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A visual life

Whether you are teaching history, English, or nonfiction writing, biographies and memoirs can be great tools. They can create a personal connection to and a deeper understanding of a period in history, or illustrate specific types of writing techniques, or showcase a person’s unique perspective.

Unfortunately, some students think these books are dry or unappealing. A nice alternative to traditional works in this genre is to incorporate graphic novel biographies and autobiographies or memoirs into your classroom library or even your curriculum. They can convey details that may be omitted from other books and will appeal to visual learners and art fans. Best of all, the number of these graphic novels has been proliferating rapidly in the past several years, so there are some excellent options available. Here are some graphic novel biographies and autobiographies that work well with high school students.


Andre the GiantAndre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown
Both fans of professional wrestling and fans of The Princess Bride will be eager to read this biography of Andre the Giant. The book follows Andre’s life from his childhood in France to his death and will give readers an insight into the way that his medical condition impacted every aspect of his life. The book doesn’t shy away from any aspect of his life and as such it will leave readers with a much greater understanding of this famous figure.

The BoxerThe Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft by Reinhard Kleist
Sent from his home in Poland to Auschwitz as a teen, Harry Haft managed to survive against all odds and later made a name for himself as a boxer in the United States. This book traces his life from his time in Poland until his later life. The black and white images and the way that the book never shies away from the horrors of the concentration camp will make this a powerful complement to World War II history lessons. It also offers an interesting look at post-war life, first in Europe and then in the United States. The book includes a historical note at the end that includes pictures of Haft and offers more details about this period.

FeynmanFeynman by Jim Ottaviani with art by Leland Myrick
Richard Feynman is a fascinating figure in the history of science. He is best known as a Nobel prize winning physicist, but he was also a practical joker and man who was curious and adventurous in all aspects of his life. Ottaviani even tackles some of the most important physics topics that Feynman taught as a professor making this a wonderful option for students in whom you hope to inspire a love of science. If you find that you like this book, Ottaviani has also written other graphic novel biographies, including Primates, a biography of three leading female primatologists.

ShackletonShackleton: Antarctic Odyssey by Nick Bertozzi
The early 1900s was a time for exploration and few pushed at limits more than Ernest Shackleton, who was consumed with the quest to make it to the South Pole. In this graphic novel, Bertozzi captures Shackleton’s drive but also the conditions that he and his crew encountered in Antarctica over the course of several expeditions. With vivid illustrations of both the expeditions and Shackleton’s life between expeditions, this book will bring the period alive for students.


RelishRelish: My Life In The Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
This memoir focuses on the role that food and cooking plays in Lucy Knisley’s life while also describing her life as an artist. In fact, each chapter includes a pictorial recipe that brings the cooking process of some of her favorite foods to life for the reader. This book will appeal to both artists and cooks and offers an excellent example of how to write about one’s own life from childhood to present day.

How to Understand Israel In 60 Days or LessHow to Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less by Sarah Glidden
Presented with the option to take a free birthright trip to Israel, Sarah Glidden found that it was too good of an opportunity to pass up even though she was not terribly religious and had her doubts about the politics of Israel. This books tracks her physical and emotional journey on this trip as she learns more about the history of Israel, sees the sights, and wonders about her previous assumptions. Not surprisingly, there are no simple answers here, but the book provides an interesting picture of one woman’s experience in Israel.

Pyongyang: A Journey in North KoreaPyongyang: A Journey to North Korea by Guy Delisle
North Korea is a little known entity. More isolated than any other country, few ever travel there and those who do are carefully monitored, making it hard for most people to develop an understanding of life there. Guy Delisle is one of a limited number of Westerners who has worked in Pyongyang, and in this graphic novel he brings his time as an animator in North Korea to vivid life. The book will change readers’ perceptions of the country and add further context to their understanding of the Korean War and modern day international politics.

Carli Spina About Carli Spina

Carli Spina is a librarian who is currently pursuing a masters in technology, innovation, and education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She can be found on Twitter at @CarliSpina.

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