Incubators: A graphic history

Even before graphic novels took off, several publishers, notably Lerner and Capstone, featured graphic nonfiction produced in a similar vein to the series nonfiction that most librarians are familiar with. The series nonfiction in graphic format continue to be a staple for nonfiction collections, although there are more literary options, like the Science Comics series.

Lerner’s Graphic Universe imprint produces new series twice a year, in January and August, and they usually pick timely topics. The January 2022 series Medical Breakthroughs is no exception, with titles on vaccines, germs, antibiotics, and more. The particular title we’re looking at today is the history of incubators.

The information is collected briefly in 32 pages with a short framing story showing two White children and a White, male-presenting doctor looking at a miniscule infant in a modern incubator while the doctor explains what incubators are used for. The story then jumps back to the 1870s and the work of two French doctors who. while trying to raise France’s falling birth rates, were inspired by the incubators they saw used with birds’ eggs at the zoo.

The incubators these and other doctors developed were funded by the exhibition of the premature babies, culminating in a semi-permanent exhibit on Coney Island. By the time the exhibit closed in 1943, thousands of babies had been saved and incubators became standard equipment in hospitals. Incubators continued to be improved, with interest and funding reviving after the death of President Kennedy’s premature son and culminating in the invention of a rechargeable and affordable incubator called the Embrace Nest that would be accessible to all people, especially in developing countries. The story ends with a return to the premature infant at the beginning, now a healthy toddler with their older siblings and parents.

The artwork is not memorable, but it is neatly done, with carefully drawn images of the various machines, and people shown in the appropriate period clothing as the story moves through time. All but a few people in the background and some nurses are depicted as White, which is a drawback, as one of the points of Couney’s work (the doctor who established the “Infantorium” at Coney Island) was the acceptance of infants of all backgrounds in sharp contrast to the eugenics movement. Most panels show the doctors and occasional nurses moving through bland scenery and exchanging a few remarks while the narrative is carried on in descriptive paragraphs. The appeal to readers who want the story told primarily through art is limited, since, as in most series nonfiction graphic novels, the narrative is told primarily in prose or through multiple “talking heads.” There is enough detail in the art to show the change in time periods, from the 1870s to 2008, and some additional information is provided through the pictures, like a nurse feeding a premature infant through their nose or the doctors explaining what they are doing to spectators and anxious parents.

One title is listed as a source, and there is also a glossary, index, and brief list of information to explore further.

The length of these titles naturally limits the amount of information that can be included and these titles tend to be brief introductions, which will hopefully engage interest in exploring topics further. Like most series nonfiction, they are available only in paperback or expensive library binding, which can be prohibitive for smaller budgets. If you have to watch your pennies it can be difficult to justify an extensive outlay on nonfiction that may quickly become dated. However, this series primarily covers historical events and so should have a longer shelf-life. With an ever-increasing number of struggling readers as well as graphic novel fans, Medical Breakthroughs should be a solid purchase for most school and public libraries and a good choice to interest young readers in history and science.

Incubators: A Graphic History
By Paige Polinsky
Art by Josep Rural
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2022
ISBN: 9781541581517

Publisher Age Rating: grades 3-6
Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Representation: French, German

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Germany in 1906. He had a great childhood with a big, wonderful family, a good education, and a strong faith. By 14, Dietrich declared himself a theologian, an aspiration that shaped the rest of his life.

By all accounts, Dietrich was a normal, decent, faithful man.

Then the Nazi party rose to power, his beloved Germany became unrecognizable, and everything changed. Dietrich remained a normal, decent, faithful man—even while planning the assassination of Adolf Hitler.

In John Hendrix’s The Faithful Spy, the life of this little known historical figure is explored with captivating prose and beautiful illustrations.

I had never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer before picking up this graphic novel, which probably made the book even better. I didn’t know the fate of Dietrich and I was rooting for him the whole time. Even knowing that the assassination attempts fail didn’t take away from the suspense. I enjoyed following Dietrich through all the events in his life and seeing how one man played a big part in the German resistance during World War II. It shows how much one person can contribute, but also how resistance and revolution is the work of many people working together.

