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Graphic Novels: Setting the Stage for Summer Reading Fun

by Snow Wildsmith

*This article originally appeared in the May issue of Kids & Books. Subscribe to Kids & Books and any of our other newsletters.*

Summer seems like the perfect opportunity to get kids to read for fun and, of course, graphic novels are proven kid-pleasers. But many parents worry about making sure their kids are reading the "right" books over the summer. To those parents, graphic novels don’t seem to be real reading at all, but mere fluff.

Here are some tips for responding to common parental concerns about graphic novels to help you bridge that gap between what parents want their kids to read and what kids themselves are eager to pick up.

"What is a ‘graphic’ novel? I don’t want my kid reading Fifty Shades of Grey!"

Parents may be confused by the term "graphic novel." It’s important to remind them that here, "graphic" means "with pictures" and has nothing to do with the content of the book. Show parents where graphic novels are located in the children, teen, and adult collections and how to find the appropriate section for their needs. Share the recommended lists available from the Association for Library Service to Children (Graphic Novel Core Collection and Children’s Notable Books, which includes graphic novels) and from the Young Adult Library Services Association (Great Graphic Novels for Teens). Additionally, many other YALSA lists also include graphic novels). Additionally, NoveList features graphic novel recommended reading lists on a variety of subjects and genres.


"I think my child needs to be reading educational titles."

Blending education and fun reading is something graphic novels do well. Summer Camp Science Mysteries (by Lynda Beauregard and Der-Shing Helmer; Lerner/Graphic Universe) is a fun series that features a racially diverse cast of kids using scientific principles to solve slightly spooky mysteries. The Resistance trilogy (First Second Books) uses kid-friendly action and drama to tell the story of three children drawn into French Resistance during World War II. Clan Apis (by Jay Hosler; Active Synapsis) is a moving exploration of the life cycle of a bee, with enough humor to draw in older children and teen readers. Teen superhero fans will pick up X-Men: Magneto Testament (by Greg Pak and Carmine Di Giandomenico; Marvel) to find out more about the back story of a classic villain, not realizing that it is also a highly researched story about the Holocaust.

There are also plenty of nonfiction comics, readers will enjoy. Older mythology fans will love George O’Connor’s Olympians series (First Second Books) and their younger siblings will appreciate the silliness of Michael Townsend’s Amazing Greek Myths of Wonders and Blunders (Amulet). Teens with a strong stomach will "eat up" the adult comic, Supersized: Strange Tales from a Fast-Food Culture (Dark Horse) by documentarian Morgan Spurlock.

"My child isn’t a strong reader and needs to work on his/her skills."

Graphic novels are a great way to help build reading skills. Giving kids visual reinforcement for the words they read, graphic novels pair unfamiliar or difficult words with pictorial references. Toon Books’ entire lineup of titles is aimed at new readers and several of their books, including Benny and Penny in The Big No-No (by Geoffrey Hayes), Little Mouse Gets Ready (by Jeff Smith), and Stinky (by Eleanor Davis), have been recognized by the Theodore Seuss Geisel Award committee. The Balloon Toons line from Blue Apple Books is also made up of early reader graphic novels, such as Rick & Rack and the Great Outdoors (by Ethan Long) and A Day in the Office of Dr. Bugspit (by Elise Gravel).

Wordless graphic novels are also terrific for weak and/or reluctant readers. The lack of words forces readers to pay closer attention to the characters’ faces and gestures, thereby building important social skills. They also allow readers to make up their own words for the story, which helps develop imagination. Parents and younger kids will enjoy reading the Owly books (by Andy Runton; Oni Press) together, discussing what is happening in the story, and making up their own dialogue. Even older children and teens can enjoy wordless graphic novels. Sara Varon’s gentle Robot Dreams (First Second) will speak to any child who has lost a friend or any teen who has undergone a breakup. Teens looking for more action will appreciate Age of Reptiles (by Ricardo Delgado; Dark Horse), which omits even sound effect words like "BAM!" "POW!" as it tells the sometimes bloody story of life among the dinosaurs.

