being raised by immigrants, speaks many different languages, you’re not exactly sure what she is—maybe she’s Italian, maybe possibly Mexican, it’s not exactly clear. The third character is a German-American in Austin. And Austin’s doing great, so he’s kind of fancy.”

The 2017 chapter opens inside a Chicago Public School, a system which Lyon points out is mostly populated by minority students, a fact that is reflected in the illustration. Another nod to 2017’s social climate, says Lyon, is “a character who is somewhat gender-fluid, you’re not exactly sure if they’re a boy or a girl. We use the pronoun ‘he’ but there’s some fluidity there.”

Lyon recalls that of the three eras, a future Chicago was the toughest to picture. “We wrote it three times, there are two other versions that we tossed out. Trying to imagine a world in which the digital reality that we think is happening, how much of that is important to the story was the most challenging.”

A detail Lyon mentions about the future chapter reflects how young people play with vocabulary. “One of the things we did in the future was invent some words that are like kid slang in the future, that are actually rooted in Chinese. So one of the things the kids do is they say ‘oh bàng’ – I’m not pronouncing it well right now – but it’s kind of a transliteration of a word in Chinese that means ‘cool.’”

During the process of developing the novel, Lyon says that CAF collaborated with the Chicago Public Schools to align its content with a civics education curriculum.

Kickstarter campaign that runs through April 30 will allow CPS to distribute 30,000 free copies of “No Small Plans” to CPS students. The book will be published in July, with teacher training in August to make books available for students when school resumes in September. In addition, CAF is working with the Chicago Public Library to put copies of “No Small Plans” in every Chicago library and for youth librarians to do workshops using the text with their teen councils.

The novel is generating interest outside of Chicago, too. Lyon says that she’s getting requests from teachers across the country. “I think that what ‘No Small Plans’ can do is provide a tool for urban planners and planners in general that helps them tell their story and show the importance of why design matters. And for young people and teachers, the educator tool kit is really going to direct people to career pathways and local organizations involved with planning and civic engagement and so hopefully those connections can start to get a little tighter.”

In the long term, Lyon envisions a great future for “No Small Plans” in bridging what she calls “a profound civic education gap” between wealthy and under-resourced communities. “We’ve got to come up with strategies to let students of color have opportunities to think and act in ways that help them believe that they really can steward the city and develop a civic identity. That’s where all of this is coming from. It’s not just a vanity project – it’s a great read with a mission.”


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