Great Graphic Novels for Kids
tl;dr Here's the list.
And here's a no frills printable list. Just titles, authors, and ISBNs.
For a couple years now I've wanted to do this list. More than any other request, I have people ask what graphic novels would be suitable for their children. And this is one of the questions I most want to answer. 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?
"Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." And all that.
But the problem is: it's a tough question to answer. Part of the reason it's taken me as long as it has to produce even this beginning of a list is that different kids are different kids and different parents are different parents. What I mean by that is that 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.
Basically, any list of recommendations for children will be founded on a list of caveats a mile deep. And really, I don't want to bother with any of that. I just want to recommend some good books.
Still: we've got to start somewhere and I do want to make this list as widely useful as possible. So with that, here's what I'll propose.
I'll divide this into four categories: comics for 1) pre-k, 2) lower elementary, 3) upper elementary, and 4) junior high.11Ideally, I'll later add in recommendations for high schoolers as well. I feel less of a rush here because many high schoolers can read most of the books that I regularly recommend to adults. These categories won't be a perfect fit for any particular child save for the one existing in my imagination. My daughter's only three and I'm told my taste in reading in elementary school was... precocious.
So with that in mind, parents will want to take my recommendations and run them through whatever filters govern their own households and mindsets.
For the most part, older reads 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 recommended it. And junior high, high school, and adult readers shouldn't overlook books like Usagi Yojimbo or Twin Spica.
Reading to Kids
Obviously, reading to kids can make far more advanced books accessible to a younger set. I'm currently 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 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.
A 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 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!
Table of Contents
- Pre-K Recommendations
- Lower Elementary Recommendations
- Upper Elementary Recommendations
- Junior High Recommendations
Hilda is a little girl, precocious and imaginative and good, who lives in the mountains where trolls and giants and other mythical beings live and move freely. These are whimsical stories and a lot of fun. They are short albums and are delightful bedtime reads.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Nothing really.
The Owly books feature adorable, almost wordless stories about Owly (a sometimes lonely owl) and the various friends he/she makes in the forest. Books seem themed about vaguely moral lessons on fear, hope, love, etc. Wonderful books for non-readers to learn visual storytelling.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: No concerns here.
Created by: Christian Slade
ISBN: 1891830902 (Amazon)
Korgi is also wordless and portrays a fantasy world featuring an adorable village of "fox-like" creatures—who actually strongly resemble Welsh Corgis. They go on adventures and wander and are cute.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: No real concerns.
Johnny Boo is an inconsequential, though fun, story of a happy-go-lucky ghost and his miniature ghostly friend Squiggle. They do little more than pal around excitedly. If anything, it's a story of friendship and learning how to relate to others.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Not really much anything of concern to most parents.
Lower Elementary Recommendations
Created by: Jeff Smith
ISBN: 188896314X (Amazon)
Genre: Fantasy Adventure
Bone is a fantasy epic. Something like Lord of the Rings but with more humour and heart. One of the best graphic novels ever yet made. Gorgeous art and engaging story. I've been reading it to my three-year-old daughter and she adores it.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: As with any good fantasy-epic, amidst the light and hope, there is death, darkness, and the sense that all is lost. The violence though is not gratuitous and serves well the story of a kingdom's struggle to survive against evil forces that would see it doomed.
The Zita books tell the story of a girl who is accidentally sucked to the opposite end of the universe and gradually learns to become brave and selfless and kind of heroic. She is pushed to become a better person first through circumstances, then through example. Delightful and imaginative.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Light violence and danger. Sci-fi zapping.
Created by: Hergé
ISBN: 0316358142 (Amazon)
I first began reading Tintin in 1st or 2nd grade (by 2nd grade I was definitely trying to get it to count for book reports). Tintin, the unaging, boyish protagonist, is equal parts investigator, adventurer, and target for saps to the head. He gets into wonderful scrapes and manages out of them with panache. The cast of recurring characters is suitably colourful and features a retired (and ornery) sea captain, bumbling twin detectives, a scientist of absent mind and distant ear, and a little white dog that's smarter than everyone but Tintin himself. Each of the recent editions holds three complete Tintin adventures.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: No small amount of (bloodless) gunplay and the occasional death. The sea captain has the mouth of a sailor, but his constant cursing is limited to things of the "Blue blistering barnacles!" variety.
Also, Hergé, writing from Europe in the early-to-mid twentieth century often betrays his culture's common racist perceptions. Apart from the difficult-to-get-ahold of Tintin in the Congo though, this is generally confined to portraying non-white ethnicities and non-European cultures through stereotyped lenses. Asians are mysterious and exotic, Indians are mysterious and exotic, Peruvians are mysterious, exotic, and prone to fearing eclipses. Etc. It's simultaneously distasteful and understandable (once one remembers the cultural circumstance in which Hergé lived). While the author began to recant of his worst offenses, these are still troublesome moments for parents to keep in mind.
Mouse Guard is gorgeously illustrated and follows various mice (who are members of the guard) through various medieval-style adventures as they protect the realm and their queen from dangers within and without. The battle between a mouse and a snake in the first chapter should win some fans.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Typical adventure violence. Nothing too gruesome. Characters will occasionally die.
The two slim volumes of the Nancy Drew-inspired Leave It to Chance are rollicking, fun adventures in the realm of fantasy and the supernatural. The heroine is a precocious 13-year-old and has a pet dragon.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: The heroine deals with issues such as a deceased mother and a widowed father with outmoded views on the female nature.
Herobear and the Kid
Created by: Mike Kunkel
ISBN: 0972125914 (Amazon)
Genre: Action Adventure
Kunkel's drawings are a taste of classical animation—only without the movement. The range of expression in his characters is a beauty and they aid his able portrayal of a dynamic kid admirably. Herobear steals flavours from the tired old superhero genre and breathes fresh life into it. A sentimental look at childhood, fantasy, and the importance of familial love.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Other than light violence of the POW-BIF-BAM variety, there is nothing that should be objectionable to most parents.
Spera is a series of fantasy stories in which two princesses escape their kingdoms (and certain doom) to adventure through to the fabled land of Spera. One is a delicate and stereotypical princess, the other is tomboyish and a natural fighter. The stories deal with struggle and friendship and the adequacy of their stark differences.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: The kind of fantasy violence and dark enemies native to the genre. Nothing too spooky.
Created by: Carl Barks
ISBN: 1606995359 (Amazon)
Happily, Fantagraphics is republishing collections of Carl Barks' Uncle Scrooge stories. I found these in the library when I was in second grade and poured over them despite bearing a childish antipathy toward Disney characters. Barks' tales are fun and inventive.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Nothing I can remember, but it has been thirty years since I read these.
Skottie Young's art helps burst Eric Shanower's adaptations of L. Baum's works into vibrant life. These are fun ways to explore the mythology of Oz.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Only the standard warning that all adventure stories should incur: there are moments of peril, which are of course designed to frighten or otherwise produce anxiety in readers.
Upper Elementary Recommendations
Translated, Usagi Yojimbo means "Rabbit Bodyguard." Usagi Yojimbo is a long-running series following the masterless samurai, Usagi, as he traverses the warrior's path seeking enlightenment, adventure, and engagement with the wide world around him (that of feudal Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate, circa A.D 1627). While primarily a story of one rabbit's (all the characters are zoomorphs) adventure through life, UY is also intensely educational of a bygone culture. One of my favourite series of all time.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: It is rare when one of Sakai's stories does not feature death; however, these are handled well and death is not treated flippantly. There is also the matter of an illegitimate child—though the implications of this might be lost on less savvy children and his conception occurs off-camera and by implication alone.
Created by: Jay Hosler
ISBN: 096772550X (Amazon)
Genre: Nature Documentary
Absolutely the most engaging documentary on bees I've ever encountered. Holster, well-qualified for the task, crafts a story that follows the life of a single bee, Nyuki, from birth to maturation to timely death—all the while explaining the nuanced and cultured life of the colourful insect.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Again, there are elements of danger and, in the end, the protagonist dies a lonely-yet-fulfilled life.
Created by: Doug TenNapel
ISBN: 1582403953 (Amazon)
Genre: Family Drama
Tommysaurus Rex tells the story of a boy whose only friend, a golden retriever named Tommy, is killed by an errant driver. In order to remedy his abiding depression over his loss, his parents ship him off to grandfather's farm for sage advice, hard work, and a surprise discovery: a tyrannosaurus that would like to be his pet. A fun, warm, sad, and hopeful story.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: As any story themed around the loss of a loved one, this tale does feature death—yet does so in most cases tenderly. Death is real and must be dealt with, even for children, and TenNapel shows us one positive way. Other worthwhile themes explored are forgiveness, mercy, and love.
Twin Spica tells the story of Asumi, a young teenager enrolling in the first year of Japan's space program. She intends to be an astronaut and the series follows her struggles to be chosen as Japan's first graduate to go to space. The book focuses on themes of friendship, loyalty, and following dreams. It's a poignant book, occasionally tinged with great sadness.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: The book deals with bereftness a lot. Many of the characters were affected by a disaster early in Japan's space program that took the life of Asumi's mother. One of the main characters, a lion-headed ghost whom only Asumi can see, was a pilot in that early doomed flight.
Autobiographical memoir of author Raina Telgemeier's pre-junior-high fall that left her with seriously messed up teeth and a lot of dental surgery. Follows her through the tumult of junior high and into her early years of high school. A lot of fun and a nice look at friendship and alienation and the way kids grow apart as they develop at different rates.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Raina's accident and the ensuing doctor's visits and x-rays, while discretely portrayed and cartoony enough, still made me queasy. Your child's mileage may vary.
Probably faithful adaptation of the classic sci-fi fantasy. If you liked the original, you may adore this adaptation.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Lots of faux-math jargon?
A girl arrives at a prestigious boarding school as their annual charity case and falls afoul of the popular girls. The standard fighting begins. Still, it's an amusing tale.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Nothing so far as I can remember. Mean girls?
Mary Jane Loves Spider-Man
Created by: Sean McKeever and Takeshi Miyazawa
ISBN: 078511467X (Amazon)
Pages: around 100 pages per volume
Genre: Romance and Superheroes
A new take on the Spider-Man mythos from the vantage of a highschool-aged Mary Jane Watson. A delightful book that focuses more on romantic entanglements and high school drama than it does on superheroing.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Mary Jane goes through the typical high school struggles with self-esteem, gossip, lies, and navigating bundles of emotional drama. No sex or drugs though.
Created by: Darwyn Cooke
ISBN: 1401203507 (Amazon)
Darwyn Cooke retells and refashions the first meeting of the Justice League (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, etc) in a playful manner. The book is two volumes of genuinely fun superheroing.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Some characters die.
Created by: J. Torres and Takeshi Miyazawa
ISBN: 1929998767 (Amazon)
Genre: Superheroes and Highschool Drama
A young teenaged girl gets accepted to a private high school that trains its student body to become proper superheroes. Superpowers plus highschool drama: quite a bit of fun. Unfortunately incomplete story as only one volume was ever published, but the story demands more (and the "Volume 1" on the cover suggests this was originally intended.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Nothing really.
A two-volume and positively delightful reboot of the Thor mythos focusing on Thor's relationship with Jane Foster. Super cute, actiony, and enjoyable—and self-contained series.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Nothing really. Thor does, apparently sleep with Jane one romantic evening, but its so far off camera that probably only grown-ups will pick up the cue. This is it right here: Thor's blankets on the couch are folded.
Edgington and Culbard have so far adapted, I believe, four of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes adventures. And they're each pretty wonderful. So far as I'm aware, these are very faithful adaptations.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Basically anything that was present in the original novels and shorts. Holmes uses period-appropriate narcotics. There are murders. A Study in Scarlet portrays Mormons of the day in starkly negative terms, common from that era of the cultural history.
A collection of Jiro Taniguchi's short stories, mainly survivalist in theme and somewhat inspired by Jack London's work (one story is even an adaptation from a harrowing episode from White Fang). Exciting and beautiful work that gives one a sense of the danger and majesty of the natural world.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: As with most survival literature, there is an element of death and danger present. In one story, two young teens get stuck in a storm at sea in a small boat. Because of the cold and rain, the girl's shirt becomes slightly and realistically nippley.
A young woman finds refuge in a formerly magic castle, now repurposed as a sanctuary for those in need. Castle Waiting is sort of a reinvestigation of faery tale worlds and is both enjoyable and girl-friendly.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Jane, the protagonist, arrives at the sanctuary, fleeing an abusive husband and pregnant with a baby not her husband's. The book does not dwell on these sadnesses however and Jane and the book put these things into the past.
Junior High Recommendations
One thousand years after mankind almost destroyed itself, Princess Nausicaä gets caught up in a continent-spanning adventure in the midst of a costly war between two nations and the evolving environmental chaos. Wildly imaginative, Nausicaä's thoughtful protagonists, sympathetic antagonists, political intrigue, and environmental message make it one of the best and most engaging graphic novels out there.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: In the midst of war, Miyazaki doesn't shy away from depicting death. A for-the-most-part-pacifist, though, he never uses his art to glorify violence and Nausicaä herself does what she can to prevent the deaths of even her enemies. Late in the story, there is a page in which Nausicaä is being rejuvenated in an herbal bath. She is briefly seen topless, though the scene is rather chaste and she is drawn with little detail. Here is that page.
Cross Game is a a delightful, compulsive read. It's a romance incognito as a baseball drama. I mean, to be fair, it's a baseball drama. But it was the romance that drew me in so soundly. That and the robust family and relational dynamics. Cross Game excels as well at depicting grief and brings the reader into the grieving process. It's a book that capitalizes on heart and humour. It's an exciting work and one that uses subtlety in its storytelling, encouraging readers to learn to pay attention to the visual-verbal details the author leaves around. Both my wife and I consumed this too quickly, reading late-late into the night. Even when we had work the next day.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Cross Game deals with the death of a main character early on in its first volume. It can be very sad in places. Also: while much more tame than Adachi's other works, the book features a small amount of fan service (i.e. the sexual objectification of females for the excitement of its young male readership). This is indicative of what will very occasionally pop up in the book's eight volumes. (reads right-to-left in Japanese style)
An American high schooler immigrated from Russia tries desperately to assimilate so completely into high school culture that her Russia-ness is forgotten. All the usual high school drama, but done very well. Also, she finds a ghost. Deals with themes of self-worth, cultural distinction, and alienation.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: The ghost convinces Anya to dress in a "sexy" manner with which Anya is uncomfortable in order to catch the eye of a guys she likes. High school is filled with players.
Maggie, a formerly homeschooled girl (with three older brothers), tries to adapt in her first year of high school—and first year of not being homeschooled (after her mother unceremoniously leaves the family for new horizons). Hijinks and awkwardness abound. Also, a ghost that only Maggie can see.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: A delinquent mother who is never seen save for in flashback.
Pluto is a futuristic thriller with a light dash of whodunnit that follows an investigation into the recent murders of famous scientists and the robots they designed. A good story compelling told, but one of the most amazing features is how deeply Urusawa invests the readers into the plight of robots.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: The story follows a detective on the trail to solving a procession of murders, so it deals with death quite frequently.
