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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Top ten graphic novels to use in the history classroom (in no particular order)


Brown, C. (1999). Louis Riel:  A Comic Strip Biography. Montreal, Drawn and Quarterly.
 

Excellent biography of Louis Reil -- a 19th century Metis leader who fought with his people against the Canadian government's attempt to take their land.  He may have been a religious zealot,; he may have been insane; or he may have simply been a freedom fighter and a remarkable leader.  The GN incorporates some transcripts from his trial.  Good for high school.
 
 
 
 
 
Butzer, C.M,  (2009) Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel  New York:  HarperCollins

Image result for Gettysburg, the graphic novel


     The Gettysburg Address is a powerful speech in part because it was a response to a country deeply at war with itself and was a recognition of the depth of the pain and the uncertainty of the future of the young nation.  Getting students (or anyone) to read past "Four score and seven years ago..." can sometimes be a remarkably difficult thing for history and social studies teachers to manage.    Then along comes C. M. Butzer's  Gettysburg:  The Graphic Novel.
     Like O'Connor's Journey into Mohawk Country or Baker's Nat Turner, this graphic novel uses images to provide the context for a primary source document.  That is to say, the first 50 pages (two thirds of the book) use a comic book style featuring panel movement and speech and thought balloons to convey the violence of the battle of Gettysburg, the way it toughed the soldiers, the nearby townsfolk, the local officials, and the nation.  That way, when President Lincoln takes the stage and clears his throat, the reader, like the audience, finds himself or herself intensely interested in what the president is going to say about this carnage.  As the speech continues, the images in the panels show us not only how the audience is receiving the speech, but also the historical moments that lead up to the speech, the devastated battlefields that lend solemnity to the occasion, and some of the implications the speech would have for the future -- all the way to our time.

This book won't necessarily be everyone's cup of tea -- but it may be an excellent way to engage students who think that history is uninteresting -- mainly because they haven't been able to see that every historical event involves thousands and thousands of individual stories and connections.  There is something about seeing the faces of the soldiers, the bystanders, the wounded, and so on, that changes our perceptions.  As you can see from the above illustrations, the art is good and well thought out.  Butzer's strength is that he lets us into so many individual lives --though that can also be a drawback.  I sometimes wished that we could follow a particular character across several panels instead of always moving on to the next scene.  But that is a relatively small complaint.
The bottom line is this.  If you teach middle school or high school history, this would be a really good book to use in your classroom library (or even in your curriculum -- though if you decide to incorporate it into a unit you teach, please let me know, I would love to find out how it went.)
 
 
 
 
 
Getz, Trevor R. and Clarke, Liz (2012) Abina and the Important Men.  New York:  Oxford.
In 1876, in the Gold Coast of West Africa, a young African woman named Abina Mansah, was sold by her husband to be a servant in the household of a wealthy palm oil planter and influential man named Quamina Eddoo.  Slavery was illegal in the Gold Coast, then a colony of Great Britain, yet was practiced widely and without fear of reprisal.
Abina escaped Eddoo's household and sought help from an African court translator named James Davis. With his help she filed court papers and was granted a trial. At that trial, she sought to confront the colonial authorities with the injustice of a written law that is not enforced.  It is a fascinating and surprisingly gripping courtroom drama -- and all of it is based on a real and recently discovered court transcript. 
            Getz and Clarke have turned this story into a remarkably accessible graphic novels that students in middle school and high school will find interesting.  The art is excellent and they do a nice job of using the panels to tell the story. 
But that isn't the only reason that I love this graphic novel.  See, although historical graphic novels are a great way of getting students to engage in the real human stories that make up history, they come under criticism because, in order to craft a graphic novel (especially one like this when no photographs of the participants exist), the creators have to make interpretive choices.  And this means that the factual and authentic nature of real history is diluted (or so the argument goes).  Never mind that any book that describe history must make all sorts of interpretive choices -- what to foreground and what to put in the back of what we read -- which photographs to use and how to present them -- which facts to include and which to ignore as superfluous, and so on. 
The wonderful thing about this book as that it responds to that argument by including both the 65 page graphic novel version of the story, but also the entire transcript the GN version is based on, 6 essays to provide context for the story (describing geography, political context, sociological context, the influence of the church, slave trade and the abolition movement, and what we know of Abina Mansah.)  Then there is also a reading guide and some suggestions for using the book in the classroom.    
So here it is:  if you teach middle school or high school history, get this book.  Get a class set.  Use it as a way to help students think about the interpretive challenges of history.   This would be perfect for a unit after AP students take the AP test in the Spring.  If you don't teach history, but teach high school or middle school -- buy the book anyway and put it in your classroom library.  If you don't teach, but like reading about history, buy the book and read it, then loan it to a history teacher.
 
