I’m a huge fan of graphic novels and have been reading them for years, but I can’t think of anything more annoying to me than bad graphic novels.
Last year, our eldest begged for a graphic novel based on a popular kid’s video game. I conceded, hoping a book about the game would draw his attention into reading. It did in fact, but it also brought along a string of red flags.
There was little to no storyline. I inquired.
An excessive amount of fart sound speech bubbles. I saw these.
And a character pees in public. He giggled when he showed me this page.
As it would be, our kiddo read it once and never again. No harm, right?
But, if we want our kids to embrace reading, we might need to suspend judgment and not turn our noses up at graphic novels.
Graphic Novel Cheat Sheet
Instead, we need to help them find the good ones.
Good graphic novels, like any form of literature, possess a combination of engaging storytelling, well-crafted visuals, and thematic depth.
Is there a strong story or meaningful themes that draw you in?
A read of the back cover, a quick flip through the pages or even a skim of the first page should, like any novel, grab your attention. At their best, books help us work through life circumstances, emotions or societal issues and a meaningful theme can draw us in.
Pro tip: As a parent, I’m always looking for books that will open up dialogue with our kids, but there is a careful balance I attempt when I’m at the library on my own. Just like I can’t handle a stack of books about oppressive systems, our kids can’t handle a stack of heavy topics. So, be mindful, add a book about a unicorn that learns to make friends with a walking cotton candy puff into the mix.
Is the art attractive?
Visuals are everything. A good illustrator should use their skill to convey mood, emotions and action well. Take a look at the illustrator’s use of color or shading in black & white prints and note the artistry or lack of.
Pro tip: Know your child’s preferred style of illustration. No matter how sweet the storyline is, if I bring home a graphic novel with a breathtaking sunset and a rabbit on the cover, my middle grade reader won’t touch it. I look for books that have the type of artwork he’s attracted to. When in doubt, bring home that stack of books and make a mental note of the types that capture their attention.
What’s the balance of text and illustrations?
A good graphic novel has a careful balance of text and art, but an excellent one adds more to the story than what the words convey.
Pro tip: Yes, like you, I’m flipping through the graphic novels looking for the words-the vocabulary- to ensure it’s not all fluff or incomplete sentences.
Don’t jump to conclusions too fast. Psst, I did.
At times, the balance of words and text can feel imbalanced, but the (perceived) imbalance can often create space for the reader to sit, process, and use their eyes almost like a skilled listener would in a conversation. Lesson learned. But, yes, I still look at the text to ensure that it’s at or slightly above my child’s reading level to ensure they stay engaged.
The book recommendations
Without further ado, here are a few I think might peak your interest. There’s certainly more, but let’s start here!
This modern retelling of Little Women is one that I’ve been itching to read for awhile now. The twist is the four sisters are from a blended mixed race family! The sisters learn to stick together as their mother works hard to support them while their father is away for military service, sickness (you knew this was going to be a theme!) and a coming of age take on sexual identity.
I love modern takes on “the classics” because they take much beloved stories and often open up the storylines to those beyond the dominant culture. I’ve been eyeing this retelling and have gifted this one and this one to our god-daughter after reading this title.
For those children interested in the history of 9/11 this is a well written account of the seconds, minutes, and weeks after 9/11. The illustrations are well done and many pages feature large two-spread illustrations with limited words necessary to convey the devastation.
As an adult, I found it difficult to read since I remember those days very well, but I think this is a great book to begin a conversation and for you to share where you were on 9/11. (Yes, we are this old already!”)
A powerful graphic novel based on the true story of Omar Mohamed and his brother Hassan, who are refugees from Somalia living in a Kenyan refugee camp. The book tells their story of resilience, love for their family, and determination as they navigate life separated from their family.
The color palette of the illustrations is breathtaking and serene in nature, which is likely the opposite of what it’s like to live in a refugee camp. And yet, the illustrator does a beautiful job of calming our minds, so we can focus on the story of Omar and Hassan.
This graphic novel tells the story of one magical summer when a neighborhood of kids transforms cardboard boxes into elaborate costumes. A summer of adventures, imagination and real life makes this a book hard to put down. At first glance, I surmised that there weren’t “enough” words and that my kiddo would fill it in. In fact, much of the balance of illustration and text was perfect to handle the emotional weight of subjects like separation, sexual identity, bullying, grief and loss. This is a beautiful dive into these topics.
Each story told is written in collaboration with author Chad Sells by a host of authors sharing each child’s perspective and experience. In addition, there are two more books in this series which is perfect since it’s a fast read!
This one is not a kid’s read, but if you’re looking to reset your own reading or explore graphic novels try:
A bit of a warning about this book. This is an autobiography. Thi Bhi doesn’t hold back the pain of child loss, the political climate and how the war in Vietnam impacted her family’s life. Having said that, this is a fantastic memoir. I found myself thankful to her as it opened my eyes more to the impact of war and the experience immigrants arriving to the US.
I love the illustrations and the color palette of this book. I can still see the characters in my mind. Now, that’s how you know the illustrations were top notch!
The drama continues.
I’m going to assume for a minute that we’re friends and that you’re not going to shame me for this, but just as I was editing this blog post my kiddo comes home saying, “Hey Mom, they have _____ books at the library.”
Now, this is the very SAME BOOK SERIES… sorry, for shouting, that I declared to him that he’d never read again. Of course, I was distracted with dinner prep and said “Oh, that’s cool.” thinking that he was just telling me he saw the book at the school library.
Oh no, no. That night, I discovered him reading said book on the stairs before bedtime.
One more time. Inhale. Exhale.
After recounting this to his Dad, “Oh, “the-peeing-in-public” book is back!” and likely going into a full rant in between furiously brushing my teeth this is what I’ve come to realize.
My kids are still going to pick up the trendy books based on video games, tv shows or some YouTuber drinking Prime. Yours likely will too.
I likely can’t patrol them and their selections at the school library, because getting what’s cool is part of what happens during library hour. Goodness, I remember this clear as day. The kids in my class were flocking to the newest and goriest Goosebumps paperbacks (these still give me nightmares) because that’s what was the “cool” thing to read.
Do I wish my kids would brush aside this desire for peer approval? Sure do.
But, I understand this dynamic and I’m not going to fight it.
What I can do is place holds on a billion of my favorite graphic novel titles and leave them on my computer screen in hopes their interest is piqued (I tried this yesterday and it worked!).
All joking aside, but seriously the stack is waiting at the library for pick up, it’s important that I continue to model for them what it looks like to pick books that are both interesting and better reflect the citizens I hope them to be.
Just like any important conversation, this one has to happen more than once. It can’t be a one and done, but rather, we need to keep dialoguing and keep showing up for one another.
Thanks for giving me the space to rant and share a glimpse of real life at our house.