April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Roundup of Excellent Graphic Nonfiction | Focus On

©2015 by Jessie Hartland, from Steve Jobs: Insanely Great, published by Schwartz & Wade Books an imprint of Random House Children’s Books.

©2015 by Jessie Hartland, from Steve Jobs:
Insanely Great, published by Schwartz & Wade Books an
imprint of Random House Children’s Books.

Some readers prefer memoir to biography. They choose, instead of fidelity, the author’s ability to structure and mold storytelling into a narrative that’s not hidebound by chronology and sequence. Important conversations about accuracy have accompanied the explosion of narrative nonfiction for young adults, along with debates about readers’ ability to distinguish between what is true versus what is true to the spirit of events. Graphic nonfiction and biography, even when written or drawn by the participants in the depicted events, are, by their very nature, interpretive. It’s not only that recall and memory are imperfect, but turning story into drawing is an act of translation. And the choices made by an artist to frame the graphic narrative, to make sure the audience responds to the correct focus of the larger story or of the moment, are interpretations of raw truth.

Well-researched graphic works provide period details, landscape, and artifacts in a manner that prose can only evoke. But beyond the concrete, graphic nonfiction allows the pictures to do the heavy lifting of telling emotionally complex stories by providing the recognizable subtlety of body language, italics and emphasis, and moments of pause to make readers feel, ponder, or connect. They encourage an intuitive understanding of the subtext, the circumstances, and the tone of real events. These recently published stories of real people allow teens to not simply read about important events or learn from the experiences of others, but also to absorb the depicted context in which they occurred.

1602-FO-MidSchReader-CvsFor Middle School Readers

ABIRACHED, Zeina. A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return. illus by author. Lerner/Graphic Universe. 2012. lib. ed. $29.27. ISBN 9780761385684; pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781575059419; ebk. $21.95. ISBN: 9781467700474.
Gr 5 Up–In Beirut, the residents of an apartment building huddle in one room, hiding from sniper rifles and nearby shelling. As the author worries about her absent parents, she describes each neighbor, piecing together the effects of Lebanon’s civil war. With stark black-and-white artwork, the confined action captures the solemnity and impotence of the war’s victims.

BERTOZZI, Nick. Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey. illus. by author. First Second. 2014. pap. $16.99. ISBN 9781596434516.
Gr 7 Up–Spare illustrations establish the bleakness of the Antarctic wastes Shackleton faced in attempting to cross the continent. Bertozzi dutifully depicts the drudgery, close scrapes, and brutal conditions the crew endured, despite never reaching their goal. Shackleton is legendary for keeping his 27 crew members alive for over two years, and Bertozzi reveals how difficult that was.

HALE, Nathan. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor (An Abolitionist Tale).  illus. by author. Abrams/Amulet. 2015. Tr $12.95. ISBN 9781419715365.
Gr 4-8–Before she was a fierce denizen of the underground railroad, Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, was a survivor of slavery and a narcoleptic with religious visions. Hale uses his cheeky framing device to propel the narrative and make it entertaining but doesn’t shy away from fantastic depictions of Tubman’s dreams and the dangers she faced.

HARTLAND, Jessie. Steve Jobs: Insanely Great. illus. by author. Random/Schwartz & Wade Bks. 2015. Tr $22.95. ISBN 9780307982957; lib. ed. $25.95. ISBN 9780307982964.
Gr 5-8–A recounting of Jobs’s life story is distilled through the context of the technological development that Apple helped advance. Loose and scrabbly artwork with handwritten narration makes the story accessible and informal. Jobs is portrayed as motivated to explore new challenges and readers are encouraged to innovate their own world accordingly.

OTTAVIANI, Jim . Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey & Biruté Galdikas. illus. by Maris Wicks. First Second. 2013. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781596438651.
Gr 7 Up–Ottaviani chronicles the careers of Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas as they respectively observe chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans in the wild. Each woman’s narration has a distinct voice, but the power of the story is the legacy they establish together. Wicks’s drawings feature a humorous touch as she creates both spectacle and detail through a deceptively simple cartoon style.

1602-FO-Memoirs-CvsMemoirs and Personal Stories

CHAST , Roz. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? illus. by author. Bloomsbury. 2014. Tr $28. ISBN 9781608198061.
Adult/HS–Veteran New Yorker cartoonist Chast powerfully recounts her parents’ decline through weakness, senility, and death. Chast’s scratchy hand emphasizes their age and fragility, while interspersed personal photographs drive home the reality of the situation. Her portrayal of the humiliations of infirmity and the sadness of nursing facilities creates relatable and thought-provoking circumstances for teens to ponder.

