Exploring Big Emotions in Graphic Novels

Graphic-format book publishers continue to enjoy sales success, even though the pandemic boom has subsided. Graphic-format book publishers now have the power to touch more lives and impact the culture. For their young readers, creators are exploring the emotional challenges of growing up amidst stressors like a pandemic, wars, and climate change.


Graphic-format book publishers continue to enjoy sales success, even though the pandemic boom has subsided. Publishers report overall sales exceeding 2019 totals by notable margins. In fact, graphic novels are now the number three category in book sales, after only romance (#1) and fantasy (#2).

This expanded market has extended the reach of storytellers more accustomed to a non-mainstream audience. Graphic-format book publishers now have the power to touch more lives and impact the culture. For their young readers, creators are exploring the emotional challenges of growing up amidst stressors like a pandemic, wars, and climate change.

“There's been a rise in depressed emotions ever since COVID. There's a huge wave of nihilism coming and I just hope we can communicate standing for something, processing emotions, and knowing yourself,” says Allison Marie Pond, marketing director for Mad Cave Studios. “Our more mature books touch on intense emotional themes. I think almost every pitch we receive from creators has that layered in to some degree. It’s still a graphic novel, but it happens to have those social-emotional themes rolled in.”

“Social-emotional learning is a core tenant for pretty much everything we acquire. It could be as simple as learning from emotions, how to manage emotions, or problem-solving skills,” says Sean Tulien, Graphic Universe/Lerner’s editorial director. “Inevitably, most YA is about coming-of-age which features social-emotional learning. It's definitely one of our most important things we look for.”

Adolescent readers can find comfort, guidance, and good information anywhere—even from a talking mushroom, digital lizard, or elf mage. “Big feelings are the name of the game in my opinion,” says Alex Antone, Skybound’s editorial director. “I think that’s all teens want to talk about because growing up is really hard…and it’s the first time they’ve done it.”

Sequoia Kids Media

Sequoia Kids Media, an imprint of Phoenix International Publications, specializes in bringing perennially favorite books and series titles to schools and libraries. The company’s graphic novel format titles aim for “high circulation, high fun” while teaching the building blocks of reading.

“With more scenes per page, the graphic novel format teaches narrative structure so children can start to feel the flow of a story in a book,” says Senior Marketing Manager Casey Griffin. “It's easy for little kids to pick one up and be like their older siblings reading graphic novels.”

“The ‘It’s Her Story’ series explores the lives of amazing women who changed the world,” says Griffin. “Each graphic novel recounts the hardships and triumphs of real women scientists, activists, writers, and artists.” A new title in the series, It’s Her Story: Irena Sendler by Margaret Littman, illustrated by Sara Luna, May 2023, ISBN 9798765402955, introduces readers ages 7–10 to Sendler, a humanitarian and social worker in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. Sendler brought aid supplies to the 450,000 Jewish people forcibly moved to the Warsaw ghetto. She also smuggled 2,500 children out of the ghetto and changed their names to keep them safe.

The “Do I Have To” series of graphic novel books teaches kids ages 3–7 to be neat, kind, and polite. Young readers meet fun animal friends who model good behavior in any scenario. Ronny Rhino must clean up his mess in Do I Have to Clean Up?, written by the Sequoia Kids Media team, illustrated by Agnieszka Jatkowska and Louise Gardner, August 2023, ISBN 9798765401989. “It's all about manners: playing nice, being helpful, and cleaning up,” says Griffin. “Parents will love watching their little ones learn to become good citizens.”

Sequoia’s Active Minds brand offers curriculum-based content including activity books, write-and-erase boards, and board books for kids. The brand’s graphic novels feature animal pals and seek-and-find scenes perfect for reluctant readers and book lovers ages 4–7. In Active Minds Graphic Novel: Alphabet by Cassie Gitkin, illustrated by Michael S. Miller, May 2021, ISBN 9781649961754, Puppy has a busy day at school with his animal friends. Beginning readers will have fun practicing the alphabet and learning new vocabulary in this library bound book.

