Comics Lockdown: Middle Reader Mayhem

So many articles on comics out there in the world begin with “Comics: not just for kids anymore!” to a point where it’s eye roll-worthy. This need to brush the “kiddie fare” under the proverbial rug is not only obnoxious, but also disingenuous. There are lots of comics for kids — and they’re great, even for adults. “All ages” doesn’t mean it’s baby stuff, it means it’s interesting to readers of all ages.

I’m not going to put Raina Telgemeier or Dav Pilkey on this list, because I suspect that if you have children, you’re already quite familiar with these industry heavyweights. What I’m hoping to give you is the goods from some equally worthy but less well known creators, to help get your kids through the trying times between Dog Man books.

I’m referring to these comics with the publishing industry term “middle reader,”  or “middle grade,” which designates books for children between the ages of eight and twelve. Middle reader is not a genre, so these books will range in the types of stories being told. I may well include some middle reader comics on other, genre-themed lists later down the line, but I wanted this to be a helpful guide for parents who are looking for age-appropriate material for their young readers. Middle reader books, both in comic and prose form, are some of my favorite books. They are so often fun, imaginative, and inspiring, even now that I’m an adult with a child of my own.

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Aquicorn Cove, by Katie O’Neill — published by Oni Press

I wrote last week about how much I love Katie O’Neill’s work, much of which falls under the middle reader category. Of all her works, I think Aquicorn Cove is my favorite. It tells the story of young Lana, who is at the seaside visiting with her aunt and helping to clean up the wreckage in the aftermath of a horrible storm. While there, she finds a young, injured aquicorn, a magical sea creature similar to a sea horse. She nurses it back to health and then discovers that there is a whole colony of aquicorns under the sea, and another storm on the horizon forces her and the community to think about the ways in which people and the environment can learn to coexist. I’m a really easy mark for children’s stories about environmentalism (my favorite Dr. Seuss book is The Lorax, I’m sure you’re surprised to discover), and O’Neill does a great job of getting that message across without condemnation. And of course, there’s her beautiful artwork throughout, along with her inventive creatures and the inclusion of a character who uses gender-neutral pronouns. All around, a really stellar comic about compassion and community.

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The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang — published by FirstSecond

The Prince and the Dressmaker probably doesn’t need my help, as it is currently awaiting a movie adaptation. But I love it, and so I want to share it with you. While Prince Sebastian’s parents are busy trying to find him a bride, he’s preoccupied with hiding a part of his life that he believes they will find shameful. Sebastian enjoys wearing dresses and going into the town as Lady Crystallia, a most fashionable young woman. To this end, he employs Frances, an extremely talented dressmaker who swears to keep his secret and make him the belle of every ball. Sebastian’s secret does get out, of course, but he learns how to be honest with himself and his family at the end. And Frances is able to further her own goals and career, as well. This is a sweet story of love, friendship, and acceptance, and I’m really excited to see what comes of the adaptation.

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The Adventures of Luna the Vampire, by Yasmin Sheikh — published by IDW

I love weird, gross-out humor involving monsters. Luna the Vampire is such a series, with Grumpy Space (linked above) and Pickled Zits comprising its print editions thus far. Luna is a grouchy, lazy vampire girl who lives in space and has remarkably normal adventures — which is to say, normal for her. She attends her uncle’s zombie-fication ceremony, adopts a fat worm that was intended to feed giant spiders, and clears a raucous party out of her coffin-shaped ship with the help of Kir, the pet store clerk who seems to have fallen in love with her. It’s silly nonsensical fun wrapped in a pink ribbon, and I especially like it because it’s the type of humor usually marketed to little boys but which clearly has young ladies in mind — though I would recommend this for the older end of the middle reader spectrum, with the acknowledgement that it might be for a more worldly-wise kid.

