Where the value of graphic novels is under debate, it may be helpful to have a few clearly educational titles to offer as an entry point to the form. Adaptations of classic novels abound, and fit beautifully into Ashley Thorne’s argument for valuing adaptations and abridgments for their ability to make substantial literature in its original form more accessible to readers. Another great option is graphic novel biographies, which not only introduce readers to some pretty amazing lives, but also, in some cases, accomplish more through the combination of printed words and pictures than might be possible in more traditional forms of storytelling. On the plus side, as is the case with classic lit adaptations, one graphic novel biography often points the way to more, either by the same author or in the same series — it seems to be an addictive sort of work!
By Jim Ottaviani
In partnership with a variety of illustrators, Jim Ottaviani has produced a long list of graphic novel biographies focused on the world of science and its intersection with society (e.g. politics, gender expectations, etc.). In addition to the titles below, look for Feynman, T-minus: The Race to the Moon, Suspended In Language: Niels Bohrs Life, Discoveries, And The Century He Shaped and more.
Primates: the Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks
You’ve heard of Jane Goodall, but maybe not the others, yet. Ottaviani and Wicks give readers a glimpse of the lives and work of these three women, as well as some insight into how their work has contributed to the movement to conserve primate habitats.
Dignifying Science: Stories about Women Scientists written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Donna Barr, Mary Fleener, Stephanie Gladden, Roberta Gregory, Lea Hernandez, Carla Speed McNeil, Linda Medley, Marie Severin, Jen Sorensen, Anne Timmons and Ramona Fradon
In Dignifying Science, Ottaviani tells brief stories about several woman scientists who have fought hard to have their work — and their discoveries — taken seriously by the scientific community. Each story is illustrated by a different artist, and the stories themselves range from sweeping life histories to short vignettes, so there’s plenty of variety, not to mention loads of fascinating information, to keep readers’ interest high.
The Center for Cartoon Studies
The Center for Cartoon Studies has released a number of remarkable graphic novel biographies, each created by a different author/artist, and each incorporating both a substantial introduction by an expert on the subject’s life and endnotes with additional information on the events depicted in the biography. In addition to the titles listed below, check out Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean and Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow.
Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert
One of my favourites of the biographies read for this list, Annie Sullivan blew me away with Lambert’s original and thought-provoking portrayal of what Helen Keller’s experience might have been like. To see what I mean, take a look at a few pages on CCS’s publication announcement. The biography is told from both Helen’s and Annie’s perspectives, and presents both as very sympathetic individuals. The story leaves off on a rather sad note, but if you love Helen and Annie’s story already, or if you’re looking for a way to introduce them to someone new, I highly recommend Lambert’s book.
Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino, from the writings of Henry David Thoreau
Porcellino tells Thoreau’s story simply, leaning heavily on the author’s own writings. A particular strength of the graphic novel format in this case is the opportunity it provides Porcellino to make use of space and silence, as well as language and activity, to capture Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond.
Houdini: The Handcuff King written by Jason Lutes and illustrated by Nick Bertozzi
Lutes and Bertozzi centre their presentation of Houdini’s life around a single performance in Boston. The telling depends partly on speculation regarding some of Houdini’s secrets, but also incorporates lots of information about Houdini’s character, habits, and relationships.
Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book
This one is a substantial piece of work, a compilation of an earlier comic book series chronicling Mandela’s life, work, and political struggles. The subject matter makes for heavy reading at some points, but the book offers fascinating insight into a period so near our own, but relatively obscure to young people (myself included!) in North America.
Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón
Most today have read Anne’s diary, or seen the play or the film based on it. But while Jacobson and Colón make use of Anne’s own writing, they pull back from her limited perspective to explain the events that preceded the years described in Anne’s diary, and to put Anne’s experiences during the Annex years into context. While the images are occasionally a bit intense, the telling is quite accessible and very interesting. The book would make a great accompaniment for students reading Anne’s diary.
Around the World by Matt Phelan
Phelan tells three separate stories of three individuals who travelled around the world in the final years of the 19th century: Thomas Stevens, who travelled via bicycle; Nellie Bly, who beat Phileas Fogg’s 80 days by almost a week; and Joshua Slocum, who sailed around the world all alone. The art is stunning, the personalities beautifully captured, and the stories exciting. This one’s tied with Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller for favourite.
Hyena in Petticoats: The Story of Suffragette Nellie McClung by Willow Dawson
Compared to most of the others, Dawson’s biography is a tiny thing, but it packs in loads of content. Readers will encounter not only the engaging story of one of Canada’s best-known suffragettes, but the shape of the suffragette movement in Canada and the US, and the diversity of opinions on the subject even in McClung’s time.
Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer by Trina Robbins
How could you not tell the life story of a comic book artist in graphic novel form? Lily’s childhood under threat of war, her escape overseas as a young woman, and her role in the early days of comic books makes fascinating reading. Enjoy!