Mad Cave Studios

Mark London founded Miami-based Mad Cave Studios in 2014 to publish his medieval fantasy graphic novel series “Battlecats.” To help other artists publish their work, Mad Cave launched an annual talent search and made a distribution deal with Diamond Comics.

Next year, Mad Cave will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a ramped-up publishing schedule. The publisher has already doubled its output in two years for its three imprints: Mad Cave, Maverick, and Papercutz. “Our whole model is about artists first. That is our strength,” explains Allison Marie Pond, marketing director. “We get access to one-of-a-kind stories because we allow creators to shine.”

A teenage girl from Philadelphia meets a chivalrous faerie mushroom in The Mushroom Knight: Volume 1, created by Oliver Bly, March 2024, ISBN 9781960578792. Their friendship deepens as they embark on a quest to protect the biome from catastrophic ruin. Mycologist Bly creates a Mobius-influenced world that echoes imaginary places like Narnia and Middle Earth. “It’s biologically accurate and the ecosystem is incorporated everywhere,” notes Pond. “The story contains battles and grief, so it’s for teens plus.”

The double-sided flip book shows two siblings’ perspectives in Double Booking: The Tail of the Mummy Cat by Chas! Pangburn and Kim Shearer, illustrated by Nic Touris, April 2024, ISBN 9781545809280. Real-life sibling creators collaborated to show how sibling rivalries can lead to important lessons. “With two stories told through two unique perspectives with two differing art styles in one book, we're offering a little bit of everything for middle grade readers,” says author Chas! Pangbrum.

To avenge his father’s death, the tiny hero must confront the sinister Motherboard in ATTABOY, created by Tony McMillen, May 2024, ISBN 9781545811757. This action-adventure comic is disguised as an illustrated instructional booklet for a video game. The author’s real-life experiences inspired this love letter to retro video games. “Attaboy works on several levels and one of them is as an allegory for my parents’ divorce,” says McMillen. “The unnamed narrator drops hints throughout the book about their situation growing up without a father.”

The young adult imprint of Mad Cave Studios, Maverick, will release an updated take on a popular 1990s cartoon fantasy series, Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders Vol. 1 by Jordie Bellaire, illustrated by Koi Carreon, colors by Sarah Davidson, May 2024, ISBN 9781960578921. The series features manga-style art, a female protagonist, family drama, and a magical group of friends. “I have very fond memories of watching the show with my sister when I was a child,” says Carreon. “I hope the new book can inspire kids today the same way the old TV show did me!”

Published under the Papercutz imprint for middle grade readers, Digital Lizards of Doom Vol. 2: Commander E.K.O., written by Gabriel Valentin, illustrated by Armand Bodnar and Nickolas Nunez, June 2024, ISBN 9781545800782, features an elaborate quest to unlock the dark portal and escape the video game universe. “Everyone is born with a superpower. It’s called the power of imagination,” says Valentin. “Digital Lizards of Doom is here to celebrate that creative wonder, while teaching life lessons that kids of any age can take with them into their day-to-day lives.”

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers has been publishing books for children for almost a century. Annually, Little, Brown publishes 200 titles including picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and YA fiction and nonfiction. Launched in 2022, Little, Brown’s imprint LB Ink publishes 10–14 graphic novels and graphic nonfiction titles per year.

“Graphic-format storytelling was not mainstream for many years, so it has always embraced and explored a diversity of experiences,” says Victoria Stapleton, executive director of school and library marketing. “Several graphic-format books were on the long list for the 2023 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. And we increasingly see graphic-format books on state award reading lists, which can have a tremendous impact on the market.”

A polite boy named K gets blamed for everything in K Is in Trouble, created by Gary Clement, January 2024, ISBN 9780316468527. All day, K endures hostile run-ins and misunderstandings with teachers, parents, classmates, pedestrians, and station agents, plus imperious crows and a fresh carp. Award-winning Canadian artist Clement depicts the absurdities of childhood in this hilarious graphic novel for readers ages 7–12. “This is what life can be like when kids have to deal with adults,” notes Stapleton. “Every kid at some point has been K.”