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Making Friends, by Kristin Gudsnuk — published by Scholastic

I was immediately in love with Kristin Gudsnuk’s work back when individual issues of her comic Henchgirl were coming out. Maybe it’s because she and I are approximately the same age, but I find her subtle references to anime just really get me. Making Friends makes use of this tendency of hers, as protagonist Dany inherits a magical sketchbook from her great-aunt which allows her to bring to life anything she draws within it. She finds out about this by sketching the head of her favorite comic book/cartoon villain, and when that head pops into existence, she realizes that she can navigate some of the anxieties of 7th grade by creating her own perfect best friend, Madison. Dany learns a hard lesson about facing consequences, but she also makes a lot of real friends along the way. Plus, there’s a magical girl sequence. What can you want more out of a comic than magical girls, I ask you? There is a sequel, Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board, which I admit I have not yet had the pleasure of reading. But it seems like Dany hasn’t finished learning her lessons when it comes to magicking things into existence!

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Cursed Pirate Girl, by Jeremy A. Bastian — published by Archaia

My heart races whenever I look at Jeremy Bastian‘s exquisite artwork. I adore Cursed Pirate Girl, though I will warn you that the one volume does not contain the full tale, and it’s hard to know when new material is available. (There was an annual a few years back, if you can track it down!) Still, it is an incredibly beautiful and deeply captivating book where a young girl is on an adventure in the Omerta Seas to find her father. But of course, she’s cursed. Treasure Island meets Alice in Wonderland, albeit with a brash, brave little girl protagonist with hair longer than her whole body. Bastian clearly takes cues from 19th century illustrators, and his incredibly detailed ink work leaves a lot of territory to explore. This is the book for the kid who dreams of magical adventures, possibly ones which involve sentient skeletons. I’m currently reading the second book in Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series of novels, and I think it’s got approximately the same vibe; they both certainly transport me completely to my girlhood fantasies.

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Lowriders in Space, written by Cathy Camper and illustrated by Raúl the Third — published by Chronicle Books

If the title of this book gets War’s “Low Rider” stuck in your head, well…that’s been me all week. In all seriousness, though, this is another lushly illustrated comic which follows Lupe Impala, El Chavo Flapjack, and Elirio Malaria who dream of running their own garage. They catch wind of a car contest and know that they’ve gotta trick out a lowrider of their very own in order to win the cash and start their garage. They manage to fly their work in progress right into space, where they wrangle the stars and upholster their ride in red-Mars-dust velvet. One of my favorite things about this comic and its sequels (Lowriders to the Center of the Earth and Lowriders Blast from the Past) is that Raúl the Third has drawn the entire thing in ballpoint pen. It’s a great testament to using what you have to make incredible art, and the story itself is a gorgeous homage to lowrider culture. Just don’t be surprised if you suddenly wish you had a car that was bajito y suavecito!

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Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula, by Andi Watson — published by FirstSecond

It should surprise no one that this title popped out at me when I saw it on a shelf at Comicopia in my first year working there. Princess Decomposia is the daughter of the King of the Underworld, but that job isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. She has a lot of responsibilities, and unfortunately is forced to shoulder those of her father most of the time, as well. Seeing as he just fired the cook, she has to hire a new one immediately — and thus we meet Count Spatula, the vampire chef with an unrepentant sweet tooth. The two become fast friends, though a budding romance has to take a backseat to Princess Decomposia’s many tasks. This is a cute little volume about love blooming in spooky darkness, for the little Wednesday Addams in your life.

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Nicola Traveling Around the Demons’ World, by Asaya Miyanaga — published by Seven Seas Entertainment

I’ve written about Nicola before, both here on the blog as well as for Comics Beat. It’s a delightful adventure where little witch Nicola, who has recently stumbled into Hell, has latched onto Simon, a traveling merchant. The two form a sort of father-daughter bond, and Simon becomes increasingly impressed with Nicola’s emerging magical talents — though she does not seem to notice her own powers herself. I felt so good after reading the first volume, like here was something that truly deserved being called “all ages,” something I could recommend to everyone without reservation. I love Asaya Miyanaga’s artwork, with its detailed hatching and whimsical creature designs. The physical copies of the book are printed in sepia ink, making the book something truly special.