GRIFFITH, Bill. Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist. illus. by author. Fantagraphics. 2015. Tr $20.99. ISBN 9781606998953.
Adult/HS–Cartoonist Griffith, creator of the Zippy newspaper strip, pores over his mother’s correspondence and her unpublished novel in order to reconcile the reality of her extramarital affair with his image of her as a parent. While never explicit, the mature content may give some readers pause. A thoughtful exploration of the mystery of parents as actual people.

KNISLEY, Lucy. An Age of License: A Travelogue. illus. by author. Fantagraphics. 2014. pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781606997680.
Adult/HS–An American cartoonist travels across Europe, musing on comics, journaling, and romance. A compelling record of the tension between wishing to experience the unexpected and wanting comfort, Knisley’s account portrays honest insecurity and new intimacy. Lacking traditional comic panels, the work evolved organically as Knisley drew it, and the medium handily reflects the message.

LITTLE, Troy, adapt. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. illus. by author. Top Shelf. 2015. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781603093750.
Gr 10 Up–Little brings a manic energy to his adaptation of Thompson’s seminal work, capturing the drug and expletive-laden extravaganza and subsequent somber reflection on 1960s American culture. Little’s portrayal of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo as rubbery, Looney Toons-esque caricatures helps frame some of the more retrograde racist language that survives the source material intact.

PORCELLINO, John. The Hospital Suite. illus. by author. Drawn & Quarterly. 2014. pap. $22.95. ISBN 9781770461642.
Gr 10 Up–Minimalist line drawings depict Porcellino’s grueling search for an accurate diagnosis for his elusive pain and subsequent anxiety. He describes his varying relationships with his cat, wife, diet, and faith and unglamorously shares his thoughts and observations through this arduous period. Despite the spare illustrations, the content packs an emotional wallop and successfully conveys the author’s pathos.

SAMANCI, Özge . Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey. illus. by author. Farrar. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780374316983.
Gr 9 Up–A slow-burn of realization and dissatisfaction permeates as young Samanci tries to be a good Turkish citizen, emulate her older sister, and please her parents. Enhanced with collage, the story’s reality is heightened by recreated artifacts incorporated into the illustrations. The author’s meandering path offers readers inspiration to take risks when exploring their next steps.

SATTOUF, Riad. The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984. illus. by author. Holt/Metropolitan. 2015. pap. $26. ISBN 9781627793445.
Gr 10 Up–Sattouf recreates his childhood in France, Libya, and Syria with a French mother and a Sunni father. The narrative is honest and wandering, with insights coming from the portrayal of his proud, temperamental father’s views on politics and Arab life. The stark colors and drawings emphasize a childish perspective and provide an uncensored look at a complex world.

1602-FO-Complicated-CvsComplicated Individuals

BROWN, Box. Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. illus. by author. First Second. 2014. pap. $17.99. ISBN 9781596438514.
Gr 9 UpA compilation of moments and anecdotes from the life of professional wrestler Andre Roussimoff paints a picture of an amiable young man whose physical power allowed him to casually offend and dominate colleagues, fans, and strangers, and whose giant stature brought him both fame and premature ill health. Swearing and crude references abound, complicating the sympathetic portrayal.

LEWIS, John & Andrew Aydin. March: Book Two. illus. by Nate Powell. Top Shelf. 2015. lib ed. $33. ISBN 9780606365475; pap. $19.95. ISBN 9781603094009.
Gr 9 Up–Lewis’s training in the nonviolence movement is increasingly put to the test as the Freedom Riders are assaulted and black activists splinter along ideological lines. Unflinchingly brutal, this effectively illustrated sequel emphasizes the long fight to attain necessary civil rights, while the culminating March on Washington rings with frustrated compromise and unfinished business.

OTTAVIANI, Jim. The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded. illus. by Leland Purvis. Abrams. Mar. 2016. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781419718939.
Gr 9 Up–Turing’s character as a student, a young professor, and a code-breaker for British intelligence is given shape through a series of fictional interviews. Ottaviani emphasizes Turing’s work on computer intelligence and addresses the chemical castration resulting from his conviction for homosexuality. Purvis’s unadorned, brisk style befits the forthright narrative and the directness of its subject.

RALL, Ted. Snowden. illus. by author. Seven Stories. 2015. pap. $16.95. ISBN 9781609806354.
Gr 10 Up–Political cartoonist Rall presents a text-heavy, libertarian perspective on Snowden’s biography and the realpolitik of US domestic electronic surveillance that drove him to leak government secrets. The author attempts to depoliticize the narrative around Snowden’s actions and emphasize government intrusion into privacy through interviews and by compiling an impressive bibliography of Snowden’s work history and motivations.

