Ten: Graphic Novel Biographies

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. Continue reading


The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The False Prince coverWith the royal family poisoned, a kingdom full of regents eager to take the throne, and more than one neighbouring nation just as eager to take the whole of Carthya, Bevin Conner is convinced that his country has one chance to avoid war. The second prince, Jaron, was lost in a pirate attack four years ago. If a convincing replacement can be found, the throne can pass peacefully to the “rightful” heir. Of course, Conner doesn’t mind a bit taking on the task of securing this false prince, nor of offering ongoing council to a boy sure to be out of his depth in the royal court. He just needs to find someone who can pull off his plan.

Suspicious? Perfect. Because Conner’s not the only one who’s lying.

To be honest, it took me a few chapters to get into this one. Sage, one of Conner’s orphan candidates and the narrator of the novel, comes across as arrogant and self-centred at first, and I was a little worried there was a lot of attitude ahead. In fact, though, Nielsen does a beautiful job not only of fleshing out Sage and his fellow characters, but also of putting her narrator’s traits to good use in building her story. And while the central mystery may not stay mysterious for long, there are plenty of twists to keep even alert readers wondering. The book is aimed at 10-14 year olds, but the serious consequences involved in Conner’s plan add enough weight that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to older teens (or adults!) who enjoy adventure with substance.

Read more reviews from the LA Times, Ron Reads or Lost in a Great Book.

If you’ve already read and enjoyed the book, head over to YA Reads for Teachers (And Any Other Adults!) on Goodreads to ask the author questions all through May.

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Unwind coverConnor’s parents have had enough of his attitude. Risa, a ward of the state, has not proven herself valuable enough to merit continued taxpayer-funded support. Lev, the tenth child of a large, religious family, has been raised to offer himself up for the good of humanity. All three are on their way to an unwinding camp, where they will be disassembled, their parts used to repair others suffering injury or disease.

In Shusterman’s imagined future, the pro-life/pro-choice debate has brought the US to the point of war. The compromise that ended the war was this: a pregnancy may not be aborted, but between the ages of 13 and 18, a child may be turned over to the government for unwinding. Because the unwound are kept conscious through the whole of the procedure, they are not considered dead, but altered (there is evidence to support this argument toward the end of the novel), so that parents retain the right to decide whether they wish to bring a child to adulthood without threatening the sanctity of life. An unlikely scenario, perhaps, but one that is presented with enough skill to enable readers to suspend disbelief and consider a fresh perspective on an issue whose implications for both sides tend to leave little room for discussion. Remarkably, Unwind manages to challenge the reader without championing one side over the other. Instead, as good stories should, it opens the door to questions, and allows readers to wrestle with the answers for themselves.

Audio edition highly recommended.

Read reviews from the New York Times and The Page Sage.

This short film, based on the world presented in Unwind, is very well done. However, it will make more sense if you’ve already read the book: