Librarians: Use Comics To Connect With Young Readers!

by | Oct 5, 2018

In the 1930’s, when American comics first made the jump from newspaper strips to comic books, they were a smash success with young readers.  The synthesis of images and text in a juxtaposed narrative was accessible, engaging, and entertaining. However, early comics were printed on the cheapest of paper in the cheapest manner possible, and were largely considered a disposable art form with little or no artistic merit. And comic books were not welcome in libraries. Contemporary library journals of the time often referred to the voracious reading of comic books by mid 19th century youth as “a disease.” A call of alarm went out to cure the disease, by getting those awful, subliterate comic books out of children’s hands and replacing them with “real books.”

It’s taken almost 100 years, but the prevailing attitude about comic books in libraries has been completely transformed. Comic book sections in childrens, teens, and adult library collections are not only common place, but among the most robust and frequently used sections of libraries. Though still contentious in some circles, the artistic legitimacy of comic books is generally accepted by the public as a whole now. Comic books are an accessible, engaging, and entertaining medium, ideal for connecting with young readers.

If a young person is reading something- anything– it is a victory. My number one piece of advice to anyone asking for book recommendations for young readers is to just find a book with stuff the kid already likes. If this particular young person is into robots, get them a book with robots in it. If they’re obsessed with wars, find them a book about war. Don’t be overly obsessed with finding a “good book.” Good is subjective. If a book engages a young reader, it is a good book. Kids are smart. They’ll gravitate towards the good stuff all on their own. What you absolutely do not want to do is force something on a kid who is not interested in it by insisting that it is a “good book,” and that they should like it. If the kid is forced to read it, and decides they don’t like what they are being told is a “good book,” the inevitable conclusion is the kid will decide they don’t like books. That is a sure-fire recipe for creating a non-reader. Don’t do that.

Comic books are great, because they are usually quicker reads then prose books, and the combination of visuals and text can be less intimidating to young readers than pages and pages of solid blocks of text. By flipping through the pages of the comic book, a kid can immediately tell if the story, visually at least, appeals to them. Of course, they will actually have to read to see if they like it. But if a kid who is obsessed with unicorns, flips through a comic book and sees some beautifully illustrated unicorn drawings throughout the book, there’s a good chance that the comic book is going to be a good match.

But reader preference goes far beyond subject matter. Different artistic styles (realistic, cartoonish, abstract, etc.) will appeal to different readers. When trying to match a kid with a comic book, flip through the comic book with the kid and ask them what they think of the art. Ask them what they like and don’t like about the art on a first impression. That will help you guide them towards a comic book that will engage them as a reader. As you are flipping through, you can also get a sense of the pacing of the storytelling. How many panels are on each page? What is the text to image ratio? Different readers will gravitate towards different styles of storytelling. If you make a perfect match, you’ll cultivate a reader for life.

As we stated earlier, good is subjective. But that being said, here is a list of comic books I think are good and why I think they are good. Feel free to disagree with me. But hopefully this list is diverse enough that almost any reader will find one or two books here that will appeal to their sensibilities. All of these comics can be found in the graphic novel section of libraries. I’ve tried to pick less obvious comic book recommendations. You won’t find Bone, Lumberjanes, Paper Girls, Baby Mouse, Lunch Lady, Dog Man, Amulet, Squish, or Zita the Spacegirl on this list – not because they aren’t great comic books. They are all great comic books, and you should read them all if you haven’t already. But there are librarians across the globe already singing the praises of these books. Rather than just adding to chorus, I wanted to do my part to shed a little light on equally deserving books that you may not have already heard of.

  1. Pablo & Jane and the Hot Air Contraption by José Domingo, published by Flying Eye Books. Pablo and Jane are a young brother and sister duo who, while exploring the creepy old abandoned house in their neighborhood, stumble upon a fantastical hot air contraption, and accidentally travel to an alternate reality called the Monster Dimension. An evil, one-eyed cat sabotages their means of transport and they are forced to chase after the cat on a world tour of the Monster Dimension. The reader travels from Lopsided London, to Macabre Marrakech, to the ‘Orrible Outback, chasing after the cat and searching for pieces of hot air contraption among the delightfully detailed scenery. The book begins and ends as a comic book adventure story, but the bulk of the pages are a lovely search and find game that even pre-readers can enjoy engaging with.