An aspiring young artist forms an after-school club with other creative students in Art Club: Dare to Create!, created by Rashad Doucet, February 2024, ISBN 9780759556393. Over and over, family members told Dale Donovan that art would get him nowhere in life. Dale tries to prove his naysayers wrong in this inspiring graphic novel for ages 8–12. “I respect this character for getting out there and providing a space for others,” says Stapleton. “The story also speaks to parental anxiety about their kids’ future success.”

A new class of kids arrives at Florida’s best space camp in Absolute Zeros: Camp Launchpad by Greg Smith and Michael Tanner, illustrated by Gabrielle Gomez, March 2024, ISBN 9780316048583. Facing competition from the trendy space camp next door, Camp Launchpad needs a miracle to keep from shutting down permanently. An unlikely trio of campers must band together to keep their beloved camp’s doors open in this middle grade novel. “This is a really energetic story about community building,” says Stapleton. “These kids are makers and doers, and it’s up to them to save their institution.”

The stage manager has a crush on the lead in a summer camp musical in Upstaged, created by Robin Easter, May 2024, ISBN 9780316429528. Since sixth grade, Ashton and Ivy have spent their summers together at theater camp. Will Ash find the courage to reveal their strong feelings before they and Ivy part ways in high school? As summer ends, Ash and Ivy’s friendship will change forever, one way or another. “Middle graders are starting to be more reflective about their relationships,” notes Stapleton. “And a great place to learn how to do that is theater camp, where you’re writing and performing in plays that express feelings.”


Robert Kirkman and David Alpert founded Skybound Entertainment in 2010 to develop properties across multiple platforms, including comics, gaming, television, film, and digital media series. In addition to the Eisner Award–winning comic book series “The Walking Dead,” Skybound’s other long-running superhero series includes Invincible, Outcast, Super Dinosaur, Oblivion Song, and Fire Power.

Skybound began publishing comics as an independent imprint of Image Comics over 10 years ago. In 2022, the company launched Skybound Comet, an original graphic novel imprint for middle grade and YA readers. For their first series, Kirkman and his team selected Tillie Walden’s Clementine, a trilogy set in the world of The Walking Dead.

“We are definitely a creator-centric company, especially as it relates to genre. We love genre. We love elevated genre, blended genres, anything that gets us excited to publish,” explains Editorial Director Alex Antone, a Publishers Weekly Star Watch Honoree. “Everybody that works at Skybound loves comics. We're just like big nerds—that’s our secret sauce!”

Ava reckons with the consequences of her deadly attack on Titan HQ in Ava’s Demon Book Two: Aftermath, created by Michelle Fus, May 2024, ISBN 9781534398528. In Book One of the YA series, Ava makes a pact with an ancient alien queen and unlocks a mighty power within herself. Now, Ava must come to terms with the devastating harm she has caused. “It’s an extremely emotional story with surprisingly relatable themes,” says Antone. “The creator painted every single panel. It’s one of the most beautiful graphic novels you’ll ever see.”

Skybound Entertainment founder Robert Kirkman delivers an action-packed buddy story in Super Dinosaur Compendium One, art by Jason Howard, July 2024, ISBN 9781534327221. This series features 10-year-old genius Derek Dynamo. Derek assists his injured father at work while saving the world from megalomaniac scientist Max Maximus and his genetically engineered human-dinosaur minions. Creators Kirkman and Howard reunited for this project, having previously worked together on Image Comic’s The Astounding Wolf-Man.

This Super Dinosaur compendium collects the entire hit comic series for readers ages 8–12 into a single volume for the first time. “The Super Dinosaur animated series ran for two seasons on Amazon and now we want to reach a new audience,” says Antone. “There’s a lot of action and adventure—and people will always love dinosaurs.”

Sea Serpent’s Heir Book Three: Queen of Mercy by Mairghread Scott, art by Pablo Tunica, Fall 2024, ISBN 9781534397385, is the final installment of the graphic novel trilogy for ages 12+, about growing up and embracing what’s right. On Kinamen Isle, Aella finds out she’s the reincarnation of a powerful and deadly ancient sea serpent. Will she save the world or doom it? “In dark times, there’s always a way to find hope, a reason to love, a reason to keep going,” says Antone. “Aella makes things right in this finale with a shocking twist.”

