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.