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Graphic Novels in the Classroom: Empathy and Imagination through Historical Fiction

By November 17, 2021Graphic Novels

Getting back to blog posting is a little different for me because usually I just post illustrations that I’m working on, but my graphic novel pitch is now in active submission and top secret, so I thought in this blog post and in post to come,  I’ll share thoughts about diving into the graphic novel world and post some discoveries I’ve been making as in my writing and illustrating graphic novel work. My submitted graphic novel is set in the 19th century and based on a person who overcame adversity to make some impressive discoveries.

Graphic novels are a powerful medium because of their blend of pictures and words and their potential to draw readers into an immersive world. Historical fiction allows readers to vicariously experience lives that are very different from their own and as a result can convey develop empathy and compassion on a deeper level.

When children learn about the events and people associated with a historical event, they may know little of what it was like to live the day-to-day or moment-by-moment experiences at the time. Graphic novels present a unique opportunity to experience history the way historians do – sifting through events from multiple points-of-view, words, and voices, but with a visual context that is very different from the world they know.

In Shaun Tan’s beautiful graphic novel, The Arrival, he uses a wordless visual narrative to tell a powerful story of an immigrant trying to find his way in a land that is strange and confusing.

In the next visual sequence, the main character asks directions and shows him how to use their telephone.


As often happens when traveling to a new place, his character is perplexed when something unexpected appears.


As time passes as we read through the book, we experience his gradual successes and hopeful future.


Said author-illustrator Shaun Tan:

“In The Arrival, the absence of any written description also plants the reader more firmly in the shoes of an immigrant character. There is no guidance as to how the images might be interpreted, and we must ourselves search for meaning and seek familiarity in a world where such things are either scarce or concealed. Words have a remarkable magnetic pull on our attention, and how we interpret attendant images: in their absence, an image can often have more conceptual space around it, and invites a more lingering attention from a reader who might otherwise reach for the nearest convenient caption, and let that rule their imagination.”

I found this novel very touching and it also made me think about how things might have been when my grandfather first immigrated to America from mainland China.

Graphic novels can lead readers through lives that are different from their own, while also appealing to universally resonating themes.

A very different example of a historical fiction graphic novel is Anne of Green GablesBeautifully illustrated by Brenda Thummler, the graphic novel instantly transports the reader into rural life in the late 1800’s.

We ride along with Anne in the little horse-cart, falling in love with the surroundings. We gradually learn that she is an orphan arriving at what she hopes will be her permanent home.

Suddenly, Anne realizes she hadn’t been chosen to be adopted by the Cuthberts at all. They had asked to adopt a boy to help them on their farm and a switch had taken place, unbeknownst to them.

Because of the combination of images and text, readers can more quickly find themselves in the world of the graphic novel – Including places and times they’ve never lived in before and characters whose day-to-day lives are very different from their own. In this medium, it can be surprisingly easy to empathize with others’ feelings and thoughts and in so doing, have a greater sensitivity and empathy for others.


Anne of Green Gables at Andrews McMeel Publishing
Shaun Tan’s Website The Arrival

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