TIWARY, Vivek. The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story. illus. by Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker. Dark Horse. 2013. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781616552565.
Adult/HS–Epstein seeks contentment and a sense of self while manufacturing Beatlemania, struggling with addiction, and fearing conviction for being gay. Narrative and dialogue are structured in the stylized manner of the Beatles feature films, making the characters fun but clearly fictionalized. An energizing read that displays how panel structure and presentation enhances and creates theme and meaning.

Assorted Facts and Figures

ABEL, Jessica. Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. illus. by author. Broadway. 2015. pap. $16.99. ISBN 9780385348430.
Adult/HS–Expanding upon Radio: An Illustrated Guide (WBEZ Alliance, 1999), Abel interviews producers, writers, and editors from public radio shows and podcasts and frames the technical and philosophical ways in which they grab listeners and generate interest. While lacking step-by-step instructions, readers will find inspiration in how hard and how important it is to create stories.

CUNNINGHAM, Darryl. The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis. illus. by author. Abrams. 2015. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781419715983.
Gr 9 Up–Beginning as a biography of Rand, the bulk of this volume analyzes how her followers helped foment the 2008 credit crash and contrasts liberalism and conservatism in policy, practice, and study. Broad in scope, and not completely without bias, the graphic content, wrapped in a compellingly shaped narrative, accents an effective summary of a complex series of events.

FETTER-VORM, Jonathan. Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb. illus. by author. Farrar/Hill and Wang. 2012. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9780809093557.
Gr 10 Up–In this fascinating companion piece to Jim Ottaviani’s Fallout (GT Labs, 2001), Fetter-Vorm focuses on the mechanics of the Manhattan Project: the logistics of the research and testing sites and the launch of the attacks on Japan as well as diagramming subatomic fission. The contrasting characters of Oppenheimer and General Groves raise moral conflicts about nuclear development and proliferation.

ROSS, Edward. Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film. illus. by author. Metro Media/SelfMadeHero. 2015. pap. $24.95. ISBN 9781910593035.
Gr 10 Up–Part film studies course and part cineast montage, Ross’s title describes the power of cinema through unpacking tropes and exploring how movies reinforce and reveal cultural ideals and fixations like objectification, body horror, and technophobia. Casual readers will be drawn into Ross’s thoughts on subtext and the structure of entertainment through his re-creations of iconic cinematic moments.

Benjamin Russell is the librarian for Belmont High School in Belmont, NH.

Digital picks

For Educators

CBLDF. Librarian & Educator Tools. cbldf.org/librarian-tools. Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. (Accessed 12/26/15).
The nonprofit agency designed to protect the First Amendment rights of comic creators and distributors has excellent guides for librarians with simple and clear resources regarding the language and terminology of comics, starting points for collection development, and strategies for dealing with materials challenges specific to graphic novels and graphic nonfiction.

ADAIR, Torsten. How Diverse is the Dewey Decimal Classification When It Comes to Comics? You’d Be Surprised What One Librarian Discovered! www.comicsbeat.com/how-diverse-is-the-dewey-decimal-classification-when-it-comes-to-comics-youd-be-surprised-what-one-librarian-discovered. The Beat/Heidi MacDonald. (Accessed 12/26/15).
Adair, a data analyst and comics enthusiast, reveals the methodology of an extension of his library school study of how many graphic novels exist in the subdivisions of the Dewey Decimal system. A project open for collaboration, it reveals unexpected subject areas in which to acquire or create graphic nonfiction.

1602-FO-DP_ItunesFor Students

ITUNES TERMS AND CONDITIONS: The Graphic Novel. itunestandc.tumblr.com. R. Sikoryak. Tumblr/Yahoo! (Accessed 12/26/15).
Gr 8 Up–Showcasing Sikoryak’s skills of cartoon mimicry, this project breaks the legendarily impenetrable legalese of Apple’s software user agreement into a series of comestible chunks. A fascinating starting point for conversations on plagiarism and digital citizenship.

MONASTERSKY, Richard & Nick Sousanis. The Fragile Framework. www.nature.com/news/the-fragile-framework-1.18861. Nature Publishing Group/Macmillan. (Accessed 12/26/15).
Gr 9 Up–In a comic format, the authors present a record of the frustrating and alarming 25 year history of governmental attempts to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions and prevent the climate change crisis. Downloadable PDF and searchable text-only versions are available along with links to studies and related articles from archived coverage by Nature.

This article was published in School Library Journal's February 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. Justin Hofstetter says:

    My middle schoolers love the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series. The only two series from the graphic novels/nonfiction section that circulate better are Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Scott Pilgrim. I’m excited for the newest installment about the Alamo.