14 Wise and Witty Graphic Memoirs Every Teen Should Read
by Laura Buchwald
Graphic novels are one of the fastest-growing genres in libraries and bookstores and have become especially popular among teenage readers. These novels tell stories through a combination of prose and pictures — generally in the form of comics, or what is known as “sequential art.”
There was once a stigma against graphic novels, with critics dismissing them as little more than glorified comic books. But these works can cover serious, intelligent topics. When cartoonist Art Spiegelman received a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for Maus, his graphic memoir about the Holocaust, he brought critical attention to the form and helped elevate it to a respectable literary genre.
Since then, more memoirists have chosen to chronicle their lives through graphic novels, sometimes combining their artwork with photos, journal entries, and other real-life mementos. The visual medium makes even the heaviest of topics a bit more accessible, and these memoirists frequently use dark humor to tell their stories.
Today’s digital landscape may also account for the growing interest in graphic novels. We’ve grown accustomed to merging text and visuals in our communications. And to the outward sharing of our lives. There’s also our shrinking collective attention span — we regularly write in 140 characters or fewer. That these stories move quickly accounts, in part, for their resurgence in popularity. Some studies even suggest that readers retain more information from a combination of visual and verbal material, making graphic novels valuable teaching tools as well.
These graphic novel memoirs present a range of compelling topics in a smart, creative style that will be entertaining and enlightening for teens (and many adults too).
Dancing at the Pity Party
This heartfelt and humorous graphic memoir is a must-read for anyone struggling with losing a loved one. It won multiple awards and claimed the hearts of YA readers everywhere. In it, Tyler Feder shares her experience with losing her mother to cancer and navigating life after the funeral.
We'll Soon Be Home Again
From persecution to the horrors of the concentration camps, this collection of graphic memoirs offers readers multiple first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. Jessica Bab Bonde collected survivors’ stories and created this book from their memories. It’s an essential and timely book for YA readers interested in learning more about World War II and the Holocaust.
Living Beyond Borders
Moving to a new country and finding your place is difficult — even if it’s right across the border. This book is a collection of stories, personal essays, poetry, and comics by Mexican American authors. They share their struggles, triumphs, and hopes as they adjust to life in a new country.
Maggie Thrash spent the summer of 2000 as she did most summers — at a sleepaway camp in the Appalachians for very good Christian girls. Armed with a love of the Backstreet Boys and zero experience with actual boys, she learns to shoot a gun and develops her first crush … on a slightly older, female counselor. Anchored by the story of their reunion two years later, this is a wry and witty tale of first, forbidden love and the heartbreak that comes with it.
The Magic Fish
This semi-autobiographical graphic novel is about a teenage boy named Tiến, who wants to tell his Vietnamese-speaking parents he’s gay. Because of their language differences, Tiến turns to the only source of help he can think of — fairy tales. This touching story captures the complexities of coming out, communication, and family.
Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation
Anne Frank’s diary is one of the best-known memoirs to this day. Now, teens and YA readers can experience the classic book in graphic novel format. Follow Anne as she goes into hiding, falls in and out of love, and describes the state of her country.
March (Trilogy Slipcase Set)
Teens and adults alike will get caught up in this stunning graphic memoir trilogy. These books share civil rights legend John Lewis’s personal history, passion, and fight for equality. It’s no surprise this series received multiple awards and became a #1 New York Times bestseller.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Marjane Satrapi was raised in Tehran, the daughter of Marxist activists. She bore witness to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and, with it, to the many contradictions of daily life in Iran. Satrapi’s story is a wise and gripping account of a precocious childhood marked by a tumultuous chapter in her country’s history.
After you’ve read Anne Frank’s Diary and We’ll Soon Be Home Again, pick up this graphic memoir about a young Jewish girl, her mother, and her grandmother (who survived World War II). It’s a fascinating look at the impact the Holocaust had and continues to have, even generations later.
I Was Their American Dream
In this hilarious and heartfelt memoir, Malaka shares her experience of growing up as a first-generation kid, somewhere in the middle of her living up to her immigrant parents’ idea of the American dream and ordinary teenage antics. Honest and vulnerable, this book’s themes on family and identity are something that we all share.
The Life of Frederick Douglass
As young people prepare to make their way in the world, it can be very enlightening to see how historical and cultural figures braved their own path forward. In this graphic novel biography of Frederick Douglass, readers learn about the life of this escaped enslaved person and abolitionist who worked toward freedom and equality for all.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
In the book that raised the bar for graphic memoirs, Art Spiegelman starkly illustrates his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust and a prisoner at Auschwitz — as well as their touching, complicated relationship decades after the end of the war. This is not a light-hearted story by any means, but it is a must-read for anyone who loves the genre and who wants to learn more about one of history’s darkest eras.
The Black Panther Party
This is the perfect introduction to learn about the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a revolutionary political organization that stood in defiant contrast to mainstream civil rights activists. Offering detailed, contextual history about the movement, its key players, and their mission, Walker's narrative makes for a well-rounded, human history of the Party. Told in a dramatic comic book style that's as visually stunning as it is informative, this is a book that educates while entertaining.
Maybe An Artist, A Graphic Memoir
Sharpen your pencils and grab a stack of paper because this memoir is sure to bring out your inner artist! The funny and poignant story of Liz Montague, the first Black female cartoonist to be published by the New Yorker, will inspire readers not to be afraid to chase their dreams.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2015 and updated in 2022.