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Seminar on Lit for Youth: Graphic Nonfiction

Watch the video, then read the page. 

From picture books to graphic biographies, visual representations in works of nonfiction are playing increasing roles in works of nonfiction for youth.

Over the past several years "graphic nonfiction" have become a popular term. Like graphic novels, graphic nonfiction takes a sequential art approach to information presentation. Whether sharing the story of a person's life or tracing the history of a scientific discovery, graphic nonfiction uses visuals to help tell a true story.

el deafoBook Spotlight

EL DEAFO by Cece Bell is a powerful graphic memoir focusing on the frustration of growing up with a hearing impairment. While Cece’s story highlights the embarrassment and loneliness of deafness experienced by many children, the universal themes of friendship and acceptance are at the core of this unforgettable story.

The author’s warm and honest approach to storytelling contribute to it’s appeal. Cece’s “listener for all” alter-ego El Deafo is wonderfully drawn in sequences placed in green bubbles to separate them from reality.

Besides the exceptional storyline, what makes EL DEAFO so magnificent is the graphic memoir format. Many students who might overlook the traditional autobiographical format will embrace the simple, well-drawn, visually-rich approach.

Librarians who grew up in the 60s-70s will enjoy her spot-on references to everything from Batman and John-Boy to Hostess Cherry Pies and sleep-overs. You may even be moved to sing Yellow Submarine.

Having experienced hearing loss as an adult due to an illness, I can empathize with Cece’s frustrations. Like Cece, my problem isn’t with volume, it’s clarity of sound. Her book does an outstanding job educating readers about how to interact with a person with hearing loss. These small informative details make this much more than your typical graphic memoir.

To learn more about Geisel honor book winner Cece Bell, go to her website at

Highly illustrated books like When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, & Pterosaurs Took Flight: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life in the Triassic by Hannah Bonner have also emerged the past few years. From National Geographic Kids, this book has a magazine feel with fun sidebars containing cartoons and facts.


The World Without Fish: How Kids Can Help Save the Oceans (2011) by Mark Kurlansky combines both text and a graphic-novel style to create a unique children's book.


The Research

What does the research say about the importance of visual elements in works of nonfiction for youth?

From graphic biography and graphic history to graphic science, works of nonfiction are increasingly being presented in a graphic-novel format using sequential art to assist readers in exploring a wide range of topics.

Read Snow, Marianne & Robbins, Margaret (Summer 2015). How should we remember the Alamo? Critical analyses of four graphic histories. Social Studies Research and Practice. IUPUI students can view the article online.

In her dissertation Graphics in children's informational texts: a content analysis, Lauren Fingeret (2012) identified 59 discrete types of graphics found in textbooks, leveled readers known as "little books", and trade books. She found that images and simple photographs were the most common. However she was able to identify eight broad categories that reflected all of the graphics represented. These include (Fingeret, 2012, 32)

In her review of the literature, Rebecca Norman (2005, 3) identified six functions of graphics in informational text including:

In Norman's study of second-graders, the books Animal Look-alikes (2005) by Griffiths and Clyne and Recycling Adds Up (2008) by Zollman were used to examine how youth process graphic elements in informational text. Norman (2010, 34) found that

"in a group of second graders reading end-of-second-grade-level informational texts, the graphics prompt at least 17 comprehension processes (literal description, label, inferential description, prediction, infer author’s purpose, confirm-disconfirm text; connection-to-self; irrelevant connection; connection- to-prior knowledge; wonder; knowledge monitoring; affective response; compare- contrast graphics; evaluate; use of running text; use of captions, labels, map key, etc.; and word identification)."

alikeadd up

Read Norman, Rebecca R. (2010). Picture this: processes prompted by graphics in informational text. Literacy Teaching and Learning, 14(1/2), 1-39. IUPUI students can view the article online.

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Thinking about Norman's eight graphic categories or the six functions of graphics designed in Norman's study, conduct your own study in a specific area of the nonfiction collection. For instance, you might examine books about the American Civil War or space travel.

Design your own mini-study. For instance, you might compare a set of random books from two different areas of the collection. How are the graphics found in these two content areas alike and different? How do they compare to Fingeret's findings? How might this information be useful in collection development or readers' advisory?

Graphics in Nonfiction

Graphics have always played an important role in children's books. However, their role in nonfiction really took hold in the 1970s.


