Saturday, June 1, 2013

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales

Nathan Hale addresses the crowd at bbgb in Richmond, Va.
On April 23rd, the marvelous bbgb bookstore in Richmond played host to a welcome guest, Nathan Hale. Mr. Hale is an author, children’s book illustrator and Lego fanatic who was in town to talk with young readers and sign copies of his new graphic novel series, Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales.


Hale: Do you guys want to hear how I got started drawing?

Crowd: Yeah.

Hale: All right. So check this out. When I was your guys’ age, all I wanted to do was watch TV. But guess what, my parents didn’t have one! They did not have a TV at all. So I would get pieces of paper and I would draw pictures of the shows I wished I was watching on TV.

And all my friends were talking about this show called “Chips Patrol” that was the coolest show on TV. I didn’t know what it was, ‘cause I didn’t have a TV. The show is really about some California motorcycle cops – C.H.P., California Highway Patrol, or something like that – but I thought it was about these chips [draws a corn chip with arms and legs] that went on patrol, and that lived. Little chips that are going around! I was totally missing out.

Also when I was a kid, I wanted to play Pac Man. It was a brand new thing; it was in the grocery store that my mom shopped at. I’d go with her and I’d say, “Please, can I play Pac Man?” and I would go up and move the joystick and push the buttons, but it would say Insert Coin. 

I was so obsessed with Pac Man and I wanted to play it. But my mom never gave me a quarter. EverSo, I made my own Pac Man. Do you know how I did that?

Child: By drawing it?

Hale: I drew it! I drew Pac Man and the ghosts. I colored them and I cut them out. Then I put them on a mat, like a level that I drew with the maze and stuff. And then I covered it with saran wrap so it kinda looked like a screen, and then I’d shake it around. And it was NOT FUN AT ALL. It was terrible! But I got in the habit of entertaining myself with drawings.


Now that he is earning his own quarters, Nathan Hale finds himself entertaining thousands of children with his drawings. His Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series is an enticing introduction to some of the greatest stories of American History.

Beginning with One Dead Spy, Hale introduces his namesake Nathan Hale, the unlucky Revolutionary War spy who was hanged in 1776 and who is probably best known for his stirring last words: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Using Nathan Hale as the narrator was an idea that popped into Hale’s head while on the phone with his editor. Having a single narrator ties the stories of different historical periods together as a cohesive series. In this Hazardous Tale, a giant history book swallows up Nathan Hale as he is about to be hung by the British. He sees millions of stories from the past and future of American History and begins to tell them to the Hangman to stay his execution.

“I like the Hangman, he’s kind of a stand-in for me not knowing about things so I just kind of rely on him,” says Hale. “I think that kids also like him because they feel a little bit smarter than he is. He’ll ask overly simple questions and then the kids learn along with him. The Hangman always has the funniest things to say.”

Hale's second book, Big Bad Ironclad, has Nathan Hale telling the 1861 story of the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. Hale makes sure to embellish a few of the more interesting historical details such as General Scott’s shouts of “Anaconda!” and a lively discussion of underwater toilets.

How accurate are his zippy little books? Hale and his crack team of fact-checking babies (see the book for details) work very hard to keep things factual. And Hale looks for interesting details that middle school history textbooks generally don’t mention. 

“I’ve discovered I like making things as accurate as possible,” he explains. “Things that aren’t accurate are just little bits of poetic license.”

Early fans will be pleased that there are more stories to come. Hale declares, “I just want to keep going and going and going.” And the historical Nathan Hale will narrate all of them. 

“The ongoing theme of the narration is that he is delaying the hanging, he is putting it off every time he tells a new story,” Hale noted. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get all the way to a book where we deal with that [hanging] but he keeps telling them.”

Due out this summer is a Hazardous Tale about the infamous Donner Party. “It is a tricky story,” Hale admits, “but what I’ve discovered in my school visits is kids love the gory details. It’s a very human story like the choices they make ... and we don’t get to the really grim stuff until the end of the book.”

Nathan Hale draws a portrait,  April 23, 2013.
But why tell history through comic books? Hale feels very strongly that the two go hand-in-hand. 

“I think because it’s so easy to visualize,” he relates. “You know you always hear about the Battle of Bunker Hill, but you never know why it is important. And in one diagram I’m showing how cannons on top of Bunker Hill can shoot ships that are in Boston Harbor. In one little diagram it makes sense. So I think comics are the perfect medium to describe complex things.”

“I’m not a historian, I’m a cartoonist who likes history,” claims Hale. “History is always a little dry to read when you’re a kid. If there’s a lot of pictures, and especially if there’s explosions and sound effects and goofy stuff, then suddenly you’re visualizing this piece of history thanks to a comic book style. It’s just a match made in heaven. It’s really fun.”

After reading the Hazardous Tales, Michelle Clark’s children impressed the Nauticus docent with their knowledge of the great sea battles of Hampton Roads. Thank you, Nathan Hale!


The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane (1895) can be downloaded at no cost on your Kindle or from Project Gutenberg. It is an emotionally intense look at the internal struggles of Henry Fleming, a young Union Army private who naively seeks glory, but at first doesn’t have the courage or character to be anything but envious and afraid.

It is his anger and hurt pride that finally influence Henry to take up the fight and become the standard-bearer for his regiment. A violent coming-of-age story with beautiful prose and vivid descriptions, this work of historical fiction is a must for young adult readers.