Graphic novels have garnered a great deal of popularity and respectability since I was young, except for Herge’s Tintin books — but be that as it may, these had European credibility! Back then, the genre was better associated with its cousin, the comic book, than with other children’s books. Of course, comic books were far from respectable in a literary sense; even the brilliant and complex 1980s and ’90s work of Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, and Alan Moore (which aren’t children-friendly in any sense) had to overcome a discriminatory hurdle before being taken seriously by mainstream media.
Today, major publishers have embraced full graphic-novel (and even comic-book!) divisions, producing excellent work for both kids and adults, focused on nearly every genre and field. To my delight, there are even nonfiction graphic novels, whose leading practitioner is none other than Matt Phelan. His latest book, Around the World, tells the story of three amazing, adventurous, and 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 kinds of stories that have long occupied nonfiction children’s books. I remember reading about Bly’s race against time as a child—which makes it all the more remarkable that Phelan has shed light on the relatively undiscovered work of Stevens and Slocum, neither of whose names were the least bit familiar to me until now. . All three stories are remarkable, the kind that feels 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 narration of the three journeys moves 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 ardently my seven-year-old reads it. Find more intriguing reads on our blog!
Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press
From You Know, For Kids
POSTED IN: KID CANON · TAGGED: AROUND THE WORLD, GRAPHIC NOVELS, KIDS HISTORY BOOKS, NEW BOOKS