Using Graphic Novels in Education: Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales

Welcome to Using Graphic Novels in Education, an ongoing feature from CBLDF that is designed to allay confusion around the content of graphic novels and to help parents and teachers raise readers. In this column, we examine graphic novels, including those that have been targeted by censors, and provide teaching and discussion suggestions for the use of such books in classrooms.


This post takes a closer look at the Hazardous Tales series by Nathan Hale.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales is an award-winning graphic novel series that showcases major events and individuals in history, primarily United States history. The series has won multiple awards including a 2012 Cybils Award Finalist; spots on the New York Public Library’s Children’s Books list in 2012 and 2013; 100 Books for Reading and Sharing list; YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens list in 2013, 2014, and 2015; Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People in 2014; and an Eisner Award nomination 2014.

The Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series includes:

  1. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy
  2. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad!
  3. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party
  4. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood
  5. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor
  6. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Alamo All-Stars (Not out at the time of this review, but coming to stores in Spring 2016)

Table of Contents



Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales is a series takes a wonderfully fun rumpus through some of the most dangerous times in American History. The series begins with spy Nathan Hale as he is about to be hung. Before his execution he utters his last words, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” These words are so profound and appreciated, that a gigantic magical “Big Huge Book of American History” appears and swallows Hale and his words momentarily. In that moment, Hale gains knowledge of what is to come for the United States of America. The Provost (a serious British soldier/authority bent on hanging the young spy) and the Hangman (who throughout this series is the Provost or Hale’s comic foil) are so intrigued that before Hale’s hanging, they ask him to tell them a story from the history book. And so Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales begin. Each book in the series covers a specific time, person, and/or event. Each book utilized a specific color in the artwork and has a “Hazard Level” on the back cover that lists and rates all the hazards and gore you’ll read about in that particular book.


While Hale takes certain liberties in telling these stories in history, he also makes sure that each book includes a bibliography; a section at the end with related facts (additional biographical information, maps, timelines, “History Activity Corner”), and a “Correction Baby” section where he notes mistakes (and asks his readers to share any he’s missed). There are timelines, clear detailed explanations of events, rationale, and consequences, and often complicated stories are told honestly and concretely so kids 8 and older can more fully understand underlying concepts, strategies, and events that shaped U.S. history.

Nathan Hale (the author) uses the graphic novel format skillfully as he recreates pivotal moments in American history. He recounts each event through engaging historical adventures, each filled with loads of hazards and humor. Much of the humor is provided through puns and wonderful one-liners by The Hangman, whose goofy, innocent comments and enthusiasm make him many kids’ all time favorite (and lovable) bad guy. The Hangman’s humor is used to balance the stoic British soldier, the Provost and much of the gory details of war, slavery, natural disasters and adventure.

The books are each drawn in grey tones with one color used to highlight text balloons, transitions, and flashbacks. The art, the maps, the characters, and events are brilliantly relayed with a wonderful balance of fact and fun. These books are geared for 7-12 year olds, and can be easily integrated into language arts and social studies lessons for grades 3-8. That said, they’re wonderfully entertaining for readers of all ages, and provide summer, school, or anytime fun.



Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy — chronicles the story of the Nathan Hale, an officer and spy for the American rebels during the Revolutionary War. We learn about Hale’s role in the Revolutionary War, why he became a spy, and what went wrong.

In One Dead Spy:

  • We discover why the American colonists revolted;
  • We discover why Nathan Hale became a spy;
  • We learn about the stamp and tea taxes — what the British taxed, why, and why there was such resistance;
  • We learn about the Boston Massacre.
  • We learn about the battles of Bunker Hill (1775), Winter Hill (1776), the Battle of New York, and the Battle of Dorchester Heights
  • We are exposed to George Washington’s war tactics;
  • We meet: Benedict Arnold, Ethan Allen, Henry Knox, Ben Talmadge, Colonel Knowlton (and Knowlton’s Rangers), Stephen Hemstead, and Major Robert Rogers (of Roger’s Rangers);
  • We learn about the signing of the Declaration of Independence and Washington’s reading it to his troops.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad! — chronicles the history of the North and South’s race for the best ironclad steam warships used in the Civil War. There are land battles, sea battles, blockades, and more.