It is obvious that Hendrix did his research and this story is steeped in historical fact. He doesn’t over embellish or put his own opinions into the prose. Instead, Hendrix explains how Hitler came to power, breaking down the politics into an easy to follow and understand story. Everyone knows Hitler and knows about the Holocaust, but Hendrix was able to show what caused these terrible things to happen and how the normal, everyday Germans were blindsided by the atrocities.

Although filled with illustrations, The Faithful Spy is definitely wordier than the average graphic novel. It easily could have been a regular novel and still would have been enthralling. But Hendrix’s art adds so much to the story, even while only utilizing four colors—green, red, black, and white. It’s almost like the doodles on the side of your history class notes, but if you had enormous talent.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life story captured my attention from the start and I loved every page, often taking my time to really study Hendrix’s illustrations. This is a gorgeous book that made me seek out more of John Hendrix’s work (he has several children’s picture books about other historical figures).

The Faithful Spy would make a great addition to World War II lesson plans. We often wonder how someone like Hitler and the Nazis could come to power and do these awful things. We often wonder how the German people didn’t stop him. Well, this book shows how it happened and that there were people trying to do something.

I highly recommend The Faithful Spy. It would be a great addition to libraries for teens and adults.

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler
by John Hendrix
ISBN: 9781419728389
Abrams, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14

Renegade: Martin Luther, the Graphic Biography

Graphic memoirs are a great way to relay historical information to audiences who may never pick up a giant prose biography. Renegade: Martin Luther, the Graphic Biography takes a deep dive into the life of Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Reformation in 1517. While I knew many of the significant facts of his life, this biography covers details that I wasn’t aware of, and thus paints a more complete picture of this significant historical figure.

The first thing one notices is that this is a ‘dark’ graphic novel, both in tone and look. Italian artist Andrea Ciponte uses dark oil paints to show that life 500 years ago was not easy. Author Dacia Palmerino begins the tale with disease, hunger, poverty, leprosy, and executions. Ciponte helps her tell the story with dark tones and blurred lines to convey the feeling of the time. Luther is raised in a devout, religious German family that is strict and punitive. He eventually goes to university and decides upon a life as a monk after a near-death experience involving a lightning strike. As he studies the Bible and finds that scripture diverges quite a bit from what the Church is teaching, he starts to agitate for change. Travelling to Rome and observing the corrupt practice of ‘indulgences’ sets him on a path of revolution. Soon he is posting his “95 Theses” on the door of a church in Wittenburg and initiating the Reformation. Luther goes into hiding, translates the Bible into a common language, gets married, has children and reckons with the forces that his actions unleashed.

While the narrative is linear and straightforward, the artist adds flourishes and fanciful images periodically to convey a message. The devil is often painted when Luther is contemplating evil or temptation. When Luther is feverishly writing, he is depicted walking through halls made of pages and words. Some pictures look like they are out of a Salvador Dali painting or Dante’s Inferno because of their odd shapes and distorted perspective. These images are powerful when they show up because they are used sparingly. The artist also effectively uses color, close ups and various perspectives to move the narrative along. Care is taken to differentiate the look of the historical figures and it’s pretty easy to follow who is doing what, no easy task considering how many important individuals appear in this book. The text is well resourced and uses research to back up the events depicted. This book is quite an achievement.

So who is this written for? The Italian authors are academics and educators. They clearly want people to learn more about Luther, but this is a book for adults, not kids. The dark topics that are covered depict a realism and nuance that some might not appreciate, particularly if they are looking for a sanitized version of Luther’s life. But for those looking for an imaginative yet well researched look at a seminal historical figure, this book will fit the bill.

Renegade: Martin Luther the Graphic Biography
by Dacia Palmerino
Art by Andrea Ciponte
ISBN: 9780874862072
Plough Publishing House, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: T+ (16+)