Third State Books

Third State Books, founded in San Francisco in January 2023, is the first general interest publisher solely devoted to Asian American and Pacific Islander voices, stories, and issues. “We feel strongly that writers based in Asia have a different mindset from Asian writers based in America,” explains Charles Kim, cofounder and president. “The way we talk about race and ethnicity is influenced by the civil rights era and the people who came before us here.”

Publishing fiction and nonfiction for all ages, Third State Books prioritizes narratives where Asian American and other readers of color will recognize themselves. “We are telling stories from a distinctly Asian American perspective, but not only for an Asian audience,” notes Kim. “We see this as a tremendous opportunity to provide a platform where Asian American writers don’t ever have to compromise the story they want to tell.”


Distributed worldwide by Publisher’s Group West, another component of Third State’s mission is to propel narrative change. “Six states plus New York City now mandate the teaching of Asian American history in public schools, but educational publishers are not prioritizing books that teach Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) history,” says Cofounder and CEO Stephanie Lim.

To address this dearth, Third State Books has collaborated with the Asian American Foundation to create a three-volume graphic history series for readers ages 8–13 that covers key moments in AAPI history. Fighting to Belong, Vol. 1: Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander History From the 1700s Through the 1800s by Amy Chu and Alexander Chang, illustrated by Louie Chin, February 2024, ISBN 9798890130174, follows three middle graders who are guided through a museum exhibit about AAPI history, starting with the arrival on American soil of the “Manilamen,” the Filipino sailors who founded the first permanent Asian American settlement in Saint Malo, Louisiana, in 1763.

Lissie Cheng is a 21st-century Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Preston Lin by Christina Hwang Dudley, March 2024, ISBN 9798890130044. Orphaned Lissie works in her aunt and uncle’s restaurant while pursuing her education. Initially, Lissie hates Preston Lin, a handsome star swimmer and Stanford PhD student. Can she set aside her first impression and give love a chance? “This Junior Library Guild Gold Selection is like Crazy Rich Asians meets Pride and Prejudice,” says Lim. “The novel interweaves the Jane Austen plotline and Asian American cultural issues like income inequality.”

What in the World Is Ezra’s Art? by Eric Toda and Shay Fan, illustrated by Tara Fan-Tran Johnson, May 2024, ISBN 9798890130129, is a heartwarming picture book for ages 4–8 about Ezra, a biracial seven-year-old who loves making art. Ezra doodles, draws, and paints all day, even though his friends and family don’t understand or like his creations. “The main character is Asian, but this story will resonate with any kid of any background,” says Kim. The book’s message is “If you want to create because you love to create—then create!”

Yen Press

Yen Press’s imprint Ize Press publishes high-quality print editions of the most popular webcomics and webnovels from Korea. Founded last year, Ize Press has already published 45 titles and announced over 30 separate series. “Korean comics have been a bright spot for us this year,” reports Mark de Vera, sales and marketing director. “In 2023, Yen Press has more than doubled the sales we had in 2019, in large part thanks to the success of Korean comics.”

Many Korean comics (manhwa) begin as prose webnovels, then Korean studios turn them into digital comics. “We're taking webcomics read by millions of readers worldwide and printing them in a lovely, collectible format,” explains de Vera. “We categorize manga and manhwa separately, mostly out of respect for the Korean creators. Korea is very proud of their recent achievements in the world of art and pop culture.”

Noodle shop workers hunt down renegade demons at night in The Uncanny Counter, Vol. 1, created by E Jang, March 2024, ISBN 9798400901300. Disabled teenager So Mun gets a chance to meet his deceased parents if he can complete a supernatural mission. “This compelling urban fantasy tale inspired a very popular live action Netflix series,” says de Vera. “Several manhwa titles became Korean dramas that achieved worldwide success.”

Wooseo Shin never believed in fate until a mystical ring of red thread appeared around his finger in Tied to You, Vol. 1, story by Chelliace, art by WHAT, May 2024, ISBN 9798400901591. Ize Press’s first boys love genre story (YA) features a college-age protagonist and a thorny love triangle. “The red thread of fate is an Eastern concept,” notes de Vera. “It signifies the connection between two soulmates.”

