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Enhancing History with Graphic Novels


History is visceral. It’s filled with war, assassinations, plagues, and intrigue. So why do kids groan when it’s time to pull out the history textbook? Because up until recently, history was being taught using dry, huge texts that taught kids to regurgitate facts and dates, without any real involvement with the amazing stories that lay between the pages.

Thankfully, this has been an evolving process. Textbooks now feature color spreads and chunk information into readable, processable, relatable pieces of information. Databases on the Internet allow students to retrieve audio and video news reports, personal stories, and targeted documentaries to enhance their learning experience.

With sequential storytelling gaining support from educators who are looking for ways to work with the nonfiction requirements set forth in the Common Core Learning Standards, we also have graphic novels. The sequential art, the colors, the expressiveness allowed by the medium – all of these factors make graphic novel storytelling a perfect medium to deliver history lessons!

Zenith’s Graphic History series by Wayne Vansant (Bombing Nazi Germany, Normandy, Grant vs. Lee, and Gettysburg) is a great example of using the medium to enhance a high school history curriculum. Vansant –a Vietnam Vet – combines researched facts with dynamic illustration to create a detailed, compelling look at key periods in world history.

nathanNathan Hale is another storyteller who uses graphic novels to get kids reading history. His Hazardous Tales series (Abrams), including One Dead Spy, Big Bad Ironclad, Donner Dinner Party, and the upcoming Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood takes a look at some of the harshest moments in history, never shying away from gruesome facts (Donner Dinner Party includes a chart of the deceased members of the fated Donner party, how they died, and whether or not they were cannibalized) to deliver compulsively readable history to middle graders.

When you find a good graphic series, stock your library with it; they are worth their weight in gold. I have a laundry list of nonfiction graphic texts waiting for my library budget approval, including both the Hale and Vansant books.

Pinterest is a gold mine for educators! Visit the Reading With Pictures Pinterest page or do a quick search on terms such as “graphic novel learning” or “history graphic novel” to return a multitude of resources for you to explore. Diamond Book Distributors has their own Pinterest page, and there are hundreds of Pinterest boards from educators and parents successfully using graphic novels to enhance their students’ education.

Here is a short list of history titles that you may want, to add to your classroom, library or personal collection.

(AmazonSmile is a new program where Amazon donates to your favorite charity. Support Reading With Pictures when you shop. Sign in to AmazonSmile.)

Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography, by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon. Hill and Wang (2010). ISBN: 978-0809026852.
Draws on the archives of the Anne Frank house to relate her life in graphic novel format.

Crogan’s Loyalty, by Chris Schweizer. Oni Press (2012). ISBN: 978-1934964408.
Two brothers with very different perspectives on family, country, and loyalty find themselves on opposite sides of the brewing conflict between colonial separatists and those still determined to serve the British Crown. (historical fiction)

Gandhi: My Life is My Message, by Jason Quinn. Art by Sachin Nagar. Campfire Graphic Novels, (2014), ISBN: 9789380741222
A fictionalized memoir of the world leader.

Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel, by C.M. Butzer. Harper Collins (2008), ISBN: 978-0061561764.
Butzer uses only primary sources for the text, drawing from first-person letters and diaries, speeches, and Lincoln’s own writing to unpack this series of historical events.

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust, by Loic Dauvillier. :01First Second (2014), ISBN: 9781596438736
A grandmother recounts her experience as a young Jewish girl in hiding when her parents are taken to a concentration camp during World War II.

Journey into Mohawk Country, by George O’Connor. First Second (2006), ISBN: 978-1596431065
A graphic adaptation of a 16th century Dutch Trader’s diary.

Lewis and Clark, by Nick Bertozzi. First Second (2011), ISBN: 978-1596434509.
Nick Bertozzi brings the harrowing—and, at times, hilarious—journey to vivid life on the pages of this oversized black-and-white graphic novel.

March: Book One, by John Lewis and Nate Pride.
A vivid first-hand account of Congressman John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights.

Tall: Great American Folktales, by Martin Powell, Sean Tulien and Stephanie Peters. Art by Aaron Blecha, Lisa K. Weber, Nelson Evergreen and Michelle LaMoreaux. Stone Arch Books, (2012), ISBN: 978143424068
A graphic retelling of some of America’s most famous tall tales, including Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Johnny Appleseed.

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon. Hill and Wang (2006), ISBN: 978-0809057399
The 9/11 Report puts at every American’s fingertips the most defining event of the century.

The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, by Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell. Hill and Wang (2008), ISBN: 978-0809094707.
Uses the art of illustrated storytelling, article by article, amendment by amendment, to get at the meaning, background, and enduring relevance of the law of the land.