Graphic Novels for Early Readers? It’s Been a Banner Year.

Younger readers, seeing older kids read “Dog Man” and Raina Telgemeier’s books, want comics, too. Here’s a look at some new and upcoming graphic novels for early readers, ages four to eight.

The middle grade graphic novel boom brought with it two consequences that have coincided neatly: Publishers had an incentive to stretch the category to reach younger readers, and those younger readers, seeing siblings and friends reading “Dog Man” and Raina Telgemeier’s books, wanted to read comics as well. The result has been an explosion in the past year of graphic novels for early readers, ages four to eight, with most of the major book publishers jumping in with titles of their own.

The concept of early reader graphic novels is not new; Françoise Mouly pioneered them with her Toon Books line, and the school/library publishers Capstone and Lerner have been doing them for years as well. Last year, Capstone introduced Discover Graphics, which are a little more sophisticated than its older My First Graphic Novel books.

The model for the most recent wave of early reader graphic novels is Ben Clanton’s Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea (Tundra, 2016), a very silly, simply drawn story about an easy-going narwhal and a more conscientious jellyfish. The book won an Eisner Award, and the first five volumes in the series have sold well over a million copies. (The sixth volume, Narwhal’s School of Awesomeness, published in September). Most significant, kids loved them.

Not only did Clanton give publishers a reason to make graphic novels for early readers, he also provided a template: silly stories about animals or other nonhumans who are named after food, told with simple shapes and easy-to-follow page layouts. The lack of human characters doesn’t wipe away concerns about diversity, however. While the anthropomorphic animals, foods, ghosts, or shapes often form a visually diverse cast of characters, few of the stories allude to nonwhite culture, and most (although far from all) of the lead characters are presented as male, with boys’ names and he/him pronouns.

Publishers and creators have taken a wide variety of approaches to early reader graphic novels, including series and stand-alone books, adaptations and original works, and leveled readers. The latter is a significant category that includes HarperCollins’s I Can Read Comics, Simon & Schuster’s Little Simon Graphics and Ready-to-Read Graphics, and Holiday House’s I Like to Read Comics. Some are adaptations of existing early reader books and characters, such as Scaredy Squirrel and Clark the Shark, while others are completely new.

This variety extends to format as well, with graphic novels that range from short and simple enough for the youngest reader to longer and more complex stories that approach the level of the Dog Man books, whose age range of seven to ten overlaps with the early reader category. Almost all are divided into short chapters, making the length of each one less intimidating. For the most part, the text is simple and easily decoded, although creators will often toss in one or two new words, and books targeted at ages five and up (as opposed to four and up) generally have a wider vocabulary.

In a nod to the novelty of the format, publishers generally open each book with a brief explanation of the basics of graphic novels—panels, word balloons, and page flow. Some are geared toward the adult who presumably will be reading along, and some speak directly to the child. Back matter often includes a discussion of the medium as well.

Even as middle grade graphic novel sales start to cool down a bit, the early reader category is heating up, and the number of books is on the rise. Here’s a look at some new and upcoming titles.

A Difficult Thing by Silvia Vecchini. illus. by Sualzo. Ablaze. 2021.
A wheel goes bumping down a low, grassy hill, and a dog runs after it. The return journey is much harder, though, as the dog climbs a hill that gets steeper and rockier. At the top of the hill is a chicken gazing sadly down at a broken wagon. The dog hands over the wheel and says, “Sorry,” and together they repair the wagon and go riding down a grassy slope that is shallow again. The point is simple, and the story is almost wordless, but the blue and white illustrations convey a lot of meaning. The book can be read alone or with an older person, and the back matter includes both discussion questions and a template for making your own comic. Vecchini wrote the middle grade book The Red Zone: An Earthquake Story.

Apple of My Pie by Mika Song. illus. by author. RH Graphic. 2021.
The squirrel quartet of Norma, Belly, Gramps, and Little Bee, the stars of Donut Feed the Squirrels, are back in a new adventure. As the squirrels enjoy some fall bounty, Gramps falls into an apple truck and is transported to a farm. The other three go after him, only to find the farm is also an apple pie factory—and now they’re the filling! Song’s mix of watercolor and line is dynamic, delicate, and expressive all at once, and the story is full of surprises.

Clark the Shark and the School Sing by Bruce Hale. illus. by Guy Francis. HarperAlley (I Can Read Comics, Level 1). 2021.
Hale and Francis bring Clark the Shark from picture books to graphic novels with this lighthearted school drama. Clark and his classmates are preparing for a musical program, but Clark has a dilemma: He can sing and he can dance, but he can’t do both at once. The solution comes unexpectedly on the night of the show, when everyone else freezes up and Clark saves the day, realizing that he just has to relax and enjoy what he’s doing. Francis has a knack for drawing funny characters, and he does an especially good job with Clark’s facial expressions.

