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!

A Little Life Update + January & February Favorites

As promised, I didn’t update last month because I was busy being 9 months pregnant. On February 3rd, my daughter Severina was born, a little late but in good health! In the ensuing weeks, I’ve been busy trying to learn how to do this whole “mom” thing, and just generally enjoying her presence. She sleeps a lot, of course, so I’ve had a chance to get a little reading done as I ease back into work, on top of the reading I got done before she arrived. That means this is a longer “favorites” post than usual — a nice challenge for me as I get back into the groove of writing!

I’m also trying something new this month. I’ve become an affiliate of Bookshop.org, a website that is seeking to redirect some of Amazon’s book sale profits to independent bookstores. I try not to preach too much, but I have serious concerns about Amazon’s affect on the publishing industry, so I’m glad to be able to provide an alternative option to readers. Full disclosure: If you order books through my links, I will get a percentage of that sale. I am obviously very grateful if you do choose to do that — but I would also encourage you to try to do more of your book shopping through the website itself when you can’t get to your local independent bookstore or comic shop, regardless of whether it kicks back to me or not. It will benefit other affiliate bookstores and folks in the world of book retail and reviewing.

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What’s Michael? Fat Cat Collection, Volume 1, by Makoto Kobayashi — published by Dark Horse Comics

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will likely have seen some of my ravings about What’s Michael? in the past, and will know that I’m a huge lover of cats. This hilarious series is about the quirks of cats, as shown through Michael, a sort of stand-in for all orange tabbies everywhere, and his cat companions. This is also, however, a series about the quirks of cat lovers; frequently the human characters are depicted as going above and beyond what seems reasonable in favor of providing the best for their cats. My personal favorite recurring characters are the yakuza member known as K who doesn’t want anyone to know that he keeps and dotes on a cat, and his rival yakuza member M who doesn’t want anyone to know that he is horribly afraid of cats. Each man is worried about shattering his manly image, you see. Makoto Kobayashi seems to enjoy the incongruity of stereotypically masculine men loving cats, and it is clear from his keen observation that he himself is a great lover of felines. Dark Horse had originally published this series in smaller volumes back in the 90s, and I’m really, really excited that they’re bringing it back in this “fatcat” edition for a new wave of cat-loving readers!

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Our Dining Table, by Mita Ori — published by Seven Seas Entertainment

I read a lot of BL, and the majority of it is…not great, honestly. I wade through a lot of excessive drama seeking out romances that are sweet, or comforting, or just plain pleasant. Luckily, those kinds of BL are becoming easier to find, and I would count Our Dining Table among them — though honestly, the romance is more of a bonus than a feature in this cozy food manga. Yutaka is a salaryman who has trouble eating around others. One day, he intercepts the young Tane, a little boy with a big appetite who becomes obsessed with Yutaka’s homemade onigiri. Through Tane, Yutaka meets Minoru, his older brother, and the three fall into a pattern of sharing meals together regularly. Obviously a romance buds between Yutaka and Minoru, but the real draw is the focus on shared meals — regardless of their quality — as a vehicle for creating familial bonds. As someone who grew up in an Italian household (and who loves food), this idea of sharing meals as a family is really important to me. I loved to see it utilized in a “found family” narrative, highlighting the importance of nourishing each other physically and emotionally.

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

Okay, I’m cheating a bit here. You Are New is actually a picture book that I bought for my daughter before she was born. But I’m including it here because it is another in an ever-growing collection of works by cartoonist Lucy Knisley about…well, babies. I haven’t forgotten my promise to write a piece about pregnancy and parenthood in comics, and I’m slowly accruing a small horde of books and links to use to that end. Knisley keeps churning out content that simply demands to be part of that future post! In this case, she speaks directly to children instead of parents, assuring them that their newness — whether it’s because they were just born or because they are meeting new people or whatever the case may be — is a wonderful gift of growth and change. We are constantly in the process of reinventing ourselves day to day, and none moreso than children. I’ve read this to Severina a few times now, both before and since she was born. Soon, she’ll be able to appreciate the lovely, bright illustrations that depict kids of all ages and backgrounds. Until then, well…she’s still very new!

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Kodocha, Volume 1, by Miho Obana — published by Tokyopop (out of print)

This also feels a bit like cheating, since this is actually a reread — though I first read this manga in 8th grade, about seventeen or so years ago! I have a soft spot for “old” shojo (stuff from the 90s and early 00s, basically), and on a whim realized that I wanted to revisit this series, which is so good at balancing absurd, slapsticky humor with intense, soap opera-style drama. Protagonist Sana is a famous actress, and she’s having trouble at school with a bully named Akito. As she tries to fight back against his classroom tyranny, she learns about his tragic past and is spurred to help his family overcome their issues through her performance in a movie that closely mirrors their experiences. It sounds trite, and perhaps in some ways it is…but there’s something so appealing about the characters that I find myself drawn in, anyway. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but if you can find old copies of Kodocha at your library or used somewhere, I do recommend checking it out, especially if you remember the good old bad days of North American manga publishing.

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Blue Flag, Volume 1, by KAITO — published by VIZ Media (available April 21, 2020)

This is one of those series around which there’s been a lot of buzz, so I was really excited to see it getting a print release through VIZ this year. In many ways, Blue Flag seems like a straightforward high school drama revolving around an uncomfortable love triangle. Protagonist Taichi is entering his final year of high school, and discovers that he’s in the same class as his childhood friend, Toma. While Toma doesn’t seem to think anything between them has changed, Taichi feels that Toma’s popularity and good-naturedness separate them, and he doesn’t really considering Toma a close friend. He happens to discover that a timid girl in his class, Futaba Kuze, has a crush on Toma. She asks for Taichi’s help to get Toma’s attention — and complications ensue. The three get along well, but Toma is hiding his real feelings about his own affections, and Taichi suddenly feels far more attached to Kuze than he anticipated, especially considering he rather disliked her at the outset of the manga. I had never read anything by KAITO before, but his artwork is absolutely lovely, and he manages to keep a high school love triangle (one of my least favorite tropes) interesting through genuinely likable characters. So far, there’s no overly-dramatic backstabbing or eyeroll-worthy declarations of romantic intention. And besides, there’s an LGBTQ+ angle here as well, and I’m curious to see how that’s handled in future volumes.

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My Androgynous Boyfriend, Volume 1, by Tamekou — published by Seven Seas Entertainment

Upon seeing my Goodreads rating of this volume, a friend with whom I didn’t think I had much discussed my love of androgynous men commented, “Oh brand.” And truly, this is a very on brand manga for me in so many ways. Wako is a hard-working manga editor who isn’t terribly interested in her own appearance, but who loves cute and beautiful things. This affection extends to her boyfriend, the fashionable and feminine Meguru. This unlikely couple loves each other fiercely, and the story mainly revolves around the misconceptions others have about their sexualities (since some people assume Meguru is a woman, or that he is gay). So far, even though Wako and Meguru both deal with some struggles in their professional and personal lives, this is a series without any malice. These two lovebirds are happy with each other, and they work hard to maintain their relationship with a great deal of mutual respect and admiration. The first volume was simply relaxing and enjoyable to read, and I look forward to seeing what future volumes have in store.

Well, there’s two months’ worth of recommendations for you, dear readers! I’ll be getting back to reviewing for Comics Beat soon, too, so continue to look for my long-form reviews there. Much as the time away has been nice (and brief!), I’m looking forward to diving headlong back into manga writing, as well as my other work. It’s important to keep the mind active, even when caring for a child! At the very least, I’ll be back again next month for another favorites post, so keep an eye out for it.

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