"My child is reading on a very high grade level. What titles are appropriate for him/her?"

For advanced readers, look for comics that include rich and detailed settings, plots, and characters. Some titles, such as the classic fantasy series Bone (by Jeff Smith; Scholastic/Graphix), were originally created for adult comic fans, but soon migrated down to younger readers. In addition to being an adventurous story, Bone provides a unique look at the classic hero’s journey. Usagi Yojimbo (by Stan Sakai; Fantagraphics and Dark Horse) is an ongoing series about a wandering samurai in Japan -- who happens to be a rabbit. Teen readers will appreciate the themes of honor, duty, and responsibility.

Chris Schweizer’s Crogan’s Adventures series (Oni Press) resists talking down to readers, who may come for the adventure, then stay for the in-depth look at life as a pirate, in the French Foreign Legion, and during the Revolutionary War. Likewise, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (Arthur A. Levine) may seem simple because it is wordless, but as an allegory for the American immigration experience, it offers readers plenty of food for thought.

"My child only wants to read Batman comics, but the one I picked up at the comic shop is full of adult themes."

Many superhero comics today are not written for children, which can be frustrating to parents. But Capstone has recently taken over publishing several of DC Comics’ kids titles, such as Batman: the Brave and the BoldSuperman AdventuresTiny Titans, and Justice League Unlimited, so libraries can now buy sturdier, hardcover editions of popular titles. The Marvel Adventures line offers all-ages comics, though be aware that they go out of print quickly. For teen collections, try adding some of the titles from DC’s Showcase Presents and Marvels’ Masterworks lines, both of which are reprints of classic comics. Otherwise, offer original superhero titles, such as Sidekicks (by Dan Santat; Scholastic/Graphix), Fashion Kitty (by Charise Mericle Harper; Hyperion), or G-Man (by Chris Giarrusso; Image).

"I want my grandkids to read the comics I read as a child."

In addition to the superhero classics mentioned above, a number of publishers are reprinting classic comics. Little Lulu (by John Stanley; Dark Horse) is still funny, over a quarter of a century after it was first published. Drawn and Quarterly publishes the Moomin comics, based on Tove Jansson’s classic fantasy novels, and Pippi Moves In, the comic companion to Astrid Lindgren’s popular series. And, of course, there will always be Archie Comics.

"I don’t think comics reflect enough diversity."

Graphic novels are still overwhelmingly Caucasian, but that is starting to change. Princeless (by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin; Action Lab Entertainment) features a main character of color and has won acclaim for its girl-power fantasy theme. Superhero fans may prefer Ultimate Comics Spider-man (by Brian Michael Bendis, et al; Marvel), a spin-off series where African-American/Latino Miles Morales takes on the powers and responsibilities of the classic web-slinger.

Readers who want to learn about life in other cultures may enjoy biographical titles like Little White Duck: a Childhood in China (by Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez) or A Game for Swallows (by Zeina Abirached; both Lerner/Graphic Universe), set during the Beirut Civil War in the 1980s. The series Yotsuba (by Kiyohiko Azuma; Yen Press) uses humor to give readers a sense of life in Japan. Barry Deutsch’s Hereville series (Amulet) is a top-notch fantasy that happens to be set in an Orthodox Jewish community.

"My kid needs to read ‘real’ books, not books with pictures."

When parents remain reluctant to accept graphic novels, it may help to offer graphic novels in conjunction with books in other formats. For example, if you have a reader who is always checking out dance nonfiction, you could recommend Noel Streatfeild’s prose novel Dancing Shoes, as well as To Dance: a ballerina’s graphic novel (by Sienna Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel; Atheneum) and the Dance Class series (by Beka and Crip; Papercutz).

Another option is to gently lead parents into comic acceptance by offering graphic novel hybrids. Hybrids blend prose with comic pages, giving kids the comics they want and parents the prose passages they desire. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is probably the most well-known, (by Jeff Kinney; Amulet), but other excellent series are Frankie Pickle (by Eric Wight; Simon & Schuster), Dragonbreath (by Ursula Vernon; Dial), Dork Diaries (by Rachel Renee Russell; Aladdin), and Big Nate (by Lincoln Peirce; Harper Collins).