Graphic Universe/Lerner Publishing Group

Graphic Universe, an imprint of Lerner, has been increasing its graphic novel output and will soon publish 25–30 titles annually for early readers, middle graders, and YA. These fiction and nonfiction titles include original work plus acquisitions from France and Korea. “People in this field wouldn’t necessarily think comics and Lerner in the same thought,” says Sean Tulien, Graphic Universe’s new editorial director. “But Lerner is all-in on comics.”

“The Climate Crisis,” a new six-book series, presents introductory information about climate change for middle graders. The series covers topics like fossil fuels, deforestation, climate migrants, and rising sea levels. “These books are great for independent reading and perfect for classrooms too,” says Lois Wallentine, school and library marketing director. “They’re being published simultaneously in hardcover and paperback for the classroom market.”

Readers will learn about climate-related threats to animals in Animal Extinctions: A Graphic Guide, written by Stephanie Loureiro, illustrated by Ash Stryker, January 2024, ISBN 9781728476902. This volume of “The Climate Crisis” series explains how rising temperatures around the globe affect animal habitats and human food sources. “It stresses the importance of animal conservation, which is something we can all get behind,” says Tulien.

Carlos and his mother leave El Salvador for a new start in the United States in Just Another Story: A Graphic Migration Account, created by Ernesto Saade, April 2024, ISBN 9781728474137. Basing his story on conversations with his cousin, Saade portrays his relatives’ dangerous journey through Mexico and into the United States. Readers witness migrant families’ harrowing encounters with criminal cartels, human traffickers, and law enforcement officers. “There’s no on-page violence—but it’s really for mature upper-middle graders with the caveat that an adult in their life has looked through it,” notes Tulien.

In Hotelitor: Luxury-Class Defense and Hospitality Unit, created by Josh Hicks, May 2024, ISBN 9781728446073, a giant alien attacks a VIP hospitality spaceship. Eighteen-year-old intern Anna Greene must take charge when staff members find themselves stranded in deep space. About this graphic novel for ages 14–18, Tulien says, “What I love most is the message to not be afraid to stand out in a sea of indifference and mediocrity. I think that's something a lot of kids these days, teenagers especially, are grappling with.”

VIZ Media

Founded in 1986, San Francisco–based VIZ Media is the largest publisher of Japanese manga in the English language. VIZ publishes 300–375 print books each year, as well as 45–65 digital-only titles. Kevin Hamric, vice president of publishing sales, notes that while overall sales have dropped since the pandemic, they are still far ahead of 2020 figures. “Our yaoi (boys love), horror, and shonen (boys action/adventure) genre titles have picked up since COVID,” he says. “We’ve also seen an uptick [recently] in romantasy, a combination of romance and fantasy.”

First published in 2021 as a weekly manga, Frieren: Beyond Journey's End, by Kanehito Yamada, illustrated by Tsukasa Abe, ISBN 9781974725762, was released as a 12-volume set in December 2023, after the Frieren anime came out and generated new interest in the title. The manga series follows the unfolding story and life lessons of Frieren, an immortal elf mage who is celebrated for defeating a demon king. In a departure from the usual action/adventure plot, Frieren’s journey then turns inward, as she grapples with human feelings of loss and missed opportunities. “Librarians have really embraced this series and keep coming back for it,” says Hamric. “It’s a very well-written, heartfelt, and unique fantasy.”

An elite military squad defends Japan from deadly monster (kaiju) attacks in Kaiju No. 8, story and art by Naoya Matsumoto, December 2021, ISBN 9781974725984. Kafka Hibino, a kaiju-corpse clean-up worker, has a chance to join the Japan Defense when he undergoes a surprise transformation. Can Kafka achieve his childhood dream when he’s suddenly on the neutralization list as Kaiju No. 8? “It’s exceptionally well-drawn and you can’t help rooting for Kafka,” says Hamric. “And who doesn’t love a good Godzilla-like fight?” The TV anime based on Kaiju will be released in spring 2024.

