Graphic Novels Extend Their Frontiers

School librarians have long known what others are now discovering—that graphic novels aren’t just a great entry point into reading for many students, but also a sophisticated and multidimensional art form.



School librarians have long known what others are now discovering—that graphic novels aren’t just a great entry point into reading for many students, but also a sophisticated and multidimensional art form that appeals to a wide range of audiences.

If it’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words, then graphic novels—which often have four or more illustrated panels per page—might be one of the richest storytelling platforms available. Recognizing the promise that graphic novels hold for capturing young readers’ attention and the versatility they offer in communicating complex ideas, publishers are coming out with new graphic novels that extend the frontiers of this evolving medium while expanding the notion of what a graphic novel can be.

“Graphic novels can do a lot more than many people realize,” says Terry Nantier, president and publisher of Papercutz. For instance, a significant number of informational graphic novels are appearing as publishers come to appreciate that graphic novels can help make nonfiction content more accessible. “Nonfiction comics is a rapidly growing area,” Nantier observes.

Publishers are also releasing graphic novels for children as young as preschool. And stories built around strong female characters are flourishing as graphic novels enjoy broad cross-gender appeal. “Girls are seeing themselves reflected in these stories more and more,” says IDW Publisher Nachie Marsham.

Here’s a look at what’s new in graphic novels for the school library market this year.

VIZ Media

The world’s largest manga publisher in the English language, VIZ Media is responsible for the Pokémon franchise, produces 330 books per year, and has captured 18 percent of the graphic novel share in the United States. “We publish books for readers ages eight to eighty,” says Kevin Hamric, vice president of publishing sales.

A new VIZ imprint, VIZ Originals, publishes original manga-style works from North American artists and writers. All of these books will read “western style,” meaning from left to right, as opposed to the traditional Japanese style of right to left.

The first title from this new imprint is Fangirl, Vol. 1, October 2020, ISBN 9781974715879. It’s a manga version of the popular 2013 young adult novel Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, adapted by Sam Maggs, and illustrated by Gabi Nam. There will be four volumes in the series altogether.

A subcategory of manga that has really taken off in the last few years is horror manga, and former dental hygienist Junji Ito has become a master of this genre. His latest graphic novel for mature teen readers, Remina, December 2020, ISBN 9781974717477, is a stand-alone story about the discovery of an unknown planet on a collision course with Earth.

“Junji Ito’s drawings are incredible,” Hamric says. “I think his whole approach is a combination of Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Harlan Ellison, and H.R. Giger.”

Phoenix International Publications

Based in Chicago, Phoenix has been publishing books for children for more than three decades. Best known for its original and licensed sound books and “look and find” picture books, the company has also added graphic novels that aim to inform young readers to its portfolio.

“We’re not following the traditional superhero model,” says Lynn Sikora, vice president of marketing. “Instead, we’re trying to make information as accessible as we can. There’s room for more types of graphic novels that can help instill a love of reading in children.”

A new Phoenix imprint called Sunbird Books has launched a biographical graphic novel series for readers ages 7–10 called “It’s Her Story.” These 48-page, full-color, artfully illustrated books aim to bridge the gap between picture books and full graphic novels for older readers.

It’s Her Story: Rosa Parks by Lauren Burke, illustrated by Shane Clester, December 2020, ISBN 9781503752948, is the first book in the series. Its author is a journalist who has covered national politics since 1998 and coauthored a book on elections with Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee. The second book is It’s Her Story: Marie Curie by Kaara Kallen, illustrated by Rosie Baker, January 2021, 9781503752931. Books on Ida B. Wells and Dolly Parton are expected in fall 2021.

“These are the first biographical graphic novels I’ve seen that tell the story from when their subjects were little girls,” Sikora says. “The authors are really digging into how they were able to achieve great things. These books bring a fresh approach to topics that people might think they know a lot about.”

The company’s Sequoia Children’s Publishing imprint is coming out with a new graphic novel series for children ages two to five called “Active Minds.” Sikora calls these padded board books “graphic novels for little learners.” She adds: “We’re taking core early learning concepts and putting them into that panel comic style.”

The first two books in the series, Alphabet, ISBN 9781642693287, and Counting, ISBN 9781642693270, will be available in March 2021. Written by Cassie Gitkin and illustrated by Michael Miller, the books teach these early learning concepts in a narrative format, with many sight words included in the illustrated panels. Two more books in the series, First Words and Colors & Shapes, are planned for fall 2021.


Papercutz began 15 years ago with the goal of bringing graphic novels to a wider audience. The company publishes 40 to 50 books a year, all graphic novels geared toward middle grade and young adult readers. Its first titles were original Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries told in the comic panel style.

