#FactsMatter: Great Graphic Nonfiction for Students Who Love Information and Real World Stories, by Librarian Alison
Today, as part of our #FactsMatter spotlight on nonfiction, we have a guest post by a librarian in New York City named Alison. She is here today to talk with us about nonfiction presented in graphic novel format.
In elementary school libraries, the nonfiction section is just as popular, if not moreso, than the fiction section. Students love learning new information about the world and sharing those new facts with others. When they have time to browse, they’ll happily rush to the nonfiction shelves to grab books about animals, or space, or sports, or whatever topic seems interesting to them at the moment.
As students get older, I’ve noticed, that love for nonfiction isn’t as obvious in the library anymore. While this is purely anecdotal, I’ve observed that middle and high school students are far less likely to rush to the nonfiction section when looking for their next book to read. Is this because their love of facts and information has waned with age? This seems unlikely. Rather, I think it could be the result of a few different factors. First, I think sometimes librarians focus their nonfiction collection development efforts on books that will support their school’s curriculum needs, rather than books students may want to read for fun. While this is absolutely important, it can mean that students associate the nonfiction section with stuff they have to do for school instead of things they want to read about. Second, nonfiction books can be more challenging for students to read. They can have dense text and specialized vocabulary, and just generally seem more intimidating to students.
So, is there a way for our middle and high school students who have gravitated away from the nonfiction section to rediscover, or discover for the first time, their love of nonfiction? Definitely! And I think one great way to do that is through graphic nonfiction. While there are lots of great narrative nonfiction books and informational texts being written for tween and teens these days, books in graphic format are an accessible and engaging way for students to (re)discover nonfiction. Graphic nonfiction, with its reliance on pictures telling the story as much, if not more, than words, presents facts and information in a way that can be easier for students to grasp, especially visual learners, English language learners, and others who might struggle with more traditional formats of nonfiction.
Many students are already big fans of graphic novels; they love reading stories told in both words and pictures, and so this format is familiar to and beloved by many tweens and teens. These graphic novel lovers may be more interested in and willing to try a nonfiction book if it’s in a format they already enjoy, so this is another way to guide students back to the nonfiction section. Students who love graphic novels set in space, for example, may enjoy graphic nonfiction texts about astronauts, while those who enjoy historical fiction might be excited to pick up Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series, and students who love realistic fiction could really get into many of the graphic memoirs available.
While graphic texts are an excellent way for tweens and teens to access nonfiction for pleasure reading, they are also a useful teaching tool. Graphic nonfiction not only uses visual storytelling and engaging writing to help students understand complex topics and take in information, but this medium can also be a good way to introduce difficult ideas or topics. Graphic nonfiction texts can help ease students into discussions and lessons on particularly challenging or distressing topics. Additionally, the use of graphic nonfiction in the classroom may serve as encouragement for students to pursue their personal interests in nonfiction as well.
So, where should you begin when it comes to graphic nonfiction? Well, I’ve created a list of some great graphic nonfiction texts full of interesting and engaging content, all of which would make great additions to many middle or high school library collections. (Note: I have chosen not to include some more well known graphic nonfiction, like Persepolis and the March Trilogy, because they are already quite popular, but please know that despite their absence from this list, they are great choices too!) So, here are some wonderful graphic nonfiction texts (all book descriptions are from the publishers):
Almost American Girl by Robin Ha (Gr. 7 & Up)-For as long as she can remember, it’s been Robin and her mom against the world. Growing up as the only child of a single mother in Seoul, Korea, wasn’t always easy, but it has bonded them fiercely together.
So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated.
Overnight, her life changes. She is dropped into a new school where she doesn’t understand the language and struggles to keep up. She is completely cut off from her friends in Seoul and has no access to her beloved comics. At home, she doesn’t fit in with her new stepfamily, and worst of all, she is furious with the one person she is closest to—her mother.
Then one day Robin’s mother enrolls her in a local comic drawing class, which opens the window to a future Robin could never have imagined.
