A new school year brings serious fun to students! Young athletes and mathletes, robotics teams and academic decathlon squads, science fair and history day entrants are just some of the young folks who gear up each year for fun. But competitions are just one outlet for serious play. Books complementing the curriculum offer all kinds of hijinks! Today I look at two graphic offerings that will tickle history buffs . . . and possibly create some new history fans, too. One is an ongoing series of funnily fantastic hybrid novels (part prose, part graphic) aimed at elementary school kids, while the other is a longer graphic novel that will seriously charm tween and teen readers.
Neil Armstrong and Nat Love, Space Cowboys (2019) and Amelia Earhart and the Flying Chariot (2019) are recent additions to the “Time Twisters” series begun last year by author Steve Sheinkin and illustrated by Neil Swaab. These books join the duo’s Abraham Lincoln, Pro Wrestler (Time Twister #1, 2018) and Abigail Adams, Pirate of the Caribbean (Time Twister #2, 2018). The history mash-up “hook” here is obvious in the series label as well as each eye-popping individual title. These books are more than one-note jokes, though, as award-winning author Sheinkin brings top-notch writing and research skills to these light-hearted forays. Sheinkin and illustrator Swaab also smoothly interpolate graphic passages into the longer prose sections, advancing the plot of each book visually, with both wordless and humorously-worded scenes.
Though these books may be encountered out of sequence, readers will most enjoy them in order, since the series follows the ongoing adventures of 9-year old step-siblings Abby and Doc. At first, these 4th graders dislike what they and classmates call “boring history.” Yet in Abraham Lincoln, Pro Wrestler, several magical encounters with Lincoln before he becomes president begin to change their minds about history. His down-to-earth good humor and hokey jokes, along with Lincoln’s own desire for a dramatic change, surprise Abby and Doc almost as much as their discovery of a magical time portal—a large box containing just a few text books– in the school supply room.
That box is a great metaphor for the factual details Sheinkin highlights to bring history to life. (Lincoln really did wrestle and tell jokes.) Swaab’s cartoon-like black and white drawings capture the energetic flailing of surprised characters as they tumble in and stumble out of the box, the first of the series’ unexpected time portals. Sheinkin’s pitch-perfect capture of school routines furthers the humor here. Of course, Lincoln’s lack of picture ID would deny him entry back into their school! Lincoln reappears in the series’ other books, acting as a kind of guardian as other historical figures fantastically take their own turns at escaping some of the best-known, often least enjoyable aspects of their lives.
For instance, Abigail Adams resents the fact that—as one of our country’s earliest First Ladies—she is often most remembered for drying laundry inside the half-built White House. Sheinken foregrounds her strong interest in women’s and human rights by showing how she eagerly, temporarily becomes Abigail Adams, Pirate of the Caribbean. The loving, bickering relationship she shares with her president husband is central to the action-filled plot. He even learns to follow her ultimately famous advice to “Remember the Ladies.” This book, along with others in the series, concludes with author Sheinken separating sometimes surprising fact from fiction in an afterward titled “Un-Twisting History.”
In the later books, Abby and Doc’s amazed classmates and teacher read along in their history text book as time-twists change events moment-to-moment. This technique is particularly engaging as Sheinkin and Swaab show how Nat Love, a famous 19th century Black cowboy, uses his lasso to rescue the first moon mission! By the end of Neil Armstrong and Nat Love, Space Cowboy, the once history-averse characters are asking for “MORE HISTORY!” The length of books in this series, each having 20 or so short chapters, is just right, including enough dramatic detail, character-driven dialogue, and humorous images to gain and hold our interest, too. Amelia Earhart and the Flying Chariot, which takes that historical figure along with Abby and Doc back to the earliest Olympic games, is similarly engaging. Swaab’s images and apt lettering of sound effects continue to detail the past while dramatizing time twists.
Authentic, unusual (to us) details of 16th century British life are just one strength of the recently published Queen of the Sea (2019), written and illustrated majestically by Dylan Meconis. Tweens and teens will probably be most riveted, though, by the central characters and dramatic action in this alternate history novel, rooted in the early life of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603 C.E.). Here called Eleanor, exiled from a kingdom known as Albion, Eleanor’s imprisonment brings her to the northern island home of the novel’s narrator, 11-year old Margaret. This likeable, believable girl—curious, smart, and loyal—has been raised by nuns in their convent, the remote island’s only community. She does not know that the convent is also a prison for those who have offended the king. For several years, these prisoners include a woman and her young son William, Margaret’s only same-age playmate.
Readers will care about Margaret, be fascinated by Eleanor, and connect to this distant time and place thanks to Meconis’ powerful storytelling. She creates a world here– complete with believable secondary characters, both loveable and hateful—with richly satisfying words and images, a combination of humor and adventures large and small. Queen of the Sea, I am sure, will win accolades as one of this year’s best tween/YA graphic novels.
Meconis unifies her 400 page work by using the same format for Margaret’s detailed, often tongue-in-cheek understanding of topics ranging from kinds of nuns to canonical hours, convent sign language, and embroidery stitches. For each explanation, double-page spreads show circular items arranged concentrically. This technique also first introduces us to each nun and later reacquaints us with them once the surprised Margaret learns more about their past . . . and her own history. She was not just an infant who survived a shipwreck. Her dramatic past, along with Queen Eleanor’s, and how that shapes their relationship is summed up in the chess games the two eventually play. As Eleanor remarks about the Queen pieces set up for their first game, “And now . . . they’re ready to fight.” Later, hidden rescues, a wild chase and a last-minute escape dominate the book’s final pages.
Both daily life and dangerous flight absorb readers through Meconis’ swiftly-paced storytelling, presented in muted full-color images. In an interview, Meconis has explained that she draws initially online but then downloads these images for completion by hand, using water colors and colored pencil. Apt shifts in perspective and alternation of close-ups with mid and long distance views also support the narrative here. Subtle shifts in expression and changes in body language, reflecting what is being discussed or is occurring, also advance our understanding of the novel’s events. Alongside the central characters, servants, royal guards, nuns, and other island visitors—some expected, others not—brim with distinctive life. Readers may also delightedly note that whenever young Margaret is recounting her understanding of biblical events or folklore the style of drawing becomes simpler, the colors more vivid. This change is another layer of enjoyable sophistication in this many-layered, pleasurable historical graphic novel.
Readers will look forward to the sequel suggested by its final words and image: “But for now—it is enough” precedes a place-holding, threaded embroidery needle. Meconis has even said in an interview, “I do know what happens next, and Margaret certainly has more to say.” Until then, readers may take pleasure in this gifted author/illustrator’s online feminist fable “Outfoxed” or look at her other published YA graphic novel, The Long Con (2019). I have that book, set at a modern science fiction and fantasy convention, on order from my public library.
Similarly, fans of the Twisted History series might enjoy looking at some of author Steve Sheinkin’s other, earlier humorous takes on American history: King George—What Was His Problem: Everything your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the American Revolution (2008), Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the Civil War (2008), and Which Way to the Wild West: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About Westward Expansion (2008, 2015), all illustrated by Tim Robinson. Sheinkin himself illustrated as well as wrote funny graphic novel mash-ups of Western and Jewish immigrant history in three books about fictional Rabbi Harvey. These begin with The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West (2006). I look forward to catching up with the other books in this series.
Happy reading—and best wishes for a fun-filled, successful school year!