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Kitaro, by Shigeru Mizuki — published by Drawn & Quarterly

I will never stop singing the praises of Shigeru Mizuki, whose comics about the adorable little monster boy, Kitaro, are so specifically my jam that I’m amazed they first came out before even my mother was born. Along with help from his father, Medama Oyaji (who is literally a giant eyeball with a tiny body), Kitaro helps settle disputes between monsters and humans. There are several volumes of the series out right now, but they are grouped by type of story instead of in any sequential order; I have linked to The Birth of Kitaro as my recommended starting point, since that’s where you learn our hero’s backstory. Translator and Mizuki expert Zack Davisson has written excellent informative essays in each of these editions, and those do follow an order. It’s a great way to learn more about the man who was Shigeru Mizuki, as well as the vast world of Japanese yokai — a subject very dear to my heart. If you or a kid you know are really into sympathetic monsters, potty humor, and/or the history of manga, I can’t recommend this enough.

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The Witch Boy, by Molly Knox Ostertag– published by Scholastic, Inc.

I just love witchy stuff for kids. In this coming-of-age story, Aster wants desperately to be a witch. Unfortunately for him, only girls in his family become witches, while boys become shapeshifters — though he has not shifted yet, himself. Aster has to study in private, eventually using his hard-won abilities to help rescue the other boys when a dark entity threatens them. This is a wonderful story for those who have ever been made to feel different or wrong when they choose to be themselves. This is the first book in a trilogy, the other books being The Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch, which continue to follow Aster’s studies in witchcraft while expanding the cast, further exploring the challenge of bucking against tradition.

There sure are a lot of witches, monsters, and royalty this week. I told you middle readers get some of the best books! It was actually difficult to come up with this list because there’s so much good material out there, and still so much that I haven’t had a chance to read yet. I’m continually impressed by the quality marriages of story and art that exist in comics, but especially in comics “for kids.” I would absolutely recommend looking deeper into your library’s catalog for comics for this demographic, as I personally know a lot of librarians who cannot get enough of helping kids (and their parents!) find their next favorite read.

Until next week, I hope you all stay safe and well!

Comics Lockdown: Reading With Little Ones

Even before Severina was born, I was a big fan of books for children. While I was pregnant, we read to her in my belly, and we’ve been reading to her ever since she was born — regardless of the fact that she’s only now even starting to notice the pages in earnest. I believe that reading to children is the cornerstone of kindling their love of literature, and that reading is not only good for its own sake, but for fostering empathy and giving kids a quiet, personal activity for when they need alone time.

To that end, I’ve played a little fast and loose with my definition of “comic” here, since picture books are a sequential art in and of themselves — and I like them, besides. I have tried to stick with authors who also write “comics” at the very least, so that this list can act as an introduction to creators whom little readers can revisit later in life. This list will be for children from birth through early elementary school; I’ll do middle reader and young adult comics lists later on. I would emphasize that even if you think your child isn’t getting anything out of reading, they’re learning and retaining more than you think!

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Dewdrop, by Katie O’Neill — published by Oni Press

I’m a huge fan of Katie O’Neill’s work, ever since the print version of her comic Princess Princess Ever After came out. I even had the privilege of meeting her when she was Stateside for New York Comic Con a couple years ago; she was kind enough to do a signing at Comicopia. She’s extremely sweet, exactly the kind of person you would imagine writes and illustrates excellent material for kids — which she does! Dewdrop is her newest book, which follows a little axolotl as he encourages his friends, all of whom are lending their unique talents to the annual sports festival, to be the best they can be. The only text in the book is word bubbles, giving the full comic experience to even the youngest of audiences. Katie’s lineless artwork is bright and composed of simple shapes. One of my favorite aspects of her work is the focus on kindness, both toward other people and toward the planet. There’s more information at the back of this book about the animal characters, providing a little ecology lesson along with a gentle tale about helping your friends recognize their talents.

