Books & Beyond: Graphic Novels

Not Your Father's Comic Books...
Why Graphic Novels for Kids Are All the Rage for Youth

By Kathleen Krull

Get ready for a wave of graphic novels for kids. These are stories told in comic-strip-style panels, bound like a traditional book, easy to get addicted to. Adults have been surfing this wave for years, with topics R-rated or of no interest to kids. But the trend is migrating down to teens and tweens. All sorts of creative people are making juicy graphic novels with young readers in mind.

Word on the street is that these are great for those who balk at large chunks of text. Because they're not "proper books," they lure kids in by seeming slightly forbidden, often spiced with a playful, sly wit. But these aren't easy reads - they demand active decoding. All at the same time, the reader is absorbing characters, emotions, plot, action, setting, symbolism, dialog, captions, commentary, facial expressions and more. Is this a dream sequence taking place, a flashback, a fantasy or foreshadowing?

It's fun, but they require a flexibility that can be taxing for older readers (i.e., middle-age parents), but not so much for nimble young minds with more brain cells. To kids who have grown up immersed in a multimedia world, this is just another way to tell stories.

Many librarians actually approve. Kat Kan, a librarian and well-known consultant specializing in graphic novels, collects statistics about how much circulation of all materials goes up when a library adds graphic novels. And there's something for everybody. In her article "Why Graphic Novels Belong in Libraries" for First Second Books, Kan notes that they offer something "for every genre, for every age level, for those who love slam-bang action, and for those who love thought-provoking, serious, literary stories, for reluctant readers, and for very sophisticated readers."

For Young Readers

On the younger end of the spectrum, for ages 6 and up, is Patty-Cake and Friends Color Collection, by Scott Roberts (SLG Publishing, $12.95). Almost an extension of Saturday-morning cartoons, these noisy and splashy episodes star a little smart-aleck named Patty-Cake Bakerman. The stories are cartoonishly violent and gross, mischievous, undeniably funny. Sort of Little Lulu meets The Three Stooges meets Captain Underpants.

Anyone who appreciates a "brain that can mix and match hundreds of outfits in a second" will like Fashion Kitty, by Charise Mericle Harper (Hyperion, $8.99). On her eighth birthday, ordinary Kiki Kittie turns into a superheroine who saves other cats from fashion disasters. The art is super-simple, all pinks and grays contained within solid black lines. The stories are hilarious - surely this will be an ongoing series.

Librarians' Picks

=2>Graphic novels are here to stay, and according to most children's and young adult literature experts, they are harmless at worst and brilliant at best. Here are some more titles recommended by teachers and librarians:

=2>Librarian Allyson Lyga, co-author of Graphic Novels in Your Media Center: A Definitive Guide, writes in School Library Journal, reports that she has seen "countless students who are well on their way to becoming successful readers thanks to graphic novels." Her opinion is that "educationally speaking, graphic novels give the brain more of a workout per sentence than any other type of media, including conventional books."

=2>For younger readers, she recommends a long list that includes The Adventures of Tintin series, by HergÉ; The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius series, by John Davis; The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean; Monkey vs. Robot and Pinky & Stinky, both by James Kochalka; and Wonder Woman's Book of Myths, by Clare Hibbert.

=2>Also in the School Library Journal, Michele Gorman, author of Getting Graphic! Using Graphic Novels to Promote Literacy with Preteens and Teens, recommends the following for younger readers: the Akiko series, by Mark Crilley; The Last Knight: An Introduction to Don Quixote, by Will Eisner; and the Astro Boys series, by Osamu Tezuka.

Librarian and Sidekicks creator (see Resources) Robin Brenner writes in The Horn Book Magazine that graphic novels "relieve the tension of reading expectations for kids who are not natural readers, and lets them learn to be confident and engaged consumers of great stories." But even good readers benefit from the mental exercise of "reading between the panels," she notes. "This kind of literacy is not only new, but vital in interacting with and succeeding in our multimedia world."

Brenner recommends the following graphic novels for mature teens: Maus, by Art Speigelman; Batgirl: Year One, by Chuck Dixon; and XXXholic, by CLAMP. And, for both parents and kids looking to get a grip on the phenomenon, she suggests Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud.

Booklist, the review magazine for the American Library Association, acknowledges that graphic novels can be much more than pop-culture artifacts. Michael Cart, one of the magazine's specialists, mentions the following titles as classics for older readers: Age of Bronze, by Eric Shanower; Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi; and Blankets, by Craig Thompson.

Also pink and also amusing are the school stories in the Babymouse books by Jennifer Holm and Matt Holm (Random House, $12.99). Babymouse is sassy, endearing and prone to athletic flights of fantasy inspired by the books she reads. Sort of Pippi Longstocking meets Hello Kitty. She has to beware her nemesis, popular Felicia Furrypaws, and bear with teachers who use the "blah blah blah" method of instruction. In the fourth and latest Babymouse book, Rock Star, she indulges some of her favorite daydreams. The drawings, simple to the point of crude, always get the emotions across.

