Big things often start small. Just one person daring to wonder “what if…” can spark a revolution, as we see in writer Lewis Helfand and illustrator Naresh Kumar’s recent contribution to the Campfire Graphic Novels History Series. Through intertwined story threads, The Industrial Revolution takes us on a journey that begins in the 15th century with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing process and continues into the present with an eye toward the future.

Along the way, we visit some of the Industrial Revolution’s most brilliant minds, including the 18th and 19th centuries’ John Kay, James Watt, Eli Whitney, and Robert Fulton. Add to this impressive line-up the likes of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, two men at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution’s second wave in the 20th century, and it is easy to see how ideas evolve over time to fuel technological innovation. Through this lens, Helfand suggests history does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it consists of interrelated events shaped by individuals who learn and build from the contributions of others. Recurring phrases such as “but what if…,” “bigger, faster, stronger,” and the need to “think big” effectively develop this thematic idea as well as highlight the parallels between the great thinkers who espouse them.

Complementing Helfand’s information-rich text are Kumar’s photo-realistic illustrations that help us visualize the machinery and processes integral to production on a mass scale. Such pictorial representations are especially effective in panels that feature age-old technology like Asian woodblocks for printing and Carnegie’s massive steel-producing machines. Kumar adds greater scale to these images by juxtaposing the machines with factory workers rendered quite small in comparison. Technology is literally and metaphorically looming large as it changes the course of our history.

With a palette of subtle greens and browns, Kumar’s illustrations also heighten visual intensity through the careful selection of more dynamic colors to highlight exciting plot points like dangerous equipment explosions. Additional tools in his arsenal include the use of multi-panel sequences to break down complex concepts into digestible segments while double-page spreads filled with people deep in thought have the added benefit of bringing the historical figures to life.

These portraits are a handy way to keep track of the large cast of characters, although facial inconsistencies among panels can be distracting at times. Nonetheless, having a face to pair with a name helped me keep track of the intersecting story lines, which often involve abrupt switches in point of view and location. Because of this nonlinear story line, the loose structure may frustrate some readers, so it may be more appropriate for teens with previous background knowledge on the subject to help fill in the gaps.

Helfand’s narrow focus on the United Kingdom and the United States may also leave readers wanting more. I often found myself wondering what the rest of the world was up to during this sea change, as well as underrepresented groups living side by side with the book’s all-male cast. On the other hand, Helfand does address working class struggles to find employment after mass production eliminated the need for skilled labor. This consideration of both the positive and negative consequences of the Industrial Revolution adds dimension to the narrative and may serve as great fodder for discussion in book clubs.

Helfand wraps up coverage with a look at China and India’s leading role in the current “Industry 4.0,” defined by its emphasis on cyber connectivity. By making connections between then and now, he grants the past greater relevance in our lives today. The back matter then extends focus to future applications of the technology developed during the Industrial Revolution with an engaging overview of artificial intelligence, robots, and drones.

This book is a good fit for readers ages 10 to 15 who enjoy historic graphic novels, including the Campfire and Graphic History series. Those interested in learning more about the Industrial Revolution also may benefit from reading this book in tandem with other historical accounts that provide additional context for the many names, dates, and technologies covered within.

The Industrial Revolution
by Lewis Helfand
Art by Naresh Kumar
ISBN: 9789381182284
Campfire, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: Teen/Young Adult

  • Johanna

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Johanna Nelson is a full-time graduate student pursuing her MLIS at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Through her studies, she discovered a love for the graphic novel format thanks to the likes of Raina Telgemeier and Art Spiegelman. While the two may seem like opposite ends of the spectrum, both masterfully combine narrative and picture to create a compelling, rich story greater than the parts alone. As an aspiring school librarian, who will soon be on the path to teacher greatness through dual certification in education and library media specialization, Johanna also loves to explore the seemingly endless possibilities graphic novels hold when it comes to teaching and building literacy skills, helping English language learners, reaching out to reluctant readers and matching each and every kiddo with just the right book thanks to the wide range of subject matter available in this format. Prior to leading the “glamorous” life of a toiling student, Johanna served as features editor for a cheese and dairy trade newspaper that helped to cultivate her writing skills as well as her love for deliciously unique artisan cheeses – triple cream anyone? She also has held several library positions including page and library specialist in the children’s department of a public library. In her free time, she enjoys embracing her inner nerd through watching Jeopardy!, doing crossword and jigsaw puzzles, bird watching, hiking, sketching, and of course, reading whatever she can get her hands on.

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