Created by: Christopher Hick
ISBN: 0943151252 (Amazon)
Sam Smith's life is ripe for upheaval. A nameless employee at a megacorporation, he stumbles upon a crime and decides to do the right thing. From that moment on, he is continually caught up in larger and larger adventures, culminating at last in the a struggle that has been going on since the dawn of time. The characters are all likable, even the villains—which always makes for better storytelling.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Besides the violence and prevalent mayhem, one of the chief villains is Lillith, immortal seductress and Adam's first wife, who fell on her own and did not take Adam with her. There is sex by implication.
Each volume of Geary's collections present a non-fictional, documentary look at a particular murder or murderer. From Jack the Ripper to Lizzie Borden to H.H. Holmes to the Lindbergh Child's Kidnapping, these books offer a usually dispassionate look into two centuries of famous murders.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Beyond the fact of the murders themselves (generally treated in non-gratuitous manner), the facts of each case may deal with other moral failings (such as adultery and licentiousness and gossip). My advice: research each case before giving your nephew one of these for Christmas.
Three stories weave together and chart the immigrant experience of a non-immigrant. Children from immigrant families or minority groups may readily understand the struggles Yang records. Caucasian non-foreigners may find in this work the opportunity to gain new empathy for others who might not have so privileged an American experience.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Apart from an intentionally racist parody of how many Americans have treated the Chinese stereotype, nothing of concern. The work, though simple on the face of it, is probably too nuanced for many junior highers.
Fumiyo Kouno wrestles with the human fallout of the bombing of Hiroshima in the decades after. A delicate, sensitive, and important work, I'd only recommend for mature, thoughtful kids.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Death. This book deals with death.
Domu: A Child's Dream
Created by: Katsuhiro Otomo
ISBN: 156971116X (Amazon)
Genre: Supernatural Horror
A psychic horror book in which an old man uses telekinetic powers to occasionally kill members of his apartment complex. A new resident, a young girl who is herself telekinetic, finds out and does what she can to stop him.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Creepy and violent.
A high school student in the midst of insulin shock finds himself in a fantasy realm in which he is tasked with saving everything—the only question is whether this is real or just a terrible hallucination.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Some fantasy violence and a kid who may or may not die from insulin shock.
Persepolis, vol. 1
Created by: Marjane Satrapi
ISBN: 037571457X (Amazon)
Author Satrapi reccounts her childhood in Iran circa 1980. Historical and informative—and actually pretty charming.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Book takes a particular view of the political and religious state of Iran that some parents might take issue with. Also, while volume 1 is fantastic, volume 2 is a chore (I do not recommend it).
The pets of a small suburban community form a group to investigate paranormal excesses around the town. It's like BPRD/X-Files crossed with The Incredible Journey.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Zombies and witches. And pets in mortal danger.
Created by: Gerry Alanguilan
ISBN: 159362204X (Amazon)
One day, all the chickens in the world suddenly become sentient and begin to speak the languages of the world. The book explores how the human world might assimilate a new group of persons.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: As is common throughout human history, the meeting of two distinct peoples is marked by confusion, violence, fear, and hatred. There is a lot of violence and bigotry directed at the sentient chickens.
An enjoyable, humourous, and informative biography of 20th century physicist Richard Feynman. A great way to both explore a life and experience somewhat the wonder of science.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: As in most biography, Feynman's biographer includes his subject's foibles as well as his greatnesses, in this case, Feynman's eye for young, pretty women.
Some errant American bombs release a gaggle of lions into the streets of war-torn Iraq. A look at war from a slightly-fantasy angle.
>Thematic Concerns for Parents: Animal death. Some by other animals, some by man. A bomb falls on a giraffe's head. A lionness inexplicably has a rape backstory.
Fascinating and humourously written biography of the controversial figure from early Canadian history.
Thematic Concerns for Parents: Riel is a bit of a crazy religious fanatic. He, at one point, is forced to execute a man for political reasons.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
1 Star = Bad
I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
Review copy submission may be facilitated via the Contact page.