Five Reasons I Use Graphic Novels to Teach History

Lovers of history know that there are innumerable ways to experience the past.  To this end, our history classes at Sewickley Academy engage students in literature, film, speakers, art, music, field trips, and travel to support our curriculum.  One of my personal favorite styles of literature, which I find myself leaning into more and more, is the graphic novel.  While many are familiar with Art Spiegelman’s Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleed’s History, which tells the story of his father’s experience in Nazi-occupied Poland, there are many more stories like it that communicate strong voices of past generations. Here are five reasons why I find myself using these powerful books in my courses.

1.  Historic Content

A graphic novel would not be worth teaching in a history course if it didn’t have content merit and provoke discussion of historic themes.  All of the books I list here in this post connect to the courses in which they are positioned and support the content of those courses.  For example, in my Modern Middle East elective, I have used the graphic novel Persepolis, a memoir by Marjane Satrapi, which provides historic background to the Islamic Revolution in Iran. This short book, which can be read in only two nights, provides the foundation of historic understanding through a personal narrative, to better understand the many nuances of Iranian society at the time. In class, this framing also allows us to then go beyond the literature and discuss additional historic details absent from the book, to contextualize events.   As developments have unfolded in the Middle East, I am looking to try a new book about Iran, one that focuses on more modern challenges the country is facing.  Next year, we will read  Zahara’s Paradise by Amir and Khalil, which is a fictional story weaving together real events around Iran’s political upheaval in the summer of 2009.

Graphic Novels

Marzi by Marzawa Sowa and Zahara’s Paradise by Amir and Khalil

2. Reading Skills

While it may seem counter-intuitive to credit graphic novels for reading improvement, the research says otherwise (and here).  It also supports all the reading strategies that effective readers use, such as: inferencing, visualization of the text, self-monitoring, and prediction.  While many effective readers do this naturally, for most it takes practice.  The graphic novel does not “do the work” for them, as I have heard some critics say.  Rather, it enhances the narrative while simultaneously adding a whole other layer of nuance.  Students are left to make inferences from the text but, while they may have glossed over small details without a sketch, now they are drawn (pun intended) to look more closely at the subtleties of the language.  In my Creative Resistance course, we used the book Rise: the Story of the Egyptian Revolution as told Shortly Before it Started by Tarek Shahin.  In this book (a compilation of Doonesbury-style comic strips printed in the Egypt Daily news prior to the Revolution in January 2012), he demonstrates the complexity of Egyptian society through both the text and the images.  The close reading that students do to better understand the images helps them to better predict what is to come and self-monitor their own understanding. Reading carefully enough, the reader will see that Shahin’s Al-Khan comic strip had predicted the revolution nine months before it began.

Rise, by Tarek Shahin

Rise, by Tarek Shahin

Tarek Shain, author of Rise,  spoke with my class via facetime in May 2015.

Tarek Shain, author of Rise, spoke with my class via facetime in May 2015.

3. Empathy

2013 Emory University study found that reading novels develops empathy.  This study used historic fiction, specifically Pompeii by Robert Harris.  And while graphic novels were not specifically tested, it makes anecdotal sense to me that the benefits of perspective and empathy would translate to historic graphic novels.  One, in particular, I would see this applying to is the first Japanese manga translated into English, Barefoot Gen, Vol.1: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima by Keiji Nakazawa, which I use in my Modern East Asia course. This book is the memoir of Keiji, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima and tells the story from his point of view.  Understanding this event from the Japanese perspective is a unique opportunity and reading a comic book about the atomic bombing is off-putting, at best.  However, Keiji is honest and respectful to his own history while offering a sense of forgiveness and reconciliation because, in the end, the child in him still yearns for peace.  The pictures communicate this when his words cannot and the reader empathizes with Keiji as this young boy struggles to make sense of his crumbling world.

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

4. Time 

in a trimester elective (or a year-long course, for that matter), there is only so much content that can be fit. I find that adding a graphic novel actually allows me to teach more content, rather than less because it can cover so much, in so few pages. In only a two or three nights, students read stories about the modern history of Iran (Persepolis), Egypt (Rise), or Japan (Barefoot Gen), while we discuss the context and additional historic events to enhance the topics framed in the book.  In the end, I almost always find that the students have learned more in those few days from a combination of direct classroom instruction plus the graphic novel than by reading a packet or textbook passage about the region.

5. Engagement

Ultimately, I find that students are engaged and connected to the characters in graphic novels.  That alone draws them in and, as the characters unveil their story, the students maintain their engagement and learn more about the topic.  I usually see them making connections to other units we have studied up to that point, and often hear them reference the graphic novel during the units that follow.  In the fall, I will co-teach a course on Russia and the former Soviet Republics.  We have decided to use excerpts from the graphic novel Marzi by Marzena Sowa to open discussions for many of the classes.  In this autobiography about Marzena’s life in communist Poland, we catch glimpses of life that would otherwise be difficult to describe as routine.  In only a few frames a day, Marzi will join our class and share her life, to literarily frame discussions about what life under communism was like.

If you are interested in trying history through graphic novels, take a look at the Goodreads list “History through Graphic Novels.” If you have already discovered graphic novels, especially historic ones, and have favorites or suggestions, please share in the comments below.