Comics & Graphic Novels

My mother bought the complete Peanuts collection for 1958-1959 a few years ago, but I didn’t really notice  it until my eldest son picked it up at age six.  And didn’t put it down for about two days.  A bit later my eldest daughter started reading it and it was the same thing:  completely, utterly addicted.  I’m not sure what it is, exactly, about Peanuts cartoons that they love so much, but love them they do.  We’ve since acquired a few more of the complete collection editions, and every one has been a big hit.  Both kids can recite a bunch of the comic strips by heart.  My third child is coming along now, carefully studying the pictures of Charlie Brown’s despair and laughing at Snoopy’s antics.  I’m glad I’ve become acquainted with the series — as much as my kids enjoy it, it’s only as a grown-up that you can really grasp Charles Schulz’s genius for encapsulating the harshness, the disappointments, and the joys of life.

The only other comic strip we’ve tried is the Calvin and Hobbes series, and again, my two eldest kids spent the majority of a couple of days laughing over them.  I think I prefer Peanuts, as I find Calvin a bit mean-spirited, but he does get his comeuppance now and again.

While I’m not a fan of Anime and other fantasy / adventure graphic novels, which are prone to representations of violence and sexualization, I’m intrigued by the alternatives being offered in the graphic  genre, like the following….

If your child loves graphic novels and is looking for something new and different (and folkie-mythic), try Luke Pearson’s Hilda books, starting with Hildafolk.  Hilda’s world is one of elves and giants – of thunder and bells.  Her quests are about far-away places of adventure and the comfort and kinship of home.  And funny bits like a Prime Minister’s cavalry made up entirely of an avalanche of bunnies. Ages 7 and up.


I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Don Brown’s The Great American Dustbowl is masterfully done.   One of my favourite things about studying history is being able to make connections between events, and to recognize how one thing lead to another.  Brown makes these connections and recognitions so that kids (and grownups) can make sense of the massive topic of the prairie droughts of the Great Depression.  Starting with tectonic plates (really!), American Aboriginals and buffalo, then white settlers and even WWI, we see all the pieces fall into place as the United States slides into crisis.  Illustrations and descriptions are vivid enough to help readers grasp the magnitude of the “dirty thirties.”  As California endures its worst drought in 500 years, there was never a better time to read this book.  Ages 8 and up.


Binky the Space Cat just knows he’s destined to get out of the house (er, space station) and explore outer space (er, the yard).  His elaborate plans to escape are interrupted by his job defending his family from space attackers.  The first of a series of three books.  Very funny.  Ages 6 and up.


Jon Scieszka’s Time Warp Trio series features 16 chapter books about a time-travelling group of friends.  Whenit was adapted into a television series, new stories were issued as comic books.  My son has really enjoyed the chapter books from the original series, but he also liked its new graphic life, particularly Meet You At Waterloo, which features the trio’s run-in with Napoleon.  Ages 7 and up.


Little White Duck:  A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez tells the story of two sisters in 1970s China, after the death of Chairman Mao.  My son was completely absorbed by this book; the illustrations create an engaging introduction into important cultural and historical information.  Ages 8 and up.


Lily Renee, Escape Artist tells the story of a Jewish girl in Vienna who joins the Kindertransport of 1939, lives through the Blitz, and eventually ends up becoming a comic book illustrator in New York.  Trina Robbins, Anne Timons and Mo Oh create a gripping narrative and provide lots of biographical information on Renee, including family pictures and samples of her drawings. Ages 7 and up.


For another comic book alternative, try the graphic novel version of The Boxcar Children, which might lead readers to the oodles of Boxcar Children chapter book mysteries.

Cross-listing alert:  I’ve put Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories series in the “Stage Four Chapter Books” post because of its content, humour and vocab, but it can also be considered a bit cartoony because the text is integrated with so many illustrations:IMG_3117

Roy absolutely loves these books, which give kids a good look at myriad historical subjects and periods, like the French Revolution and ancient Roman history BUT does it through the most disgusting and ridiculous bits.  Such as:   WWI soldiers at Gallipoli had to wear the same clothes for weeks without ever taking them off.  One soldier finally took his socks off only to see them move, now seething masses of lice.  The text is broken up not only with multiple headings and sections, but also with Martin Brown’s comedic pictures of people enduring the more humiliating and gross aspects of human experience.  Irony and sarcasm abound, but Deary still manages to communicate the real suffering and injustices of history.  In other words:  dark humour, but never glib.  Masterfully done.

