Sunday, August 11, 2013

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #1) by Nathan Hale

The first read aloud I did with a graphic novel left me baffled after a few pages. I sputtered in front of the class, "Huh? That text didn't make any sense." A few grade 4 students laughed and one said, "You don't read it like a book Mrs. Middleton." "How do I read it?" I asked. "The square and circle speech bubbles are two different people talking and the pink means Babymouse [the protagonist] is dreaming." "Ohhhhh! Brilliant! I get it now!" We laughed together and I started over noticing a few other enlightened nongraphic-novel-reading-students like me.

Graphic novels are a great way to bridge literacies in young readers by using pictures to help students understand text. I have many students who love checking out books on famous battles, weapons, and wars; however, many express frustration over high vocabulary and complex topics. "One Dead Spy" is a fantastic book for those young history buffs that mixes elements of narrative nonfiction and fiction in a graphic novel form. Its illustrations and words contain just the right dose of odd tales about famous people, battles in the Revolutionary war, and rapid-fire shots of humor, facts, and action.

Nathan Hale was a Revolutionary War soldier who was captured by the British and hanged. Nathan is waiting to be executed when a giganto history book appears on the hanging platform swallowing him whole. When the book spits Nathan back out, he explains that he time-traveled into the future and tells the hangman and British Provost overseeing his hanging stories of famous people and battles to come. Comic relief comes in the form of the goofy hangman who gets wrapped up in Nathan's stories like a child listening to storytime, while the Provost is cynical and questions Nathan's claims regarding future events.  Each character has a distinct voice that makes it easy to follow the text and pictures.

The author balances humor with text to create a fast-paced book. The main character is going to be hanged and it is clever how the author throws in occasional metafictional elements to diffuse the intensity of Nathan's grim fate. This age appropriate tactic shows up with the characters talking to the reader by being outside the paneled picture. At one point the Provost says, "Enjoy your pictures now! Captain Hale isn't going to be around much longer!"Other times the hangman is just being funny such as when he asks Nathan, "What about George Washy-toes?" referring to George Washington.

You'll laugh out loud as Nathan Hale weaves in weird true facts with famous historical people. Take Henry Knox. He's huddled behind a wooden barrier surrounded by men ducking as cannon fire bombards them. "Yikes!" says one of them. "Hmmm..." says Henry Knox sitting up with a half-smile, "sounds like a 12-pounder, firing hollow shot..." "BOOM" the next picture reads. "Isn't this great?" Knox says to the guy next to him who is holding his hat as debris rains on him. "Huh?" the guy says, to which Knox replies with a huge grin, "I LOVE guns and artillery. "BOOM" is the next graphic. "I thought you were a book-seller," comments the guy. "I was. I spent all day reading books about guns and artillery!" "AAAGH! What happened to your hand!?!" The guy yells. "AAAAAAGH! AAAAAGH!" They both scream as Knox holds up a hand missing two fingers. "Ha-Ha-Ha!" says Knox with a sly look on his face. "Sorry. That was mean. I lost these fingers back in '73" "How?" asks the guy. "Playin' with guns," says Knox. "Of course," responds the guy with a dry look. The facts are Knox did own a bookstore, was mostly self-educated, and lost two fingers on his 23rd birthday. The playful, funny dialogue is Hale's brilliant way of making history interesting.

The graphic novel pares down text to its most basic elements and while it appears simple it is far from that. It's a great way to engage students in a pre-reading stage where details are found in visuals and dialogue that comes in the form of speech bubbles. The clear beginning, middle, and end along with character development and humor make me want to read more graphic novels, especially by Nathan Hale. The end tells much of what is true and what the author made up. Toss in some corny research babies who are Hale's correction team and you have a scapegoat for incorrect facts. I like this spoof on newspapers and correction columns. Oh! I almost forgot. The babies also show Hale [cartoon dude] Hale's [author's] bibliography. I know it's confusing. He's got some more metafiction going on... just read it. 'Tis funny. A great read aloud and companion to nonfiction texts on American history.

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