A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics by Scott Robins and Snow Wildsmith, 254 pp

When Snow Wildsmith, coauthor of A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics, contacted me to ask if I would like I review copy of the new book she and Scott Robins have written, my immediate response was, "YES, PLEASE!" When the book arrived, my seven-year-old son sat down and read it just like it was a graphic novel. Next he grabbed my Post-It tabs and started marking pages. Once I was able to peruse the book on my own and order in a few of the hundreds of fascinating titles he marked, I got very excited and very quickly overwhelmed. I have been planning to review this book and feature a week of graphic novel reviews since the beginning of the summer and I am just getting to it now. In fact, I currently have such a huge pile of graphic novels to read and review that you can look forward to a few weeks of graphic novel reviews, scattered here and there. But first, let me tell you about the great credentials and boundless enthusiasm that Robins and Wildsmith have. Robins is currently a librarian in the Toronto Public Library and contributor to  Salem Press' Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Heroes and Superheroes as well as a contributing blogger for the great resource, Good Comics for Kids at School Library Journal and other prestigious comics related endeavors and events. Snow Wildsmith is a former librarian now working as a writer and book reviewer, also at Good Comics for Kids, No Flying No Tights an excellent resource where Wildsmith is the review editor and Graphic Novel Reporter and, like Robins, many other endeavors and events.

For the facts on A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics, scroll down a ways. What follows below is a brief primer on graphic novels and why they are a valid form of reading material for your children.

Right about the time I started getting really interested in graphic novels, the bookstore where I work did away with the section for graphic novels, choosing to stick them in with the "Young Readers" section. Graphic novels, or, more accurately manga (like Pokémon, Legends of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog) get some decent shelf space. Let me pause here for a brief definition of terms that will be used in this review, adapted from a concise breakdown at Rhapsody in Books.

Graphic Novel: A book in which the narrative is conveyed with sequential art and, frequently although not always, text. Also, graphic novels are frequently, but not always, illustrated in color. Graphic novels can be any length as well as stand-alone stories or part of a series, but they all tell a complete story in each volume. 

Comic Book: A staple bound book or magazine that rarely exceeds thirty pages and is frequently part of a series that comes out on a monthly basis. The stories in each comic book are often serialized to that the reader has to read the next issue to find out what happens in the story.

Manga: Manga is the Japanese word for "random or whimsical pictures" and are usually read from top to bottom, right to left, as this is the traditional reading pattern of the Japanese written language. Most mangas are completely black and white (except for the cover art) and feature two-dimensional drawings and characters with large eyes and big hair. Emotions are most often shown by using symbols (like drops of sweat for worry) rather than words. Manga refers to books where as anime pertains to Japanese animated movies.

Jeff Smith's Bone series, Kazu Kibuishi's gorgeous Amulet series, Jennifer and Matthew Holm's Babymouse and spinoff Squish series are always well stocked and on the shelves while Jared Krosoczka's Lunch Lady series is represented, but only by the most recent issue. Compared to the hundreds of traditional middle grade novels that make up the bulk of the "Young Readers" section, that's pretty small potatoes. Obviously the company made these changes because the kid's graphic novel section was not selling (the adult section continues to sell well.) But why wasn't it selling? My own personal theory is that parents have preconceived notions about what graphic novels are and the potential hazards of reading them. I got a chance to test this theory when I was allowed to set up a hand-picked display of kid's graphic novels. I crammed over 30 titles on the little endcap, as well as A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics and watched them fly (mostly) off the shelves. During this time, I had one parent who worked in the field of education publishing ask me if these were books for "kids who couldn't read very well," implying that the stories inside these beautifully illustrated books were simplistic and simplified for the purpose of helping struggling readers. I set him straight. However, more often I encountered parents who willingly, happily (some parents DO complain about the price, but as I like to tell them, "You are really buying your child a work of art with this book!") buy these books for their kids, with or without them in tow. In an email, I discussed this attitudinal phenomena with Snow Wildsmith who, as a librarian, had a different take on the graphic novel. When I shared my experience as bookseller with parents who were wary or unwilling to make the investment in a graphic novel (which can run anywhere from $6.99 to $14.99 or $19.99 even for the gorgeous hardcover The Arrival by Shaun Tan, which is worth every penny) Snow had this gratifying response:

For the most part, in my work, I've found that parents are excited about graphic novels, because they get their kids excited about reading, but that they don't know much about them. Parents are worried that "graphic" means that the books will have inappropriate content. (I always tell them that it just means "with pictures," not that it means "with dirty pictures.") Yes, the price can be daunting, so I know a lot of people who save graphic novel buying for special occasions, such as holidays. I always get friends wanting suggestions for good gn purchases so they can be the "cool aunt" or "cool uncle" at Christmas! But friends who have bought gns for their kids tell me that they find their kids re-read comics just as much as they re-read other books, sometimes more, which does help parents get more bang for their buck. And I know that adding graphic novels to a classroom library can make the teacher's collection even more popular. I pass many of my review copies along to my best friend. She teaches fifth grade and she said that as soon as she added graphic novels to her collection, the circulation of the collection as a whole went up! And it wasn't just her reluctant readers. All of her kids were reading more. 

And, if my input and Snow's doesn't quite allay your concerns, Robins and Wildsmith invited Jeff Smith and his wife Vijaya Iyer, both of whom learned to read with the funny pages, to provide the foreword to the book, which is very persuasive. Especially this line that appears near the end that I just love and find ultimately true, "Finally, we need to note that, when we were kids, the ones who read comics were the smart ones. They were the eggheads." While you may think your kid is whipping through a book with a lot of pictures, you may not realize the different skills needed to read a graphic novel. As Smith and Iyer note, 

Ironically, one of the questions we're most asked about involves the fact that comics seem to work for reluctant readers. We're fine with that. We're glad and we suppose we understand it, because there's fun, the characters have humor and there's a lot of appeal to the form, the drawings. But we both resist the idea that comics are some kind of gateway, a "dumbed-down book" for reluctant readers. Comics are such a good way to read that even reluctant readers like them!

