2019 Gift Guide: Graphic Novels to Rock Their World (Ages 8-16)

December 11, 2019 § 1 Comment

It’s what I hear most often from parents: “I can’t get my kid to read anything but graphic novels.” The assumption is one of concern: perhaps said kiddo is dabbling in literature less worthy than the meaty prose novels many of us devoured in our own childhoods. The question of whether to purchase graphic novels also stumps parents: is it worth buying books our kids will tear through so quickly? After all, a graphic novel that takes an entire year to create can often be finished by an avid young reader in a single sitting.

AND YET. I would argue that graphic novels are some of the greatest (material) gifts we can bestow on our children. Today’s kids are growing up in a more visual culture than we ever did. Couple that with the exploding innovation coming out of the comics market right now, and is it any wonder these books are so alluring to young readers? I’ve watched my own children fall in love with reading through these books. I’ve watched them return to favorite comics in times of stress or change. I’ve watched them bend over graphic novels in the backseat during carpool, with friends on either side leaning in.

Good graphic novels are clever and layered and poignant and often shockingly beautiful. Their vocabulary is rich. To read them is never a passive experience; rather, kids need to work to extract the complete narrative, to find the innuendos and deeper meanings hidden in the cross-section between picture and text. Herein lies the best case for owning graphic novels: the reason your kids return to them again and again isn’t just because they enjoy them; it’s because they get more out of every reading.

Best of all, today’s graphic novels are tackling a range of subjects and genres, including science, history, biography, and immensely valuable socio-emotional learning. 2019 was a banner year for graphic novels. Below are some of the stand-outs (including what my own kids are getting for the holidays!).

New Kid (Ages 9-13)

I’d be hard pressed to think of a single tween who wouldn’t inhale Jerry Craft’s New Kid (Ages 9-13). The latest addition in a trend of “How to Survive Middle School” graphic novels, this one stars seventh grader Jordan Banks, as he navigates the complexities of race, class, privilege, and social dynamics at the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School outside Manhattan, where his parents are determined that being the “new kid” will afford him countless opportunities his neighborhood school won’t. Whereas most of his classmates are driven to the sprawling campus by their parents (or drivers!), Jordan buses in from his Washington Heights apartment. His sneakers are used, his video games are old, and he is one of the only students of color in his entire grade. These are not small things in middle school.

Jordan anticipates many of the racist comments and assumptions directed his way, even the “well-meaning” ones. What he doesn’t anticipate is that every student has more going on than their skin color, money, or scholarship status suggests. Only if we take the time to dig below people’s “book covers,” Jordan concludes, can we celebrate the beautiful complexity we find underneath.

Stargazing (Ages 8-12)

My daughter received Jen Wang’s Stargazing (Ages 9-13) in September for her birthday and hasn’t put it down since. (Not surprisingly, given that Wang’s previous graphic novel, also about an unlikely friendship, is beloved in our house.) I actually found myself moved to tears when I finally had a chance to read it.

Despite living in the same Chinese-American community, Christine and Moon couldn’t be more different: the former is studious and restrained, the latter impulsive and eclectic. Still, the girls find their way into a friendship as exciting as it is unexpected (helped in no small part by a shared love of K-pop). The power of Stargazing isn’t in the cliché that opposites attract—it’s what the girls do with this friendship, particularly when it is inevitably tested. Wang reminds us that, even in the wake of mistakes, the best friendships are worth rebuilding.

Guts (Ages 8-12)

As far as I’m concerned, Raina Telgemeier is a national treasure. No one has done more for tween girls’ love of reading. By sharing such personal details about her own turbulent tween years, she has given our children a profoundly valuable roadmap to navigating the shifting ecosystems of friendships and family. A recent piece in the New York Times said of Telgemeier, “if Judy Blume wrote graphic novels, this is what they would look like.”

