31 Days, 31 Lists: 2018 Comics for Kids
Ever wondered why we librarians call our comics “graphic novels” all the time?
Behold. The book that started it all:
This is my own personal copy. It represents, to me, the long storied tradition of librarians looking down their noses at comics. A tendency that continues to this day, actually. And it all began with this book.
You see, back in the 1950s, mainstream comics were often gross, disturbing, violent, sexist, hugely racist, and any other number of awful things. Not all of them were, but if you ever get your hands on some early 50s horror comics you’ll see some pretty awful stuff. Enter the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, M.D. He wasn’t a fan of comics and was pretty darn convinced that they had zippo redeeming qualities. In this book he said flat out that comics “are an invitation to illiteracy”, “suggest criminal or sexually abnormal ideas”, and “suggest forms a delinquent impulse may take and supply details of technique.” And because of him, and specifically this book, the Comics Code Authority was started, which rated comics across the board.
Why am I telling you this? Because the long shadow of Wertham’s work continues to this day. Librarians, I can attest, ate this book up with a spoon. So much so, that when it finally came time to add comics to the libraries, the name “comics” was so dirtied that we had to come up with one that made the books sound proper. “Graphic novels”. It’s good because it has the word “novels” in there, eh? Trouble is, there’s nothing wrong with plain old “comics”. And so the pendulum swings back.
This year, ALA established the first Graphic Novels & Comics Round Table (GNCRT). Long gone are the days when we would pooh-pooh anything with a panel or a little sequential art. And so, in celebration of their status, I cast aside the “graphic novel” moniker. Long live, comics! Long live, panels! And long live speech balloons! May we all read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and be a little wiser as a result.
And now, the list:
2018 Comics for Kids
Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol
I can actually pinpoint the moment I fell in love with this book. When young Vera goes to a friend’s birthday party and sees that all the girls are into American Girl dolls, she feels out of place. And what is the name of the doll that the birthday girl owns? Complicity. See, right there I knew I was in love. This fictionalized memoir shows sleepaway camp as everything I always feared it would be as a child. The best part? The triumphant ending where the kids are assured that they’ll never have to go back. WOOHOO!
Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell
Due to its sequential nature and separate storylines, I’ve encountered adults that question whether or not kids actually like this book. Yeah, kids don’t like it. THEY LOVE IT! And why not? Each child has a different fantasyworld they want to belong to. And while Sell’s neighborhood of like-minded kids isn’t without the occasional bully, everyone in the end is welcome here. Inclusive, funny, exciting, and thought-provoking, I could read this book over and over again and never get bored. Kids feel the same way. There’s always something new to discover.
Crush by Svetlana Chmakova
I am baffled. Flummoxed. Mildly perturbed. But I think I’m figuring out the answer. My question for you today is why this book and, indeed, ALL books by Svetlana Chmakova aren’t better known. Awkward, Brave, and now Crush are like these bite-sized bits of bitty brilliance all wrapped up in narratives of Middle School. So why aren’t they as famous as, say, Real Friends by Shannon Hale or the aforementioned Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol? I think it’s because they are, as I just said, middle school books. And of all the books written for youth, middle school titles fall into the cracks the most. Neither fish nor fowl, YA librarians consider them too young and children’s librarians too old. I like to include them on my lists because, honestly, they don’t have homes and there’s nothing in them that’s inappropriate for kids, aside from the lightest of light romance. This latest book would pair particularly well with Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish. Both involve boys that hit their growth spurts long before their peers and shows how they use that to instill order in the school. The difference, of course, being that in this book Jorge doesn’t use it for personal game. He is now officially my favorite character in Chmakova’s series. You can’t not like the guy.
Gamayun Tales: The King of Birds by Alexander Utkin
Slavic folktales and comics were clearly born to be together. I’ve already mentioned this book on the Fairy tales / Folk tales / Religious tales list, so I won’t beat you over the head with it much more. Still, if you haven’t read it you’re missing out. Honestly, if I’d been thinking clearly, I would have put it on my Calde-nott list too. Deep, rich, lovely luscious colors on every page.