This nonfiction graphic novel with four starred reviews is an excellent choice for teens and also accelerated tween readers, both for independent reading and units on immigration, memoirs, and the search for identity.
Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks (Gr. 5 & Up)-The U.S. may have put the first man on the moon, but it was the Soviet space program that made Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space. It took years to catch up, but soon NASA’s first female astronauts were racing past milestones of their own. The trail-blazing women of Group 9, NASA’s first mixed gender class, had the challenging task of convincing the powers that be that a woman’s place is in space, but they discovered that NASA had plenty to learn about how to make space travel possible for everyone.
Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s Journey to Justice by Debbie Levy and Whitney Gardner (Gr. 6 & Up)-Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a modern feminist icon—a leader in the fight for equal treatment of girls and women in society and the workplace. She blazed trails to the peaks of the male-centric worlds of education and law, where women had rarely risen before.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has often said that true and lasting change in society and law is accomplished slowly, one step at a time. This is how she has evolved, too. Step by step, the shy little girl became a child who questioned unfairness, who became a student who persisted despite obstacles, who became an advocate who resisted injustice, who became a judge who revered the rule of law, who became…RBG.
Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu (Gr. 8 & Up)-Throughout history and across the globe, one characteristic connects the daring women of Brazen: their indomitable spirit.
With her characteristic wit and dazzling drawings, celebrated graphic novelist Pénélope Bagieu profiles the lives of these feisty female role models, some world famous, some little known. From Nellie Bly to Mae Jemison or Josephine Baker to Naziq al-Abid, the stories in this comic biography are sure to inspire the next generation of rebel ladies.
Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War by Jessica Dee Humphreys, Michel Chikwanine, and Claudia Davila (Gr. 5 & Up)-Michel Chikwanine was five years old when he was abducted from his school-yard soccer game in the Democratic Republic of Congo and forced to become a soldier for a brutal rebel militia. Against the odds, Michel managed to escape and find his way back to his family, but he was never the same again. After immigrating to Canada, Michel was encouraged by a teacher to share what happened to him in order to raise awareness about child soldiers around the world, and this book is part of that effort.
Told in the first person and presented in a graphic novel format, the gripping story of Michel’s experience is moving and unsettling. But the humanity he exhibits in the telling, along with Claudia Dávila’s illustrations, which evoke rather than depict the violent elements of the story, makes the book accessible for this age group and, ultimately, reassuring and hopeful. The back matter contains further information, as well as suggestions for ways children can help. This is a perfect resource for engaging youngsters in social studies lessons on global awareness and social justice issues, and would easily spark classroom discussions about conflict, children’s rights and even bullying. Michel’s actions took enormous courage, but he makes clear that he was and still is an ordinary person, no different from his readers. He believes everyone can do something to make the world a better place, and so he shares what his father told him: “If you ever think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.”
Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang (Gr. 8 & Up)-Gene understands stories—comic book stories, in particular. Big action. Bigger thrills. And the hero always wins.
But Gene doesn’t get sports. As a kid, his friends called him “Stick” and every basketball game he played ended in pain. He lost interest in basketball long ago, but at the high school where he now teaches, it’s all anyone can talk about. The men’s varsity team, the Dragons, is having a phenomenal season that’s been decades in the making. Each victory brings them closer to their ultimate goal: the California State Championships.
Once Gene gets to know these young all-stars, he realizes that their story is just as thrilling as anything he’s seen on a comic book page. He knows he has to follow this epic to its end. What he doesn’t know yet is that this season is not only going to change the Dragons’s lives, but his own life as well.
The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix (Gr. 7 & Up)-Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party is gaining strength and becoming more menacing every day. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor upset by the complacency of the German church toward the suffering around it, forms a breakaway church to speak out against the established political and religious authorities. When the Nazis outlaw the church, he escapes as a fugitive. Struggling to reconcile his faith and the teachings of the Bible with the Nazi Party’s evil agenda, Bonhoeffer decides that Hitler must be stopped by any means possible!
