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Teaching History with Graphic Novels

Authored By: 
Ian Rusten, History Teacher

Graphic novels are a powerful and often underused learning tool. As a history teacher at a small independent school, I recognize that every student learns in different ways.  Many students are visual learners for whom a picture is worth a thousand words, making the use of graphic novels in the classroom highly effective.  There are several wonderful historical graphic novels that can effectively engage students in historical studies.

Graphic Novels for High School

They Called Us Enemy is a graphic memoir in which the Japanese-American actor George Takei (best known for his role of Sulu on the original Star Trek) recalls his turbulent childhood at an American detention camp during World War II. The book is especially relevant today as we grapple with difficult questions about immigration and the rights of minorities in our current political climate.

The March Trilogy is a graphic novel by U.S. Congressman John Lewis (with help from Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell) about his experiences as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Through the eyes of Lewis, we experience notable events such as the Freedom Rides and March on Washington that shaped modern America.

Persepolis is a black-and-white graphic novel in which author Marjane Satrapi recalls the story of her childhood in Iran in the 1970s and 1980s.  During this turbulent time, the author witnessed the overthrow of the Shah and beginnings of the Islamic Revolution, and experienced firsthand the devastating results of Iran’s long war with Iraq. 

Maus is a graphic novel by American illustrator Art Spiegelman that recounts his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. Rather than portraying the characters in a realistic manner, Spiegelman chose to depict Germans as cats, Jews as mice, and Poles as pigs in the novel. The book has proved to be an extremely effective way of introducing students to the Holocaust as a subject of study.  

I recommend all these graphic novels for high schoolers as an innovative and entertaining way of making history come alive and exciting debate about controversial subjects of importance.