In Big Bad Ironclad!:

  • We learn about the background and battles of the Civil War;
  • We learn about the burgeoning United States Navy — their ships and the power of blockades;
  • We learn about the strategic value of Fort Sumter and its battle;
  • We learn about the Merrimack and John Ericsson’s Monitor and the battle for the best ironclad;
  • We relive the battles of Fort Clark, Fort Hatteras, Hampton Roads and Chesapeake Bay;
  • We meet Bill Richmond (the first African American International Prize fighter), Gideon Welles (Lincoln’s Navy Secretary), General Scott, Stephen Mallory (in charge of the Confederate navy), Gustavus Fox, General Stonewall Jackson, and John Ericsson.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party — chronicles the Donner Party expedition as this group of pioneers joined the westward expansion of the United States. We learn about the hazards they faced, the good and poor decisions made, and the struggles these pioneers faced through each harrowing leg of the trip.


In Donner Dinner Party:

  • We learn about the problems, hazards, and promises of western expansion;
  • We learn about the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon;
  • We learn about the Lewis and Clark Expedition;
  • We meet the Reed and Donner families and other pioneers who joined their party.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood — chronicles the story of World War I, including the political factors leading to the war, famous and infamous battles, and ground-breaking technological changes during wartime (from trench warfare to tanks and modern warfare and even to more efficient helmets).

In Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood:

  • We learn about the individual and events that led to World War I;
  • We learn about the growing influence of nationalism;
  • We learn about the different countries’ loyalties and strategies in joining, not joining, fighting, or capitulating;
  • We learn about the innovative use of tanks, zeppelins, chemical gas, bomber planes, and more advanced guns and weapons; the use and perils of carrier pigeons; the changing landscape of the battlefields (from outright conflict to trenches); and even the changing nature of soldiers’ helmets and why better helmet designs made all the difference;
  • We witness the battles of Liege, of the Cer Mountains, of Mons, Belgium, of Verdun, of Jutland, of Gallipoli, of Somme, of Belleau Wood and Argonne Forest, and many more.
  • We learn about the Belgian King’s Flood;
  • We learn about the sinking of the Lusitania;
  • We witness the Austro-Hungary surrender and the Kaiser’s abdication of the throne;
  • We are introduced to Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Gavrilo Princip, Winston Churchill, Belgium’s King Albert, Tsar Nicholas of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, General Erich Ludendorff, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, General Pershing, the Bolsheviks and Trotsky, General Pershing, and more.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor— chronicles the life and times of Araminta Ross. We learn about her childhood in Delaware in the early 19th century, where she was born a slave. We grieve with her through the backbreaking, harrowing tasks she was given. We cheer for her as she runs for freedom, and we learn about her role as an ‘”abductor” on the Underground Railroad.


In The Underground Abductor:

  • We learn about the horrors of slavery;
  • We learn about the Triangle Trade;
  • We learn about the importance the Bible, prayer, song, and religion held for slaves;
  • We learn about the Underground Railroad system and the role abductors played;
  • We learn about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850;
  • We meet Araminta Ross (who later became Harriet Tubman), Nat Turner, the Methodist Minister Samuel Green, John Brown (who led the Pottawatomic Massacre), Colonel James Montgomery, Delaware Quaker Thomas Garret, William Still, Frederick Douglas, and many more.

In short Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales is a superb series of stories about American history, filled with facts and fun, outstanding bibliographies to explore further, and hours and hours of fun reading and intriguing history.

Throughout the series there is:

  • Engaging art;
  • Wonderful word play and humor;
  • Fun facts, gory facts;
  • Explanations, charts and images of major wars and strategies, and how both have changed through our modern history;
  • We learn to read maps and timelines;
  • We learn about famous people and events; and
  • We see history come alive while learning how cool and fun studying it can be.


Plot, Themes, and Characters

  • Discuss how Hale (the author) uses Nathan Hale (the spy), the Provost, and the Hangman to help him tell his story.
  • Discuss how Hale weaves his tales so that they are factual, funny, understandable, and engaging.
  • Chart and evaluate the various themes in the different historical events Hales describes. Discuss recurring themes as well as themes unique to each event. How does this influence the series?