Illustrators like David Macaulay brought quality illustrations to nonfiction children's books in the 1970s with books like Cathedral (1973) (above left), City (1974), Pyramid (1975), and Castle (1977). His work The Way Things Work (above middle) published in 1988 became a best seller and spawning The Way We Work (2008) (above right). His works have won numerous awards including the Caldecott Medal for illustration. Most libraries have worn out numerous copies of his popular books.

lincolnIn 1987, Russell Freedman introduced the term "photobiography." Although the term wasn't revolutionary, the approach set a new standard for youth nonfiction.

Rather than presenting history through the use of text-only or text with paintings or drawings that were intended to appeal to children, Freedman wove primary source materials and realistic drawings throughout Lincoln: A Photobiography. The book was awarded the prized Newbery Medal in 1988.

About this time, Dorling Kindersley (DK) emerged as a major publisher. Although the company was established in London in 1974, it wasn't until 1991 that they began published in the United States.

Their works of nonfiction stressed the use of realistic photographs against a white background. These works were extremely appealing to youth, particularly reluctant readers. Children who wouldn't consider themselves readers could be found immersed in the Star Wars (shown below) book or contemplating one of their Cross Sections books.


Their Eyewitness Books include over one hundred titles on a wide variety of subjects and have sold more than 50 million copies.


A popular approach for exploring history is the use of images that show how a place changes over time. For instance, A Street Through Time (2012) by Anne Millard was recently republished in a new edition. Through fourteen illustrations, the author tells the story of human history from 10,000 BCE to the present. The image below shows the street in the 1500s.


This tradition of incorporating high quality, realistic images continues today. For instance, FDR's Alphabet Soup: New Deal America, 1932-1939 (2010) (below left) by Tonya Bolden includes historical photographs as well as charts, diagrams, and fact lists. Recently, infographics have been introduced in nonfiction books for youth. Native Americans: A Visual Exploration (2013) (shown below right) by D. Paleja and Kevin Loring provides visual snapshots of first people from North American including maps, pictographs, charts, and timelines (shown below).



Increasingly, books are mixing paragraphs with sequential art at many reading levels. Designed for grades 8 and up, Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves & Other Female Villains (2013) by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple is a collective biography of 26 women. In addition to the short biographies, the book provides lists of books and links to websites that extend the experience.



Some works combine the sequential art of graphic novels along with photographs and other primary source materials.

omaha beachBook Spotlight

OMAHA BEACH ON D-DAY by Jean-David Morvan, Séverine Tréfouël, Robert, Capa, and others is an immersive visual history of a photojournalist’s experiences in World War II.

Taking a unique visual approach, readers experience World War II through the eyes of a reporter using drawings and then photographs to tell the story. The first half of this amazing book is presented as a graphic biography using a graphic-novel style approach to share the story surrounding the D-Day experience from the perspective of a reporter. The second half of the book presents the ten captioned photographs taken by Robert Capa on D-Day. The book concludes with an exploration of the career of Robert Capa who is known as one of the “fathers of photojournalism”.

While some students enjoy studying history, others hate it. This visually-rich history is an engaging way to personalize the war for readers. While some youth will be drawn to the military or photojournalism aspects, others will be attracted to the compelling story of one man’s experiences.

Librarians will find that this graphic biography appeals to tween and teen audiences who enjoy military themes, history, and photojournalism. It would be particularly useful for reluctant readers and students looking for non-traditional ways to explore world history.
This is the first book in a new series focusing on key moments in World War II history. This collection will be popular in both middle and high school libraries.

For those interested in the photography of Robert Capa, go to


Graphic Nonfiction and Reluctant Readers

Graphic nonfiction is particularly useful for reluctant readers.

A wide range of presentation styles can be found in graphic nonfiction. In some cases, the sequential art presented in single or multiple panels is woven with paragraphs of text (shown below).


The It Actually Happened graphic anthology series focuses on real-life thieves, spies, and other bad guys. Books in the series including Duped!, Scam!, Thieves!, and Robbers! Robbers!: True Stories of the World's Most Notorious Thieves (2012) by Andreas Schroeder are designed for readers ages 9 and up. Each graphic anthology tells thrilling stories of history's most daring criminal activities.

In Deadly!: The Truth About the Most Dangerous Creatures on Earth by Nicola Davies, readers learn about the deadly ways that animals kill. This work incorporates cartoon elements into the narrative.


