Books: Bios and Historical Fiction

Graphic novels, storybooks, and page-turning chapter
books perfect for history class. Plus, tricks of the trade from
Bluffton author-illustrator Matt Phelan.

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Q & A: Matt Phelan Author-illustrator, Bluffton

Q | What’s your process when working on a graphic novel?

A | I always write a full script before drawing. I see each panel in my head and then describe it with dialogue. After editing, I draw a series of tiny sketches to work out the composition, panel sizes, etc. From these, I draw and paint the final artwork.

Q | Any advice on creating a sense of time and place?

A | Old photos are incredibly important. Try to get a deeper sense of what you’re seeing. When you look at a photo of the Dust Bowl, think about the temperature. Is is hot? What can you hear? Wind? Look at the clothes. How would that fabric feel? All of this can inform your drawing and improve the narrative and sense of place.

Q | How can teachers use the book to teach history?

A | Look for the story in history. Remember that the basic emotions we all feel (fear, envy, love) are timeless. If you are thinking about vaudeville, think about what it would really mean to live on the road, to perform every day. Think about the time it would take to practice your act. You can apply this to any time period.

1 | Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas
By Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Maris Wicks. $19.99.
This tri-part graphic novel recounts the lives of three key primatologists. Grades 3–7. 

2 | Grandfather Gandhi
By Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Evan Turk. $17.99.
A little boy strives to live up to his revered bapuji—and learns a surprising lesson about channeling his anger for good. Grades K–2.

3 | Bluffton
By Matt Phelan. $22.99.
Finely etched watercolors are set off by perfectly minimal text in this story of a boy and his fascination with the summer crowd—a young Buster Keaton and his vaudeville mates. Grades 4–8.

4 | This Is the Rope
By Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome. $16.99. History can be told through the simplest of objects. A worn rope tells of the hopes and dreams of three generations. Grades PreK–1.

5 | The Tree Lady
By H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry. $16.99.
A tree-loving girl becomes the first woman science grad at UC, and transforms San Diego from desert town to leafy city. Grades PreK–1.

6 | Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World
By Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Oliver Dominguez. $16.99.
Move over, Edison. Tesla (he of the coil) is the illuminating hero of this biographical picture book. Grades 1–3.

7 | Sugar
By Jewell Parker Rhodes. $16.99.
Award-winning novelist Rhodes tells the story of a black child in post-slavery Mississippi who befriends two Chinese immigrants brought in to harvest the sugarcane. Grades 3–5.

8 | Dogs of War
By Sheila Keenan, illustrated by Nathan Fox. $12.99.
Canine heroes get their due in this boldly illustrated graphic novel that traces the faithful dogs’ valiant efforts in three American wars.
Grades 3–6.

9 | In Disguise!: Undercover With Real Women Spies
By Ryan Ann Hunter. $17.99.
No more channeling James Bond. Girls can pretend to be WWII agent Virginia Hall or Crazy Bet, a daring Civil War mole. Grades 3–6.

10 | Staking a Claim: The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung
By Laurence Yep. $6.99. At the end of the gold rush, a Chinese immigrant boy struggles in the brutal world of 1850s mining in the American West. Grades 3–6.


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  • Subjects:
    Science, Social Studies, Curriculum Development, Content Area Reading, Independent Reading, Creative Writing

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