In his signature style of interwoven handwritten text and art, John Hendrix tells the true story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to help free the German people from oppression during World War II.
The History of the World in Comics by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu and Adrienne Barman (Gr. 5 & Up)-A paleontologist and a storyteller take two children through the birth of our planet, the beginning of microbes, and through the heydays of protozoans, dinosaurs, and early mammals with unfailing enthusiasm.
The art accurately portrays animal species and prehistoric landscapes, includes maps and infographics, but also adds humorous touches: a google-eyed prehistoric fish looking startled to be walking on land and the children popping out of a tree top to surprise a Brachiosaurus.
The combined expertise of author Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu, a science writer and biologist, and illustrator Adriene Barman, the creator behind Creaturepedia and Plantopedia, makes for a science read you can trust.
Fans of Maris Wicks’s Human Body Theater and Nathan Hale will be pleased.
Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide by Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña (Gr. 7 & Up)-Graciela Iturbide was born in Mexico City in 1942, the oldest of 13 children. When tragedy struck Iturbide as a young mother, she turned to photography for solace and understanding. From then on Iturbide embarked on a photographic journey that has taken her throughout her native Mexico, from the Sonora Desert to Juchitán to Frida Kahlo’s bathroom, to the United States, India, and beyond. Photographic is a symbolic, poetic, and deeply personal graphic biography of this iconic photographer. Iturbide’s journey will excite readers of all ages as well as budding photographers, who will be inspired by her resolve, talent, and curiosity.
Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks (Gr. 6 & Up)-Jim Ottaviani returns with an action-packed account of the three greatest primatologists of the last century: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. These three ground-breaking researchers were all students of the great Louis Leakey, and each made profound contributions to primatology—and to our own understanding of ourselves.
Tackling Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas in turn, and covering the highlights of their respective careers, Primates is an accessible, entertaining, and informative look at the field of primatology and at the lives of three of the most remarkable women scientists of the twentieth century. Thanks to the charming and inviting illustrations by Maris Wicks, this is a nonfiction graphic novel with broad appeal.
A Quick & Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities by Mady G and J.R. Zuckerberg (Gr. 9 & Up)-In this quick and easy guide to queer and trans identities, cartoonists Mady G and JR Zuckerberg guide you through the basics of the LGBT+ world! Covering essential topics like sexuality, gender identity, coming out, and navigating relationships, this guide explains the spectrum of human experience through informative comics, interviews, worksheets, and imaginative examples. A great starting point for anyone curious about queer and trans life, and helpful for those already on their own journeys!
(Note: There are several more books in the ‘Quick & Easy Guide’ series that would also be great additions to graphic nonfiction collections: A Quick & Easy Guide to Asexuality, A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, A Quick & Easy Guide to Consent, and A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex & Disability)
Smash! Exploring the Mysteries of the Universe with the Large Hadron Collider by Sara Latta and Jeff Weigel (Gr. 7 & Up)-What is the universe made of? At CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, scientists have searched for answers to this question using the largest machine in the world: the Large Hadron Collider. It speeds up tiny particles, then smashes them together—and the collision gives researchers a look at the building blocks of the universe.
Nick and Sophie, two cousins, are about to visit CERN for a tour of the mysteries of the cosmos. Sophie’s a physics wiz. Nick, not so much. But by the time they’re through, Nick and Sophie will both feel the power of hidden particles, fundamental forces, dark matter, and more. It’s all a blast in this mind-blowing graphic novel!
Strange Fruit Volume 1: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History by Joel Christian Gill (Gr. 8 & Up)-Strange Fruit Volume I is a collection of stories from early African American history that represent the oddity of success in the face of great adversity. Each of the nine illustrated chapters chronicles an uncelebrated African American hero or event. From the adventures of lawman Bass Reeves, to Henry “Box” Brown’s daring escape from slavery.