 
 
 
 
Liu, Na; Martinez, Andres Vera (2012) Little White Duck: A Childhood in China Minneapolis:  Graphic Universe 
On the one hand, I don't suppose that No Liu's childhood, growing up in China in the 1970s, was that much different from any other Chinese child's life at that time.  She remembers waking up on the day that Chairman Mao died and how there was no school and they spent most of the day at a memorial rally.  She remembers finding a recently hatched batch of chicks behind her neighbor's house and wanting to save them like the People's selfless hero Lei Feng -- so she and her sister made sure the chicks had enough water to drink on that hot day by forcing them to drink water one by one (and inadvertently killed them all in the process).   She remembers celebrating New Years, travelling to the village of her father's birth (and encountering some anti-city prejudice). 
And yet, on the other hand, what makes this graphic novel memoir so amazing is the interaction of the words and the beautiful images.  The beginning of the book features a breathtaking illustration of Na Liu's recurring dream where she and her sister would ride a giant crane over the rooftops of the city. During a rather pedestrian description of the New Year's celebration , a cut-away illustration lets us see the layout of a typical home.  And throughout the book, little Liu and her sister are drawn in such a way that he reader becomes quickly attached to them.  It is a wonderful way to give kids a glimpse into life in another country (with some history and geography subtly thrown in for good measure. 
This book might be especially helpful for teaching visually-oriented ELL students who might find some common ground with Na Liu.  Little White Duck would be good for strong third-grade readers and up through middle school at least (I think any high school history classes studying China could benefit from it too. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Mizuki, Shigeru (2013) Showa 1926 -1939:  A History of Japan  Canada:  Drawn and Quarterly. 
 
     I never really thought about it.  Why did Japan join with Germany and Italy to fight against America and the European Allies in World War Two.  I mean, I wasn't aware of any particular grievances that Japan might have had that would prompt something like the attack on Pearl Harbor. 
     In this brilliant (and rather weighty at 533 pages) volume, Shigeru Mizuki puts that decision in context by giving details about Japans economic and political struggles in the years leading up to the war -- including the rise of a new kind of nationalism.  Mizuki alternates between chapters that read a bit like traditional expository history texts and those that are more like Mizuki's memories of being a child during that time.  Over the course of the book, this has the effect of giving the reader both an overview of the bigger picture stuff, and a clear empathic connection with the everyday people who are affected by the political and economic decisions of the leaders of Japan and other nations.
     This book is written in manga style (it reads left to right and uses some of the symbols and conventions of manga).  It takes an adjustment if you are not used to reading Manga, but it usually just takes me a couple of page and I forget that I am doing anything different.  (I don't usually read manga -- not because I dislike it, but because it is all I can go to keep up with traditional graphic novels.  There is just too much manga for me to ever hope to catch up on.  Sigh.)
     The artwork is beautiful.  Mizuki uses mostly pen and ink but combines different styles and sometimes uses photographs in combination with his drawings.  The effect can be breathtaking. 
      Mizuki seems to be a remarkable historian.  The book contains enough footnotes to satisfy even the most intense history professor and the book does a nice job of providing chances for students to contextualize, think critically about the sources of information, and  contrast different points of view.
     Over the course of the 533 pages, Mizuki includes a handful of vulgar moments (mostly when recollecting his middle school years.  This includes some mildly offensive language and a scene where some immature boys play interact with their own defecation.  None of that should be too much a problem for the high school reader (and this book would be a difficult haul for anyone younger than a freshman.)  If you teach History of English, this would be a good one to get hold of. 
 
