Graphic Novels About History

By Nanette McGuinness

Graphic novels are a fabulous genre for exploring history: when skillfully done, they can bring history to life on every page for even the most reluctant reader or the most historophobic. Rather than focus on one specific historical topic, though, I’ve chosen three graphic novels that address the arc of history in different ways, to showcase the genre’s versatility. The volumes below are just three possibilities, however; the field of historical graphic novels in translation for young readers is a wide, deep Amazon River of excellent content.

Persepolis 1: The Story of a Childhood

Written and illustrated by Marjane Satrapi
Translated by Mattias Ripa (Satrapi’s husband)
Translated from French [France]
Published by Pantheon Books

A pathbreaking graphic novel set in the mid-1970s-early 1980s, Persepolis 1 offers a deeply personal look at the Iranian Revolution. An autobiographical history for YA readers narrated through the eyes of its young protagonist, the GN depicts life in Iran when the Shah was overthrown and Islamic fundamentalists took control of the government. Satrapi uses a stark black-and-white palette to show readers how the lives of Marji and her modern, upper-middle-class, well-educated family changed for the worse under the repressive new regime, with individual freedoms eroded and women’s rights curtailed. 

Both volumes of Persepolis are gripping, engaging, and very relevant today on any number of levels, as they recount an important part of recent world history the effects of which are still playing out across the Middle East. They also deal with the ongoing struggle of women worldwide against the loss of personal rights. The two volumes—you should really read both—and their author have won numerous awards and accolades, despite a number of attempts to ban the books from schools over the past decade; a film adaptation was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Irena Book One: Wartime Ghetto

Written by Jean David-Morvan and Séverine Tréfouël
Illustrated by David Evrard and colored by Walter
Translated from French [France]
Translated by Dan Christensen
Published by Magnetic Press
Trailer: https://vimeo.com/332843450

The first volume in a moving trilogy for YA readers, Irena: Wartime Ghetto teaches about the Holocaust via a fictionalization of the true story of Polish social worker Irena Sendlerowa. Often called the female Schindler, Sendlerowa (aka Sendler) saved some 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto a few at a time and then hiding their names in a glass jar that she buried in the garden. After the war, she located as many as she could, trying to reunite them with their parents whenever possible—although, sadly, most had been killed by the Nazis.

Beautifully drawn in muted hues with frequent splashes of color, the three volumes pull no punches and include scenes of Sendlerowa tortured by the Gestapo to force her to disclose her contacts in the Resistance.

The Holocaust continues to be relevant today. It is a major part of 20th century history that we must not let be swept under the rug as the last survivors die of old age. In addition, seeing the heroism of a regular, nonpolitical person such as Sendlerowa, brings home to young readers how important individual action can be, even during the sweep of larger events. Much as is the case with Persepolis, it’s worth reading all the volumes.

Magical History Tour: The Plague

Written by Fabrice Erre
Illustrated by Sylvain Savoia
Translated by Nanette McGuinness (& vols. 5, and from vol 7 on in the series)
Translated from French [France]
Published by Papercutz

Unlike my previous two recommendations, which are both the first in a duo or trilogy that tell one larger story, Magical History Tour: The Plague is a stand-alone volume from an ongoing series about interesting topics in history. Written for MG readers, the graphic novels cover subjects ranging from the pyramids to the Titanic, the Vikings to Gandhi, and slavery to the moon landing. The fifth of nine volumes published through July 2022, with more in the offing, Magical History Tour: The Plague follows modern-day kids Annie and Nico as they travel through time to learn about the history of pandemics and specifically, the fearsome Bubonic plague. Obviously relevant, MHT: The Plague moves quickly and is filled with well-researched scientific and historical facts, along with thumbnail bios and a timeline of events.  The entire series makes for an enjoyable, educational read.

It is said that those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it and, further, that Americans know very little about the subject. With graphic novels such as the ones above, there’s hope for us all!

Meet Nanette McGuinness

Award-winning opera singer and literary translator Nanette McGuinness loves both music and  translating. She has performed 25 roles and in concert in 12 languages on two continents and has translated over 80 French, Italian, German and Spanish graphic novels and books for children and adults into English. When she was little she wanted to be a doctor and then a scientist before eventually succumbing to the twin lures of music and translation.  You can check out Nanette’s translations here.

Read more articles by and about Nanette at World Kid Lit: