When my grandmother, a serious reader, visited last year, she asked if I could lend her a book (“something that you really liked”). I offered her some of my favourites: Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware, It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken by Seth, and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. She looked at them with the kind of mild revulsion only a grandmother is willing to restrain, and asked, “Are you still reading these?”
The source of her disdain was that each of the books I offered her was a graphic novel (or comic book: potato/potato, I say). Like many people, she assumed that comics were inherently beneath prose writing. It’s a shame, because she – like many people – is missing out on some excellent storytelling and art. But I think that the people who miss are missing out most are children, who are often told by parents and teacher that comics “don’t count” or aren’t “serious enough”.
In my opinion, comics are an excellent educational resource. Their images make them more attractive than prose, so reluctant readers may be more likely to try them. Children who have been discouraged by slow progress may also be more willing to give comics a try because they seem different enough from the things that gave them trouble. Graphic novels also use images to contextualize writing (not, as many people seem to think, to replace it) and so they give readers a better chance at understanding the meanings and uses of words – knowledge that is transferable to all kinds of reading, writing, and speaking. Even if a child doesn’t need that extra boost, there is still a whole world of excellent stories and ideas waiting for kids to explore them. Here are some of my favourites:
Owly series by Andy Runton
Owly has almost no words, relying on sequential images to tell its very simple stories. It’s a great way to introduce narrative and, more importantly, it allows children to “read” by themselves before they’ve actually learned to read, giving them a motivational boost to learn how to read more.
Guinea Pig: Pet Shop Private Eye series by Colleen AF Venable
A guinea pig becomes a detective and – well, that’s pretty much it. I’m expecting some backlash of the how-is-this-different-from-Geronimo-Stilton variety, so I’ll pre-emptively say that it’s not. The stories are simple but stimulating, the art is unambitious (in a good way, as in not abstract) and the language is accessible. A perfect choice for someone who isn’t reading as much as they should be.
Bone series by Jeff Smith
Bone crosses generations and is a favourite of many adults too, but the language could easily be understood by 10-year-olds. It introduces motifs like journeying, friendship, and fantasy, but never insists upon itself, allowing its readers to explore the fantasy world of Bone at their own thematic pace. The stories are fairly generic, but the beauty is in the commitment to adventure and excitement (something every kid should have, no?).
Runaways series by Brian K Vaughan
Six tweens and teens learn that their parents are supervillains, and run away together to resist them. This series introduces the concepts of choice, independence and dependence, family, and personal identity. There are some allusions to sexual content, as well as a couple of LGBT characters and depictions of violence. Mostly, it’s awesome, and gets a bonus for a cast of some really strong female characters. But if your child isn’t ready for that, try:
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
This series covers everything that Runaways doesn’t: racism, cultural differences and fitting in (conversely, it shies away from the broader philosophical questions and the racier content of Runaways). Interwoven stories about friendship and life in high school offer taught, insightful dialogue that can be enjoyed in the moment and mulled over later.