This year has provided an embarrassment of riches when it comes to books for schools and school libraries, so, please, let me see if I can help with any decisions you may now be facing. If you're a teacher and/or librarian the following would be sound additions to any wish lists you’re developing, or they may suggest ways to spend gift cards or other windfalls. That’s because whether they end up in classroom libraries or new-book displays, these are releases that should appeal to you and your students alike.
Note, however, that this isn't really a "year's best"—although many of these titles appear on such lists—largely because I'm not approaching it as either a critic or an educator but somewhere in between. The criteria, loose as they are, are simply that these books work for a range of readers and reading abilities, support multiple curricular objectives, and are equally engaging for fans and non-fans of the medium.
|The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme
Written and illustrated by: Joe Sacco
Publisher: WW Norton
Both straightforward and incredibly rich, Sacco's depiction of a single battle unfolds (literally) in a way that truly gives a sense of war's scope and impact. While the connections to History are obvious, it's the open-ended nature of the design that can both sharpen critical thinking skills and spark creativity (students can write or improvise their own narration to accompany the wordless "panels"): how does one navigate the pages? is sequence always left-to-right when images are involved? what's the difference between a comic, a book… and a painting?
|Boxers & Saints
Written and illustrated by: Gene Luen Yang
Publisher: First Second
Price: (Boxers) $18.99; (Saints) $15.99; (Boxers & Saints) $34.99
ISBN: (Boxers) 978-1-59643-359-5; (Saints) 978-1-59643-689-3; (Boxers & Saints) 978-1-59643-924-5
As a compelling and authentic work of literature, there are any number of ways to incorporate this two-volume epic into curriculum; the dazzling interplay between myth, legend, and history is probably a good place to start. And a fairly obvious strategy for bringing nonfiction more fully into the discussion would be to have students research the context (e.g., China at the turn of the twentieth century) prior to reading; a more ambitious intertextual approach that leverages the numerous inherent possibilities for compare/contrast analysis would be to alternate the reading—after every 50 or so pages in Saints, have students pause and read 80-100 pages in Boxers. In short, the stunning creativity on display here may inspire your own.
|Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story
Written and illustrated by: Peter Bagge
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
This extremely efficient biography of Sanger (it clocks in at 72 pages) manages to entertain, provoke, and inform—and pretty much all at the same time. Like Boxers & Saints, it relates a specific historical period but will resonate with readers who see, or can be guided to see, echoes of the past in current events and trends. Complemented by page-by-page end notes that are both extensive and rigorous, this is a text that might just revitalize interest in biography for some. Yes, it is sexually frank in places—it arguably must be—but it's never salacious or exploitative.
|The Secret History of Marvel Comics
Written by: Blake Bell and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
Not a graphic novel, obviously, but as the title implies an account of the shadowy, pulpy years during which Marvel's output was about as far from Disney fare as one can imagine. A fascinating read and a must-own for public and academic libraries, this scholarly volume might also be used selectively at secondary as an insightful media literacy text. The entry point would be student interest in the Marvel Universe, though ultimately that would serve as a springboard for exploring important aspects of cultural history generally. Stories of creators and their relationships with publishers have become a hot topic in recent years, and this book may very well be a landmark in that conversation.
|My Neighbor Totoro Picture Book
(Adapted from Hayao Miyazaki's screenplay)
Publisher: Viz Media
Granted, this is also not a graphic narrative, but rather a gorgeous film still-illustrated adaptation similar to the sort of striking books VIZ has produced in the past. But does that mean that it's reductive or merely for "struggling" readers? Hardly. Instead, at 100+ pages and featuring as many as ten discrete images per spread, it's exceedingly robust for a "picture book." And older readers who fell in love with the movie years ago can use their familiarity with the story to explore form instead of content (e.g., by considering formal distinctions between comics, picture books, and film).
|Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice
Written by: Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand
Illustrated by: Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam
If this magnificent combination of biography and social justice history somehow evaded your radar, please correct that immediately. Mixing India's Parand Gond-style art with graphic elements such as word balloons, this highly literate and intellectually vibrant book is a natural fit for both libraries and classrooms.
|Dogs of War
Written by: Sheila Keenan
Illustrated by: Nathan Fox
Justly celebrated as a highlight of 2013—it’s kid-friendly, smart, and dense with "information"—Dogs of War proves that "good comics for schools" need not be didactic, sterilized with text levelling, or self-consciously pander to either educators or students. They just require strong writing and exceptional visual storytelling, both of which are evident here.
|The Shadow Out of Time
(Adapted from H.P. Lovecraft)
Written and illustrated by: I.N.J. Culbard
(Adapted from Franz Kafka)
Written by: David Zane Mairowitz
Illustrated by: Jaromír 99
The knock on Lovecraft has long been the impenetrability of his prose, but with this wonderfully lucid adaptation, Culbard distills the author's big ideas to the point where they can be easily added to a unit on the literature of the fantastic. And while clearly a work of lit for adults, Kafka's The Castle is expertly adapted here, with all of its ominous moodiness fully intact.
|March, Book One
Written by: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Illustrated by: Nate Powell
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
I need to start with full disclosure: I developed the Teaching Guide for this bestselling graphic memoir, but even had I not, this would be a title I'd keep pushing at those still somehow unfamiliar with it. Graphic nonfiction has long relied on personal narratives, but rarely have they allied with our shared history, and sheer artistry, so effectively.
Peter Gutierrez is an author, consultant, and an NCTE Spokesperson on comics and graphic novels. His latest book, The Power of Scriptwriting!, is now available from Teachers College Press.