Hallelujah!! I hope that, with my reviews and enthusiasm and the extensive knowledge and experience that Robins and Wildsmith bring to the genre, we can convince you (if you need convincing) that graphic novels can be both an art form and a wonderful literary endeavor and you owe it to your kids to give them this experience.

A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics has a fantastic layout, lots of color images and, best of all, a great "What's Next . . ." feature that provides several recommendations based on interest in any given title. While my son went through this book and picked out graphic novels he was interested in, Robins and Wildsmith really have written this book for parents to use as a resource and it is set up that way. After the forward, acknowledgements, author info and introduction, there is a very important chapter titled, "HOW TO USE THIS BOOK." Then, the book is broken into four grade appropriate sections. The title information at the end of the book is exceptional, listing all the books in a series along with prices. Finally, the superb "For Parents, Teachers and Librarians" chapter at the very end of the book provides resources for going further, finding more resources and expanding knowledge as well as a great section that lists books of comic strips that kids reading graphic novels might enjoy. For those of you who are skilled at mining the internet for book recommendations, I still suggest you buy this book. I read and refer to blogs and book review websites all the time and have even listed several graphic novel review websites here. However, in all my research, I have yet to find a website that organizes information in the straightforward, thoughtful, thorough way that A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics, does.

Finally, as a long, longtime bookseller, I began to notice certain book publishers and the quality of the books they published and have come to have a handful of favorites. As my enjoyment and appreciation of graphic novels has grown over the last few years, I have also come to have a few favorite publishers. Below are their names, links to their websites and what I love about what they do.

TOON Books: This amazing company publishes comic books that are also primers. While these books are specially written for beginning readers of varying abilities in conjunction with education and reading specialists, they are  anything BUT boring (like most of the beginning readers out there.) Creator of TOON Books Françoise Mouly is the art editor for the New Yorker and wife of Art Speigelman, a Pulitzer prize winning author of graphic novels for adults. Mouly and her staff are responsible for bringing an amazing array of graphic novel artists from all over the world to TOON Books and  Click here for my reviews of almost all of the books published by TOON Books since they started publishing in 2008. Click here to read my article about TOON, the amazing people behind it and the wealth of knowledge, experience and passion they bring to their books. Interestingly, TOON Books was taken under the wing of Candlewick Press, one of my favorite publishers of picture books. The high quality of the printing and production values of their picture books are always on par with the high quality of the stories and illustrations in the books they publish. In this way, TOON Books is a perfect match.

First Second publishes graphic novels for a range of ages, mostly middle grade and teen, and everything they do is impeccable from story, to artwork to quality of the paper the books are printed on. I can't even begin to string together enough adjectives to describe how much I, personally, love their books. If TOON Books is concerned with publishing beginning to read books are wonderfully conceived and spectacularly illustrated, then it could be said that First Second is all about the literary graphic novel with lyrical illustrations. 

For the fourth grade and under crowd, don't miss: Nursery Rhyme Comics: 50 Timeless Rhymes from 50 Celebrated Cartoonists, Giants Beware, Bake Sale, Zita the Spacegirl and Robot Dreams. Look for reviews of Legends of Zita and Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity. Look for reviews of The Unsinkable Walker Bean and Little Vampire, Volume 1.

For the middle school gang, check out:
Friends with Boys, which, despite the title (it's a reference to the three older brothers of main character Maggie) is a ghost story and appropriate for a mature fourth grader or fifth grader. Although set in a high school, this book is ultimately about connections and friendships.  Americus is an amazing book about book banning and intolerance set in a small town in middle America. Look for my review of Broxo and American Born Chinese.

For Teens: Level Up, Anya's Ghost. Look for reviews of Sailor Twain, Bloody Chester and Marathon and Baby's in Black.

Although their list is still small, Amulet/Abrams is catching up with First Second as a publisher of high quality graphic novels that satisfy in every way, from story to art to design. Titles like Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, Page by Paige, Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, the great collection with amazing contributors, Explorer, and the incredible Meanwhile by Jason Shiga are examples of the brilliant books they are putting out.

Finally, while the production quality isn't quite as luxurious, Scholastic's Graphix imprint has some pretty great people creating books for them. From Raina Telgemeier's SMILE to Kazu Kibuishi's Amulet series, Doug TenNapel's three books Ghostopolis and Bad Island as well as his new book, Cardboard, Jeff Smith's BONE, Jake Parker's Missle Mouse and, published by Scholastic under the Arthur A Levine imprint, Dan Santat's amazing Sidekicks, the sequel to which is in the works, according to Dan.

Besides the titles mentioned about, these are a few books my son and I were intrigued by that you will be seeing reviews of in the coming weeks!

Source: Review Copy


nopinkhere said...

I want this!
P.S. We've really enjoyed working through your booklist this summer! The graphic novels have especially been hits. My son has read the Salt Water Taffy ones at least 5 times each. He also likes Secret Science Alliance, but I think he'll like it better in a year or so. THANKS!

Tanya said...

Hooray!!! That is sooo good to hear! I really have to review Salt Water Taffy. My son, husband (he would read to himself in bed and laugh out loud) and another friend who is in second grade have all loved this series. I think graphic novels are the best thing since sliced bread, although I have to confess that my second grade son worries me with his current unwillingness to read traditional chapter books. I think if I can wait him out he'll begin to read both genres in a year or two...