Hermes: Tales of the Trickster by George O’Connor
George O’Connor took the look and feel of superhero comics and applied that to the ultimate in Greek superhero tales – The Olympian Gods! Over the years he has steadily been producing high-quality encapsulations of each god or goddess, and the end is almost near. Just two more to go, by my count. Hermes is a fan-favorite, so it may feel like he got off easy with this one, but look at how effortlessly he weaves in Aesop (who is not pictured as white, which was gratifying), Pan, Argus, and (of course) Hermes’ own origin story. And yes. You do get one good look at his eyes in this book.
Lafayette! by Nathan Hale
I attended my first NCTE Conference this year, and what an eye-opening experience it was! Librarians, I come bearing tidings of a great conference that we never get to see. So many speakers! So many books! And, at one point, I saw that Nathan Hale would be there signing his latest entry in the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series. I skipped over, and immediately encountered the Longest Line in the World. All teachers. All bearing about 8 copies of Nathan’s books apiece. It was enormously gratifying to see that at long last people are recognizing these books for what they really are: History done right. Lafayette returns the series back to the American Revolution and you’ll get some Alexander Hamilton cameos in there. Even better, it provides the history that the Hamilton musical got, uh, creative with, let’s say. A rousing, wonderful new entry, worthy of its predecessors.
Lowriders: Blast From the Past by Cathy Camper, ill. Raúl the Third
I swear, with every new book in this series I like it more and more. This year Camper decided to pen a prequel to her Lowriders books. How did our three friends meet up with one another? How did they join to become the supergroup we all know and love? Raúl the Third breaks out the Bic pens to bring this Latinx-infused world to brilliant life. It’s not strictly bilingual, but there’s still a lot of Spanish in the text, and it’s presented in such a way that poor schmucks like myself (the people that took French in high school) can read it aloud to their kids with confidence.
Macanudo 4: Olga Rules! by Liniers, translated by Mara Faye Lethem
Translated from the Spanish, these Argentinian comic strips were best described by my co-worker as a combination of Far Side and Mutts. They have a funny little feel to them, that’s for sure. A gentleness that’s curbed slightly by the surreal nature of the work. I read them to my kids and afterwards my 7-year-old made the strangest little fourth-wall busting comic strips about a man in a top hat. If that sounds like something you’d like to inspire in your own kids, then by all means take a look.
Mega Robo Bros by Neill Cameron
The most underrated comic book of the year. I’m not even joking. To be fair, it works against itself. The title does not inspire wonder in the average adult purchaser/gatekeeper. Looking at the cover, you’d probably think it was some lame action comic filled with mediocre jokes and so-so art. Instead, it’s a complex futuristic (or is it an alternative timeline?) London. This is diverse multi-cultural London. One where two robot brothers (one older and put upon, the other VERY much a little brother) have to fight evil when they’re not fighting amongst themselves. The jokes are honestly very good, the art beautiful, and I love that the head of what appears to be M15 is wearing a hijab. The sole problem with the book is that it looks shrunken. I wonder if in the original version the pages were much larger. Here they feel squished and smooshed. A pity since the entire endeavor has me howling for a sequel and stat.
Mr. Wolf’s Class by Aron Nels Steinke
And speaking of characters wearing hijabs, I think this is the first time I’ve seen one in a middle grade graphic novel where she was an animal. The writing advice they always give out is “write what you know”. Aron Nels Steinke knows teaching. Apparently he knows it VERY well, because this feels like a real classroom to its core. By the end of the day you feel for Mr. Wolf. This guy has his work cut out for him. Fortunately it looks like a sequel is on the horizon. Let’s see if he pulls a Viola Swamp on us or not.