When reading level is a concern, look for "high interest - low vocabulary" books. These are often found in series such as those by Capstone Press. This publisher uses a variety of approaches to graphics for youth. Calling it a "graphic novel style", they incorporate sequential components. These First Graphic books have reading levels from first to second grade and interest levels to third grade.

First Graphics: Body Systems (2013) is a series that includes five books that explore the body systems including the circulatory, digestive, muscular and skeletal, nervous, and respiratory. Images from A Tour of Your Digestive System by Molly Kolpin are shown below.


Capstone Press' Graphic Library contains many series with a reading level of grades 3-4 and an interest level from third to ninth grade.

Cartoon Nation is a series of books that explore key social studies concepts such as Citizenship, Democracy, Liberty, Political Parties, The FBI, and more. Liberty (2009) by Terry Lee Collins is an example from this series and is shown below.


Graphic Nonfiction Across Subject Areas

Graphic biographies, graphic histories, and graphic science are just a few of the types of graphic nonfiction for youth. The graphic-novel style was first applied to works of biography. However recently, this trend has moved to other subject areas.

Many works of graphic nonfiction cut across subject areas. For instance, Drowning City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown explores the devastation of the hurricane and flooding as well as the impact on the city and individual lives.

drowned citydrowned city

Multiple book graphic histories are able to explore individuals as well as key historic events. For instance, the March trilogy by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin explores the U.S. Civil Rights Movement through the perspective of civil rights leader John Lewis.

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Graphic Biography and Memoir

A growing number of graphic memoirs are being published. It's important to read the books yourself to ensure that they are appropriate for your library. Some graphic memoirs tell the story of young adults, but are intended for mature readers.

Probably the most famous work of graphic memoir is Maus: A Survivor's Tale Volume 1: My Father Bleeds History (shown below left and middle) by Art Spiegelman. This book is popular in high schools.


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Browse MetaMaus (shown above right) (2011) by Art Spiegelman. This book explores the originals of the award-winning graphic work Maus.

Jim Ottaviani has become known for his exploration of individuals and how they connect with history. The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded (2015) is an example.

Graphic memoir is particularly popular with young adults. Honor Girl (2015) by Maggie Thrash is an example.

In the memoir, To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel (2006) by Sienna Cherson Siegel tells the personal story about her passion for ballet. This is a wonderful example of a graphic memoir for middle grade students.


The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam (shown below left) by Ann Marie Fleming is an illustrated memoir. Based on a documentary, this work contains a wide variety of images from hand drawings to screen shots from videos. Examine a page from the book and notice how historical photos and other images are used. Also example a page with still images from the documentary.


Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (shown above center) by Guy Delisle is a non-fiction account of the author's travels in North Korea. Other travel memoir include Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, and Burma Chronicles (shown above right).

Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey (2015) by Özge Samanci is another example that explores cultural issues.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (see images below) by Marjane Satrapi. This two-part memoir describes the life of a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.


From hand drawings to photographs there are many ways visuals are used in graphic materials. Read The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders from First Second by Didier Lefevre & Frederic Lemercier & Emmanuuel Guibert (Doctors without Borders). This book explores the experiences with a photographer visiting the warzone with Doctors without Borders.


Young adults enjoy learning about revolutionaries. These people present different perspectives on the world. They can also lead to interesting discussions about specific time periods and people who sought to change the world. Che: A Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon is a great example.


Use the graphic biography to jumpstart an investigation. Explore the life of a person, place or thing within a specific context and also the greater context of a time period or event. For example, most middle school students are familiar with the Diary of Anne Frank. However, they may not know the story behind the famous diary. Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon tells the story of Anne and her family against the larger context of World War II. As you're reading the graphic biography, encourage students to watch the video and explore the house using the links below.


The Center for Cartoon Studies is known for supporting the works of graphic artists. One of their best works is Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow (2007) by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso. This book explores the life of baseball player Satchel Page.


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Go to Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow.
Explore each section of the website. It provides lots of background information about how the book was written as well as how it might be used in learning.

Laika (2007) by Nick Ababzis is a favorite among middle school students. The graphic biography tells the true story of the first dog in space. The book even concludes with a real-life statement of regret from Oleg Gazenko about the suffering and death of the dog.

