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Here’s the truth: Homeschoolers — particularly Charlotte Mason-inspired homeschoolers — can be a bit snobbish when it comes to books. You’ll hear us go on and on (and on) about “living books” as opposed to “twaddle” or textbooks.
And I totally agree! Good books, well-written and well-told stories, are a treasure. Mindless, dull, dry, treacly-sweet pablum is unworthy of our children. For example, Dick and Jane can die in a fire, and I think we’d all be happy with that. But I had long held a bias against graphic novels. If anything could be counted as twaddle, it’s comic books, right?
I was wrong. Very, very wrong. At least, I was wrong in regard to one particular author, and probably more if I’d bother to do some digging.
We have fallen in love with the series Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. And by we, I mean everyone in the family, except the cat who is a contrarian. And senile.
Nathan Hale, you will remember, is the worst spy in the history of spies, with the best final words, “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” The author of the series is also named Nathan Hale. The first book, One Dead Spy, is the story of Nathan Hale himself. (The spy, not the author.) The books are narrated by Hale, standing on the gallows, talking to the British officer and hangman who will soon carry out his sentence. The hook is that since dying and because of those powerful last words he’s been put in many books where he’s learned a lot of history. You’re going to feel weird when you find that your favorite character in the series is the hangman. Don’t worry, that will pass.
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We actually discovered the series through The Donner Dinner Party. Yes, that Donner. Surprisingly, there aren’t many children’s books on this particular event. I chose this book because it was what was available that would be suitable for my boys. (Yes, I know some people might not think the Donner Party story suitable for children at all — graphic novel form or not. Your kids, your decision.) You can’t make the story of the Donner Party ungruesome, but Hale managed to walk the very fine line of informative, entertaining, and respectful of the dead.
We just read Big, Bad Ironclad about the iron-sided ships of the Civil War. It doesn’t just cover the actual battles between Union and Confederate forces, but it looks at the political personalities and decisions behind the action. But the graphic novel format allows Hale to present these rather dry facts in a manner that’s memorable (and entertaining.) It also includes the exploits of the precursor to Navy SEALS, William Cushing. You know a history book is well told when it leaves you anxious to learn more, and I definitely want to learn more about Cushing.
Our one complaint is that there are only three books in the series so far. The book on World War I isn’t going to be published until just after we’ve studied that period. I don’t suppose they’d push up the publication date to accommodate our schedule? Probably not. We’ll just have to be content with pre-ordering Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood.
Not only are these books not twaddle, they are the best kind of living books — those that make you want to learn even more. We also read a graphic novel on the Battle of Shiloh, which was informative and well-written for a history book, but it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as these. So there you have it. I’ve eaten my words regarding the place of graphic novels in the living book/twaddle spectrum.
But I’m right about Dick and Jane.
(P.S. Adults, if you feel too awkward about reading these for yourself and you don’t have children, just pretend you’re previewing them for a niece or nephew or godchild. Whether or not you actually give them to the kid is your call.)