Top Ten Graphic Novels for Readers Who Don’t Like Graphic Novels by Amy Estersohn
Graphic novels are a chronically misunderstood kind of book. When I tell people I specialize in graphic novel reviews, they immediately assume I’m a ComicCon-attending superhero fiend (uh, not really). Or they assume that I focus on graphic novels because I give them out only to my striving readers (no, no, no, no, no).
I enjoy graphic novels the same way I enjoy magazines and novels and cookbooks and newspapers. I enjoy graphic novels as a kind of reading, and I appreciate that the genre is wide and varied.
Below are some books that are terrific for readers across all ages. If you don’t often read graphics, try one of these!
- Ms. Marvel series by G. Willow Wilson. Carol Danvers, move over — Kamala Khan is here to take your role in the Avengers. Let’s see if she can beat the bad guys quickly because she has a chem test tomorrow. Kamala is a role model for all, those who share her Pakistani Muslim heritage and those who don’t. The comic book format allows readers to really see and understand Kamala, including her tendency to grit her teeth and get exasperated about life’s small things. Aren’t there bigger things to worry about? Recommended for ages 10+
- Here by Richard McGuire. I don’t know how to describe a wordless novel with words other than to say that this book delights, confuses, and frustrates readers. Sometimes I hand it to a student as a half-joke if a student says they don’t feel like reading (no words! How can it be reading?) but laying beneath the surface is a powerful statement about time, place, and story. Recommended for ages 10+.
- Sea Change by Frank Viva. Not a comic book, not a graphic novel in the truest sense, not a novel, but a mish-mash of story, illustration, and concrete poetry about a boy’s summer in Nova Scotia. My bookstore owner adored this title; I was a little less enthusiastic. However, I celebrate how this book opens up possibilities for illustrations and words — perfect mentors for a writers’ notebook! Recommended for ages 10+.
- Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green. Katie’s memoir about eating disorders and sexual abuse is accessible, poignant, and blends in visual symbolism, such as when Katie “sees” herself in the mirror as pieces of flesh. In light of the #metoo twitter campaign and stories about sexual assault, this memoir remains as relevant and important as it has ever been. Recommended for ages 13+.
- Threads: From the Refugee Crisis by Kate Evans. Evans blends zine, mixed media, poetry, and pencil sketches to tell the true story of the Calais “jungle,” a short-lived refugee camp in France. The visual telling of this story makes stories of brutality that much more vivid. A perfect read-alike to books like Refugee by Alan Gratz and for those who want to learn more about some of the contemporary issues that refugees face. Recommended for ages 13+.
- Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. Okay, guys, this is the Ulysses of graphic novels. Friends who eat comic books by the issue couldn’t understand how to approach this text. It’s kind of the story of a boy’s life. It’s kind of the story of Chicago. And it’s kind of a lot more. You really just have to read it. And when I say read it, I mean look at the images and let the images teach you how to generate the stories within this book. Recommended for ages 12+.
- Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez. This book brings a new visual style to graphic novels for children that’s equal parts colorful and creepy. Readers follow Sandy, a dreamy student who encounters Morfie, who may or may not be real. More than just a story, though, we are introduced to characters and landscapes that are bound to tickle readers’ imaginations and their sketchbooks. I can’t wait for Alvarez’s next work. Recommended for ages 8+.
- Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Comics + art theory + philosophy in a graphic novel form. I picked this book up by accident when I was in high school and it quickly became one of my all-time favorite books, similar in some ways to books like Ways of Seeing by John Berger. Recommended for ages 12+.
- March series by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. John Lewis is a member of Congress, spoke at the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and received a Printz award for this graphic novel biography. He can write laws AND books. This book is as content-rich as it is visually stunning. It’s amazing to see the variety and depth of emotions and layers that Nate Powell could achieve using just black and white throughout. I find myself purchasing several box sets of this series every year to give as gifts during the holiday season. Recommended for ages 12+.
- America is Under Attack by Don Brown. Don Brown is a talented nonfiction graphic novelist, and in this book about 9/11 he finds a way to tell an informative, unusual, and powerful story about the Trade Center attacks with a minimum of prose with a focus on heroic efforts and responses to disaster. His images are emotionally hefty without being too heavy for the intended audience of younger readers. This could be used as a nonfiction whole-class read aloud with upper elementary school students or as a writing mentor for middle and high school students. Recommended for ages 8+