“Graphic novels are the perfect medium for the age we’re in, which is very visual,” Publisher Terry Nantier says. He says the company looks for stories that have a lot of charm, humor, action, suspense, and compelling artwork.

Asterix, an acquisition from France, is an example with all of these qualities in play. A long-running social satire comic series—like a French version of “Doonesbury”—Asterix began in 1959. “We’re proud to have taken on this series with an English version for an American audience,” Nantier says. “It has a slapstick element that kids love, with political humor for adults to enjoy as well.” Asterix Omnibus Vol. 1, ISBN 9781545805657, and Asterix Omnibus Vol. 2, ISBN 9781545805671, by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, were released in July 2020.

“Magical History Tour” is a nonfiction comic series written by Fabrice Erre and illustrated by Sylvain Savoia that follows modern-day kids Annie and Nico through time as they learn about important landmarks and events. Magical History Tour, Vol. 1: The Great Pyramid, ISBN 9781545806333, and Magical History Tour, Vol. 2: The Great Wall of China, ISBN 9781545806340, will be available in January 2021. Future topics will include hidden oil, Albert Einstein, and the Crusades.

“Lola’s Super Club,” is another series developed in France that Papercutz is introducing to a North American audience. It’s about the power of imagination: The hero is a girl who’s convinced her father is a spy, and she goes on adventures in her mind. Lola’s Super Club Vol. 1: My Dad Is a Super Secret Agent by Christine Beigel, illustrated by Pierre Fouillet, December 2020, ISBN 9781545805633, “will appeal to anyone who’s ever tied a sheet around their shoulders and pretended to be a superhero,” says Marketing Coordinator Spenser Nellis. “I think a lot of kids will see themselves in Lola.” Book two is expected in summer 2021.

Lerner Publishing Group

Lerner has been around for more than 60 years, but graphic novels are a much more recent addition to its publishing portfolio. The company publishes 10 to 20 graphic novels per year through its Graphic Universe imprint, says editorial director Greg Hunter. While some of these are original series developed in-house, most are acquisitions of content that first appeared overseas.

A good example of the latter is “Seekers of the Aweto,” a new science fiction/fantasy series for young adult readers by Chinese cartoonist Nie Jun. Illustrated in a watercolor style that is softer looking than most other graphic novels for this age group, the series follows two brothers who hunt a rare, plantlike treasure that is rumored to grant eternal life. The first book of this five-volume series is The Hunt Is On, March 2021, ISBN 9781541597846.

“It’s a really gorgeous book,” Hunter says. “It draws from Chinese illustrative traditions but also European cartooning. The result is a book that doesn’t look like anything else.”

From Germany comes “A House Divided,” a young adult fantasy series about a teenage girl who inherits the home of her uncle, a notorious wizard who died under mysterious circumstances. In the third book in the series, The Winter of Walking Stone by Haiko Hornig, illustrated by Marius Pawlitza, April 2021, ISBN 9781541572454, the main character confronts a strange army of walking statues and must seek help in the unlikeliest of places.

The Spy Who Raised Me by Ted Anderson, illustrated by Gianna Meola, April 2021, ISBN 9781541532403, is a stand-alone young adult action/satire graphic novel in the tradition of works like The Bourne Identity. It follows high school student Josie Black, a track star who discovers special talents she never realized she had. As she digs further into her identity, she learns that her mother—who works for a covert agency—has been secretly training her to follow in the family profession.

Available in May 2021, Brontë, IBSN 9781541581197, is a work of biographical fiction by Italian cartoonist Manuela Santoni that depicts how Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë were faced with an ailing father, an alcoholic brother, and the inequities of their era as they strove to become writers. Aimed at students in grades 8–12, it’s a powerful story of the bonds of sisterhood told with sweeping black-ink brushstrokes.

“The author pays close attention to the facts of their lives,” Hunter says, “but within this studied attention to detail, she also has a good feel for the drama the sisters experienced and what they had to contend with.”

Mark Sahagian

Detroit cartoonist and graphic artist Mark Sahagian has published hundreds of political cartoons and mini-comics for adults, and in 2019 he self-published his first graphic novel, Boris & Bela. This collection of humorous stories for children of all ages follows Boris (think Karloff), Bela (think Lugosi), and their friend Elsa as they engage in various adventures.

Now, Sahagian is coming out with a follow-up effort, Boris & Bela: The Library and Other Tales. Like his first book, it’s a collection of self-contained stories built on the fun premise: What if Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster were 10-year-old kids?!

In “The Library,” Boris, Bela, and Elsa recall their first solo trip to the library. In “Legend of Camp Swampy,” the gang attends summer camp and embarks on a quest to find Bigfoot. “Made in the Shade” is the origin story of how Elsa acquired her pet cat. “Science Scare” has the friends “get their mad scientist on” during a school science fair. And in “Shadows and Frogs,” Elsa’s cat Shade and Bela’s dog Sparky have a late-night adventure.

