Comics/Graphic Novels

20+ Must-Read YA Comics for New + Seasoned Fans of the Format

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Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Comics for teenagers used to be hard to come by. Or, to be more accurate, finding comics for teens that were not superhero comics was challenging; since the dawn of comics, teens have been a major market. In the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, there were numerous non-superhero comics for teens, including teen humor comics and teen pulp comics, many of which trace lineage to Harold Teen. The history of teen comics is robust, but until the late-2000s, it was challenging to find manuscript-length comics for teens that were not the slick comic store serials. Even the late ’00s YA comics were few and far between. But now? We’re in one of the richest eras for YA comics in a long, long time. You’ll find book-length illustrated stories across genres and time and there are plenty of graphic adaptations of both classics of YA and more “traditional” classics.

But whether you’re new to the format or want to expand your knowledge of all things YA comics, it can be hard to know what are must-reads. While there’s always an argument to be made that all books are must-reads to someone, that would not lend itself to a nice guide to a genre or format. This guide to 20+ must-read YA comics will get you going into some of the richest titles out there.

It’s worth reiterating that comics are a format and not a genre. They can be any genre, and they can also take on any tone, from funny to horrifying. Not all comics writers do the illustration for their works, and as such, it is critical that in talking about comics, every person involved in their creation deserves credit. You’ll find that here, which means you’ll be able to also dig into the rest of the catalogs both the writers and illustrators have to their name.

Because this is a short must-reads list and meant to be a sampling of the array of YA comics out there, some limitations exist. First, there are no superhero comics or comics from the big two publishers, DC and Marvel, on this list. You won’t see Miss Marvel, though it is absolutely a must-read. Likewise, there is no manga on this list, as must-read YA manga is a post unto itself. Manga was one of the most popular formats for teens when I worked in libraries, and as manga publishing has only become stronger in the U.S., I suspect this is still the case in many libraries. Finally, there are not any illustrated editions of novels on this list. There are excellent comic adaptations of novels, but again: that is a list unto itself.

Comics also continue to be the most commonly challenged and banned books across the United States. This trend is not slowing down, and among the must-reads below you’ll find plenty that also appear on the most commonly banned comics and the comics that groups like Moms For Liberty want to remove from libraries. All of the comics were written with teen audiences in mind; nothing on this list is published for adults with YA crossover appeal — that, too, is a whole post in itself.

One last note: “comics” and “graphic novels” are two interchangeable terms. I do, however, take some umbrage with this: comics is the umbrella term to define the format, while graphic novel includes the term “novel,” which is a word used to describe fiction. Yes, lots of people call all comics graphic novels and that’s fine, though technically, it’s incorrect. I prefer YA comics as a more enveloping term. All of the books selected here are here because their narrative AND illustrative elements make them must-reads. While the descriptions of the books might not all touch on art, they would not be included if the art were not essential.

Caveats out of the way, let’s dive in. It’s likely you have a favorite not here, and again, the beauty of this age of internet is you can accept that choices are made in order to develop a well-rounded, if abridged, list and you can choose to add to the conversation on your own platform. The more the merrier, right?

20+ Must-Read YA Comics

almost american girl book cover

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha

Robin was born in South Korea and raised by a single mother. They had a tight bond when she was young but it got more challenging when her mother announced that she was getting married to a man in Huntsville, Alabama, and they would become permanent immigrants to the USA. Not speaking English, Robin was challenged in her new school with learning and communicating with classmates, and more, she lost those connections to her friends back in Korea…and her connection with comics. But when Robin’s mom enrolls her in a comics creation class, she finds herself suddenly able to develop a new friendship and rekindle her love of comics, reading, and being wholly herself.

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American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Jin Wang wants to fit in, but that’s made near impossible when he’s the only Chinese American in his new school.

The Monkey King is a Chinese fable about a powerful monkey kung-fu master who wants to escape his form and become a god.

Danny’s life is ruined when Chin-Kee, his cousin, visits him. Danny is popular and Chin-Kee is, well, a Chinese stereotype and embarrassing to be around.

These three stories come together to tell a story of being Chinese in America and the unique challenges — and opportunities — of this adolescent experience.

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As The Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman

What could be more terrifying for a queer Black teen being lost?

If they’re lost in an all-white Christian camp.

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Bloom by Kevin Panetta, illustration by Savanna Ganucheau

If you’re a fan of blooming teen love and baking, you’re in for a treat with this one.

As much as Ari loves making bread, he can’t imagine doing it for the rest of his life. He’s interviewing new potential people to take over is job, and that’s when he meets Hector. Ari begins to train Hector and prepares for his escape from the work, except…he’s starting to fall head over heels for the new guy.