 
 
 
 
Sacco, J. (2002). Safe Area Gorazde. Seattle, WA, Fantagraphics.
Excellent historical account of the Bosnian War.  Joe Sacco was a reporter there and saw it all:  violence, starvation. desperation, and ingenuity.  This book does a particularly good job providing eyewitness accounts -- useful for high school history teachers hoping to teach students how to corroborate stories. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
vandenBogaert, H. M. and G. O'Connor (2006). Journey into Mohawk Country. New York, First Second.
 
On the plus side, this graphic novel does an amazing job of providing enough cultural context that the dull prose of a Dutch explorer in the 1600s comes to life.  Students will be able to see, from the faces of the natives the explorer was visiting, that he was frequently acting with cultural insensitivity. 
 
On the negative side, there is a brief scene with culturally appropriate nudity that may get the book challenged if you use it in your school.
 
 
 
 
 
Sturm, J. and R. Tommaso (2007). Stachel Paige:  Striking Out Jim Crow. New York, Hyperion.
 
Excellent!  Good for fourth grade on up.  This is an inspiring story, readable by third grade and up readers.  (The book does sensitively use the N word once)  Excellent themes. 
 
 
 
 
Vansant, Wayne (2013) Bombing Nazi Germany:  The Graphic History of the Allied Air Campaign that Defeated Hitler in World War Two.  Minneapolis:  Zenith
 
     "It was a strange war.  And a violent one.
     They fought as part of an awesome battle force 30 miles long and five miles above the surface of the earth.  Their machines were made of aluminum, plexiglass and steel.  They shivered  in their cockpits in subzero temperatures, fastened to life with only facemasks of oxygen.  They died in horrible ways.  In flashes of black smoke.  In explosions of ragged steel, or falling all the way down, screaming, to the hard earth.
     They fought each other and also killed thousands of innocent civilians.
     They were led by a small group of innovators and revolutionaries.  Radical, innovative men who conceived of winning the war in a way that hadn't been seen before.  Their theories and beliefs were played out in hundreds of violent, freezing encounters in the sky high above the ground. 
     These were the men who took part in World War Two's air war." 
     This is how Bombing Nazi Germany begins, with these words in front of an image of German fighters attacking allied bombers, smoke from anti-aircraft flak, two bombers on fire and going down,  And that single page gives you some insight into the way this graphic novel works.  It is exciting, it is historically accurate, and it is balanced. 
     I remember that one of my best friend's little brother loved to read about World War Two.  He would devour everything he could get his hands on, whether it was his reading level or not.  Hew was willing to plow through some pretty dense historical tomes because of his interest in the war.  And there is a lot there to be interested in.  World War Two was a war of desperation,   And the acts of pilots, navigators, bombardiers and gunners become riveted when you realize the incredible odds they faced.  Bombers were unreliable, prone to fatal breakdowns in the air.  They often had to manage with little or no fighter escorts.  And the only reason most of the crewmen were willing to risk their lives was that the air war seemed to have a good chance at stopping Hitler.
    The images in this graphic novel will pull kids in.  The drama of individual stories will keep them interested.  But along the way, they will earn about allied and German strategies, about the ways in which the air war was effective and ways in which it was not, and they will learn that Germans were not the only one committing atrocities in the war.  The book does not pussyfoot around moments like the firebombing of Dresdin.
     I do not mean to suggest that this is a perfect historical study -- it doesn't do much with primary sources or corroborating sources or making historical arguments explicitly -- but if you want to get a kid excited about history -- real history-- this book would be an excellent start.
     I think it could grab the attention of kids as early as fourth grade, but middle school and high school readers would not think this book was beneath them.  It would, admittedly, probably be more enticing to boys than girls, but I think there is stuff for both here.  This book is well worth adding to your classroom library. 
 
 
 
 
 
Spiegelman, A. (1986). Maus I. New York, Pantheon.
Spiegelman, A. (1986). Maus II, a Survivor's Tale. New York, Pantheon.
 
 
 
Classic.  Read it.  (That is all I have to say).
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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