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Review: ‘History Comics: The Great Chicago Fire’

I discovered history was fascinating through historical fiction. The dusty old textbook facts became fascinating through the fictional stories weaved through true facts. While the History Comics series by First Second is dubbed as a nonfiction series, it uses fictionalization to tell its story.

Book Cover

History Comics: The Great Chicago Fire
Written by Kate Hannigan; illustrated by Alex Graudins
First Second. 2020. $12.99
Grades 4 and up

The story of the Chicago fire is told through the eyes of two children, John Patrick (JP) and Franny who start their evening out at the O’Leary’s backyard and get separated from their parents when they start chasing a puppy separated from its mother, just as the great fire starts to rage through the city.

As the fire spreads, the brother and sister get caught up in the throngs of people trying to escape, traveling from one part of the city to another and encountering people making the same flight in different ways.  The ending is a happy one and we get a fast forward to the World’s Fair, which shows how Chicago learned from the fire and quickly rebuilt. The book is filled with fascinating endnotes, like a map of the fire, a list of places to visit, and a bibliography and resources. (With nonfiction picture books, the backmatter is essential and I sometimes enjoy the extras offered at the end more than the actual book!) The story examines why the fire likely got out of hand, what made Chicago so flammable, and how Chicago worked to rebuild and avoid another tragedy of the sort.

The fast-paced read is highlighted with superb artwork that evokes the time period and gives readers the feeling of chaos that ensued in Chicago. The sepia color palette with the added reds and yellows for the fierce fire create a dynamic visual experience.

Though not necessarily with the wit of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, this addition to nonfiction comics and learning about history through comics is a welcome addition. The vibrant artwork will make it an easy sell.

Esther Keller About Esther Keller

Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. She also curates the Graphic Novel collection for the NYC DOE Citywide Digital Library. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ and School Library Connection (formerly LMC). In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.

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