donner-dinner-party-review

When I tucked everyone into bed the other night, my ten-year-old daughter started reading this book. When I woke up the next morning, her light was on, and she was finishing it up. I’m sure she got some sleep in there somewhere, but whether she did or not, I was a happy mom. Anytime my kids read something because they want to, I’m overjoyed, and if it’s about history to boot? I’m over the moon.

All my kids fell in love with Nathan Hale’s first two graphic novels in his Hazardous Tales series, One Dead Spy and Big Bad Ironclad, when he first introduced them to us last year. They present history in a way that is not only accurate and informative, but entertaining and funny as well.

The kids and I came up with some questions we had about his series, most particularly about his latest installment, Donner Dinner Party. So we had a little interview. Here’s how it went (I love how he answered the last question):

Nathan-Hale-IllustratorDonner Dinner Party is the third in a series of books called Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. Can you tell us a little bit about that series?

Hazardous Tales is a series that covers weird, wild, and crazy stories from American history. The books are carefully researched and fact-checked, but are drawn in an easy-to-read graphic novel style. And they are packed with jokes. Facts and jokes. They are from Amulet Books–the same publisher as the Wimpy Kid books, so imagine Greg Heffley and co. going to war in 1776, or starving to death in the Sierra Nevada mountains, that’s sort of how Hazardous Tales works. True stories, with lots of jokes thrown in.

I know some people were a little worried about the title you chose for the book—that it might not be respectful to the serious nature of the events of the Donner Party. What can you tell these potential readers?

It definitely falls into the gallows humor category. My mother-in-law is not a fan of the title. It lets you know what you are in for; the tragic tale of the Donner Party, but told with enough jokes to keep it from being too dire. The book has been very well received by those who’ve read it. I’ve had a few reviewers remark that the book is surprisingly more respectful than they expected–but still funny, still grim and still gruesome. It is a book about the Donner Party, after all.

How long did it take you to research the events in the book? What places did you find to be the most helpful for doing your research?

I spend three to four months researching each Hazardous Tales book. Some are trickier than others. The Donner Party was one of the easier subjects, because it is such a contained event. It was a small group, a few kept journals. It isn’t overly complex. Some of the war volumes I’ve done are MUCH more difficult to get a clean narrative out of.

There are a lot of fantastic Donner Party books. My personal favorite, when researching this book, was a volume put together by the Reno Gazette. They ran a year-long feature, explaining each date’s events on the Donner’s journey. So you essentially got a day-by-day retelling of the entire trip–and the trap in the mountains. It was put together by a team of Donner experts and was the most helpful of my research sources. It’s called the Donner Party Chronicle, if you can track down a copy (it’s BIG) it’s a must-have for Donner Party enthusiasts.

What do you enjoy more, the drawing, the storytelling, or the research?

The drawing takes the longest. It’s very time consuming to draw comics. The storytelling is fun, I write the complete script, which is edited and fact-checked before the drawing starts. I end up researching the entire time. Early on, researching the facts and details for the writing, then I switch over to visual research for the drawing. Everything has to LOOK right. The guns have to be the right guns, the clothes have to be accurate, the maps have to read–the research never stops. Often times, the visual research will make me go back and re-think some of the written research. This leads to interesting jokes and facts that don’t turn up in standard, text-based non-fiction.

What will be your next adventure in NHHTs?

2014 will be the 100 year anniversary of the start of World War One. So the next book, book #4, is a complete history of World War One. It is the most complex book yet. It has already taken twice the time Donner Dinner Party took to research, write, and draw. In fact, I’m still working on it. It will be out this coming spring.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

History can be a hard sell to younger readers. Most kids can name more Hogwarts Defense Against the Dark Arts professors than Civil War generals. Happily, I’ve seen a lot of readers—particularly reluctant readers—pick up the Hazardous Tales books and have a good laugh (and learn some juicy American History at the same time).

Thank you, Nate!!

To read more about some of our favorite books by Nate, you can check out these posts here, here, and here.

Oh, and by the way, out of all three of Nathan’s Hale’s Hazardous Tales, my daughter likes Donner Dinner Party the best. She says it’s because it has more girls in it.