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You Are New, by Lucy Knisley — published by Chronicle Books

I’ve mentioned Lucy Knisley’s latest picture book in a past iteration of my monthly favorites, but it bears repeating. Like Katie O’Neill, Knisley opts to forego lines in favor of bright, bold shapes for little eyes to take in. This book focuses on all the situations in which we are new: new as babies, new as older siblings, new to a school, new when we recreate ourselves in our imaginations, and so on. It’s a lovely early introduction to change, and how exciting it can be when we look at it as an experience of newness. I think that this would be a very good read for a child who is struggling with change — and given the current state of the world, I know a lot of tiny people are having a rough go of it. Change is a common theme in Knisley’s work, much of which draws from her own lived experiences.

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¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market, written and illustrated by Raúl the Third with colors by Elaine Bay — published by Versify

This book has been favorably compared to Richard Scarry’s Busytown books, which is fair; however, I want to make it clear that ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market and its sequel ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat are in a league of their own. Raúl and his partner, colorist Elaine Bay, bring a thriving Mexican market alive for readers, seamlessly weaving in Spanish words and phrases as Little Lobo and his doggy companion Bernabé make deliveries for various market shops. There are both word bubbles and story text, making this a comic/picture book hybrid. Raúl’s dedication to Mexican iconography and obvious familiarity with the comings and goings of the mercado give the bustling scene texture and depth. His artwork, which has graced everything from beer cans to gallery walls, is a gorgeous cartoon-meets-desert-fever-dream, and it’s exciting that even the youngest of readers can enjoy it.

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The Princess and the Pony, by Kate Beaton — published by Arthur A. Levine Books

Years before Kate Beaton had a baby of her own, she made a couple of excellent picture books which I have enthusiastically gifted to friends and family over and over again. The Princess and the Pony is the story of Princess Pinecone, a warrior princess who dreams of acquiring a mighty steed to help her in her conquests. Instead, she receives a chubby, flatulent pony with an absurd face. Hilarity ensues, as it so often does under Beaton’s expert pen. Get your giggles and spark a love of weird little girls (and their weird pets) in fiction.

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The Wolves in the Walls, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean — published by HarperCollins

I’m pretty sure Neil Gaiman has written every sort of thing possible, and that includes a bevy of books for children. My favorite of them is The Wolves in the Walls, wherein young Lucy tries to warn her family about the wolves living in the walls of their house. They dismiss her claims, all of them reciting that “When the wolves come out of the walls, it’s all over.” Of course, the wolves do come out of the walls, and it is Lucy who must decide to take her home back from the partying canine invaders. It’s a very silly book with Dave McKean’s spooky and wonderful collage artwork. I love the way he draws almost elastic-looking wolves in ink, sleeping in Lucy’s bed and eating Lucy’s mother’s homemade jam out of the jar. This book might not cut it for a child who is easily frightened by confusing or dark imagery, but for the kid with a sophisticated sense of humor, it’s a good bet.

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Monster School, written by Kate Coombs and illustrated by Lee Gatlin — published by Chronicle Books

This is one of those (many) circumstances where I bought a children’s book long before I was even considering getting pregnant because I was a fan of one of the people involved in its production. In this case, I follow artist Lee Gatlin, whose spooky and adorable comics first caught my attention many years ago, probably recirculated on Facebook or something. Monster School is an excellent use of Gatlin’s darkly adorable art style, and the poems by Kate Coombs convey a nighttime school experience that many kids would die for — literally, in the case of one sweet little ghost. What’s more, the poems are fun to read, and they utilize many different poetry formats, giving readers lots of rhyme schemes to try out. I read this to Sev recently, and while she probably didn’t understand a lick of it, I was very impressed and believe it will become a family favorite!

