March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Nathan Hale, Maris Wicks, Don Brown, and Others On Nonfiction Graphic Works | Day of Dialog 2015


Nathan Hale, Claudia Dávila, Maris Wicks, moderator Jesse Karp, Maggie Thrash, and Don Brown.

“Art Spiegelman’s Maus (Pantheon, 1991) answered forever whether graphic novels can handle historical truth,” said Don Brown, author of Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans (HMH), during a panel discussion about nonfiction graphic novels, Nonfiction Goes Graphic (in Format), at SLJ’s 2015 Day of Dialog.

Brown and fellow panelists Maris Wicks, Claudia Dávila, Nathan Hale, and Maggie Thrash talked about a variety of topics, from the challenge of baring one’s soul in a teen memoir to whether a graphic work can be objective in relating historical events.

Moderator Jesse Karp, early childhood and interdivisional librarian at Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City, probed the participants with questions relating to visual accuracy, objectivity, whether graphic nonfiction should be included in curricula, and more.

Objective viewpoints and nonfiction illustration

Brown-Don_DOD15-signing“Graphic novels emphasize [things] in a way that words cannot,” Brown, the first speaker, said, as a projector displayed a Drowned City spread with a panel of a relaxed President George W. Bush next to one of a dead body in New Orleans. “I’m showing you dead people here…[with] respect and solemnity.”

“I did that on purpose, because I have a point of view,” Brown said of the juxtaposition. “All historians have a point of view. If they tell you they don’t, they’re lying….I think [graphic novels] are a perfect vehicle for teaching history.” Brown’s previous graphic work was The Great American Dust Bowl (HMH, 2013), chronicling another American environmental disaster that hit the poor particularly hard.

Maris Wicks spoke next about her book Human Body Theater (First Second), a whimsically illustrated, information-packed tour of the human body with a jaunty skeleton as a guide. “I’m a big nerd. I’m very interested in the natural world, whether it’s our own bacterial flora” or other matters, said Wicks.

Wicks-HumanBodyTheatre“The heart of [Human Body Theater] is that self-care and self-knowledge [are] really important,” said Wicks, who has worked as an educator with toddlers up through high school students. Kids should possess fundamental knowledge about their bodies, she believes—for example, they should know that drinking a glass of water can quell a headache brought on by dehydration.

As for the talking viruses and animated cells, organs, and other body parts populating her book, Wicks said, “[There’s a] fair amount of anthropomorphizing.” And, “There’s a silliness to it that works.”

Wicks said that when she was a student taking notes in class, “Comics would work their way in and help me remember.” She hopes her book will make this biological information “come alive for [kids] in a way that it hasn’t before.”

Davila-Claudia_Child-SoldierClaudia Dávila, illustrator of Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War (Kids Can), written by Michel Chikwanine and Jessica Dee Humphreys, spoke next. The book tells the story of how five-year-old Chikwanine, growing up in the Congo, was abducted by rebel militants along with his friends and forced to become a child soldier.

“My main goal was to honor Michel’s experience as well as his relationship to his father,” said Dávila, adding that Chikwanine’s father, a journalist and activist, was assassinated.

Regarding her choice of a painterly style for the subject matter, Dávila said, “[It] calms down the visuals. [It] doesn’t glorify the action, violence, [and] excitement.”

In fact, Dávila chose not to depict any violence. “Grades four through six don’t need to see [it],” she said. “I tried to make this story more about Michel himself—his situation and his history.”

“I tried not to illustrate what was being written,” she added. “You never want to do that…. [This] gave me the opportunity to illustrate an adjacent experience.”

Hales-Nathan-undergroundAbductorThe “men in tights” Perception problem

Nathan Hale, author of the forthcoming The Underground Abductor (Abrams), the third in his “Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales” series, started off sharing his perspective on the state of American graphic novels.

Most Americans characterize the genre as being about “guys in tights punching each other,” he said, noting that publishers in other countries have been releasing nonfiction graphic books for decades—including a French work from the 1970s about the Civil War warships the Merrimac and the Monitor.

Speaking of his influences growing up, Hale said that he read newspaper comics but that he was most influenced stylistically by political cartoons, though he didn’t understand the content, for instance, of pictures showing “an elephant fighting a donkey.”

Hale went on to talk about The Underground Abductor, starring Araminta Ross, better known today as Harriet Tubman. “When I started writing this book, I said, ‘Let’s not use [Harriet Tubman’s] name anywhere on the cover,’” Hale said. He didn’t want any preconceptions about the story. Readers of The Underground Abductor know the slave girl with steely determination as Araminta Ross until she changes her name well into the book.

Baring one’s soul in graphic memoir

Thrash_HonorGirlMaggie Thrash, author of Honor Girl (Candlewick), a memoir, described her book as  “an autobiography about myself at an all-girls summer camp…falling in love for the first time, and getting your heart pulverized for the first time.” It’s about “forbidden love”—a camper falling for an older counselor.

“I came to this this with no art background or experience. [Now] I am totally obsessed with comics,” added Thrash, a staff writer for Rookie, an online magazine for teenage girls, praising the format’s efficiency in conveying mood and information. “I’m never going back.”

“I felt pulverized in some of these scenes,” Karp told Thrash, adding that the memoir involved “emotional baring of yourself. What is that like in visual terms?”

“It’s hard,” Wicks said. “To be objective about yourself is to be super vulnerable.”

Karp closed by asking the panelists about where the genre should be going. Over the next 10 years, for example, would they like to see nonfiction graphic works used as primary sources for learning?

“No,” Hale said forcefully. “I don’t want any kid to have to write a paper after reading my book.”

“As Nathan mentioned, in Europe and France, [graphic nonfiction] is a booming, thriving community [that extends] way beyond schools and libraries,” Brown added. “I hope we all are moving forward.”

Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.