2. Stone Rabbit: BC Mambo by Erik Craddock, published by Random House. When Rabbit lifts up the mat in his bathroom to clean up some spilled BBQ sauce, he discovers a rift in the space/time continuum that transports him back to a prehistoric era. It’s a savage land, overrun with monstrous bugs, vicious dinosaurs, and… robots?  It turns out there is a evil genius caveman named Willie, with a army of windup warriors, bent on prehistoric world domination. Only Rabbit can stop him. What follows is a fast-paced adventure with bold cartoon art and packed with humor. The adventures continue in a series of self contained Stone Rabbit books that each tackle a different genre.

3. Bera the One Headed Troll by Eric Orchard, published by First Second. Bera is a solitary one headed troll, who wants nothing more than to be left alone on her tiny rocky island, tending her pumpkin patch. But when Bera rescues an orphaned human baby from some nasty mermaids, she begins an epic journey to return the human baby home. Erick Orchard renders the story in a moody cartoon style, reminiscent of the work of Edward Gorey, that perfectly suits this creepy tale that is somehow still sweet and heartfelt.

4. Meanwhile by Jason Shiga, published by Amulet Books. When a boy stops in an ice cream shop to buy a cone, the reader decides whether he should pick chocolate or vanilla. It’s the first of many choices that must be made in a crazy science fiction adventure story that involves time machines, doomsday devices, homicidal axe-wielding ice cream men, and other dangers. Not for the faint of heart, this choose your own path adventure comic results in the demise of the protagonist more often than not. But for those who like challenging puzzles and those who like to be in control of the story, this comic is a treat like no other.

5. Rust by Royden Lepp, published by Archaia. Rust is a four volume series that tells a beautiful, sepia-toned story set in a world that feels both nostalgic and fantastical. When Roman Taylor’s father does not come home from the war, it is up to him to support his family and keep the farm going. A mysterious boy with a jetpack crashes into their barn, with a giant, rusted war machine in pursuit. What follows is a high-octane, heartfelt adventure story about war, family, sacrifice, and moving on with your life.

6. Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol, published by Square Fish. Anya is a second generation immigrant, who is horribly embarrassed by her family. She struggles to be herself at school and make friends. She feels like a freak. And then she feels like even more of a freak when a chance encounter with some old bones results in the ghost of a long dead girl following her around. Reluctantly, Anya befriends the ghost and soon discovers there are many advantages to having a spectral buddy. But this seemingly sweet ghost is hiding a very dark secret.

7. 2 Sisters: A Super-Spy Graphic Novel by Matt Kindt, published by Dark Horse. At 336 pages, 2 Sisters is a hefty book for a graphic novel. But it’s a quick read. With a minimum of dialogue, Matt Kindt weaves a complex narrative that threads multiple story lines across a diverse timeline, ranging from ancient Rome, through the golden age of high seas piracy, and into a chaotic Europe, deep in the throes of WWII. At the center of the book is Elle, a country girl who leaves her sister behind when she heads into London to join the war effort. But Elle has a dark secret.

8. Moby Dick by Herman Melville and Christophe Chabouté, published by Dark Horse. As a rule of thumb, adaptation of literary classics into comic book form are generally terrible, because something that makes a good prose novel, does not necessarily translate well into comic book form. And worse still, adaptations are usually so wedded to the original work, that they cram as much of the original writing into the comic book as possible. The inevitable result is the comic books become bloated with text and the art merely replicates the story, instead of carrying the narrative forward. Christophe Chabouté’s adaptation of Moby Dick is the exception that proves the rule. This comic book adaptation is light on text and heavy on the stark black and white imagery that carries a story that is both a historic look at 19th century whaling industry, and a breathtaking high seas adventure. This is an incredible achievement by a master of the comic book art form.

I could go on, but I am already at my word limit for this article. The point is that there are a lot of good comics out there in any genre, on mostly any topic you can imagine, with more being published every day. Whatever a young reader is looking for, you can find it in comics.

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