Right now, my 9-year-old daughter and I are in the midst of battle. We both want to buy a box set of five books in the Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland. However, I want to buy the original novels while she wants to buy the graphic novels with art by Mike Holmes. After writing this article, I think she may win — but on the technicality of me doing all the research and preparation for her. I mean, I have nothing against comic books and graphic novels. We may or may not have shelf space for more comics (more likely *not*). The thing is, I would love to read the Wings of Fire series with my daughter. And, like many parents and carers out there, I am not always comfortable or confident in how to read comics with kids. It’s a bit silly because the rewards from reading with kids are gained no matter the style of book you read. However, comic books and graphic novels always seem to start with a bad rep despite the many amazing benefits. It sort of relates with the idea that pictures can’t make sounds and thus can’t be “read aloud.” And well, that’s wrong.
I’m going to assume you already know how great it is to read aloud with your kids. Fellow Book Riot writer Katie has it covered in her recent article here. And we are a little overdue for our annual reminder that graphic novels are “real” reading (thanks, Molly). So, why do so many parents avoid reading comics and graphic novels with their kids? Let’s break it into a few steps and bust the myths about comics. Oh, and for the sake of rhythm in the writing, from here on, “comics” includes both “comic books” and “graphic novels.”
Step 1: Not All Comic Books and Graphic Novels Wear Capes
Before you share any comic book or graphic novel with your child, PLEASE make sure that it is appropriate for their age. Pawcasso by Remy Lai is adorable. Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples is equally brilliant but less appropriate. It doesn’t have to be superheroes or even anything from the Marvel or DC franchises. There are plenty of great books out there, suitable for kids AND reading aloud with kids. My advice is to start with a topic they are interested in.
Step 2: My, What Big Eyes You Have! All the Better To See You With, My Dear
There is no shame in bringing out the magnifying glass. Make sure you choose a book with clear graphics and illustrations. The idea behind reading comic books and graphic novels with kids is to show them how to use the artwork to bring context to the story. Creators want to include a lot in each panel, even if it is at the expense of font size. This is where the layout is important.
Step 3: Lay It All Out
It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the layout of the comic to help with the flow of reading. There are traditional layouts for comics, and then there are creators who go somewhere completely different. Western comics traditionally flow left-to-right then top-to-bottom, while manga is top-to-bottom then right-to-left. Speech bubbles or characters often overflow to the next panel to give a sense of movement or momentum. And then there are those narrative blocks that set up a full-page spread, leaving you with a feast for the eyes as you seek out the hidden secrets for clues.
Step 4: Bring Your Best Award-Winning Performance
Reading aloud with kids is fun. Even if you are simply following the words in the most vanilla way possible, there is always the opportunity to vary the voice between characters or to suit the scene. But this is where comics take it up a level.
Speech bubbles are dynamic! On their own, they create a flow of dialogue within the storytelling. They can be standard speech bubbles or thought clouds. Add another character, and we have speech bubbles interlacing with each other to show the flow of conversation…and interruption when someone’s speech overlaps another. Essentially, speech bubbles can be a character unto themselves. This is your moment to shine! Bring out your character voices, bring out your passion, and bring out your verve!
This works equally well with sound effects. Harken back to the 1960s TV show Batman with Adam West in the character role. Remember the big POW! and BAM! spread across the screen during fight scenes? You want to capture the same impact because these words are part of the emotional environment in the storytelling.
The same can be said about the use of colour. I remember reading an Editor’s Note in an Archie Comic back in the 1980s. The whole page was about the use of colour to detail the mood and atmosphere of the scene. The example included two pictures of Archie’s head — one with a red background and one with a blue background. By using different colours, the creators can give more ideas about what is happening in the story. Red can be action, fear, or excitement. Blue can be more pensive.
Step 5: And Pause for Effect
Don’t worry: you don’t have to hold these emotional highs for the entire comics. Just like reading novels with kids, there are natural places to pause and breathe and soak up the visual goodness. If the panel or page is saturated with visuals, this is your moment to pause and appreciate the art. Take the time and allow your young readers to really look at the images, the colours, the facial expressions, and the “motion lines” added for effect. You’re ready to move on to the next panel when you think they have fully understood where you are in the story.
This is one area where comics have the advantage over general novels. Remember those comprehension exercises in school? That’s what comics are about. Comics often require us to infer information that would otherwise be narrated in a novel. The visuals are there to help set the scene (literally) and the mood (often figuratively). Inference is one of the key reading skills and often one of the hardest for kids to get the hang of. It is the skill of drawing conclusions based on what we read. By pausing to look at the picture, we can encourage kids to understand all of the elements in the story and not just the dialogue. When you reach this point in your reading time, slow down and allow them to really see the artwork. Ask them to point it out to you, and then ask them how it fits in with the story.
These are the basic steps for how to read comics with kids. Once you have read through a few comic books or graphic novels, you will find your own rhythm and style. The more you read together, the more comfortable you will be. You can take it in turns reading, or maybe one does the dialogue while the other does the sound effects and scenery. The goal is to be reading: reading together and reading aloud.
If you’re still looking for a few books to read together, Book Riot writer Hannah has a list of 15 of the Best Comic Books for Kids. Each of these books fits all of the advice mentioned above: there’s a good range of genres, they are easy to see, the layout is easy to follow, the dialogue is easy to follow, and there are natural places to pause and build your comprehension. Feel free to add your favourites to our social media chats.
And yeah, I bought the Wings of Fire graphic novel set. What can I say? It was a very convincing argument. We’ll be reading it together tonight.