Critical Reading and Making Inferences

  • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy:
    • Analyze and discuss what factors Hale might have weighed when deciding whether to become spy. Were there other factors he should have considered?
    • Pages 21-23: Hale tells us how his Yale buddies said he was very unlucky. Debate the power of luck in Hale’s life.
  • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad!:
    • Pages 22-24: Hale visually relays the debates the Union officers had regarding the fate of the Merrimack as it sat in the Norfolk Shipyard (which they feared would be taken by the Confederate army).
    • Page 41: Ericsson says, “Give me one good reason why my ship won’t work” “It’s funny looking…” “It’s NEW. Everything new seems strange at first.” Discuss and debate these perspectives. Research past and present debates that often surround new and innovative ideas and designs.
    • Page 83: Discuss or debate why both the North and the South claimed victory at the Hampton Roads battle.
    • Page 114: Hale notes that, “John Ericsson became rich. He built more monitor-class ships and invented many, many more things.” You may want students to research what else Ericsson invented/built.
  • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party:
    • Chart, evaluate, and discuss the different decisions the settlers had to make from the beginning to the end of their journey. Given all those decisions, discuss why settlers continued to explore, move, and expand across this vast country.
    • Page 13: The last panel takes up about 1/3 of the page to show us Independence, Missouri, relating that, “This is the last town before we plunge into the wilderness!” Discuss what it must have felt like to the settlers both approaching the town and then leaving it.
    • Page 14: Hale notes that in Independence, Missouri, the prices for goods are high. Discuss why the prices were high in the last town before the wilderness.
    • Page 19: Debate/discuss the pros and cons of shortcuts, citing specific examples to support opinions.
    • Page 33: Donner and the others did not receive Hasting’s letter warning them about the dangers of the shortcut. Discuss whether that letter would have changed Donner and Reeds’ minds had they gotten it.
  • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood:
    • Page 7: Discuss why the Hangman finds the beginning of the story “Dull!”
    • Page 18: Discuss why “If anyone discovers that Serbian Military Intelligence trained and armed these boys…there could be trouble.”
    • Pages 26-27: The Hangman asks “Oh. Then who are the good guys?” Hale then uses the remainder of the two-page spread to show that everyone thought they were the good guys. Discuss and evaluate who “good” and “bad” guys are and why. You may want to turn this into a debate in which students (or groups of students) represent a country and they must provide concrete examples and reasons for why they are the “good” guys and others are “bad.” Discuss why determining “good” and “bad” is not a simple thing.
    • Page 61: Discuss the Hangman and Hale’s discussion: “Who’s winning?” “No one but the god of war.”
  • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor:
    • Page 14: Discuss why the children had to hide when Mr. Brodess is “Comin’ with a man from the South!” Discuss what life was like for slave families.
    • Page 16: When the adult slaves discussed Nat Turner, they asked the kids to go outside and make noise. Why? Discuss the means they had for proliferating news and the risks they took to do so.
    • Page 57: In the first panel, the Hangman uses an image to help him remember Harriet Tubman (an image of a hairy man in a tub). Hale says this is disrespectful. Debate/discuss how images and play on words can help us remember things. Discuss if/when there are times this is inappropriate and why.
    • Discuss Hugh Auld’s statement, “If you teach that slave to read, there will be no keeping him!

