Nonfiction graphic novels can seem like a weird hybrid. After all, the term “nonfiction novel” is an oxymoron. How does that even work? But set nomenclature aside and add in a skilled author and/or illustrator, and nonfiction graphic works can be a superb blend of fiction and nonfiction, imagination and facts.
The first thing you have to remember when looking for great nonfiction graphic works is that there’s always going to be an element of fiction. Very few of these titles will work as research sources, but they do inform, educate, and entertain readers, introducing them to narrative nonfiction at its finest and inspiring them to further research and reading.
The hands-down, most popular graphic nonfiction at my library is Nathan Hale’s “Hazardous Tales” series. These historical narratives are densely written and illustrated, with copious research and sources cited. They focus exclusively on North American history, the conceit of the series being that narrator Nathan Hale is telling stories from history to put off his execution. My personal favorite is Big Bad Ironclad!, which focuses on the Civil War, but I think the best, from a literary standpoint, is the powerful Alamo All-Stars. This title takes a legendary historical event, the story of the Alamo, and explains the complex history, individuals, and pivotal events that led up to its fall and the aftermath of the tragedy. Hale’s graphics and poetic license—he often turns key historical figures into animals, gives them motifs, or focuses on little-known but fascinating aspects of the historical event—draw kids into the story while never losing sight of the events, characters, and context, or trivializing the lives and struggles of the people involved. As Nathan Hale says, “It’s history; no one gets out alive.”
Another source I turn to for nonfiction graphic novels is Capstone’s Graphic Library imprint. They offer fiction titles with nonfiction elements sprinkled throughout as well as nonfiction titles with exciting visuals. While not reaching great literary or artistic heights, they’re nevertheless great additional purchases for nonfiction graphic collections and are ideal choices for reluctant and struggling readers. Their newest series, “Great Escapes of World War II” is an excellent example of the best features of this imprint. Each of the four titles cover a daring and dangerous wartime escape, from prisoners devising a way out of the Sobibor concentration camp to the breakout of Norwegian spy Sven Somme to the true story of Robert Grimes and other downed pilots on the Comet Line to tale of the prisoners of war who tunneled out from Stalag Luft III. Each title includes an introduction, approximately 20 pages of graphic narrative, and an epilogue following up on the main characters, as well as back matter. While the stories do touch on the violence and horrors of war, the facts are presented in a way that allows readers to think over the information and draw their own conclusions without bias. Readers will pick these up for the exciting escapes and find themselves reflecting on the difficult choices made during war. The art and text of these and other series from Graphic Library are generally uniform, making them a good choice for getting kids interested in various time periods in history or other nonfiction subjects, rather than a specific author or illustrator.
A new player on the graphic nonfiction scene, “Science Comics” from First Second, is rapidly gaining ground with readers. Each volume, written and illustrated by a different creator, addresses a different historical or scientific concept in a unique way. For example, one of the first (and so far the most popular) titles, Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers, at first appears to be about prehistoric life. But while it does cover many interesting scientific concepts surrounding dinosaurs, the main narrative of the book is dedicated to the scientific research about dinosaur fossils, from Mary Anning to the Bone Wars and up to the present day. Another example, the recent Volcanoes: Fire and Life, uses a fictional story of a futuristic, frozen society to explain the science behind volcanoes and other powerful forces beneath the earth’s surface. These titles bring the narrative to the forefront of narrative nonfiction, challenging readers to view things like bats, dinosaur fossils, and coral reefs in a new way and go behind the scenes to explore how events fit into history and science.
Each of these titles or series mixes fictional aspects with nonfiction facts. Abrams’s “Nathan Hale” books tell history against a fantastical background, from a humorous hangman to characterizing World War I countries as different animals. Capstone’s “Great Escapes” series is the closest to pure nonfiction but does include dialogue and thoughts of historical figures. First Second’s “Science Comics” often use fictional framing stories to present scientific knowledge and, depending on the author, may include humorous cartoons and anthropomorphic animals and inanimate objects. By skillfully using these devices, graphic nonfiction not only offers information, but also gives readers the opportunity to differentiate between fact and fiction, to think about how historical personages and scientists thought and felt about events and their work, and to be inspired to explore further into the world of nonfiction.
Big Bad Ironclad! by Nathan Hale, illus. by author. (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales). Abrams. 2012. ISBN 9781419703959.
Alamo All Stars! by Nathan Hale, illus. by author. (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales). Abrams. 2016. ISBN 9781419719028.
Behind Enemy Lines: The Escape of Robert Grimes with the Comet Line by Matt Chandler, illus. by Dante Ginevra. (Great Escapes of World War II). Capstone. 2017. ISBN 9781515735304.
Death Camp Uprising: The Escape from Sobibor Concentration Camp by Nel Yomtov, illus. by Michael Bartolo & Wilson Tortosa. (Great Escapes of World War II). Capstone. 2017. ISBN 9781515735328.
Outrunning the Nazis: The Brave Escape of Resistance Fighter Sven Somme by Matt Chandler, illus. by Daniele Nicotra & Douglas A. Sirois. (Great Escapes of World War II). Capstone. 2017. ISBN 9781515735298.
Tunneling to Freedom: The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III by Nel Yomtov, illus. by Alessandro Valdrighi. (Great Escapes of World War II). Capstone. 2017. ISBN 9781515735311.
Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers by M.K. Reed, illus. by Joe Flood. (Science Comics). First Second. 2016. ISBN 9781626721449.
Volcanoes: Fire and Life by Joe Chad, illus. by author. (Science Comics). First Second. 2016. ISBN 9781626723610.
This article was featured in our free Be Tween enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.