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Check Please by Ngozi Ukazu

This coming-of-age story follows Bitty, a former figure skating champion, vlogger, and baker during his first year at Samwell University, where he’s a member of the hockey team. A gentle comic, readers get to know Bitty as he moves through university, learning who he is — and who he is not — on and off the ice. Bonus: deep romantic feelings.

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Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder

Warning that this is a dead mother book — and that’s a label Feder uses freely to describe her graphic memoir about losing her mother to cancer. It begins with the oncology appointments, her mother’s decline, the funeral, sitting shiva, and how she has worked to navigate life as a motherless girl. The book is candid while also being funny, and the art here is spectacular — it manages to both capture the heaviness of the topic while being light, approachable, and real. For those who’ve experienced loss of a loved one, it’ll hit close, especially the bits about navigating those first post-death experiences and how they unfold in a non-linear way.

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Displacement by Kiku Hughes

Kiku — same name as the author but fictionalized in this account — finds herself falling back in time to a 1940s Japanese internment prison on a visit to San Francisco. It’s where her grandmother was forced to live.

Now stuck, Kiku finds herself alongside her young grandmother and scores of others who look like her as they endure suffering, the erasure of their civil rights, and more. It’s the kind of thing Kiku never learned in school and yet, she’s living it every day alongside those too often forgotten or removed from American history.

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Flamer by Mike Curato

Aiden Navarro is at summer camp before the start of junior high. It’s an intense summer of hanging out with his friends, navigating bullies desperate to make him feel bad about himself as a half Asian boy, and coming to terms with the fact he might be gay.

One night, when Aiden kisses his best friend and campmate, things shift immediately. Has he forever lost the trust of his friend Elias? Did that kiss mean anything romantic? Was it an accident?

This is a moving, heartfelt story and one that will resonate with younger (and older!) teens. It’s about traversing that tricky space between what faith might tell you is right, what it might tell you is a sin, and how you come to accept yourself as you are.

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Heartstopper by Alice Oseman

Charlie is openly out, but only because he was outed and bullied last year. Nick is a rugby player who kind of knows about Charlie because of the uninvited attention he received. The two meet at school and while their friendship begins to blossom, it might become something more much faster than either anticipate.

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Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka

This memoir is a total gut punch about growing up with a mother who is addicted to heroin, who is in and out of jail and treatment, and it’s about having a father who isn’t in the picture at all. Jarrett grew up with his grandparents, in a situation that is all too familiar to so many young people today. He had no idea why he could not see his mother and as he grew up, turning more and more toward his art, he began to learn more about his family of origin and secrets within it.

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I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina

Alfonso Jones cannot wait to play Hamlet in his school’s hip hop version of the play. As he’s out buying his first suit, a police officer mistakes a hanger for a gun and shoots and kills Alfonso on the spot. When Alfonso wakes up in the after life, he’s on a train full of ghosts. These are his guides in the afterlife, all people of color who also lost their lives to police brutality.

Fans of Angie Thomas and Nic Stone will love this one.

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I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib

This fabulous graphic memoir is Malaka’s story growing up as the daughter of a Muslim-Egyptian father and Catholic-Filipino mother. Though they ultimately divorce and Malaka’s father moves back to Egypt, both of their cultural and religious heritages influence Malaka’s formative years. As she navigates an extremely diverse population in her California high school, Malaka finds herself obsessed with all things white — and this book digs into how that influenced her future.

Insightful, funny, and full of heart, this memoir of being the daughter of immigrants doesn’t skimp on smart art. The illustrations are light, and they make use of the red, white, and blue palate in a savvy way.

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The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

Tiến loves fairytales and stories of magic; they speak a language he understands when it comes to feeling a little outside of the norm. And it’s not just because he struggles with connecting to his parents, who have a hard time with English. He’s unsure how to explain that he is gay and understand what that means for himself, his life, and his future.

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March by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

The first in a graphic memoir trilogy, the story follows John Lewis’s life and legacy. This volume takes a look at his younger years, and it is a powerful exploration of race, civil rights, and what — and why — nonviolent resistance matters.

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Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American by Laura Gao

A fabulous (and at times funny) graphic memoir about growing up as a Chinese immigrant in America. Gao talks about “Americanizing” her name early in her life as a means of fitting into a very white community in Texas. She went away to college and found a much larger Asian population at her school but fell into stereotyping people from backgrounds like hers, and during that time, had a major reckoning with both her cultural identity and with her sexuality. When she strikes out on her own, she’s happy to find such a huge Asian community in San Francisco…and then COVID hits and suddenly, she’s the enemy, especially being from Wuhan.

