Celebrate Children’s Book Week right with our handy links to online resources and guides to the best comics and graphic novels for younger readers and our personal picks from the YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens lists.
If you’ve been following me on Tumblr or just keep tabs on what goes on in the world of libraries, publishing, and education, you’re probably aware that we are in the middle of Children’s Book Week (this year, Children’s Book Week is being celebrated from May 2–9 in Canada and May 4–10 in the United States).
The annual event originated as part of Boy Scouts of America librarian Franklin K. Matthiews’ campaign to raise the standards of books written for younger readers. In 1919, working with pioneering librarian and educator Anne Caroll Moore, Publishers Weekly editor and children’s book advocate Frederic G. Melcher, the American Library Association, and the American Booksellers Association, Matthiews launched the annual “Good Book Week with the Boy Scouts of America.” Over time, Good Book Week was renamed Children’s Book Week and its administration passed from the Boy Scouts of America to the Children’s Book Council and eventually to the Every Child a Reader (ECAR) foundation, a national non-profit organization that promotes literacy and a lifelong love of reading among children.
In Canada, Children’s Book Week was founded in 1977 as the Children’s Book Festival by Canadian authors Beverly Allinson, Maria Campbell, Christie Harris, Dennis Lee, Jean Little, Janet Lunn, W.O. Mitchell, Al Pittman, Barbara Smucker, Patti Stren, and Ian Wallace. Later renamed Children’s Book Week, the event is currently under the stewardship of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and major sponsor the TD Bank Group.
Despite being obviously different from prose books in terms of format, structure, and page navigation, comics and graphic novels have always played a large role in promoting literacy in children so it’s no surprise that comics publishers and comics advocacy organizations like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) have gotten in the swing of the Children’s Book Week festivities.
The pairing of words and images in comics and graphic novels helps young readers understand word definitions as well as more complex figures of speech in a way distinct from plain prose text. Repeated exposure to variations of these word-image pairings help reinforce these semantic associations and open the reader’s mind to their alternative interpretations. In the proper context, the interplay between text and sequential art also helps the more advanced young reader develop the facility for visual communication; critical thinking; and an appreciation of dialogue, plot, metaphor, theme, and other literary constructs and devices.
We’ve previously discussed in-depth how any competently created comic has intrinsic value as a language/communication learning tool by virtue of its hybrid visual/text format. But are some comics and graphic novels better choices for younger readers than others? One would think so. If today’s youth are anything like me when I was growing up, though, getting them to read “what they’re supposed to” could be an exercise in frustration.
As adults, we all too often forget how perceptive children can be. When I was a young reader of about ten or so, I could already sense when an author was “writing down” to what he or she felt like was my level. And I hated that—I wanted to sit at the big boys’ table and read big boy books. When I came across a situation in a book that I couldn’t understand, I either read up on it or figured that understanding would come in time as I grew older. In retrospect, the condescension I found in certain “all-ages” books and comics wasn’t always intentional on the part of the authors—it’s just that they were probably laboring under the mistaken notion that because children have yet to accrue direct experiences of the world, they are also unable to process more nuanced works. This simply isn’t the case. Barring developmental issues, children and teens possess the potential for empathy that can help with the reading and understanding of ambiguous, complicated situations and characters.
The ideal comics and graphic novels for children and teens, then, are those that understand that young readers possess the cognitive tools to navigate material that deals with complex themes and moral dilemmas, while at the same time recognizing that there are certain topics and literary devices that require the kind of explicit knowledge that can only come with age, education, and experience to fully comprehend.
Comics and graphic novel reading lists for children and teens
Below are links to resources that list comics and graphic novels that certain organizations recognize as appropriate reading for younger readers. Take note that these organizations may have different criteria for what constitutes age-appropriate reading.
- The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Great Graphic Novels for Teens
- The Association for Library Service to Children (ASLC) Graphic Novel Reading List (2014 update)
- Using Graphic Novels in Education (CBLDF)
- Good Comics for Kids (School Library Journal)
- The Graphic Novel Reporter Core Lists
- The Diamond BookShelf Core Lists
- The Graphic Classroom
My picks from the YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens lists
Below is my own personal recommendation list of teen-appropriate graphic novels, arranged according to original date of publication (in this instance, I use the term “graphic novel” to include paperback or hardcover collections of serial comics, not just original graphic novels). To keep the list a reasonable length, I’ve restricted my choices to those titles that have previously appeared in the YALSA graphic novel reading list and had their print debut within the last ten years.
Book descriptions for titles in the primary list are taken from the YALSA listings, and have been updated to reflect current publication information.
- Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (Drawn & Quarterly) by Guy Delisle: A French-Canadian animator chronicles his experiences in an isolated culture.
- Pride of Baghdad (DC Comics/Vertigo) by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon: Freed from captivity by the 2004 bombing of Baghdad, four lions struggle to survive the bloody aftermath.
- Demo (Dark Horse) by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan: Despite extraordinary powers and abilities, the young adults in these 12 gritty stories discover that decisions about life still don’t come easy.
- Laika (First Second) by Nick Abadzis: The story of how a small dog became the first cosmonaut.
- Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels (Harper Collins) by Scott McCloud: Comics scholar Scott McCloud illustrates what elements make comics people love.
- Action Philosophers! (Dark Horse) by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey: Nine famous (and not so famous) philosophers in history battle ignorance and confusion regarding their ideas and theories.
- Usagi Yojimbo, vol. 22: Tomoe’s Story (Dark Horse) by Stan Sakai: A female samurai may not be traditional, but sometimes she’s the best person to have at your back.
