This summer, my fifth graphic novel hits shelves. It’s a story about a family from Illinois who decide to move to California in 1846. They join a wagon train and roll west. They try an unproven shortcut, get stuck in the Sierra Nevada, and end up eating each other. It’s called DONNER DINNER PARTY and it’s nonfiction.
I’ve been touring the country, talking to middle graders about my HAZARDOUS TALES graphic novel history series—the Donner book is the third entry. I end my presentation with an image from DONNER DINNER PARTY. It’s like a yearbook, showing all ninety-one members of the infamous 1846 emigration. There’s a key at the top that shows who lived, who died, and everyone’s favorite—who was cannibalized
. Putting the slide last was a mistake, because when I open the floor for questions, 100% of the questions are about it. Who’s that person? Who are those twin girls? How did one of them die? Who murdered that guy? Nobody asks me who my favorite author is, or where I get my ideas. Nope, it’s Donner time. And those kids want answers.
So how did I end up writing a nonfiction series? It’s not where I envisioned myself as a kid. I wanted to be an ace fantasy artist, doing cool sci-fi paperback covers like Michael Whelan. Hot space ladies in tight outfits holding aggressive laser guns. If you had told me, at that age, I would one day draw a comic book of pioneers and wagons, I would have lost my mind, quit drawing, and gone into, I dunno, dentistry.
What changed me? I blame audio books, my gateway format. I’ll explain that in a minute.
I grew up reading sci-fi and fantasy, which is what my dad read. When I checked out my own books from the library, I’d go down the shelves, looking for books that featured my library’s little SCI-FI sticker. It was blue with a ringed planet on it. There was also a green unicorn for FANTASY. All other books were virtually invisible to me. I voluntarily committed myself—happily—to a lifetime in sci-fi/fantasy genre jail.
Around 10th grade, I discovered the greatest thing ever
: audio books. Not only did my library have a large collection, they were marked with the same stickers! With audio books, I could draw pictures AND read fantasy at the same time
! I was hooked immediately. Drawing and listening to a story isn’t simple multitasking. No—it’s perfection. It’s like driving and playing loud music, like chocolate and peanut butter. It’s magic!
I completely devoured the audio book section of my local library—let me correct that, I devoured the sci-fi/fantasy
audio books. The rest might as well have been cinder blocks on the shelf.
I listened while drawing. I listened while playing video games. I took my audio books to work. My first job was painting scenery for a local theater. They did eight productions a year. I painted for them year round. I practically lived there—always with my Walkman in my pocket and my headphones in (noise-canceling earbuds, to block out the endless show tunes). I was listening to stories, painting, and getting paid
Then something horrible happened. The sci-fi/fantasy audio book well ran dry. I had listened to everything my library had. (This was pre-Audible, pre-Internet times.) I couldn’t operate without my stories! I went back and re
-listened to the entire sci-fi/fantasy collection—even the lousy ones. When choosing between STAR WARS: SHADOWS OF THE BOUNTY FIST, abridged, or FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, unabridged, there was no question, I’d re-listen to the Star Wars. (Ugh, awful, isn’t it? Maybe if someone had told me that the main character in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS was named Robert Jordan
, I might have given it a shot…)
I knew I couldn’t re-listen forever, that soon I would have to bite the bullet and listen to regular
fiction. I tried Stephen King. I hadn’t even considered him to be a fantasy author—he didn’t have the sticker
! But I went nuts for him. Listened to his entire catalog twice. Then listened to all the other horror titles my library had.
I had journeyed beyond the sticker, even if I’d only hopped a short distance. But the gate was now open. I tried crime and mystery novels—medical thrillers were big in the 90s—the medical stuff was okay, but I really liked the detectives and the criminals. Dick Francis and Elmore Leonard started coming to work with me. Dick Francis, you say? Oh yeah. Dick Francis was a staple—nay, a tent pole
of 90s audio book collections. I knew more about horse racing than anybody in my high school. Horses, what a weird subgenre—but I got really into it. I listened to Jane Smiley’s HORSE HEAVEN one and a half times! Why? Because it was on audio book!
Then one day, I checked out Larry McMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE.
Westerns were not something I ever imagined liking. It was only out of desperation that I checked it out. And then… I completely lost my mind. This was the best fantasy book I’d EVER READ! Here was an epic quest, like so many fantasy adventures I had read and loved, but this was REAL—or, at least, semi-real. Texas was a REAL place! The Texas Rangers were a REAL thing! It was like reading the Lord of the Rings and discovering that Mordor was a place you could drive to and visit. That Dunedain Ranger was an actual JOB THAT REAL PEOPLE DID!
I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough historical fiction. I blazed through Larry McMurtry, Bernard Cornwell, James Clavell, Mary Renault—then, on a dusty lower shelf I had always ignored, Patrick O’Brian’s naval series.
My library would occasionally get new sci-fi/fantasy novels, I’d gobble them up immediately, of course. It was (and is) a genre I still enjoy, but it didn’t own me anymore. I stopped being angry at the long waits between books in lengthy series, because there are so many other great books to read. It was no longer my jail—now it was just a fun place to visit.
From there, the leap from historical fiction to straight up nonfiction and biographies was easy. There was a whole NEW shelf of audio nonfiction! The audio book was my gateway format. It offered a cross section of genres, in a format that worked for me. It broke me out of my self-imposed genre jail. Over time, it taught me how to read comfortably from ANY shelf in the library. If it weren’t for audio books, I never would have read outside the fantasy realm. And I certainly wouldn’t be writing nonfiction history books today.
Graphic novels are also a gateway format. They sit on an isolated shelf, they provide a cross section of different types of stories, and they offer a format that appeals to a certain type of reader. Every library has young readers devoted to the graphic novel shelf—and only that shelf. How powerful is the graphic novel as a gateway format? Look no farther than that pink hero of the graphic novel shelf, BABYMOUSE. I don’t imagine a lot of seven-year-old boys show up at the library begging for books about pink girl mice. But they’ll leave with a stack of BABYMOUSE—and they’ll LOVE it. The same goes for RAPUNZEL’S REVENGE (with illustrations by yours truly!). Do middle grade boys want Princess stories? No—but wait, is that a graphic novel? Okay, I’ll try it. Gateway format.
I’m delighted my HAZARDOUS TALES books are on that shelf, hopefully breaking readers free from genre jail and creating channels to other parts of the library. It’s a great place to be right now because the pickins are still fairly slim—like audio books were in the 90’s. The scarcity of the format leads readers into a broader range of topics, as it did in my case.
Will DONNER DINNER PARTY make new fans of American History? I hope so. It’s got the whole story: the bad decisions, the trials on the road, the families and friends, the feuds and fights, the adventures and the misadventures. Does it have the cannibalism? You better believe it does. And it’s all in graphic novel form. It’s a little green get-out-of-genre-jail free card.
Nathan Hale is the author of BIG BAD IRONCLAD and ONE DEAD SPY, as well as the illustrator of the graphic novel RAPUNZEL’S REVENGE, which was an Al Roker Book Club for Kids selection, an ALA notable book, a YALSA Great Graphic Novel for Teens, and the recipient of three starred reviews. He lives in Provo, Utah.
© 2013 Nathan Hale. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. In the Classroom, Whose Taste Matters? 5 Questions With… Gareth Hinds