Pow! Boom! Zap! Graphic Novels and Comic Books for Children and Young Adults
by Ruth Ennis
Graphic novels and comic books are on the rise in popularity among young readers, and for good reason. The quality and range of graphic novels have exploded in recent years, into something of a revolutionary time in the book world. Made accessible with their striking illustrations, snappy dialogue, and quick-paced stories that make it all too easy to read one more page, these books are perfect for both emerging and confident readers alike.
Visual storytelling is becoming a regular preference for a significant number of young readers – understandably so, when reading these books will certainly boost your confidence in reading no matter the circumstance. Thankfully there is great variety in style and genre in the graphic novel form. Here are some of my favourite graphic novels and comic books for beginner readers all the way up to young adults.
First up we have an unlikely superhero in Super Pancake by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Abhi Alwar (Random House USA). Residing in Breakfast Town, Peggy Pancake and her new friend Luc Croissant team up to defeat the evil Dr Breakfast Sandwich when Peggy is accidentally gifted with super powers.
You won’t go long without a food pun in this book, and it is filled with some chuckle-worthy moments (I’m particularly fond of the bully who isn’t very good at the mandatory rhyming gimmick his squad has committed to). A charming comic with the right amount of silliness, a fun read for children age 5+ years.
For those looking for a school setting in a comic book, look no further than Mr Wolf’s Class by Aron Nels Steinke (Scholastic). Here we meet the diverse range of students in Mr Wolf’s class and get snapshots into their lives throughout a single school day: the new kid Margot who just moved to the town; older sister Penny who is having trouble sleeping with the new baby in the house; Abdi whose lunch mysteriously disappears; Sampson who is always in a rush from one place to another, and many more.
Reminiscent of Jaqueline Wilson’s The Worry Website and its vignette format – though admittedly much more light-hearted – this book is sure to have a character to resonate with every reader. A great book that would be particularly well suited as an introduction to school life, for readers age 6+ years.
Of course, it’s important to have graphic novels that reflect Irish readers, which can be found in the excellent Frankie’s World by Aoife Dooley (Scholastic). One of my favourite titles of 2022, this charming comic book follows Frankie as she navigates a world that doesn’t always make sense to her. She worries about saying the wrong thing, she has trouble blending in, and she has to take injections (in the bum!) to help her grow. But she teams up with her best friend in the search for Frankie’s dad with the hope of better understanding herself.
A delightful and light-hearted story with much-needed representation of an autistic protagonist, I highly recommend this for readers 8+ years (with the new sequel Finding My Voice for slightly older children).
Next up is for fans of all things eery and strange; Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez (Nobrow). Sandy is an artist. She uses sparks of lights in her dreams for inspiration. She often loses herself in the imaginative and captivating worlds she creates – even if it gets her trouble at school. One day she meets a mysterious girl at school and dreams of an unsettling stranger. Her artwork begins to suffer and she must find a way to stop her imagination from burning out.
A nuanced piece about artistic integrity and creativity, this book has some of my all-time favourite illustrations in any book I’ve read. For fans of Cartoon Saloon animated films, this is suitable for readers age 8+ years.
A graphic novel that will forever stay close to my heart is Stargazing by Jen Wang (Roaring Brook Press). A beautiful story about Chinese-American identities, childhood illness, and profound friendships, there is so much to love about this book.
Christine and Moon are polar opposites and unlikely friends, growing closer together when Moon and her mother move into the house in Christine’s backyard. They bring out the best in each other, bonding over their love for music and dancing. Moon confides in Christine one day that she isn’t really from earth and that she has visions of celestial beings.
This is an incredibly touching story with the most heart-warming depiction of an unforgettable friendship, and gorgeous illustrations to match, it was an absolute joy to have read this book. Suitable for ages 9+ years.
Another fantastic exploration of friendships can be found in Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (Puffin). Astrid and Nicole have always done everything together. So, when Nicole goes to a ballet summer camp without Astrid, tensions grow between them. Instead, Astrid falls in love with roller derby and decides to spend her summer skating. She struggles with it at first, but with the support of a new friend, she is determined improve and to play in the end-of-term bout.
Navigating the loss of old friendships, explorations of new ones, establishing a sense of self, making mistakes and learning from them; this book is a crucial read for children at that pivotal moment in their lives as they transition into adolescence. Suitable for 9+ years.
New Kid by Jerry Craft (HarperCollins) is a (very deserving!) multi-award-winning graphic novel. It follows Jordan as he navigates school as the new kid. Faced with challenges that come with the culture of a prestigious school, Jordan is regularly subjected to micro-aggressions and outright racist remarks from both classmates and teachers. He finds solace in his artwork and a few close friends as he discovers a way to stay true to himself in a new school.
With dynamic and innovative illustrations and design, this book is a visual feast. It tackles serious subjects with grace and oftentimes humour. Jordan is an immediately likable protagonist, his personality shining through his creative outlets. A story that will strike the hearts of plenty of readers, I can imagine this being enjoyed in classrooms across the world. Perfect for ages 11+ years.
If you are looking for a more anime-inspired style of illustration in your graphic novels, then I would suggest checking out Magical Boy by The Kao (Scholastic). Max is a trans-boy just trying to do his best to survive high school (complete with coming out to parents, crushes, and friendships).
Only this is made a bit more complicated when he learns that he comes from a long line of magical girls with a sworn duty to protect the world from evil forces. The magical powers come with a talking cat sidekick, and a hyper-femme alter ego – the latter of which is less than ideal for Max.
Throughout the book, Max learns how to make his newly discovered powers his own and in line with his identity. A super original story with lots of visual gags, this is a fantastically entertaining read that will leave you desperate to read the next volume after a monumental cliff-hanger. Suitable for 12+ years.
Something a bit rarer in the graphic novel form, In Waves by AJ Dungo (Nobrow) is a combination of non-fiction biographies and autofiction. Tied together with an admiration for surfing, Dungo explores the history of the sport and delves into the biographies of significant figures in surfing (Duke Kahanamoku, Tom Blake, and more) and his own relationship with the sport, having been introduced to this world by his terminally ill girlfriend.
It is a touching story about grief, release, and dedication that flows naturally between the past and the present, between those who help shape the world of surfing, and those who are inspired by it today. A truly original and fascinating endeavour, this book is perfect for graphic novel readers looking for something a bit different. Suitable for ages 14+ years.
Last on our list is a joyful romp of a book: Thieves by Lucie Bryon (Nobrow). Ella has a massive crush on Madeleine, a sweet but reserved girl in her school. When waking up the day after Madeleine’s wild house party, Ella realises she accidentally stole items from her house. Desperate to return them, she comes up with a scheme to sneak them back without Madeleine realising it. But Ella uncovers a secret that puts Madeleine in a whole new light.
The illustrations in this book are light and appealing, and the characters are immediately endearing. A creative and entertaining heist story with a sapphic love story at the centre of it all, this is a delightful read for older teens. Suitable for ages 15+ years.
Whether you enjoy stories of friendships and adventures, or magical worlds and bewitching villains, there is such a rich variety of graphic novels and comic books for children and teenagers today. If you’re anything like me, you’ll fall in love with this vibrant form of storytelling, and once you start, you’ll never look back.