Language, Literature, and Language Usage

  • Discuss how humor is mixed with fact to help tell the story.
  • Discuss Hale’s use of alliteration, rhymes, and puns.
  • Nathan Hale plays a lot with language. Chart and discuss his word play and use of literary devices, particularly onomatopoeia, puns, metaphors, and idioms. You may want to compare other ways to relay the same idea in an effort to show the value of these devices. For example,
    • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy:
      • Page 27: “By George! They do both look the same” (speaking about George Washington and King George).
      • Page 42: “Well after they liberated the fort, they found the liquor storage and liberated that too.” (In this case you may also want to discuss how the image helps explain what the phrase means.)
      • Page 61: “Everybody freeze!” “Oh I’m freezing alright.”
      • Page 71: “Killed by lightning. How horrible.” “Shocking.”
    • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad!:
      • Page 42: “You mean you can go poop underwater? Will it be on the poop deck?”
      • Page 101: “Rest in peace, Monitor. Or should I say, rust in peace.”
      • Page 101 (metaphor about the sunken Monitor): “She’s a big mean fish in her own closed-in pond.”
    • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party:
      • Page 51: Discuss Hale’s use of image and metaphor as one young girls says, “I’m glad Billy didn’t come here. It seems as though the hand of death has been laid upon this country.”
    • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood:
      • Page 12: Research and discuss the history, use, and meaning of the slogan, “The sun never sets over the British Empire.”
      • Page 24: Discuss the simile, “Mobilizing is like drawing your sword.”
      • Page 51: On the bottom of the page, we learn that the Paris Reserve Garrison reinforcements (6,000 troops) arrived at the Marne by taxicab. Have students research/write a scene that describes what it looked like, felt, and sounded as they arrived.
      • Page111: Discuss and evaluate the quotes about war that Hale has presented here from authors and World War I veterans.
    • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor:
      • Chart and evaluate the use of prayer, sermon, and song throughout the book.
      • Page 18: Discuss the prose used in relating Nat Turner’s vision.
      • Page 57: In the first panel, the Hangman uses an image to help him remember Harriet Tubman (an image of a hairy man in a tub). Brainstorm ways students might play with images and words to help them remember other important people/events/concepts they’re learning about.

Modes of Storytelling and Visual Literacy

In graphic novels, images are used to relay messages with and without accompanying text, adding additional dimension to the story. In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales author Nathan Hale weaves the story’s decisions and events through the use of text, image, and design. For example:

  • Analyze and discuss how Hale visually separates the historical “flash forwards” versus the images where Hale, the Hangman, and the Provost are speaking.
  • Analyze and discuss how shades of one color and white and black are used to relay different elements of the story.
  • Chart, analyze, and discuss how balloon shapes and font styles and sizes are used to relay information.
  • Discuss the use of visual versus verbal storytelling in these books. For example:
    • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy:
      • Page 6: Discuss the imagery of the bald eagle flying and landing on the hanging tree.
      • Page 26: Paul Revere’s image of the Boston Massacre is an outstanding example in history relating the power of one image. You may want to discuss or have students research how this image was pivotal in rallying support for the revolution. You may also want to discuss the Provost’s protest, “That isn’t how it happened! Who drew this?”
      • Page 30: Compare and contrast British versus American army camps. What can be learned from the images?
    • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad!:
      • Discuss the image on page 7, in which Lincoln is trying to keep the North and South of the United States from splitting.
      • Discuss and evaluate how Hale uses maps, arrows, images, text arrows, and sequential design on pages 22-23 to illustrate the decision and events that led to the sinking of the Merrimack in the Norfolk Shipyard.
    • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party:
      • Discuss how and why Hale uses the top of pages 12-13 to illustrate the length, the numbers, and the mass of the Donner group.
      • Discuss the choices Hale made on page 13 as he illustrates what “the last town before we plunge into the wilderness” looked like.
      • Page 19: Discuss how Hale uses a map, the Hangman, and the Provost to relate the Donner party’s progress.
      • Pages 42-43: Analyze and evaluate how Hale relays the size and expanse of the “complete” Donner party.
      • Pages 48-49: Discuss Hales two-page spread to relate the hardships of crossing the Salt Flats.
      • Pages 87-94: Discuss and evaluate Hale’s use of image and design to describe the hardships faced by the separated families in Sierra, Nevada.
    • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood:
      • Discuss why Hale chose to depict the different countries as different types of animals. How helpful/effective was this? Why?
      • Discuss how Hale shows us each passing year. Discuss his use of showing the beginning of each year with some image of Ares, the Greek god of war. Discuss and evaluate how Hale changes Ares’ image with each passing year of the war.
      • Chart and explore the different ways Hale uses panel/page design as well as visual images and metaphor to explain this very complicated war. Discuss and evaluate the images you find more successful at relaying difficult concepts and those that you find less successful. Does everyone agree to the more and less successful images? Why or why not?
      • Page 12: Discuss the image (content and shapes) to depict “Triple Entente.”
      • Page 21: Discuss Hales use of panel shapes, panel inserts and overall panel design to show the assassins, targets, and victims.
      • Pages 24-25: Discuss the page design Hale uses to illustrate what “mobilization” means.
      • Pages 28-29: Discuss how Hale uses text and image to realy the various causes of World War One (Imperialism, nationalism, Militarism, alliances, and assassination).
    • In Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor:
      • Page 5: Discuss how effective the image is in explaining the Triangle Trade.
      • Page 75: Discuss the interplay of image with text: “Harriet plunged back into the maze of towns, forests, swamps, and rivers…”
      • Pages 79-81: Discuss and evaluate how and why Hale takes a slight detour to relate “The Adventures of Tiny Frederick Douglass.”
      • Page 110: Discuss the power of the image relating “John Brown’s Plan, 1859” versus “What Actually Happened.” Why does this work so effectively as an image?

