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Monday, September 8, 2014

Graphic Novels for Elementary School

My friend Lori asked about graphic novels that she could read aloud to her kindergartener.  Unfortunately, the graphic novels world is only just beginning to realize the potential it has for emergent readers.  So the stuff that is out there is not always the top-of-the-line.  I expanded her question to include all of elementary (otherwise I would have only had one of two graphic novels that I could have listed.)  Anyway, for what it is worth, here is my current list (sorry that some of the descriptions are longer than others)

Burks, James (2012) Bird and Squirrel on the Run  New York: Scholastic
     When I see modern cartoons on TV I feel really old.  I realize that my beloved  Bugs Bunny and the Jetsons must have seen frenetic and chaotic to my parents, but somehow when I see Phineas and Ferb or SpongeBob SquarePants or whatever, it seems like a lot of running around and screaming and not a whole lot of plot or humor or anything.  That has affected the way I look at graphic novels of lower elementary students too.  If even the style of the thing resembles the zigzag blocky style of modern cartoons, I tend to write the thing off without even giving it a chance.  Frankly, that is kind of what I did with James Burks's Bird and Squirrel on the Run. 
     Then my amazing fourth grade daughter and her friends, who love the book, turned it into a hilarious dramatic reading and I finally got it.  So here, then is a review of Bird and Squirrel from an enlightened curmudgeon:
     The plot is fairly simple.  The gregarious, daring and outgoing bird decides to be friends with the nervous, anxious, terminally shy squirrel.  When a carnivorous cat enters the picture, the two friends must run, dodge and outwit the feline terror.  But that really isn't what the book it about.  It is about two very different friends, who come to appreciate the aspects of their personalities that make them different.  That part of it is quite heartwarming. 
      The style of the art is still not my favorite, and it does tend to have a fair amount of violence-without-consequence (think Road Runner and Coyote's epic battles); but I have to admit, the book is funny, engaging, and has some substance to it.  It think it would be enjoyed by both boys and girls from second grade on up.  I cannot imagine a parent challenging this book.

Duffy, Chris (ed.).  (2011) Nursery Rhyme Comics  New York:  First Second.  Various nursery rhymes redone in GN mode with a variety of adapters including Roz Chast, Gene Yang, Nick Abadzis, Craig Thompson, Raina Telgemeier, Mike Mignola, Sara Varon, Jaime Hernandez, George O’Connor, Ben Hatke, and Marc Siegel.  Range of styles.  Good introduction about why nursery rhymes matter by Leonard Marcus.

Guibert, E. and J. Sfar (2006). Sardine in Space. New York, First Second.
Kinda funny.  No much going on thematically though.


Hatke, Ben (2010)  Zita the SpaceGirl  New York:  First Second.  Absolutely excellent.  Great story.  Themes of friendship and loyalty and courage and responsibility, etc.   

Hatke, Ben (2012)  The Legends of Zita the Spacegirl.  New York:  First Second.  Strong follow-up to the first Zita book.  Plays around with themes of identity and fame a bit.  Doesn’t quite have the freshness of the first book, and ZIta doesn’t quite have the vulnerability, but it is still a very good book.   