“I feel like I’ve been building towards Boris & Bela my whole life,” says Sahagian. “I’ve loved monster movies since I was a little kid, and I’ve always loved comics. I hope kids will have a riot reading these stories and also come away with a love for learning.” Boris & Bela: The Library and Other Tales will be available on Amazon soon.

IDW Publishing

Founded in 1999, San Diego–based IDW publishes comic books, comic strip collections, art books, and graphic novels. “You can do things in a story with words and pictures working together that you can’t do only in prose,” Marsham says.

Many of the company’s graphic novels tackle difficult subjects that challenge readers’ perspectives. “We try to push the boundaries of storytelling,” he observes.

For example, March is a trilogy of graphic novels published from 2013 to 2016, on which the late Congressman John Lewis collaborated with cowriter Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell to tell the story of his lifelong struggle for civil rights. They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, illustrated by Harmony Becker, is a graphic memoir recounting actor and activist George Takei’s childhood in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II. “These are unfortunately very contemporary stories, as well as providing a historical context,” Marsham says.

New titles from IDW this year include Goosebumps: Secrets of the Swamp by Marieke Nijkamp, illustrated by Yasmin Flores Montanez, April 2021, ISBN 9781684058136. Inspired by the “Goosebumps” series of middle grade novels by R.L. Stine, this graphic novel follows 12-year-old Blake as she’s forced to put her gaming skills to the test to survive real-life werewolves.

Cartoonist Stan Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo” is a long-running comic book series about an anthropomorphic samurai rabbit. In June 2021, IDW will publish Chibi-Usagi: Attack of the Heebie Chibis, ISBN 9781684057900, a graphic novel from Sakai that brings these stories to young middle grade readers for the first time.

The Science of Surfing by Kim Dwinell, July 2021, ISBN 9781603094948, the third book in the “Surfside Girls” series of graphic mystery novels for middle grade readers. “It’s about two teenage girls in a California coastal town trying to figure out what their life will be,” Marsham says, “and there are also ghosts! It’s a lot of fun, with a warm and playful art style.”

IDW is also kicking off a multiyear publishing program with the Smithsonian Institution this year. The company will publish graphic novels in collaboration with Smithsonian scientists and historians on a broad range of topics. “Our goal is to make the Smithsonian experience more accessible to students through graphic storytelling,” Marsham says. “To be able to work with the top experts in the world on this content is very exciting.”

Tyndale House Publishers

Christian publisher Tyndale puts out 15 to 18 titles for children and young adults each year, and these works have included graphic novels since 2007. The company’s newest graphic novel is an adaptation of the Bible called The Epic Bible, October 2020, ISBN 9781414396675.

In 2016, Kingstone Media Group published a three-volume graphic interpretation of the Bible, called the "Kingstone Bible Trilogy." Created by more than 40 experienced Marvel and DC Comics artists in collaboration with evangelical writers, this comprehensive work covers every book of the Bible with more than 10,000 full-color art panels. However, it also numbers more than 2,000 pages.

“We knew people wouldn’t want to carry around three huge volumes,” says Linda Howard, associate publisher for children and youth at Tyndale. “So, we were looking to adapt this collection with a one-volume version.” Tyndale’s Wander imprint licensed Kingstone’s content and pared it down into a single 840-page volume that is suitable for middle grades and above. A Spanish-language version of The Epic Bible will be available in April 2021, ISBN 9781496440778.

“We’ve kept the core story of God’s redemptive plan from Genesis to Revelation intact,” Howard says. “Our team poured blood, sweat, and tears into this project, and we’re thrilled at how it came out.”

Another recent graphic novel series from Tyndale is “Dead Sea Squirrels.” Written by Veggie-Tales co-creator Mike Nawrocki and produced by Tyndale Kids, which publishes books for younger children, the series features two squirrels who were petrified in a cave in the Middle East and discovered by a boy named Michael. When the squirrels are accidently rehydrated and come back to life, they teach Michael about biblical times. “It’s a fun way for kids to learn about Bible stories,” Howard says.

The first two books in the series, Squirreled Away, ISBN 9781496434982, and Boy Meets Squirrels, ISBN 9781496435026, came out in May 2019. The newest titles, A Dusty Donkey Detour, ISBN 9781496449771, and Merle of Nazareth, ISBN 9781496449733, are due out in April 2021.

A variety of styles

With such an abundant variety of content available, graphic novels can entertain, inform, shock, delight, or reveal hard truths—and publishers continue to innovate with their catalogs. Graphic storytelling “is a medium in and of itself,” Nantier concludes. “It can do anything that any other medium can do.”



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