Graphic Novelist Nathan Hale Talks About Highlighting History Through Cartoons
Even as a kid, New York Times bestselling author and illustrator Nathan Hale couldn’t escape the historical weight of his name.
“Every year when I had to meet my new teacher at elementary school, the teacher would say, ‘Oh, young Nathan Hale, give us your famous last words,” the Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List maker told Houstonia ahead of his appearance at Brazos Bookstore on Saturday, Jan. 18.
Often dubbed America’s first spy, the original Nathan Hale—who has no relation to the Nathan Hale, the author—is best known for the final words he uttered before being executed by the British in 1776, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
“That’s why he’s famous,” the author says of his historical namesake. “Or at least famous on a B-level of Revolutionary War stars.”
These days, Hale fully embraces this untraditional connection. After all, he turned the spy into the narrator of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, his popular graphic novels, which take young readers through some of the craziest and most bloody moments in American history. Major Impossible, the most recent in the kid-lit series, tackles the adventures of one-armed explorer John Wesley Powell.
Hale says he never imagined the success of Hazardous Tales when he started writing them.
“I kind of landed at a very lucky period where nonfiction is very popular right now, and children’s graphic novels are super popular right now. I feel like I’m one of very few people who’re right at the epicenter of those two things.”
Before Hale’s appearance at Brazos, the graphic novelist chatted about his newest book and how cartoons can make history more approachable.
What were your own history classes like in school?
I grew up in Utah, and all we had was covered wagons. So, I did not enjoy history class growing up because the covered wagons unit was never that much fun. We didn’t have great history like the Revolutionary War states or Texas with the Alamo, things like that. We didn’t have any super exciting things. It was through historical fiction that I started being a fan of history. It was not in the classroom, strangely enough.
You have covered everyone and everything from Harriet Tubman to the Alamo. How do you pick your topics?
I have a running list of topics I’m interested in. That tends to be first and foremost because if I’m enthusiastic about the subject matter, it’s going to be hard to fake that I’m enthusiastic and get kids interested. I’ve got a shortlist of either people or big events, gruesome things—the stories, of course, have to be hazardous. People have got to get blown up and stuff. Also, when I visit schools and visit bookstores, and visit fans, they throw their ideas at me. Right now, the most common request I get from kids is D-Day. So, it’s on my list.
What else is on your list?
I’d very much like to do a book on the air battles in World War I; there’s a group called the Lafayette Escadrille, who went over in their biplanes to help in World War I before the United States officially declared war. I’d like to do the follow up to Lafayette! where he goes back to France and gets wrapped up in the French Revolution. I’m working on a book right now that is all the behind-the-scenes craziness that led to the Louisiana Purchase, which I’ll be starting in the near future.
So, fill us in on the newest Hazardous Tales book, Major Impossible.
This is the first one I’ve done about an explorer. His name is John Wesley Powell, and he’s the first person to take a boat crew down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon, which at that point in time was unknown territory. The thing that makes it especially interesting is he was a Civil War veteran who lost his arm in battle. So, he went on this rowboat excursion with one arm, and he made it through.
How much research goes into each of your books?
When I started, I thought I could kind of play fast and loose. I had Nathan Hale become friends with another Revolutionary War hero named Henry Knox, who eventually became George Washington’s head of artillery. I assumed that maybe they had crossed paths, so I made them friends in the book because I wanted to cover Henry Knox’s story as well as Nathan Hale’s. And I got letters on it. People were like, ‘Hey, there’s no proof that these two people ever met.’ I started to realize I didn’t like that I had fudged that detail. It’s a lot more interesting to stick as close to the truth as possible, to stick as close to the original events. The truth is always the funniest and weirdest.
In your opinion, what does the graphic novel offer that traditional history books don’t?
Textbooks tell you what happened. In graphic novels, you see it. And, I think, when you see it, it takes the abstract away. You’re not hearing about something that happened a long time ago, you’re watching people do something, even if its cartoons. It pulls you in and makes it immediate.
Nathan Hale, Jan. 18 at 3:00 p.m. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonett Street. More information at brazosbookstore.com.
This interview has been edited for clarity.