Hopefully these tips have given you some techniques for helping parents and their children find titles that will satisfy both of them. Today’s visually oriented children often don’t see graphic novels as anything other than books. They want to read what appeals to them and what they enjoy. Your young patrons will thank you for helping satisfy their craving for fun, well-crafted, exciting graphic novels and their parents will be thrilled as they watch their children devour book after book.

In addition to the titles mentioned above, here are five more titles for younger kids, older kids, and younger teens. These are newer titles (or titles that may have flown under your radar), but all are great.


Five Titles for Younger Kids (Ages 0-8)

1. Adopt a Glurb by Elise Gravel (Blue Apple): This silly early reader is a sly take on a children’s nonfiction staple: the pet guide.

2. Beep and Bah by James Burks (Carolrhoda Books): Robot Beep and his pet goat set off on a quest to find a missing sock, encountering a host of funny animals along the way.

3. Hippo and Rabbit in three short tales and Hippo and Rabbit in three more short tales: brave like me by Jeff Mack (Scholastic): These two early readers featuring animal best friends are perfect for kids who want more stories like the Elephant and Piggie series.

4. Kitty & Dino by Sara Richard (Yen Press): A pet cat is in for a big surprise when his family’s little boy brings home a dinosaur egg, in this wordless graphic novel picture book.

5. A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse by Frank Viva (Toon Books): Mouse isn’t sure about traveling to Antarctica, even though he’s sure to see amazing things there.


Five Titles for Older Kids (Ages 9-12)

1. Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata (Vertical): A family adopts a lost kitten who soon turns their home upside down in this sweet manga series which appeals to a wide age range, from kids to adults. (9 volumes to date)

2. Mal and Chad: the biggest, bestest time everMal and Chad: Food Fight!; and Mal and Chad: Belly Flop! by Stephen MacCranie (Philomel Books): Mal, an unrecognized genius, and his best friend, the talking dog Chad, have a series of misadventures in this Calvin and Hobbes-esque series.

3. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy and Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad! by Nathan Hale (Amulet): Historical figure Nathan Hale uses humor to tell his captors about historical events, trying to stave off his coming execution for spying.

4. Okie Dokie Donuts, vol. 1: Open for Business by Chris Eliopoulos (Top Shelf): Big Mama makes the best donuts in town, but her business is threatened by a new donut-making robot in a silly story which will appeal to Captain Underpants fans.

5. The Purple Smurfs by Peyo (Papercutz): Before there was a cartoon, there was the comic, and Papercutz’s release of the classic Smurfs comic series will allow fans new and old to revisit their favorite blue friends. (11 volumes)


Five Titles for Younger Teens (Ages 13-15)

1. Ichiro by Ryan Inzana (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): While visiting his grandfather in Japan, Ichiro stumbles into a world of gods and monsters in this thought-provoking coming-of-age story.

2. Lizzie Newton: Victorian Mysteries by Hey-Jin Jeon (Seven Seas): Historical fiction and mystery fans will enjoy solving crimes along with the plucky Lizzie, who chafes at the restrictions of Victorian society. (2 volumes to date)

3. Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks (First Second): What could go wrong when nerds and cheerleaders unite to win a fighting robot competition? Possibly everything.

4. Rust, vol. 1: Visitor in the Field and Rust, vol. 2: Secrets of the Cell by Royden Lepp (Archaia): A family struggling to survive after a devastating war gets an unexpected visitor in this quiet, but moving science fiction tale.

5. Teen Boat! by Dave Roman and John Green (Clarion Books): This purposefully campy title about a boy who can transform into a boat will appeal to teens who like silliness and a touch of snark.

Snow Wildsmith, a former teen librarian, is a book reviewer and writer who specializes in comics for kids and teens, as well as teen fiction. She is the co-author of A Parent's Guide to the Best Kid's Comics: Choosing Titles your Children will Love and the author of the teen nonfiction series, Joining the Military. She has served on various ALA/YALSA selection committess. Currently, she is working on her first teen fiction title.