March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Graphic Biographies for Older YA Readers

Prose biographies tend to be factual and chronological, but graphic biographies often have a different take. They tend to take a cinematic approach to their subjects. Some show only a part of the person’s life, while others tell the story from beginning to end in a series of dramatic sequences. Because they can easily depict people and surroundings without the need for lengthy descriptive passages, these graphic biographies make for compelling reading.

What makes these titles suitable for older teens is the level of the language, the complexity of the story, and the amount of knowledge required to understand it. Most would be of interest to high school juniors and seniors studying physics or computers, reading Thoreau’s Walden, or getting interested in politics.

GN-Bio-YA-Brown-n-Easton-AndreGiantBROWN, Box. André the Giant: Life and Legend (First Second, 2014).
EASTON, Brandon. Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven.
Illus. by Denis Medri. December 2015. IDW Publishing.
Gr. 9 Up—Read together, these two biographies of the iconic wrestler, born André René Roussimoff, who was over seven feet tall, are an interesting study in different approaches to the same basic set of facts. Easton and Medri have Andre tell his story in the first person, which allows André to explain his feelings and makes him a more sympathetic character. Panels with narration alternate with panels of dialogue in word balloons, and the muted palette changes with the different eras of André’s life. Brown’s book is told from an outsider’s perspective—it begins with an interview with Hulk Hogan, one of André’s best known opponents—and goes into more detail about the complicated acting that goes on in the wrestling ring. Brown’s version is more “adult,” with strong language and sexual situations, but both books deal frankly with André’s drinking problem and the adverse health consequences of his immense size.

GN-Bio-YA-Woody-guthrie-dust-bowl-balladsHAYES, Nick. Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads. (Abrams, 2016).
Gr. 9 Up—Some readers may get impatient with Hayes’s rambling style, which reads like poetry at times, but taken as a whole, this is an immersive account of the hardships of life in the Dust Bowl and on the road during the Depression. In the middle of it all is Woody Guthrie, scrawny and curly-haired, trying to make sense of this world and ultimately drawing from his past as well as the present to create a new sort of folk music. The sepia-toned art is gorgeous, evoking woodcuts, folk art, and the decorative styles of the 1930s. The story unfolds in a leisurely way, with occasional flashbacks, and it all ties together beautifully in the end, as Guthrie makes his way east to New York and turns his experiences, and a bitter parody of “God Bless America,” into the elegiac “This Land Is Your Land.”

GN-Bio-YA-Kleist-Story of Samia Ysuf OmarKLEIST, Reinhold. An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Ysuf Omar. (SelfMadeHero, 2016).
Gr. 8 Up—This is a heartbreaking story, because we know from the beginning that the heroine will fail in her quest. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating real-life refugee tale. Samia Yusuf Omar represented Somalia in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the story starts with her coming in last in the event—but finishing the race anyway, cheered by the crowd for her determination. After the Olympics, she returns to the war-ravaged city of Mogadishu, where she must contend with family obligations, discrimination, and even threats in an area ruled by religious police. Determined to pursue a career as an athlete, she leaves Somalia and travels to Ethiopia and then, as a refugee transported by traffickers, to Sudan and Libya. After two years of hardships, many of them documented in Facebook posts and texts to her family, Omar died at sea at the age of 21, on the crossing to Italy.

GN-Bio-YA-LE ROY-Thoreau-A Sublime LifeLE ROY, Maximilien. Thoreau: A Sublime Life. Illus. by A. Dan. (NBM, 2016).
Gr. 9 Up—This slim, large-format book takes small slices of the life of Henry David Thoreau, starting with his sojourn in the woods near Walden Pond in 1845 and continuing to his death from tuberculosis in 1862. In between we see him go to jail for refusing to pay his taxes, study nature in the woods, and discuss abolitionism with John Brown. Each episode is short, and there are many wordless sequences; much of the text is direct quotations from Thoreau’s works. The art is beautifully done in a clear-lined style with a bright but limited palette of browns, blues, and greens.

GN-Bio-YA-MAIER-EinsteinMAIER, Corinne. Einstein: An Illustrated Biography. Illus. by Anne Simon. (Nobrow, 2016).
Gr. 9 up—”To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself,” Albert Einstein says toward the end of this whimsically illustrated biography. In the first half of the book, he comes across as a bit of a self-absorbed jerk, uninterested in the people around him (he basically abandoned his first child) and constantly disappearing into his own thoughts. Maier and Simon use full-page cartoons to provide simplified explanations of his theories, although this book does not go very deeply into Einstein’s physics. It’s more a story of the man himself, going from daydreamer to celebrity and ultimately an advocate for peace—after learning, to his horror, that his theory provided the scientific underpinning for the atomic bomb.

GN-Bio-YA-OTTAVIANI-The Imitation GameOTTAVIANI, Jim. The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded. Illus. by Leland Purvis. (Abrams ComicArts, 2016)
Gr. 9 Up—Alan Turing is a fascinating figure: He was responsible for much of the thinking behind modern-day computers, he played a key role in decoding German communications during World War II, and he was prosecuted after the war for being a homosexual. Ottaviani sets up his story like a documentary, with different people in Turing’s life narrating the action. This is effective, although at times it’s a little hard to know who is doing the talking. Turing’s explanations of his theories may be hard for some readers to follow, but he comes across as a real person, with passions and feelings, rather than an icon of computer history. Much is left unspoken, but one powerful visual is the effect of the hormones Turing was forced to take, which caused the once lean cyclist to gain weight. The book ends on an ambiguous note, suggesting but not depicting that Turing committed suicide by eating a cyanide-infused apple.

GN-Bio-YA-RALL-Bernie-SnowdenRALL, Ted. Bernie. (Seven Stories, 2016)
RALL, Ted. Snowden. (Seven Stories, 2015)
Gr. 8 Up—Ted Rall is a political cartoonist, and he makes no attempt to hide his point of view in these biographies of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower Edward Snowden. He also adds a lot of context, focusing more on the issues each individual raises than the details of their life stories (although there is some of that). Bernie begins with a depiction of the Democratic party’s rightward shift starting in 1968‚ while Snowden opens with a discussion of George Orwell’s 1984 and ends with the debate over whether Snowden was right to reveal the extent of the NSA’s surveillance activities. Rall has a rough style, and his characters don’t look much like their real-life counterparts, but he makes good use of simple page layouts to illustrate and explain complicated issues.

GN-Bio-YA-SHIELDS-Susanna MoodieSHIELDS, Carol, and Patrick Crowe. Susanna Moodie: Roughing It in the Bush. Illus. by Selena Goulding and Willow Dawson. (Second Story, October 2016)

Gr. 8 Up—Susanna Moodie grew up in an upper-class family of smart, literary women with more talent than money, which didn’t leave her a lot of choices in early 19th-century London. A published author and anti-slavery activist, she married a retired army officer and emigrated to Canada in 1832. Living in a cabin in the woods, Moodie had to contend with not only a rougher lifestyle than she was accustomed to, but persistent financial problems, her husband’s long absences, and awkward relations with her neighbors. The class structure of her native England was replaced by a different set of prejudices, and Moodie often pushed against them. Eventually she returned to writing and produced a number of popular novels based on her experiences; this story ends on an ironic note, with prosperous Canadians criticizing her books for their negative portrayals of early Canadian life.


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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.