At this point in our cultural history, it’s pretty much well-acknowledged that graphic novels are cool, legitimate vehicles for storytelling. Comics aren’t just Superman and Batman beating up on villains and/or each other every month. There are sports comics and mystery comics and autobiographical comics and love stories and war stories and stories that will make your heart hurt so badly that you may feel truly alive for the first time in forever. The medium has grown and matured—and for the last ten years has been bursting with life. And as the storytelling has improved for adults, it has also cultivated a beautiful selection of books for our kids.
With Black Friday looming, some of us may be looking for gifts that are a little different from the electronic toys and gadgets that will draw consumers out even as early as Thanksgiving night in the search for bargains. Graphic novels can make a unique and inspiring gift for a child. After all, if you spark a child’s interest in the medium with good, solid storytelling and non-exploitative narrative, what better chance of converting them to the medium when they’re older, right? Because of this, many parents, guardians, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, and friends are wondering what graphic novels, if any, would be appropriate for the young people in their lives.
Graphic Novels for Kids of All Kinds
Over the past couple years, as part of my graphic novel review site, Good Ok Bad, I’ve been curating a list of comics I recommend for young readers. It’s an evolving work that takes form as I read to my own kids and look for gifts for others. I’ve collected nearly seventy titles into four categories: Pre-K, Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, and Junior High. These categories won’t be a perfect fit for any particular child save for the one existing in my imagination.
Different kids are different kids and different parents are different parents. A book suitable to one seven-year-old might be too mature for another ten-year-old. And one parent might find no issue in, say, the rather chaste depictions of violence in Tintin while another might be very concerned with a comics story that makes free use of gunplay. To help ease that tension, alongside a brief description of a book’s plot I’ll include a list of thematic concerns that parents may wish to consider as they search for the right book for their child.
For the most part, older readers will be able to enjoy books that I’ve placed in younger categories. While a few exceptions (Johnny Boo, for instance) skew pretty strongly to a particularly limited age group, most of these books will suit the age recommended and upwards. Upper elementary and junior high kids will get far more out of Bone (for an example) than the lower elementary kids to whom I recommend it. And junior high, high school, and adult readers shouldn’t overlook books like Usagi Yojimbo and Twin Spica.
Obviously, reading to kids can make far more advanced books accessible to a younger set. I spent several months reading Bone to my three-year-old daughter. It’s an epic fantasy adventure with themes meant for more mature readers. There’s a lot of danger and several notable deaths. There’re limbs lost and even a tongue gets clawed off. Left to her own, the story would probably give her nightmares. But because I am the one reading it to her, I can control somewhat how she’ll interpret elements. I don’t lie to her and pretend the dead people are just sleeping, but I help her not to dwell overlong on those things and I play up the humour in other spots and am able to help her identify with the book’s heroes.
So if you see a good book in a more mature category, don’t feel as if it’s out of reach necessarily. Just play a part in your child’s discovery of that book. You’ll probably both have a lot of fun.
One Final Note to Parents
Don’t treat graphic novels as a gateway drug to get kids to read “real books.” Comics are a medium of their own and while there’s some crossover appeal, your goal should be to inculcate in your children an appreciation for quality in all of our cultural artifacts. If they get the bug for good comics, they may well begin pursuing the most literary and worthwhile of the medium—just as if they caught the bug for good novels, they’d be likely to pursue the literary giants of eras past and present.
Graphic novels have their own things to say and their own way of saying those things. Enjoy them for what they are and seek out the stuff that challenges you and your children to grow in empathy, understanding, and knowledge.
Also, fun stuff is fine too!
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