A Whole New World: Graphic Novels for Kids

by Bronwen Fleetwood
published in Reading

Graphic novels are rising in popularity, across age groups. In September 2019 The New York Times announced, citing “reader interest and market strength,” that it would bring back its monthly “Graphic Books” best seller list, which includes fiction, nonfiction, kidlit, comics, and manga. Topping the list upon its October 2019 return is the Middle Grade graphic novel Guts by Raina Telgemeier, about a middle schooler with anxiety. In fact, of the top fifteen books listed over half are explicitly kidlit, and several others have crossover appeal. Sure, a gritty Batman title is on there, too, but you can’t deny the draw of graphic novels for kids.

Just what defines a graphic novel? Why are kids reading them? And are kids getting as much from graphic novels as they do from novels without pictures?

What Graphic Novels Are, and Aren’t

There’s no singular definition of “graphic novel” so pinning it down can be tricky. The borders between a picture book, an illustrated novel, a comic book, and a graphic novel may seem confusing at first. (DIY MFA has a nice introductory post here.) 

Graphic novels typically:

  • Consist predominantly of sequential illustrations to tell a story (like a comic). Text may or may not be present, and is usually secondary to the art.
  • Are longer, with more room for subplots and deeper examination of themes.
  • Are bound like books (hard or soft cover, glued or sewn binding) rather than comic periodicals (stapled with paper covers).

“Graphic novel” does not denote genre or age category, as it is used for everything from middle grade nonfiction to gritty adult superhero reboots. Picture books are shorter and aimed at young children. Illustrated novels are works of prose with single illustrations peppered throughout the text. (Think Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or the original printing of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.) 

Why Kids Love Graphic Novels

We start babies with picture books, and a thick novel may look intimidating, so it makes sense that a growing kid would want something that feels like a transition between the two. Carrying something with a hundred pages can make a kid feel accomplished, but knowing that those pages are filled with artwork is reassuring. Graphic novels are great for kids in transition.

Let’s talk about the artwork. Often it’s visually magnificent. Even when it’s quirky, messy, or “simple,” great care goes into them, especially when they’re aimed at young readers. That’s because the images convey just as much, if not more, information than the text. 

Illustrations provide context clues to what’s happening in the story. A character could say, “I’m sorry” but the expression on their face will tell the reader how they’re saying it. For kids who struggle with prose reading comprehension the pictures can be a big help. 

Whether a reader has difficulty or not, graphic novels are a pleasure to read. Visual cues reinforce themes, subtle running gags appear in the margins, and color and ink create an immersive world. 

But Grown Ups Don’t Always Love Kidlit Graphic Novels

Some teachers and parents look down on comics and graphic novels as “not challenging enough” but those adults may not be familiar with what’s currently on shelves, or the latest science. 

Turns out that reading graphic novels engages the same parts of the brain as reading text. Having pictures and text together can improve recall and learning. The pictures actually help the reader instead of “dumbing down” the experience. (For citations, see this post at Northwestern University, and Teach.com’s guide for teachers.) 

All Reading Counts

There’s a reason “novel” is part of the term used for these books. Novels are known for their deep themes, emotions, and intricate story telling. There are many graphic novels being published that tackle harsh subjects. Perhaps the most famous is Maus by Art Spiegelman, which recounts the Holocaust using mice and cats as proxies for humans. Maus has heavy themes, but it has helped countless adults and older kids understand a human tragedy. 

On the October 2019 New York Times list, the kidlit graphic novels cover themes of debilitating anxiety, friendship and peer pressure, Japanese internment in WWII, sisterhood, diversity in schools, classism and racism, and growing up. Beyond the list, there are graphic novel adaptations of Anne Frank’s diary, A Wrinkle in Time, Shakespeare, and even The Odyssey. Whether your young reader wants fart jokes or an introduction to classic literature, there’s a graphic novel for that.

Maybe the most important thing for grown ups to remember about kidlit graphic novels is that all reading is reading. How matter how a story is consumed, it’s still important. Even better, graphic novels are sticky–they turn reluctant readers into story-hungry lifelong readers

Writing a Kidlit Graphic Novel 101

First, you’ll want to understand how graphic novels are created. It starts with a script, then storyboarding (rough sketches), then art, ink, color, lettering, and so on. 

In comics there are often teams who make a comic happen, but in traditional book publishing it’s more common for an agent to sign an individual writer or illustrator and then a publisher will match writers and artists. Being a writer/illustrator may be the easiest path to representation, but other models are still possible. 

If you’re a debut you’ll need to show that you are capable of finishing the work, and what that final work will look like. That can mean different things, from a synopsis, to a complete script or rough illustrations, and if you’re also the illustrator you’ll definitely want a sample chapter or two with finished art and letters. Querying a graphic novel isn’t easy, but neither is querying a prose or verse novel either. 

You don’t have to go traditional with a graphic novel. You can go indie or self-pub with a combination of webcomics, crowdfunding, doing it all yourself, or approaching small publishers directly. 

All the usual rules of writing kidlit apply. Make sure you check out The Special Responsibility of Writing Kidlit and Defining Kidlit for what makes a story kidlit and what to keep in mind when you’re writing for kids. 

Bronwen Fleetwood writes fiction for young adults, and nonfiction for writers. Bronwen studied creative writing at Eugene Lang,The New School for Liberal Arts, has acted as leader of the Princeton Writing Group, and as a Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month. Bronwen currently lives on the Whale Coast of South Africa, between the mountains, the sea, and a lake. You can connect with her at bronwenfleetwood.com.

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