Fish and Sun by Sergio Ruzzier. illus. by author. HarperAlley (I Can Read Comics, Level 1). 2021.
This is a perfect first comic, with simple art, dialogue, and narration and a straightforward story. It’s cold, dark, and boring in the deep sea, so Fish goes up to the surface and makes friends with Sun. They play hide-and-seek, but then Sun turns red and disappears—only to reappear the next day, with a promise to show up every day after that. Ruzzier uses ink line to create easy-to-read characters and lush watercolor washes for the sea and sky. It’s a solid combination that works well with this story.

Johnny Boo and the Silly Blizzard by James Kochalka. illus. by author. Top Shelf. 2021.
Johnny Boo looks out on a snow-covered landscape and thinks the world is covered with ice cream; silly complications ensue. The page layout and vocabulary of this book are simple enough for a child to follow, although Kochalka’s lettering may be a little different from what they are used to. Kochalka’s humor is as fresh as it was in the first volume of this series;The Silly Blizzard is the 12th, and another book,Johnny Boo Goes to School, will be coming in June 2022. Kochalka’s Glork Patrol on the Bad Planet (Top Shelf, 2020) is a little more challenging in terms of vocabulary and humor, but is still a good pick for enthusiastic early readers. A second volume in that series, Glork Patrol Takes a Bath!, is due out in February 2022.

Kraken Me Up by Jeffrey Ebbeler. illus. by author. Holiday House (I Like to Read Comics). 2021.
When Izzie brings her pet Kraken to the pet show at the county fair, the other kids are scared of it. Izzie tries to explain, but the Kraken finally breaks the ice by squirting everyone with ink, drawing funny pictures on itself, and coughing up a pirate ship. The art is expressive and exaggerated, and the colors help establish the different settings in the story. The message, conveyed in both obvious and subtle ways, is that appearances can be deceiving and we shouldn’t judge others based on preconceptions. This is one of the few stories that feature human characters; Izzie is a girl of color, and the cast is visually diverse.

My Pencil and Me by Sara Varon. illus. by author. First Second. 2020.
With its large format and full-page illustrations, this book feels like a picture book, but it’s very much a comic. Sara, a cartoonist, can’t figure out what to draw, so her pencil helps her make up some characters and a story. Things take an unexpected turn when the pencil breaks and the characters take over the storytelling. It’s a fun little story that encourages readers to think about books and creativity in a different way, and it ends with a photo of the cartoonist in her studio, showing the original model for the characters and setting of the book.

Scaredy Squirrel in a Nutshell by Melanie Watt. illus. by author. RH Graphic. 2021.
Scaredy Squirrel, who had a long picture book career before moving over to graphic novels, is scared of a lot of things, all of which he believes he can avoid by staying in his nut tree. When all the nuts fall out, though, he’s faced with a dilemma, and he has to use his ingenuity, which leads to a number of very silly events. All ends happily, and he even makes a new friend. While the book is rated for readers ages four through eight, it includes a handful of difficult words such as mammoth, lumberjack, and tentacle. However, there are usually pictures with those words, which will help readers decode them. The book is also broken up into little sections, with questions and quizzes, offering opportunities for give-and-take during read-alouds.

Spring Cakes by Miranda Harmon. illus by author. Holiday House (I Like to Read Comics). 2021.
Harmon takes a classic sort of children’s story, gathering ingredients and baking something, and turns it into a charming graphic novel with super-cute characters. Three kittens named Cinnamon, Nutmeg, and Ginger collect eggs, honey, and other ingredients from their neighbors (who are all also animals) and help their mother bake the spring cakes. The colorful panels are detailed, but the dialogue and facial expressions are very clear, making this story easy to read and fun to reread.

Thunder and Cluck: Friends Do Not Eat Friends by Jill Esbaum. illus. by Miles Thompson. Simon Spotlight (Ready to Read Graphics, Level 1). 2021.
A T. Rex threatens a tiny flying dinosaur who refuses to be intimidated in this oddly philosophical, but nonetheless charming, story. Little Cluck simply refuses to take the bait from Thunder, who swells up more and more as he gets angrier and angrier, then relaxes back down again as the friendship grows. The characters have a Hanna Barbera feel to them, which gives this book a cartoony vibe. The opening sequence, explaining how to read a comic, is addressed to the reader—a nice touch.

Brigid Alverson edits the blog “Good Comics for Kids” 

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Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, editor of the “Good Comics for Kids” blog, writes “Stellar Panels” SLJ’s graphic novels column. 

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