Monster Mayhem by Christopher Eliopoulos
I did like Eliopoulos’s previous entry in this series, Cosmic Commandos, but for me there was something about the book that just didn’t quite tie up at the end. It was definitely fun, but it wasn’t until I read the next book in the series, Monster Mayhem, that I realized that it had the ending Commandos lacked. A girl with a genius for robotics and a passion for kaiju movies, rejects all potential friends before they have a chance to reject her. So when a huge monster comes out of the sea to be her friend, things take a turn for the wacky and, oddly enough, the heartfelt as well. Boy, I really liked this book. Can’t wait to see what Mr. Eliopoulos has up his sleeve next.
My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder by Nie Jun
Well, hat tip to both the New York Public Library 2018 list of Best Books for Kids. Without their sharp-eyed spotting I might have missed this amazing collection of four stories involving a girl and her grandfather in contemporary Beijing. Set in a hutong, the girl (Yu-er) dreams of swimming lessons and painting. She’s differently abled, with a leg that slows her down, but her grandfather (with whom she lives) is a sweetheart and a joy. Jun’s watercolors are just gorgeous and while some of the stories work a little better than others, as a whole the book is strong, with just a hint of magical realism along the way.
Petals by Gustavo Borges, colors by Cris Peter
I only have two comics in picture book formats on the list today. This one is a wordless book, telling the story of a friendly crow that helps out some fellow woodland creatures in the dead of winter. It’s affecting in the same way a silent film might be, and I was much taken with the visual narrative. We have a lot of days left before it’s spring again. May as well cuddle up and read this book while we wait for the springtime to bloom.
Peter & Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths by Graham Annable
In spite of the fact that (a) the sloths in this book move at a pretty quick clip and (b) there are no girls, I’m still Team Peter & Ernesto. Much of the credit goes to Annable’s artistic style, which makes exquisite use of eyes and eyebrows to convey thoughts, feelings, and personalities.
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
By gum, if this doesn’t get some kind of a Caldecott nod this year I’ll be mighty disappointed. I’ve been recommending this book left, right, and central and not a soul that has gotten it has regretted the choice. There aren’t that many books you can hand to a 12-year-old and know without a shadow of a doubt that they’ll read it cover to cover. This is one of the few. If I had to list my Top Five children’s books of the year, this would be on that list.
Sanity & Tallulah by Molly Brooks
STEM! In! Space! Sanity is on the left. She’s the heroine of this book. Her sidekick is Tallulah, on the right. Together, they genetically modify space pets and generally save an entire space station. How do they do it? With science! Tons and tons of very realistic sounding science. Pairs oh-so beautiful with that great book The Secret Science Alliance. I’ve been waiting for years to have a book I can recommend alongside that one. Now, at last, my dreams have been answered.
Sci-Fu, Book One: Kick It Off by Yehudi Mercado
1980s Brooklyn in space. Lotta space books out this year. Maybe it’s because 2018 was the year we all desperately wished we could launch ourselves into the stratosphere away from this place. Mercado pens a killer story here, putting together robots, kung-fu, and the skills that come with dj-ing. A black boy as a hero of a comic book? That happens once in a blue moon. Grab this blue moon and read it up.
Tiger Vs. Nightmare by Emily Tetri
I think I should be given extra points for not beginning this description with the words to “Eye of the Tiger”, by the way. I shudder to think how close I came to not seeing this book this year. Occasionally First Second will produce a graphic novel picture book, and I always want to love them. It’s not always possible, but this year they knocked it out of the park. A young tiger and the monster under her bed do battle against a nightmare that is bigger and tougher than they ever could have imagined. It’s sweet and beautiful with just a hint of scary. In other words, perfect bedtime reading.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Board Books & Pop-Ups
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Wordless Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Alphabet Books
December 7 – Funny Picture Books
December 8 – CaldeNotts
December 9 – Picture Book Reprints
December 10 – Math Books for Kids
December 11 – Bilingual Books
December 12 – Translated Picture Books
December 13 – Books with a Message
December 14 – Fabulous Photography
December 15 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 16 – Oddest Books of the Year
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books
December 19 – Early Chapter Books
December 20 – Comics for Kids
December 21 – Older Funny Books
December 22 – Fictionalized Nonfiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Chapter Books
December 29 – Fiction Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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