Graphic novels for beginning readers

By Dave Burbank and Karen MacPherson
Sunday, March 21, 2010

If a picture is worth a thousand words, consider the wealth of story possible in a book that combines illustrations and text. This is the secret that makes graphic novels and comics so popular with kids of all ages. The stories told in this format can be richly nuanced without requiring a high level of literacy: Because the artwork provides context, the vocabulary can be advanced beyond the reader's ordinary comfort level. Here's a look at a few remarkable new kids' graphic novels:

Learning to read is fun with Toon Books like Benny and Penny in The Toybreaker ($12.95, ages 4-7). Written and illustrated by Geoffrey Hayes, this book -- like all the Toon Books graphic novel readers -- allows kids to understand the story just by "reading" the picture, with the text adding key details. In January, Hayes's "Benny and Penny in The Big No-No" became the first graphic novel to win the 2010 Geisel Award, given annually by the American Library Association to the best beginning reader. With his newest book, Hayes demonstrates his keen appreciation of the politics of childhood as he shows how Benny and his younger sister Penny deal with a visit from their "toybreaker" cousin Bo. In humorous contrast to the emotion-packed story, Hayes's watercolor illustrations depict a cozy world reminiscent of Beatrix Potter.

Smile (Scholastic, $10.99; ages 8-12) features a cover that beckons to tween girls: On an aqua background, a yellow smiley face sports shiny silver braces. Inside, readers will discover author-illustrator Raina Telgemeier's comic and candid autobiographical account of the dental disaster that endangered her self-image. We're talking, of course, about having to wear braces when you're a middle schoolgirl. But the real focus of "Smile" is Telgemeier's search for identity, a universal experience with which readers will readily identify. Her illustrations bear her trademark cartoonist touch, while the story's emotion is highlighted by the work of colorist Stephanie Yue. Colorists often are overlooked, but their work can add significant depth and emotional resonance. Note: Yue's work also can be seen in the forthcoming Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye: Hamster and Cheese (Graphic Universe, $6.95, ages 4-8), written by Colleen AF Venable.

Color and dreamlike imagery shape an entire world in Eric Shanower's adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Marvel Comics, $29.99; ages 7 and up). Illustrator Skottie Young's charming and whimsical art brings new life and humor to familiar characters. Toto has never been so cute, nor so ferocious, and the mustachioed tin woodsman is as stolid and reliable as if he were made of steel. Colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu's luminous hues transport young readers into the fantastic realm; no need for musical interludes as his artwork positively sings on the page.

Fans of last year's "Rapunzel's Revenge" will remember Jack, the trickster sidekick. Now Jack is back as the star of Calamity Jack (Bloomsbury, $14.99; ages 8-12), in which he and Rapunzel battle Blunderboar, a nattily attired but power-hungry giant who has imprisoned Jack's mother. Once again authors (and spouses) Shannon and Dean Hale have concocted a story that will have readers on the edge of their seats. The beautifully drawn illustrations by Nathan Hale (no relation) add verve, detail and humor to the story.

Tough, resourceful and nervy, the titular character of Jake Parker's Missile Mouse: The Star Crusher (Scholastic, $10.99; ages 7-12) is an appealing hero for kids. Missile Mouse works for the Galactic Security Agency. When a scientist with the cumulative hereditary memory of his entire race is captured, the GSA's top brass assigns Missile Mouse to rescue him before secrets of destructive technology are once again unleashed on the universe. Parker has an animator's eye for action and timing, and characters ricochet and rebound within the confines of their panels while the story roars forward at a rocket's pace.

For more great kids' graphic novels, check out: The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook (Bloomsbury, $10.99; ages 7-12), written and illustrated by Eleanor Davis; the gorgeously painted Mouse Guard Series by David Peterson (Archaia Studios, $24.95 each; ages 8-12); Kazu Kibuishi's brilliant Amulet Series (Scholastic, $10.99 each; ages 8-12), as well as his collection of web comics titled Copper (Scholastic, $12.99; ages 8 up).

Dave Burbank is the graphic novel expert at the Takoma Park Maryland Library.

Karen MacPherson is the library's children's and teen librarian.

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