Her latest graphic memoir, Guts (Ages 8-12), is her most personal book yet, chronicling her struggle with an anxiety disorder and panic attacks—specifically, a fear of vomiting—which began in fourth grade. Telgemeier dedicates her book to “anyone who feels afraid,” and with cases of anxiety disorders on the rise among tweens and teens, this won’t fall on deaf ears. Young Raina encounters stress everywhere, from the bedroom she shares with her younger brothers, to the oral presentations she’s expected to give at school, to the social stigma of bathroom emergencies. Fortunately, she finds relief in the comics she draws and the guidance of a professional therapist (all hail a middle-grade book that normalizes therapy!).

Pilu of the Woods (Ages 8-12)

For those who prefer their socio-emotional learning outside the classroom, Pilu of the Woods (Ages 8-12), by debut novelist Mai K. Nguyen, is a quiet gem. Wide-eyed Willow is struggling with the loss of her mother, including the strained relationship it has created with her older sister. But what’s most unsettling to Willow are the frequent, volatile bursts of anger which erupt from her mouth. Desperate to escape the shame of her rage, she flees deep into the woods behind her house. There, she finds a lost tree spirit named Pilu, who needs help finding her way home.

The daughter of a life sciences professor, Willow has a trained eye for observing nature, a quality which makes her inherently suited to helping the lost sprite find her magnolia grove (and teach her much about the natural world on the way). And yet, Willow comes to realize she must make peace with her own inner demons—personified as black monsters stuffed inside glass jars—before she can effectively help another. Negative feelings may be uncomfortable and hurtful, but they’re a part of us. As Willow discovers, if we show these parts compassion, rather than bottling them away, they’re likely to shout a little less. As a wise therapist once told me: what we resist, persists.

The Crossover (Ages 10-14)

Basketball season is well underway in our house, so both kids have been enjoying the new graphic novel adaptation of Kwame Alexander’s award-winning novel-in-verse, The Crossover (Ages 10-14), about what happens when the stressors of friendship, school, and romance threaten the bond shared by twin brothers over basketball. Dawud Anyabwile’s emotionally expressive illustrations, rendered in a fitting orange-and-white palette, enables Alexander’s original pulsating verse to positively rebound off the page.

Queen of the Sea (Ages 10-14)

Alternate history, political intrigue, and royal scandal served up in a graphic novel? Sign me up! Inspired by the real-life rivalry between Mary Tudor and her sister, Queen Elizabeth the First, this captivating story is set on a tiny fictional island in sixteenth century England. Young Margaret, an orphan raised in a convent on the remote island, knows nothing of the greater world, excepting what the nuns and occasional supply ships tell her. So, she never suspects the web of secrets she’ll fall into when young Queen Eleanor, banished by her jealous sister Catherine, turns up in disguise on the island’s shores.

Gorgeously illustrated and just shy of 400 pages, Dylan Meconis’ Queen of the Sea (Ages10-14) is filled with fascinating glimpses of sixteenth century life. Interspersed throughout the story are spreads devoted to food, chess, time-telling, saints, and daily life in a convent (my favorite being a diagram of the various “table signs” used during silent meals, like to request fish or signal for honey to be passed).

The lliad (Ages 12-16)

In a companion to his equally brilliant graphic novel adaptation of The Odyssey, Gareth Hinds tackles The Iliad (Ages 12-16), Homer’s epic tale of the events triggering the Trojan War. Wowza. It is rather extraordinary to think that our kids are growing up at a time when they can develop an up-close-and personal relationship with the Western Classics long before college (or even high school). How different might our own paths through academia have looked with such enticing early exposure? Gareth Hinds’ richly expressive, often larger-than-life illustrations explode off the page like the battles themselves, breathing life into the mortals and immortals alike who fueled the conflict. Character and location maps complement the story, and those who want more can explore the meaty Author’s Notes, which lends light on Hinds’ interpretations of Homer.