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Zombie in Love, written by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by Scott Campbell — published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

I’ve been really impressed by how many high-quality “spooky” children’s books we’ve been able to acquire. This one was a gift, along with its sequel Zombie in Love 2+1, and I instantly recognized artist Scott Campbell from his Great Showdowns illustrations. Campbell’s watercolors expertly accompany the story of Mortimer, a lonely zombie who has been trying desperately to find his true love. He’s tried every piece of advice he can find without luck, until he finally stumbles upon his match at the Halloween ball! The sequel follows Mortimer and his love Mildred as they become new parents to a living human child, with all the ups and downs of parenthood. These are absurdly sweet, funny books with a touch of the macabre to keep things weird, and plenty of zombie jokes hidden in Campbell’s artwork.

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Hug Machine, by Scott Campbell — published by Little Simon

Scott Campbell gets two books on this list, but I couldn’t resist another favorite gift — and he’s both writer and illustrator this time. Hug Machine is told from the perspective of a child who is an excellent hugger. He hugs everyone and everything, and is fueled by pizza. This one is a board book, so a great read for little ones who are enthusiastic about demonstrating affection, but haven’t yet mastered not putting books in their mouths!

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Chi’s Sweet Home, by Kanata Konami — published by Vertical Comics

Manga is actually a challenging ask for very young kids. Most of what gets translated is intended for at least a middle school audience, though Japanese picture books like Everyone Poops have been childhood classics for decades. Chi’s Sweet Home is the one manga I always felt comfortable recommending to families with little kids. It’s a very simple tale of Chi, a little cat who lives with a family and gets into various mundane troubles. Big-eyed Chi is instantly appealing to little ones, and the low-stakes situations make for innocent fun. The manga now comes in large omnibus editions, so this is a tough grab for little hands. But for a family read-along, this is a great pick that will really throw kids into the world of comic books.

Every day, I find more books that I want to add to Severina’s library. My mother-in-law likes to joke about how she had to read The Poky Little Puppy over and over again to my husband, but we are very lucky to be living in a time with an overwhelming wealth of excellent children’s literature to suit all tastes. I can’t overstate how important I think it is for adults to read to children, and I hope that even in the chaos of quarantine, those of us who share our homes with kids are granted some time to have that experience.

Next week, we’ll be talking comics for older elementary and middle school aged children. This is a HUGE market in graphic novels, so it should be fun to try and come up with some hidden goodies buried among the mountain of bestsellers.

Until then, happy reading!

Comics Lockdown: A COVID-19 Reading List Series

For the past two months, much of the world has been in a state of lockdown, self-isolating because of the rapid spread of COVID-19. In the midst of all this, I have been wondering how I could reach out and help people find some comfort while they remain apart from friends, family, coworkers, and their normal daily lives. While it’s true that listicles of what to read in quarantine are abundant on the Internet right now, I thought I would try to share my own perspective with some themed lists of suggestions, especially since it seems like we’re all going to be keeping physical socializing to a minimum for a while yet.

My plan is to break the lists out into age groups and/or genres, in order to make them more easily digestible in one sitting. In my posts, I will be linking to Bookshop.org in case readers wish to buy the book in question. I also encourage readers to buy from their local independent comic or book shop if they don’t want to use my links, or to borrow from their local library. Many libraries are currently offering a more robust selection of ebooks, including graphic novels and comics, through Libby, Overdrive, and/or Hoopla. You can visit your library’s website for more information on how to access those apps, and I believe many libraries are also able to issue online-only library cards if you need one.

I know these times are challenging, and sometimes finding more tasks with which to occupy yourself can feel overwhelming. I don’t believe we should all be striving to be more productive right now; this virus has highlighted some major flaws in this country’s established operations, and it’s important to interrogate our need to be “useful.” But I do think that many of us, myself included, take comfort in books — and in this case, in comics. I hope that we are all able to find what we need right now, whether that be escapism, education, solidarity, or a call to action.

Above all, I hope we are all able to remain safe and healthy, and that we are able to return not to normal, but to an improved society that recognizes the importance of community and connection.

Happy reading!

The Series:

Reading With Little Ones
Middle Reader Mayhem