Hatke, Ben (2014) The Return of Zita the Spacegirl  New York:  First Second.
      Zita the Spacegirl is back, and this third book in the series may be the best yet.  This one has all the excitement, surprise, humor, and thoughtfulness of the original Zita the Spacegirl and once again, author/illustrator Ben Hatke shows his mastery of panel plotting.
     But you don't care about all that.  You want to know if it is a good story and if your third graders or sixth graders or middle school students will like it.  The answer to all of the above is yes. 
     In this book, Zita has been apprehended and is being tried and help on trumped up charges on a prison world.  Her old friends, Mouse, Piper, One, Strong-Strong and the rest are far away (though they have heard her distress call) and so she must rely on help from her cellmates Ragpile and Femur and from the mysterious Ghost.  Escaping her cell is relatively easy, but escaping the planet, and freeing all those trapped with her is a bit more daunting.  But here is the thing -- the story is funny and exuberant and filled with tension and has surprising turns and a completely satisfying and triumphant ending.    
     You'll be swept up in the story and so you won't notice, but Hatke's sense of timing and choices in moving from panel to panel are masterful -- and in fact, this is why you can get lost in the story. 
     Look at this page:
We actually shift here, from the perspective of the character in the rafters (I won't tell you who that is yet) to Zita's perspective as she awaits trial.  We are able to get a sense for the vastness of the space there are in, but we still see the frustration on Zita's face.  And look at the way the action moves us across the page and straight on to the next one.
     The other thing I love about this book is that there is actually quite a lot to talk about with students here.  There are some really interesting themes here including what it means to be morally responsible for your own actions, when civil disobedience is appropriate, what freedom means, and the values of friendship and cooperation.  There is also a nice little romantic subplot to boot.
     Look, if you like graphic novels, or good stories for middle grades and middle school kids, if you like to laugh or get caught up in a book, or if you like Zita's previous adventures, go get this.  It is excellent. 



Hayes, G. (2008). Benny and Penny: Just Pretend. New York, Raw Junior.
      Not much of a story  Art reminds me of strawberry shortcake.  ages 3 to 6 maybe.  This is part of the series Francios Mouly started.  I am not really impressed.   


Herge’.  (1956)  The Adventures of Tintin: The Black Island. Boston:  Little, Brown
     The entire Tintin series is suitable for middle elementary 2nd or third and up.  Because it was written in the fifties, though, parents will need to talk with their children  (or teachers with their students) about some cultural depictions of Native Americans and African Americans which, in todays context seem at best stereotyped. Fun books, not much thematically, though.

Holm, J. L. and M. Holm (2005). Babymouse:  (series). New York, Random House. 
      Excellent series for second  grade to fourth grade or so.  The main themes here are perseverance and imagination (my two daughters loved these books.  My friend Jung is not as fond of them.  You'll have to decide for yourself.


Marunas, Nathaniel; Craddock, Erik (2006)  Manga Claus:  The Blade of Kringle.  New York:  Penguin. 
     A parody of samurai Ninja GNs.  Santa as warrier.  Elf as antagonist. Yes, it is ridiculous, but some kids might enjoy it.


Morse, S. (2008). Magic Pickle. New York, Graphix (Scholastic).
Actually a pretty nicely entertaining story for younger kids (2nd through 4th maybe)  Kinda funny too.  Jo Jo's bedroom is built over a secret lab from which emerges a super-pickle -- powerful but with one-dimensional thinking.  She helps it figure stuff out.


Rosado, Rafael; Aguirre, Jorge (2012) Giants Beware New York:  First Second.  The art and story both seem a little derivative of recent children’s computer-animated movies, but it is still a lot of fun.  Tomboyish Claudette really wants to slay the giant on the mountain that keeps the people of her village in fear.  With the help of her friend Marie (who is studying to be a princess) and Claudette’s little brother Gaston (who loves to cook) they make a perilous journey to slay the giant, but find something quite different from what they expected.  Cute story. The art is a little overly cartoony, but still bright and enjoyable.


Rosenstiehl, A. (2008). Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons. New York, Raw Junior.
     Meant to be a first GN for little people.  I found the storyline so basic as to be insipid.  Not much point to it.           

Runton, Andy (2004). Owly: (series)
     These are very simplistic – good for K-1 or so.  No words, just symbols in speech bubbles.  As innocuous as Barney..


Sfar, J. (2003). Little Vampire Does Kung Fu. New York, Simon and Schuster.
Kinda spooky/macabre for little kids – but most of them would  love it.  Not my favorite.  K-2?

Sfar, J. (2003). Little Vampire Goes to School. New York, Simon and Schuster.


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