One of my favorite genres is historical fiction, because I love reading about the human side of history and learning about the details that are often left out or glossed over in official records. Historical fiction is a great way at looking at history from the lens of women, people of color, queer folks, and others from marginalized identities, all while telling important stories about the past and how people lived — and it can be really fun, too! I enjoy everything from slice-of-life to fiction set against the backdrop of major historical events to speculative historical fiction, because I think all of these stories challenge assumptions we might hold about the past and prompt us to think about history in a new light.
With the growing popularity of the graphic format, I think it’s really exciting to see more and more historical settings and stories! As a visual learner, there is something really powerful about seeing history come to life before your eyes, and I think graphic novels accomplish that — a bit like seeing a black and white photo colorized, or watching a digital remaster of a turn of the century video recording. History becomes more tangible and present in our minds, and we see the people of the past in a slightly new light. While historical fiction in the graphic format isn’t nearly as popular as other genres, there are some really great historical graphic novels and comics out there on a wide range of topics, from the Boxer Rebellion to WWII! Here are some titles you shouldn’t miss!
The Phantom Twin by Lisa Brown
Isabel and Jane have only known life together, and they’re a part of a traveling circus attractive known as the Extraordinary Peabody Sisters: conjoined twins. But when a surgeon claims he can separate the girls, Isabel not only loses limbs — she loses Jane in the process, and Jane comes back as a ghost. Isabel has never been alone, but now she faces the prospect of having to build a life that only she can live.
The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor
Set in the late 19th century, Mei is one of the Chinese people working in logging camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Her father is the cook for the camp and Mei helps him while enduring the racism the Chinese in her community face and also struggling with the divide between herself and her friend Bee, who is the daughter of the camp’s foreman. She tells stories of Auntie Po, a larger-than-life Chinese matriarch and her bull, who pull off miraculous feats of bravery and strength. But what happens when something so terrible happens that not even Auntie Po can help?
Displacement by Kiku Hughes
Kiku is in San Francisco on vacation when she finds herself unexpectedly pulled into the 1940s, where she discovers that she is in an internment camp — the same one her grandmother was detained in. As she finds herself continually displaced, she learns about how difficult life was in the internment camps, examples of resistance, and the community her grandmother built that allowed them to survive.
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff
In this funny and adventurous anachronistic adventure, Delilah Dirk is an adventurer turned Robin Hood who plans on robbing the corrupt Sultan in order to give to the poor, and finds herself running right into Selim, a Turkish lieutenant who becomes her reluctant companion as they embark on a chase throughout Europe, always trying to stay one step ahead of trouble.
Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
In two companion volumes, Gene Luen Yang tells two sides of the Boxer Rebellion in China, which occurred at the start of the 20th century. Boxers follows Bao, a boy who is angry that his village is abused by Westerners and is inspired by the growing Boxer movement to drive them out of his home. But in Saints, Vibiana is a girl who was cast aside at a young age and found kindness and a home with the Christian missionaries who took her in, and now must question where her allegiances lie.
Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru
Inspired by a classic Superman story, this graphic novel is about siblings Tommy and Roberta Lee, who have just arrived from Chinatown to Metropolis. For Tommy, the move means new friends and opportunities but Roberta struggles to adjust. Then, one night the family’s house is attacked by the Klan and they’re rescued by Superman…but Superman is left weak after the attack and it’s up to the teens to help him defeat the Klan once and for all.
Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel by Ruta Sepetys, Andrew Donkin, Brann Livesay, Chris Dickey, and Dave Kopka
Adapted from Ruta Sepetys’s debut novel of the same title, this story follows Lina, a teenager living in Lithuania in 1941. One night, the Soviets arrest her entire family, separating Lina, her mother, and her brother from her father and deporting them to Siberia, where they face unimaginable hardship and Lina clings to her love of art and the hope that one day her family will be reunited.
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
In this alternate history set in historical Paris, Prince Sebastian is in town because his parents are in search of a wife for him. But he’s busy with his secret alter ego, Lady Crystallia, who appears on the town dressed in the most magnificent gowns. Sebastian’s confidante and dressmaker is Frances, who is responsible for these daring gowns, but in keeping Sebastian’s secret, Frances must also defer her dreams — and how long can they both afford to keep their secrets before someone gets hurt?
March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
In this award-winning graphic memoir and first in a trilogy, Representative John Lewis shares his personal story of working in the Civil Rights Movement as a young man alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how his earliest experiences led him on a lifelong journey to fight segregation, racism, and injustice.
While this YALSA Nonfiction Excellence in Nonfiction Award finalist is more text-heavy than other books on this list, it’s still a powerful graphic text that explores Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and how one pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was horrified by the people’s general complacency for Hitler’s evil and struggled to reconcile his faith with the terrible events that were unfolding in Germany, deciding to take a stand against Hitler once and for all.
Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band by Christian Staebler, Sonia Paoloni, and Thibault Balahy
Most young people today might know the band Redbone by their hit song “Come and Get Your Love,” which was made popular again in its appearance in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie franchise, but what they might not know is the band itself was made up of Indigenous band members who influenced many other musicians in the 1960s, and eventually took a stand for their beliefs over the promise of financial success. This book tells their story and their impact on the musical world and society.
Want more great YA graphic novel and comics recommendations? Check out our round up of the best YA fantasy graphic novels and comics.