Growing Reader

Graphic Language: How to Read Comic Books with Your Kid

by Tom Burns

Illustration: Amy Borrell

Comic books can be exciting, rewarding reading material for young readers. But for parents who didn’t grow up reading X-Men or going to Comic Con, they can seem confusing and intimidating. I’ve been reading comics my whole life, and I’ve had more than one parent ask me, “But how do you READ THEM? Do I go panel to panel? Do I have to read the sound effects out loud? I don’t get it.”

And that’s a normal reaction.

If you’re worried that The Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons” might declare you the “Worst. Parent. Ever.,” here are some tips that might make introducing your family to the world of comic books little less daunting.

  • 1. Start Simply

    Before you start reading sequential comics with your kids — where you follow a story across multiple panels — you might want to test the waters by starting with something a little more basic. For example, Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie books are essentially comic books: They tell stories with artwork and word balloons, but every page is just one big panel. Jeffrey Brown’s Star Wars books — Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess — are also great starter comics that tell one quick story per page.

  • 2. Appearances Can Be Deceiving

    Even if a comic book has big, cartoony, kid-friendly art, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s age-appropriate. Just as there are animated TV shows that you’d never let a young child watch, there are some comics that are not meant for children. Flip through comics first before you hand them over to your kids.

  • 3. Font Size Matters

    This might sound nitpicky, but trust me, it’s not. There are many comic books out there that are simply not designed to meet the needs of young readers. Yes, kids love Spider-Man, but a lot of Spider-Man’s adventures are packed with cramped, microscopic word balloons that no beginning reader would ever be able decipher. Check out the catalog of Toon Books to see examples of comic books that are actually designed with children’s reading levels in mind.

  • 4. Talk to a Librarian

    Comic books and graphic novels have become a very popular genre with modern librarians. If you need suggestions for good comics for your child, your local youth librarian should be a fantastic resource.

  • 5. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Silly

    Yes, use your finger to move your child’s attention from panel to panel. Yes, do all the sound effects in your biggest, most expressive voice. Reading a comic can be like following a storyboard of a big-budget movie blockbuster, so feel free to treat it like a performance and really make the story come to life.

  • 6. Find a Nice Long Graphic Novel to Read at Bedtime

    While there are loads of fun, single-issue comics out there, graphic novels offer longer-form comic stories that can be read more like a normal chapter book. So let your kid read an issue of Tiny Titans on their own, but if you want to share the reading experience with them, why not curl up and spend a few days reading a graphic novel together, like Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Haetke, Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, or Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi? There are so many great options to choose from.

Comments
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  • Just been reading Sisters by Raina Telgemeier with my 6 year old. She won’t read chapter books and yet this book, which has quite a complicated story, has held her rapt! I’ve also been enjoying the late 70’s/early 80’s childhood setting (permanently connected to your sony walkman? check).

    • Tom B.

      I love Raina Telgemeier. Her stories have so much character complexity, but they’re so accessible and engaging. My 8-year-old daughter just found out that she needs braces and, once we started the process of getting impressions and going to the orthodontist, I got her a copy of Telgemeier’s graphic novel SMILE and she adores it. She keeps saying “this is what my life is like now!”

  • Alysa Stewart

    Great article! I discovered graphic novels in adulthood, but in plenty of time to read them to my kids. We love Zita, Rapunzel and Amulet.

    The first graphic novel I read (and the first one I read to my kids) was Babymouse by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm. Now I’m pretty much hooked for life! I read, them, review them, collect them, get them signed, and even judge them as part of the Cybils team. Too fun. I’ll pass this article on to my not-so-obsessed friends.

    • Tom B.

      That’s so cool. I’ve been a huge comic book geek since I was a kid, so I was very nervous about how my daughter would react to comics and graphic novels. Fortunately, she really loves them and we’ve had a lot of fun exploring new titles together. We live near Ann Arbor, Michigan and, every year, they put on a fabulous event called the “Kids Read Comics! Convention.” It’s a free convention, hosted by the district library, and they gather together an enormous group of kids’ comic creators and organize events to let the kids interact with them. Last year, the keynote speaker was Babymouse’s Matthew Holm and the year before it was Zita’s Ben Haetke. And they work with the local 826 tutoring and literary center to host workshops for the kids and the creators. My daughter got to go to a master class on how to design villains taught by the artist of Giants Beware! It’s a super positive, supportive literacy event and it’s all free for families, which is amazing. I wish more communities would do something like it — http://mlatcomics.com/krc/

      • Alysa Stewart

        That sounds *awesome*! If i remember right, my brother-in-law just moved to the Ann Arbor area. I’m sure he’d put us up for a weekend…now it’s just a matter of getting there. 😀