The Stuff of Life : A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA by Mark Schultz, Zander Cannon, and Kevin Cannon (Gr. 10 & Up)-Let’s face it: From adenines to zygotes, from cytokinesis to parthenogenesis, even the basics of genetics can sound utterly alien. So who better than an alien to explain it all? Enter Bloort 183, a scientist from an asexual alien race threatened by disease, who’s been charged with researching the fundamentals of human DNA and evolution and laying it all out in clear, simple language so that even his slow-to-grasp-the-point leader can get it. In the hands of the award-winning writer Mark Schultz, Bloort’s predicament becomes the means of giving even the most science-phobic reader a complete introduction to the history and science of genetics that’s as easy to understand as it is entertaining to read.
Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown (Gr. 9 & Up)-It is, perhaps, the perfect video game. Simple yet addictive, Tetris delivers an irresistible, unending puzzle that has players hooked. Play it long enough and you’ll see those brightly colored geometric shapes everywhere. You’ll see them in your dreams.
Alexey Pajitnov had big ideas about games. In 1984, he created Tetris in his spare time while developing software for the Soviet government. Once Tetris emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, it was an instant hit. Nintendo, Atari, Sega—game developers big and small all wanted Tetris. A bidding war was sparked, followed by clandestine trips to Moscow, backroom deals, innumerable miscommunications, and outright theft.
In this graphic novel,New York Times–bestselling author Box Brown untangles this complex history and delves deep into the role games play in art, culture, and commerce. For the first time and in unparalleled detail, Tetris: The Games People Play tells the true story of the world’s most popular video game.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Gr. 7 & Up)-George Takei has captured hearts and minds worldwide with his captivating stage presence and outspoken commitment to equal rights. But long before he braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father’s — and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future.
In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.
They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.
What is American? Who gets to decide? When the world is against you, what can one person do? To answer these questions, George Takei joins co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker for the journey of a lifetime.
The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown (Gr. 8 & Up)-In the tradition of two-time Sibert honor winner Don Brown’s critically acclaimed, full-color nonfiction graphic novels The Great American Dust Bowl and Drowned City, The Unwanted is an important, timely, and eye-opening exploration of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, exposing the harsh realities of living in, and trying to escape, a war zone.
Starting in 2011, refugees flood out of war-torn Syria in Exodus-like proportions. The surprising flood of victims overwhelms neighboring countries, and chaos follows. Resentment in host nations heightens as disruption and the cost of aid grows. By 2017, many want to turn their backs on the victims. The refugees are the unwanted.
Don Brown depicts moments of both heartbreaking horror and hope in the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Shining a light on the stories of the survivors, The Unwanted is a testament to the courage and resilience of the refugees and a call to action for all those who read.
What Does Consent Really Mean? by Pete Wallis, Thalia Wallis, and Joseph Wilkins (Gr. 8 & Up)-While seemingly straightforward, Tia and Bryony hadn’t considered this subject too seriously until it comes up in conversation with their friends and they realize just how important it is.
Following the sexual assault of a classmate, a group of teenage girls find themselves discussing the term consent, what it actually means for them in their current relationships, and how they act and make decisions with peer influence. Joined by their male friends who offer another perspective, this rich graphic novel uncovers the need for more informed conversations with young people around consent and healthy relationships. Accompanying the graphics are sexual health resources for students and teachers, which make this a perfect tool for broaching the subject with teens.
I hope this list has given you some ideas for adding graphic nonfiction to your collection. If you have a favorite graphic nonfiction text that wasn’t included, please share in the comments!
Meet Our Guest Blogger
Alison is the Middle and Upper School Librarian at an independent school in New York City. She has worked in school libraries for 8 years, with students from ages 3-18. She loves reading and learning, and helping students find the perfect book. When she’s not in the library, she enjoys baking, traveling, and spending time with her two cats, Molly and Minerva. You can find more of Alison’s musings about books and libraries on her website msginthelibrary.com, on Twitter @msginthelibrary, or on Instagram @msginthelibrary.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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