This Was Our Pact (Ages 8-12)

One of the most stunning graphic novels I’ve ever encountered, Ryan Andrews’ This Was Our Pact (Ages 8-12) is a must for the dreamer in your life. Almost entirely rendered in a midnight blue palette, it’s at once dark, mysterious, eerie, magical, bizarre, and funny. It’s also a genuine and hopeful musing on friendship. Every year, at the Autumn Equinox Festival, children float paper lanterns down a river. Legend has it that, after drifting out of sight, the lanterns soar off to the Milky Way and turn into brilliant stars. It it any wonder that Ben and his classmates take to their bikes, chase after the lanterns, and try to bust open this myth? Not long into their quest, boys begin dropping out, leaving Ben with the one kid he doesn’t like. There’s nothing like a fantastical adventure, complete with a giant talking bear, to forge an unlikely friendship.

White Bird (Ages 8-12)

My nine year old is on her third (!) reading of Wonder and Auggie and Me, so she’ll be getting R.J. Palacio’s White Bird (Ages 8-12) for Christmas. Billed as a “Wonder Story,” it’s really only loosely connected to the fictional character of Julian, who asks his Jewish grandmother to share with him her story as a survivor of the Holocaust for a school project. I knew Palacio could write emotionally rich characters, but I had no idea she could draw like this!  Beautifully and clearly presented, White Bird takes its reader back in time, to a fairy-tale childhood in France shattered by the rise of fascism and World War Two, providing an excellent and appropriate introduction for middle-grade children to the horrors of the Holocaust.

As the young protagonist faces separation from her parents, as she lives in hiding under fear of being discovered, time and again we are shown the power of small acts of kindness, even and especially those undertaken when the stakes are highest. “You see, Julian, it always takes courage to be kind. But in those days, when such kindness could cost you everything—your freedom, your life—kindness becomes a miracle. It becomes that light in the darkness that Papa talked about, the very essence of our humanity.” Palacio concludes her story by drawing connections between Jews during the Holocaust and today’s refugees, encouraging her readers to reflect on what the mistakes of the past can tell us about the present.

Becoming RBG (Ages 9-13)

While we’re on the subject of righting wrongs, my daughter will also be receiving Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice (Ages 9-13), by Debbie Levy, with illustrations by Whitney Gardner. In a primarily blue and white palette—with fitting emphasis given in red—we are taken through the “notorious” Supreme Court justice’s life story, beginning with a childhood spent tailing her prankster cousin, discovering she was left-handed, and silently witnessing the aftermath of her older sister’s tragic death on her parents. Levy is adept, not only at showcasing Ginsburg’s trailblazing accomplishments as a woman and a Jew—in education, law, and government—but also at doing so within clearly-articulated historical and contemporary contexts. My son reads biographies for pleasure. My daughter reads them only under duress at school. But I have no doubt that, with this engaging format, she won’t hesitate to school herself on the living feminist icon that is RBG.

The Giver (Ages 12-15)

So, what’s my son getting for Christmas? It goes without saying that he’ll get the latest installment in Nathan Hale’s “Hazardous Tales” series, which came out last week. But—because why stop at a one-armed geologist on a perilous expedition?—he’ll also be getting the graphic novel adaptation of The Giver, by P. Craig Russell (Ages 12-15). He has been reading Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newbery Medal winner for school this fall and has been absolutely riveted by the dystopian story of a boy who steps into his given role of Recoverer of Memories and begins to see the problems inhersent in a society protected from crime and sadness.

In full disclosure, this is the only graphic novel on this list which I have not read—and that’s because I’m too stubborn to don reading glasses to read the teeny, tiny type (a problem teens, the lucky bastards, won’t have). But I understand that Russell’s adaptation closely mirrors Lowry’s original story, lending arresting visuals to something previously found only in our imaginations. His use of color is both purposeful and powerful, appearing only in select moments in the novel. The entire thing has a bleak and unsettling air, which feels perfectly suited to Lowry’s riveting story.

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