How much of the book is true? What about individual episodes and the reactions of the individuals? Does it matter? These are all questions to discuss with youth when dealing with any biography. However, because of the visual nature of a graphic narrative the questions become even more pronounced.

Involve readers in thinking about the fact and fiction of any work they read. What are the possible bias and different points of view? The image below right shows the results of a student investigation.

lcoverdog laika

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Read Flowers, Mark (2013). Thoughts on Alex: My Friend Dahmer. School Library Journal. Available in SLJ.

Browse Laika. How much do you think is fact versus fiction in terms of the visual and text aspects of the book?

What are your thoughts on the fine line between fact and fiction? What are some of the specific problems facing the authors of nonfiction graphic narrative? Also, think about concerns about adult graphic nonfiction read by young adults.

Graphic Humanities and Social Sciences

From stories about art and music to explorations of world religions, many works of graphic nonfiction explore topics related to humanities and the social sciences.

Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio (2015) by Jessica Abel explores the world of radio broadcasting.

Whether studying world cultures or community workers, a growing number of graphic works are being offered to children.

A Day at the Fire Station (2010) by Lori Mortensen is an example of a graphic nonfiction for children. This book examines the everyday life of fire fighters. In addition to the narrative, the book includes a glossary, bibliography and websites.

fire coverfirehouse

For teens, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012) by Chris Hedges with illustrations by Joe Sacco is an outstanding look at America today through the eyes of a Pulitzer Prize winning author and cartoon journalist. Joe Sacco is known for his many award-winning graphic novels and graphic histories on hard hitting topics. The book mixed pages of text with graphic novel-style segments.


Graphic History

A new generation of authors is bringing history alive through the use of a graphic-novel style approach.

Associate graphic novels with primary sources documents for Common Core State Standards activities. Connect Lewis and Clark by Nick Bertozzi with the Lewis and Clark diaries. Begin with a copy of the United States Constitution, the read The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey explores the constitution in a visual way.


The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar and others takes readers back to the Beat movement that began in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar explores the tumultuous decade of the 1960s when young idealists sought to transform the world.


In the past few years, several books related to the Manhattan Project and the first atomic bomb have been written. Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm would be an excellent companion to a cluster of books on this topic.


Graphic STEM

Recently, graphic works in science, technology, engineering, and math have emerged. For instance, The Stuff of Life by Mark Schultz is a graphic guide to genetics and DNA. Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth by Jay Hosler focuses on evolution.


Capstone Press' Graphic Science series is an example. Titles like The Dynamic World of Chemical Reactions with Max Axiom, Exploring Ecosystems with Max Axiom, and Food Chains with Max Axiom mix science with fictionalized story elements. These books aimed at youth ages 8-14 would be a great companion to an explanatory text on each topic.


The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin is an important, but not necessarily engaging work of nonfiction. The graphic adaptation makes this classic work much more accessible. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation by Michael Keller conveys the key concepts from the original book in a visual way.


Larry Gonick is known for his graphic nonfiction on a whole range of science topics including Statistics, Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, Genetics, Environment and many more. He's also known for his histories such as Cartoon History of the Modern World.



human body theaterBook Spotlight

HUMAN BODY THEATER by Maris Wicks provides an amazing visual introduction to human anatomy.

Designed for middle school youth, this work of graphic nonfiction is organized into eleven acts using a theater theme. Hosted by a skeleton, the author takes readers through the body systems layer by layer. The author effectively balances visually-rich diagrams with accurate, scientific narratives to provide a level of depth appropriate for the audience.
Tweens and teens working on science reports will find the Table of Contents useful in identifying chapters on each of the body systems. Youth will also use the glossary and bibliography as reference sources.

Librarians will find a broad readership for this engaging work of nonfiction. This book would be an excellent addition to a growing collection of graphic nonfiction options for middle school youth. Consider developing a display to feature works of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) graphic nonfiction.

To learn more about the author/illustration, follow his website.


Fingeret, Lauren (2012). Graphics in children's informational texts: a content analysis. UMI Dissertation Publishing. Available

Flowers, Mark (2013). Thoughts on Alex: My Friend Dahmer. School Library Journal. Available in SLJ.

Norman, Rebecca R. (2010). Picture this: processes prompted by graphics in informational text. Literacy Teaching and Learning, 14(1/2), 1-39. Available

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