I know I’m the last one on board when I find a book at Costco.  However, in case you’re similarly late to the party:  Smile, by Raina Telgemeier, was a big hit with three of my kids as soon as it came through the door:  my 6-year-old, my 8-year-old and my 10-year-old all read it a few times (and it has the food stains and rumpled pages to prove it).  Sixth grader Raina needs braces, but then she has an accident that makes her dental situation even worse.  Raina’s ongoing tooth ordeals stitch together other defining experiences:  her family relationships, her first crush, her first day at a new school, etc.  Two sequels:  Sisters and Drama.093 094 095

Still another solid graphic novel with a young female protagonist:  Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks.  Once you get past the truly terrible title, which is way off base, you’re rewarded with a story of a homeschooled girl, Maggie, with three older brothers who must start high school when her mother leaves the family.  There’s a lot going on here — shifting relationships with and between the brothers, dealing with her mother’s absence, making her first real friend, grappling with high school’s politics and stratifications, and then there’s the ghost of a widowed sea captain’s wife….  The teenage frictions and friendships ring fairly true, and I appreciate the fact that Hicks resists a pat ending.  Both the ghost and Maggie’s mother are unanswered questions at the end of the book, but it works because sometimes that’s just how it is — we don’t always get to know the truth about the people we live with, and without.  A bit (tiny bit) edgy in its depiction of some of the bullying, so maybe a better choice for readers aged 9 (or 10?) and up.

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Primates, by Jim Ottaviana and Maris Wicks, tells the stories of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas, all of whom knew each other and were connected through Louis Leaky.  What I like most about this book is how clearly it demonstrates the challenges faced by these formidable women, and how they persevered despite setbacks.  Their determination and passion leap off the page, as do their triumphs: the women’s contributions to science are made clear and vibrant.  Parts of the book are a bit complicated, as the women end and begin relationships and deal with various bureaucratic roadblocks, but I think a nine-year-old would be able to manage just fine with an occasional assist from a grown-up.040

There are so many more choices these days for graphic novels that feature strong, non-sexualized female protagonists that are outside the usual Anime paradigm (giant eyes, tiny waist, etc…).  My 7-year-old can’t get enough of Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, about a girl who finds roller derby and a stronger sense of self and independence.

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Another good one for contemporary, real-life situations is El Deafo by Cece Bell, about a deaf girl managing school and friends — very much like Smile in tone and content.


More in keeping with the typical battle-strewn subjects of graphic novels is Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, but she’s a badass with a realistic body type, thank goodness.  All three kids, ages 7-10, loved this one.


Another one by Noelle Stevenson to try, if Nimona worked for your reader, is Lumberjanes (two volumes) which is a kind of amped-up girl version of a Scout troupe that battles strangeness in the forest and says kooky things like “Friendship to the max!”  Not my cup of tea, and not nearly so compelling and affecting as El Deafo and Smile, but the older kids (again, ages 7-10) all found it entertaining stuff, and it’s worth having graphic novels around that pack so many positive, empowered female protagonists, with not a boyfriend or shopping excursion in sight.

Scott Chantler’s graphic novel series Three Thieves is now in its sixth installment:  The Dark Island.  Part fantasy, part pirate story, part medieval quest, the books are funny, suspenseful, and packed with action, and one of the protagonists, Dessa, is a firecracker.  Excellent!


My kids got The Dark Island and The Nameless City from the library at the same time, and they said they enjoyed the latter, by Faith Erin Hicks, even more.  Hicks definitely has something – we loved her graphic novel Friends With Boys, too (except for its baffling, wrong-headed title).  There’s a multi-dimensionality to her characters that creates real depth – endearing goofiness, wistful longing, crestfallen disappointment, combustible bravery – written across every face, every page.  This is a Kung-Fu-inspired story about occupier and occupied (fierce female protagonist!) in a city that suffers from serial invasion.  Vital themes to consider in an age of mass migration, when the concepts of home and residency and belonging are constantly shifting and under attack.



For older readers, John Lewis’ March trilogy is an absolute MUST.  It’s completely engrossing.  Lewis, who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and took part in the march to Selma, continued to be active in politics throughout his life (now in his 80s, he’s the US Representative for Georgia), but the trilogy focuses on his youth and his efforts in peaceful protest.  IMG_0108march 1 IMG_0109