Who wouldn't want to read a book called Sardine in Outer Space, by Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar (First Second, $12.95)? Sardine is a dashing space-pirate, cruising the galaxy in her spaceship, Huckleberry, with her rough-tough Uncle Yellow Shoulder and her friend Little Louie. In these 12 fast-paced adventures, they encounter space leeches, talking clouds and the evil Supermuscleman, who rules a space orphanage where children are taught "proper behavior." The colorful, quirky art is almost ugly, but it fits the alien milieu.

TokyoPop is debuting a line of "Manga Readers" - manga being the Japanese art form of graphic novels. These books spare 8- to 12-year-old readers the challenge of having to read from back to front, and from right to left, as with traditional manga. They're slick, easy to follow and all-action. In Mail Order Ninja 1, by Joshua Elder and Erich Owen (TokyoPop, $5.99), little Timmy from Cherry Creek, Indiana, orders his very own ninja. Helpful when getting through a day at school. In one funny scene, Timmy's mom yells at him for reading comic books, to which he retorts, "Mom, it's not a comic book! It's a graphic novel! Jeez!" The book also comes with a fake essay by a Professor of Ninjology at Oxford University. In Zapt! 1, by Shannon Denton, Keith Giffen and Armand Villavert Jr. (TokyoPop, $5.99), ordinary Armand Jones is inducted into the Pan-Galactic Order of Police, with sound effects so loud you can almost hear: ZZRRT, PZAT and SPLOOSH!

An Educational Angle

There is even a curious series called "Edu-Manga," originally published in Japan. Reading correctly from back to front, Helen Adams Keller, by Sozo Yanagawa and Rie Yagi (Digital Manga Publishing, $9.95), is a bizarre combination. Japanese icon Astro Boy, a robot with superpowers, narrates a dramatic biography of Helen Keller, the woman who triumphed over the obstacles of not being able to see or hear. This goes way beyond the movie The Miracle Worker, taking a few liberties here and there, but makes for genuinely compelling reading. Other figures in this series include Beethoven, Einstein and Anne Frank.

Also semi-educational is the graphic rendition of Jack London's exciting dog story, Call of the Wild (Puffin Graphics/Penguin, $10). It's part of a well-planned series of adaptations of original classics, with black-and-white illustrations by various artists. Some other titles in the series include Dracula, Black Beauty and The Red Badge of Courage.

Truly for all ages are the Bone books, by Jeff Smith. Three blobby cousins, the Bones, veer into mysterious, ominous landscapes. A bit heavy - sort of The Lord of the Rings meets Peanuts - but always rescued by extreme wit. These hugely popular titles are on everyone's "best-of" lists. In the latest volume (the fourth), Dragonslayer (GRAPHIX/Scholastic, $9.99), the Bones must deal with Kingdok, ruler of the rat creatures, and Phoney Bone tricks people into thinking he is a dragonslayer - then he must actually slay one.

Magical-girl manga is cute and sweet, with fervent fans of characters with huge eyes. In Pichi Pichi Pitch 1: Mermaid Melody, by Michiko Yokote and Pink Hanamori (DelRey Manga, $10.95), Lucia is an adorable high-school student, and also a mermaid princess out to save the seven seas from an evil force. She gets her power from magical pearls, which give her "pichi pichi" pitch, or a lighthearted voice. Sort of Sailor Moon with a little Hans Christian Andersen, it includes helpful explanations of various Japanese references.

For Older Readers

Moving into the 12 and up area, Girl Stories, by Lauren Weinstein (Holt, $16.95), is - like many of these books - an envelope sending the reader into another world. This one is all angst: the eighth- and ninth-grade years, when our heroine is feeling guilty about still playing with Barbies and everything feels like the end of the world. Funky artwork is reminiscent of Lynda Barry.

Another autobiographical title is To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel, by Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel (Atheneum, $17.95). "Big empty spaces always made me dance," Siegel writes, describing herself as a tiny girl in Puerto Rico. She tells of her struggle, not always happy, since then. This book is perfect for girls who also grew up loving A Very Young Dancer.

The prize for oddest new book goes to Lewis Trondheim's A.L.I.E.E.E.N.: Archives of Lost Issues and Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties (First Second, $12.95). Supposedly the first extraterrestrial comic book, drawn by actual aliens. A few balloons of fake-alien dialogue accompany mostly wordless adventures. It's Pokémon-ish little creatures end up in surprising situations of violence or grossness (but nothing worse than a typical video game). Edward Gorey meets the Blue Meanies, with room for interpretation of exactly what's going on.

Stay tuned for many more waves …

Children's literature expert Kathleen Krull is an author and frequent book reviewer for United Parenting Publications. To read more of her reviews, see the Books and Beyond Archives.