Friday, December 18, 2020

Middle-Grade Graphic Nonfiction Reviews: History Comics

For #NonfictionNovember, I read a couple of nonfiction graphic "novels" for middle-grade readers that I loved. They were both from the series History Comics, with each book covering a different historical event, with different authors and illustrators, all about U.S. history (so far). I was hugely impressed by both books I read in this series, enjoyed them, and learned a lot!

I decided to start with the earliest piece of history by reading The Roanoke Colony: America's First Mystery by Chris Schweizer. It tells the story of not only the colony itself (which was established 100 years before the pilgrims arrived) but also the background of what was happening in Europe and why Queen Elizabeth I sent people to the New World to start the Roanoke Colony. Believe it or not, the purpose of the colony was to provide a base of operations for English privateers (i.e. pirates) to raid Spanish ships! The narrators of the book are two young Native American men from different Secotan tribes in the area who--in real life--went back to England with the first scouts to learn English and share knowledge and then returned with the ill-fated colonists. The story is presented by the two narrators as a mystery, with different historical theories presented as to what happened to the famed Lost Colony of Roanoke, to involve young readers in the story. The book is filled with interesting historical details about history, lifestyles, and culture on both sides, in addition to the central mystery.

Sample page from The Roanoke Colony

The next book I read in the History Comics series was The Great Chicago Fire: Rising from the Ashes by Kate Hannigan and Alex Graudins. It's about the famous Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that burned for two days and destroyed a huge portion of the city. The narrators are a young sister and brother who get separated from their parents and spend two days running from the fire with crowds of people and trying to find their family, which provides ample suspense and puts the disaster in perspective for kids. It ends with a section on the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the Columbian Exposition, in which the city was able to celebrate its rebuilding and rebirth. By then, the two children who ran from the fire are adults with children of their own, so there is continuity in the story. As with the Roanoke book, the history was fascinating (like the fact that Mrs. O'Leary's cow did not start the fire!).


Sample page from The Great Chicago Fire

As usual with books about history, I learned so much! And these are middle-grade books. Why didn't they teach any of this in school? Both books were extensively researched, well-written, and beautifully illustrated in a way that begs you to examine every detail of the drawings. They also include maps and contain more information in the back: additional notes, timelines, resources, and more. The Great Chicago Fire even includes a modern-day tour of Great Fire Sites to Visit in Chicago Today. Both sets of authors/illustrators did an outstanding job of making the detailed information accessible to kids, even incorporating a sense of humor. The other books in the series so far include The Challenger Disaster: Tragedy in the Sky, plus two more animal-centric titles coming in 2021: The American Bison: The Buffalo's Survival Tale and The Wild Mustang: Horses of the Wild West. Learning history was never this much fun when I was a kid!

The Roanoke Colony - 119 pages

The Great Chicago Fire - 119 pages

First Second

You can see quite a few other sample pages on Amazon by clicking "Look Inside" for both The Roanoke Colony and The Great Chicago Fire (both are also available on Kindle).

You can purchase The Roanoke Colony or The Great Chicago Fire from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:

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You can also buy through indie bookstores using Bookshop.



Or you can order The Roanoke Colony or The Great Chicago Fire from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. What neat books! It's interesting how the book on The Great Chicago Fire uses fictional characters as a vehicle for the history. I wonder if this series is at all similar to the History Smashers series by Kate Messner and Dylan Meconis—I haven't read them, and they might be for younger readers, but I know a lot of people have enjoyed them! Thanks for the great post!

    1. Yes, and I was fascinated that the young men in the Roanoke book were real historical figures! Both fascinating stories. I hadn't heard of History Smashers - thanks for the tip!

  2. I didn't know about this series; what a great idea.

    1. Great way to make history more interesting to kids!