Black Sands Entertainment

In 2016, Manuel and Geiszel Godoy founded Black Sands Entertainment to create indie comics about ancient African history and mythology in addition to Afrofuturist graphic novels. Publishing approximately eight titles annually, Black Sands has already earned over $3 million in revenue. The company also recently made a landmark multimillion-dollar anime deal with Carl Reed, producer of the Academy Award–winning short Hair Love.

“The bulk of our sales come directly from consumers, plus we’ve recently seen an uptick in wholesale and educational sales,” notes Manuel Godoy, founder and CEO. “Parents and grandparents are going all in because strong representation [of Black characters] matters to them.”

Lion’s Game, Volume 1: Masters of Mali by Kevin W. Brown, illustrated by Mac Thy, December 2023, ISBN 9798988182801 features Musa III, who wants to revive the Mali Empire after a period of plague, civil war, and political instability. Musa organizes a competition to find the best warrior to become Mali’s imperial general. “We go out of our way to make sure all content is age appropriate for teens, while still telling stories that are mature enough for adults,” says Godoy.

An elite group of martial arts fighters keep the peace in the universe in Monarchs, Volume 1, created by Joshua Bullock, December 2023, ISBN 9798987909935. Ja’Khari and Pepper, two kids from a human settlement train with hopes of becoming a monarch, one of the greatest fighters in the galaxy. “For educators looking to get manga—because at this point everybody's demanding manga—our titles are noncontroversial while showing a lot of representation for African American youth,” says Godoy.

Ausar defends his allies while managing threats from the gods in Black Sands, the Seven Kingdoms, Volume 5 by Manuel Godoy, illustrated by David Lenormand, July 2024, ISBN 9798988182856. This wildly popular series follows Ausar, the young Black ruler of Kemet, on his kingly adventures across the war-torn lands of ancient Egypt, Kush, Canaan, Sumer, and Greece. In Volume 5, Ausar’s kingdom is dragged into a war breaking out between Minoa and Sparta.

“Educators love the “Black Sands” series, because it’s about actual kingdoms, backgrounds, religions, and everything that went on in the ancient world,” says Godoy. “It really hits home in school districts with 70–80 percent African American students—and not just for the kids, but their parents, too.”

Oni Press

Oni Press publishes approximately 60 original and licensed comic books and graphic novels annually, including award winners like K. O’Neill’s The Tea Dragon Society, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, and Brenna Thummler’s "Sheets" trilogy. “Oni Press is a place for great artists to tell visually compelling stories that aren’t found elsewhere,” says Katie Sainz, director of marketing. “We publish titles for kids through adults in everything from fantasy to slice of life, LGBTQIA+, horror, memoir, and sci-fi.”

Customers can purchase jars of good feelings like “puppy snuggles” at The Happy Shop, created by Brittany Long Olsen, February 2024, ISBN 9781637152799. While learning how to collect feelings in jars, 11-year-old apprentice Darcy accidentally captures a feeling of loss and longing. What happens next will help Darcy discover the importance of the full spectrum of human emotion. This middle grade graphic novel debut will delight fans of Inside Out and Pilu of the Woods. “The story is set in a world just like ours, along with elements of magical realism,” notes Sainz. “It absolutely is social-emotional learning.”

Quinnelope and the Mystery of the Missing Moon, created by HF Brownfield and Kayla Coombs, June 2024, ISBN 9781637154397, showcases a female-presenting protagonist in this laugh-out-loud graphic novel for ages 8–12. Bright pink Quinnelope faces perilous planets and glittery aliens on a quest to find the galaxy’s missing moons. “The dyslexia-friendly letters make it perfect for struggling or reluctant readers, undiagnosed dyslexic readers, or readers overcoming pandemic-related learning disruptions,” explains Sainz. “We wanted to make it as accessible as possible.”

Scary things aren’t as scary as they seem in Frankie and the Beastly Bog Song created by Caitlin Rose Boyle, August 2024, ISBN 9781637154595. Loud bog creatures have been keeping Frankie Fairy up at night. So, she heads out into the bog, where she encounters arachnids, turtles, and moles in this short adventure story that highlights ecological themes. “Frankie is incredibly adorable,” says Sainz. “This book skews younger middle grade for kids who like picking up ‘creepy’ creatures like frogs.”



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