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Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker, illustrated by Wendy Xu

Nova isn’t your average teen witch. She’s much more knowledgeable, and that’s in part thanks to her job working at her grandmothers’ bookstore. The bookstore loans books about the supernatural and investigates paranormal occurrences. When Nova is out on an investigation following a white wolf in the woods, she finds herself face to face with a childhood crush…and their feelings for each other might make her work on the investigation much more challenging. This delightful comic is for readers who want some magic and witchy vibes in their bookstore-set books.

Xu’s art is perfectly suited to the story, with a wide color palette.

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Nimona by ND Stevenson

Meet Nimona, a shapeshifting villain.

Meet Lord Ballister Blackheart, also a villain. He’s got quite the vendetta, too.

Together, the two will work to show their kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his henchmen at the Law Enforcement and Heroics department are anything but the good guys.

It won’t be easy, though. Especially as the hijinks ensue and both Nimona an Lord Blackheart learn the limits of their powers.

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Spinning by Tillie Walden

What happens when you outgrow something about which you once were deeply passionate? That’s the hook in Walden’s graphic memoir, which follows the routine she had with figure skating. She loved it for a while, but the constant practices, lessons, and competitions began to wear on her. Once she switched schools, though, Walden found herself connecting more with art, and her relationship with her girlfriend helped her recognize that, as much as she once had passion and talent in figure skating, it was perhaps time to let it go.

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Squad by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, illustrated by Lisa Sterle

When Becca moves to a new, small, posh town, she’s immediately taken in by the popular crowd and ditches the lone fat girl at school who she had a quick connection with (that girl wasn’t cool enough). Soon, Becca learns this elite girl gang has a secret: under the full moon, they transform into werewolves who set out to destroy boys who are too eager to take advantage of girls. All seems well at first, as they plan their attacks outside of Piedmont, but when Becca accidentally destroys the boyfriend of one of her fellow girl gang members, their days are numbered.

This is Mean Girls meets Heathers meets Teen Wolf, and it will become clear why Becca acts as she does. Revenge is best served by teen girls.

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This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

Rose looks forward to summers at Awago Beach with her parents and especially enjoys spending time with her cousin Windy. It isn’t the same this summer, though, as Rose’s mom and dad continue to fight and Rose and Windy find themselves in the company of a group of kids who might not have their best interests in mind.

The Tamaki cousins have created what is a quintessential summer comic about growing up, the magic — and challenges — of summer, and about family.

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Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

If you want terror, look no further. This collection of five short horror stories will send chills up and down your spine. Among the tales are a retelling of the childhood classic, “The Girl with the Green Ribbon.” The art is rich, lush, and deceptively inviting.

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Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap, illustrated by Mari Araki

One of the most underappreciated YA comics out there, this little gem is part Persepolis and part American Born Chinese.

Tina, who is in 10th grade, just got into a fight with her best friend Alex. Their friendship is in tatters, and Tina doesn’t really know how to move on. It’s made even harder since Alex’s so easily slipped into the popular girl role. Then there’s Neil, the boy she has a fierce crush on, but with whom she doesn’t think she has a chance. Over the course of the story, which is set up as a project for Tina’s class on existentialism, Tina figures out who she is, what she likes to do, and who her true friends are. There’s a nice balance of philosophy and high school romanticism about intellectualism, and it never overwhelms Tina’s voice and her own personal angst. The spare artwork adds to the story.

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Tomboy by Liz Prince

Liz’s voice in this memoir amazing, following her experiences about not fitting in — never being “girl” enough and never being “boy” enough. The story will speak to so many teens who find themselves struggling with this same challenge in a world that so eagerly wants to put people in one box or another. Tomboy is also about bullying and those tumultuous middle grade years when all you want to do is fit in…and how that can be even harder when you also don’t want to fit in and your body doesn’t care about your wishes.

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Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke

Based on a true story, Yummy follows 11-year-old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer in the summer of 1994. Living on Chicago’s south side, Yummy earned his nickname for his love of all things sweet.

That fact is important to remember, as this is a book about a young Black boy who gets caught up in the wrong crowd. To impress a crew he wants to be part of, Yummy shoots at a rival gang, and he accidentally kills Shavon Dean, an innocent girl in his neighborhood.

He freaks out, he runs, and the police start to investigate. They find him days later, dead in a railway tunnel. His killers? The very gang he tried to impress.

The story is told through the perspective of one of Yummy’s neighbors, and it questions what it means to be guilty, innocent, and the realities of growing up in a world where gang membership seems like a ticket to salvation.

Want even more YA comics? If you’re itching to dive deeper into queer YA comics especially, we’ve got you covered. You’ll only see a few of the queer titles above represented there, so you’ll get to expand your horizons even more.