Graphic novels have gained a great deal of respectability since I was a kid. With the possible exception of Herge’s Tintin books—and those had European cred!—back then, the genre was linked more with its cousin, the comic book, than with other children’s books. And comic books were distinctly not respectable in a literary sense: Even the brilliant, complex 1980s and ’90s work of Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, and Alan Moore (most of which is by no means for children, I hasten to say) had a bit of a discriminatory hurdle to get over before being taken seriously by the mainstream.
Today, major publishers have full graphic-novel (and even comic-book!) divisions, turning out excellent work for both kids and adults that covers nearly every genre and field. To my delight, there are even nonfiction graphic novels, whose leading practitioner would now have to be Matt Phelan. His latest book, Around the World, tells the story of three amazing, adventurous, and absolutely real 19th-century solo global circumnavigations: Thomas Stevens‘s 1884 journey via large-wheel bicycle, Nellie Bly‘s 1889 newspaper-sponsored race to surpass Jules Verne’s fictional 80-day achievement, and Joshua Slocum‘s 1895 small-boat trip.
These are the sorts of stories that have long turned up in nonfiction children’s books, and I remember reading about Bly’s race against time in one myself as a child—which makes it all the more remarkable that Phelan has turned up the relatively undiscovered of Stevens and Slocum, neither of whose names were the least bit familiar to me. All three stories are remarkable, the kind that feel incredibly improbable for their time (especially Slocum’s, which seems downright impossible).
And as he proved in the historical-fiction work The Storm in the Barn, Phelan knows what to do with a good story. His accounts of the three journeys move from panel to panel like a well-edited film, and he has the ability able to capture and denote his protagonists’ characteristics with a lightly illustrated expression, much as a great film actor can express an emotion in a glance.
The author is also thoughtful enough to move past the actions of the three adventurers to the question of why each is pursuing his or her goal—a question that goes a long way to establishing character and, not coincidentally, to making Phelan’s book a lot more interesting than most children’s nonfiction, including the similarly themed books I read as a kid. Maybe it’s redundant to call a graphic novel a page-turner, but that’s the term that comes to mind when I think about how eagerly my seven-year-old reads it.
Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press
From You Know, For Kids