- Solanin (VIZ) by Inio Asano: Life after college: office drone or rock star?
- Clover Omnibus Edition (Dark Horse) by CLAMP: Former soldier Kazuhiko is asked to do one last job—deliver a young woman to a mysterious location only she can find.
- I Kill Giants (Image Comics) by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Nimura: Barbara Thorson carries a hammer to school every day to battle monsters, but are the monsters real or a mark of something more disturbing?
- Marvel 1985 (Marvel Comics) by Mark Millar and Tommy Lee Edwards: A boy with family issues realizes he’s got a lot more to worry about when Marvel super-villains start invading the real world.
- The Crogan Adventures: Crogan’s Vengeance (Oni Press) by Chris Schweizer: “Catfish” Crogan never thought he’d be a notorious pirate, but his life just took a turn for the worse.
- Pluto: Urosawa x Tezuka (VIZ, multiple volumes) by Naoki Urasawa: Who is killing the greatest robots on Earth?
- Saturn Apartments (VIZ, multiple volumes) by Hisae Iwaoka: Mitsu takes on his late father’s dangerous job as a window washer on the space ship Saturn Apartments.
- Chew (Image Comics, multiple volumes) by John Layman and Rob Guillory: When Tony Chu has to investigate murder, just about anything can end up down the hatch.
- Biomega (VIZ, multiple volumes) by Tsutomu Nihei: A zombie virus has hit the atmosphere and is spreading rapidly.
- Lola: A Ghost Story (Oni Press) by J. Torres and Elbert Orr: Just like his Filipina grandmother, Jesse can see things no one else can see.
- Anya’s Ghost (First Second) by Vera Brosgol: When Anya befriends a ghost, her life turns around—at least for a while.
- The Sixth Gun (Oni Press, multiple volumes) by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt: In the Old West, an enchanted six-shooter pits Becky against dark forces.
- A Bride’s Story (Yen Press, multiple volumes) by Kaoru Mori: The nineteenth-century Silk Road sets the stage for the arranged marriage between a huntress and a boy.
- Kamisama Kiss (VIZ, multiple volumes) by Julietta Suzuki: How will homeless teen Nanami deal with her new responsibilities as a local deity?
- Economix: How and Why Our Economy Works (And Doesn’t Work) in Words and Pictures (Abrams) by Michael Goodwin and Dan E. Burr: Who knew economics could be so fun?
- King City (Image Comics) by Brandon Graham: Joe doesn’t have much except a cat who can be changed into almost anything.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise (Dark Horse, multiple volumes) by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru: The adventure continues as Aang and the gang must find a way to bring peace to a post-war world.
- March (Top Shelf, multiple volumes) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell: John Lewis is a Congressman now, but back in the 60s he was a teenager standing up for justice.
- Bad Machinery (Oni Press, multiple volumes) by John Allison: How do you deal with Mad Terry? With soccer, England and being thirteen (volume 1). The kids of Tackleford solve the mystery of a toddler-eating monster in the woods (volume 2). Linton and Sonny investigate who has been setting fire to old barns. Could it be the troll living under the bridge? (volume 3).
- The Adventures of Superhero Girl (Dark Horse) by Faith Erin Hicks: The life of a superhero is not all monsters and flying—especially when you have no archnemesis and have a more popular superhero brother.
- MIND MGMT (Dark Horse, multiple volumes) by Matt Kindt: A journalist trails a missing passenger from “Amnesia Flight 815” and discovers a much bigger mystery.
- Tropic of the Sea (Vertical) by Satoshi Kon: Yosuke Yashiro’s family takes care of a mermaid egg in exchange for safe seas around their island community.
- Knights of Sidonia (Vertical, multiple volumes) by Tsutomu Nihei: The Sidonia carries the last of ever-evolving humanity and continues to fight the Gaunts with its dwindling resources.
- Battling Boy (First Second) by Paul Pope: Can monster-plagued Arcopolis be saved by a twelve-year-old demigod?
- City in the Desert (Archaia/BOOM! Studios, multiple volumes) by Moro Rogers: A suspicious holy man is investigated by Irro the Monster Hunter and his assistant.
- Sharaz-de: Tales from the Arabian Nights (Archaia/BOOM! Studios) by Sergio Toppi: To evade execution, Sharaz-de spends every night weaving a new story to appease her captor.
- Boxers & Saints (First Second) by Gene Luen Yang: Little Bao’s peaceful village is disrupted when a Christian priest and a group of foreign soldiers begin terrorizing the locals (Boxers). Four-Girl is unwanted by her family, and finds solace amongst the Christians who are invading her country (Saints).
- Beautiful Darkness (Drawn & Quarterly) by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët: A community of tiny people emerge from a dead girl’s body.
- 47 Ronin (Dark Horse) by Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai: The Japanese legend of the 47 Ronin and their epic mission to avenge their wronged master.
- Ms. Marvel (Marvel Comics, multiple volumes) by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, and others: Kamala Khan is a geeky teenager navigating her Muslim identity and parents’ expectations when she gains bizarre and inexplicable powers.
- In Real Life (First Second) by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang: Anda’s online persona discovers a bigger world than she can imagine.
- Through The Woods (Margaret K. McElderry Books) by Emily Carroll: Five tales of sinister things that live in the woods.
- Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki (Yen Press) by Mamoru Hosoda and Yu: Hana must raise two werewolf children on her own after their father dies in an accident.