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Six New Graphic Novels That Teach Historical Events

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Welcome to Top Grade: CanLit for the Classroom, a blog and preview video series that features new releases from Canadian book publishers ideal for use in K-12 classrooms and school library collections. Throughout the year, we will dive into new titles, highlighting relevant curriculum links and themes.

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Written by secondary school teacher Spencer Miller

During my first year of teaching, I stepped in part-way through the semester into the room of a lively bunch of ninth graders. Overwhelmed and not sure where to start, I brought out a favourite graphic novel and projected it on the screen. It caught my students’ attention and ever since graphic novels have been a beloved teaching tool in my classroom.

Graphic novels are awesome for the way they build visual literacy skills, engaging more of our brains to connect images and words. Visual supports can aid struggling readers, English language learners, and students with some learning disabilities. Reading graphic novels brings excitement into the room and engages even my most reluctant readers.

One popular subject for writers and illustrators to explore has always been history! These days, there seems to be a graphic novel for almost any topic in social studies class. Thoroughly researched and full of detail, historical graphic novels make important stories come to life. Teaching history in a narrative form hooks student interest and makes it easier for them to make connections to significant historical events.

Writers and illustrators of historical stories are particularly skilled at introducing challenging topics with thoughtfulness and understanding. Where you might not typically have time to devote weeks of time to a traditional novel study, reading a graphic novel only takes a few classes, allowing you to bring more books and more diverse voices into the room.

Here is a selection of brand new graphic novels from 2021 that explore a wide range of historical topics!

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Highlighting the role that a group of dogs played in the research process, Fred & Marjorie: A Doctor, A Dog, And The Discovery of Insulin tells the story of one of the most significant medical breakthroughs of all time that happened right here in Canada. In the fall of 1920, Frederick Banting and his research team set out to find a treatment for type 1 diabetes. Their test subjects were street dogs—a fact that was difficult for Banting who had a special love for animals. One dog, named Marjorie, would later be called by some “the most important dog in the world” for helping Banting’s team develop a process that would save the lives of millions of children worldwide.

In Class: An author’s note at the end of the book provides more historical context and addresses the ethical dilemma of using animals for medical research. This book is a great way to introduce younger students to important medical history and conversations about ethics in science. Encourage your students to learn more about the kind of medical research being done by scientists and doctors today.

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Stealing Home is a fictional story that offers a historically accurate account of the events surrounding the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Sandy Saito lives in Vancouver with his family is obsessed with the local baseball team, The Asahi. But when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, his life changes forever. His friends at school start to call him a “spy” and chase him away. His family is prohibited from entering certain parts of the city. Soon, Sandy’s family is separated from their father and taken to live in a remote prison camp. Using the approachable format of a graphic novel, this grave history is gently told with sensitivity and insight, and the theme of baseball runs through the story as a message of hope and renewal.

In Class: Along with its links to social studies and history lessons, this book offers a perfect lead-in to discussions about differences, inclusion and empathy, and why this history is relevant today. The book’s afterword offers more historical details and links to related learning resources from the National Film Board including the film Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story and the video game East of The Rockies.

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Dusty Dreams & Troubled Waters explores the Battle of the Atlantic from a young prairie boy's perspective. The story follows young Wally as he leaves the family farm on the prairies to pursue a daring career in the navy—leaving love interest Winnie behind. This striking graphic novel is a high-stakes adventure, a love story, and an important historical lesson. It features meticulously detailed black and white drawings, an illustrated diagram of Sackville, information on wartime propaganda, a glossary, and an illustrated map.

In Class: Veterans Affairs Canada offers two learning activities designed to educate youth about the history and personal experiences of Canadian Veterans who fought in The Battle of the Atlantic. Lesson plans for Exploring the Battle of the Atlantic and Remembering Canadian Merchant Seamen Lost at Sea are available online.

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A Girl Called Echo is a four-part story about Echo, a 13-year-old Métis girl adjusting to a new home and school and struggling with loneliness due to a recent separation from her mother. During the middle of class on Métis history, Echo finds herself transported through time and place to a bison hunt on the Saskatchewan prairie. Throughout the rest of the series, Echo continues to slip back and forth in time while visiting important moments in Métis history such as the Pemmican Wars and the Red River Resistance. These travels to the past help Echo discover parts of her ancestry and culture allowing her to feel more connected and confident in the present.

In Class: These books are rooted in history, at the end of each volume is a timeline of events. Take a field trip online and visit the Virtual Museum of Métis History and Culture! Here Students can learn more about Métis history and culture online. The museum also provides teachers a collection of learning resources including a collection of lesson plans.

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This graphic novel was adapted from the acclaimed stop-motion animated film of the same name. Four Faces of the Moon brings the history of the Michif, Cree, Nakoda, and Anishinaabe Peoples alive on the page. This history is told through the personal and familial journey of Spotted Fawn as she travels through time and space to reclaim a connection to ancestors, language, and the land. Spotted Fawn must travel through her own family history to confront the harsh realities of the past.

In Class: There is a complexity to Strong’s storytelling that requires close reading and careful interpretation. Included after the story, backmatter by Dr. Sherry Farrell Racette provides additional insight and information on Michif culture and history. I would highly recommend studying this book in tandem with the animated film, available from the CBC on YouTube.

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A new and expanded version of The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book powerfully portrays flashpoints in history when Indigenous Peoples have risen up and fought back against colonizers and other oppressors. Many historical events are depicted including the Spanish conquest of the Aztec, Mayan, and Inca empires, the Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico and the Battle of Wounded Knee. More recent events covered include the Idle No More protests and resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Canadian events depicted include the Oka crisis, the Grand River land dispute between Six Nations and the Government of Canada, and the Wet'suwet'en anti-pipeline protests in 2020. With strong, plain language and evocative illustrations, these histories reveal the tenacity and perseverance of Indigenous Peoples.

In Class: The book includes a foreword by Pamela Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer, professor, and political commentator, that will prompt important classroom discussion. An interview with author Gord Hill from The Word on The Street Toronto provides excellent insight into the research process behind the book and the decisions Hill made while updating and expanding his celebrated book.

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Check back for a new blog post each month along with preview videos throughout the year for more recommendations for your classroom library and beyond!

We would like to thank our partner 49th Teachers and our funder Ontario Creates for their support of the Top Grade project.

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Spencer Miller graduated from the University of Calgary with degrees in English and Education. He participated in various projects examining the potential of children’s literature in the classroom as an undergraduate researcher. He is currently a secondary school teacher in Montréal/Tiohtià:ke. You can follow more of Spencer’s passion for books on Instagram @YACanadaBooks.

December 15, 2021
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