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Books: Exploring the universe of graphic novels for young readers

First Published      Last Updated Jul 07 2015 06:20 pm

Children’s books » Graphic novels can provide a crucial gateway to a broader literacy; here are several recommendations.

I'll never forget a moment I once witnessed at a junior-high book fair. A seventh-grade boy held up a book and pleaded with his mother. "Mom! Can we get this one? Please? PLEASE?!"

To be honest, I don't remember what the book was. It could have been a Calvin and Hobbes anthology. Or an almanac of some sort. Or a Ripley's Believe It or Not collection of weird factoids about women with fingernails that reach the ground or men who went through their entire lives with a dinner fork stuck in their heads. Or any of the other books that seventh-grade boys (full of seventh-grade-boy crazy) might be tempted to read.

The boy eagerly handed the book to his mother, who had a look of profound distaste on her face. She let the book dangle from her well-manicured fingers as though it were a dirty gym sock. Finally, she told her son to put it back where he'd found it (in a smelly locker, obviously), then asked the booksellers in charge where "the Classics Table" was.

Wow. If there was ever a way to kill an emerging love of books, I thought to myself, this surely had to be it.

Here's the thing. As a parent and a former English teacher, I completely understand the desire to guide young readers to books we deem worthy. But if we want young readers to read — especially reluctant readers — shouldn't we make an effort (at least now and then) to give them something they might actually want to pick up?

Enter the graphic novel.

The graphic novel is a book, fiction or nonfiction, that uses a comic-book format to tell a story or convey information, and with the Newbery Committee's recent nod to "El Deafo" by Cece Bell, the genre is finally getting some respect. Many young readers of ranging ages and abilities love them. So do a number of our local children's authors, whom we asked to share some recommendations.

Shannon Hale, award-winning author of the Bayern novels, makes this comment: "My daughter was firm that 'I don't like to read' until the summer I got her into 'Babymouse' by Jennifer and Matt Holm and Raina Telgemeier's books like 'Smile.' For reluctant readers, the visual storytelling adds an extra hook that gets them into the story."

Matthew Kirby, author of the newly released "The Arctic Code," relates a similar experience. "Dan Santat's 'Sidekicks' was the first book my relucant reader stepson stayed up late for with a flashlight because 'I just have to finish it.' That was a real breakthrough."

Peggy Eddleman, author of the popular Sky Jumpers series for middle-grade readers, observes that kids like graphic novels because "they can find so many 'clues' in the pictures. Things that tell them more about what's going on — emotions, foreshadowing and extra bits of information that would never make it into text. It gives them an insider's scoop."

For some young readers, graphic novels provide a crucial gateway to a broader-based literacy. Robert Neubecker, whose work appears in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, says this: "I grew up on comics; I couldn't get enough of them. They opened the door to a lifelong love of reading and literature. Graphic novels combine the visual accessibility of comics with the more complex storytelling of a novel, drawing kids into reading. And it's fun!"

Convinced yet that graphic novels are worth a second look? The good news is that there are all kinds of titles from which to choose. A small sample follows. Please note that age recommendations are not set in stone.

Early readers (ages 5-7)

• "Space Boy and His Dog" chronicles the adventures of earthling Niko, who builds a spaceship from a cardboard box and blasts off from his backyard, leaving his sister, Posh, behind. Neubecker illustrates Dian Curtis Regan's text.

Middle-grade readers (ages 8-12)

• Nathan Hale has just published another book in his fabulous "Hazardous Tales" series. Like Hale's previous titles ("One Dead Spy," "Big Bad Ironclad," "Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood" and "Donner Dinner Party"), "The Underground Abductor" uses the graphic-novel format to provide lively history lessons. Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad come alive in this fascinating new book.

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