Tuesday, February 2, 2010


I got a great question during one of my school talks recently—one that I’d never heard before and that made me think. We were discussing my book George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides, and the student wanted to know why I drew so many graphic pictures. Nope, he didn’t mean to ask why I sometimes use a graphic novel format or why graphic design is a big ingredient in my page layouts. He was talking about some graphic war scenes from the book that are pretty up-close-and- personal—and in one case shows some blood in the snow.

Here’s what went through my head at about 90 miles an hour before I answered the question:

Yikes! I guess we walk a pretty fine line when we present violent episodes from history to grades 4-7 in a picture book format! Then I reminded myself that every kid has to memorize the names and locations of America’s major battles as dictated by the curriculum. (Think Gettysburg or Lexington and Concord.) But these battles must seem totally abstract to students when they come from a textbook. If good illustrators can use just the right kind of pictures, we can help make these famously difficult battles come to life. Besides, maybe kids learn even more from the paintings than they do from the words….if they see that war is real and has terrible consequences, and if they see that the soldiers fighting these battles are real people too, then who knows? They might even think of better ways to deal with difficult circumstances in the future. Nonfiction Illustrators don’t have to portray gratuitous violence or overly gory scenes. There are more artistic ways to get the point across with honesty and accuracy, and that’s what I’ve tried very hard to do.

So here’s what I said out loud:

All day long, any kid who’s into it can watch the news on TV without getting in trouble. The news is today’s nonfiction in action, and television uses graphic pictures by the ton. But nobody tries to hide the pictures away even though they can be pretty scary. In fact, not only do images like these show us what’s going on all over the world, but sometimes they can make good things happen! For example, when we see graphic pictures of the earthquake victims in Haiti, we realize that these are real people in trouble and we all want to pitch in to help.

Besides that, tons of popular movies, cartoons, video games, and books like Harry Potter are full of graphic pictures that can show violence to the nth degree. I bet most kids watch lots of these things all the time. Of course movies and games and books are usually fictional, not real, but kids by the millions love seeing them and don’t become criminals after watching them. The pictures in my books are tame by comparison to the ones you see in our popular entertainment, but maybe they’re unusual as far as nonfiction books go, especially when they’re used in the classroom. I paint them for two reasons. First, I never want to sanitize history and make the past look too perfect or too noble. Second, tomorrow’s leaders have to learn from the past to be able to make themselves a better future. You kids are much smarter than lots of adults think. I believe you can handle this material just fine, exactly like you do in other ways every day.

So what happened next? Here’s a brief outtake from a letter written by the kid who asked the question: “I liked the pictures the most because they were so graphic.” Maybe I was worried for naught? Or not?

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