Social Studies Content–Area Lessons

  • Discuss the pros and cons of nationalism and how it created, shaped, and influenced our world today.
  • Discuss the different types of governance we’ve had in the United States and how each form has influence national and international culture and history.
  • Discuss and debate famous historical moments and how they’ve impacted on our governance and on our culture.
  • Discuss and evaluate how warfare has changed and how it has remained the same.
  • Discuss and evaluate the various causes of World War One. Discuss how this war was “the war to end all wars.” Discuss why it didn’t end all wars.
  • Discuss how scientific innovations have influenced warfare (ex. Ironclads, trench warfare, helmet and ship design).

Suggested Prose Novel and Poetry Pairings

For greater discussion on literary style and/or content, here are some novels about or influenced by historical events to pair with Hazardous Tales:

  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe — the classic book about slavery and the Underground Railroad
  • Nat Turner by Kyle Baker — a story of the horrors that led Nat Turner to lead one of the bloodiest slave revolts.
  • Gettysburg by Jonathan Hennessey – a graphic novel that details why Lincoln used the words he used in his famous speech and how they helped explain the history and the sacrifices made at Gettysburg.
  • Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole — a wordless story of a farm girl who discovers a runaway slave hiding in their barn.
  • To Be a Slave by Julius Lester — a powerful collection of narratives gathered from slaves and former slaves.
  • Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan — a book that chronicles the story and use of dogs through various wars.


Hazardous Tales is full of advanced vocabulary, wonderful wordplay, inferences, nuanced characters, and humor. It can be effectively used with middle school students. It promotes critical thinking and its graphic novel format provides verbal and visual story telling that addresses multi-modal teaching, and meets Common Core State Standards. A more detailed look follows:

  • Knowledge of Language: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials; demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meaning; acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking and listening at the college and career readiness level.
  • Key ideas and details: Reading closely to determine what the texts says explicitly and making logical inferences from it; citing specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text; determining central ideas or themes and analyzing their development; summarizing the key supporting details and ideas; analyzing how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of the text.
  • Craft and structure: Interpreting words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings and analyzing how specific word choices shape meaning or tone; analyzing the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs and larger portions of the text relate to each other and the whole; Assessing how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Integration of knowledge and ideas: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually…as well as in words; delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence; analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take
  • Range of reading and level of text complexity: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently
  • Comprehension and collaboration: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively; integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively and orally; evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.


Meryl Jaffe, PhD teaches visual literacy and critical reading at Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth OnLine Division and is the author of Raising a Reader! and Using Content-Area Graphic Texts for Learning. She used to encourage the “classics” to the exclusion comics, but with her kids’ intervention, Meryl has become an avid graphic novel fan. She now incorporates them in her work, believing that the educational process must reflect the imagination and intellectual flexibility it hopes to nurture. In this monthly feature, Meryl and CBLDF hope to empower educators and encourage an ongoing dialogue promoting kids’ right to read while utilizing the rich educational opportunities graphic novels have to offer. Please continue the dialogue with your own comments, teaching, reading, or discussion ideas at and please visit Dr. Jaffe at http://www.departingthe

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All images (c) Nathan Hale.