I am regularly asked about books that will engage reluctant readers and more often than not, my answer will be to try your kid out on … COMICS & GRAPHIC NOVELS!
My sons have all been massive fans of comics and graphic novels. My two older sons spent much of their childhood in France, where classics like TinTin and Asterix are widely read by people of all ages, and it seemed no well-respecting bookshelf in Europe would be complete without a collection of hardback graphic novels.
Later, my youngest son went through a stage where the only books he would read for pleasure were Manga novels translated from Japanese. As a dyslexic kid who found reading to be a struggle, Manga offered him sophisticated storylines in an accessible way.
Even thinking back to my own childhood, I remember reading American comics; superhero stories, MAD magazines and Archie, often stored in dusty boxes in someone’s beach-house, too lightweight to actually make it to the bookshelf but too precious to throw away.
Yet, even though they are such a fabulous way to engage reluctant readers and keep your kids reading well into their teen years, graphic novels and comics are still such an emerging market here in Australia and I’ll explore the reasons for this a little later in this post.
My aim in writing this piece is to promote Australian creators, but these days there are so many wonderful graphic novels being published for kids of all ages, which you can browse here. I implore you to check them out, as you will find there is literally something for every kind of reader.
Horrible Harriet’s Inheritance
by Leigh Hobbs
Many of the most popular books for younger readers these days do a fabulous job of mashing up the traditional comic book layout with that of a children’s novel. The Bad Guys series by Aaron Blabey is a great example of this, as is the Real Pigeons series by Andrew McDonald and Ben Wood. Even the hugely successful books of Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton play with the more traditional comic book layout by filling up as much of the page as possible with Terry’s hilarious comic-style illustrations that often tell a story of their own. However, one of my favourite books in this genre is by our previous Children’s Laureate, the fabulous Leigh Hobbs.
Many of you will already know Old Tom and Mr Chicken well, but Horrible Harriet is still one of my favourites of Leigh’s anarchic characters. Harriet is hilariously nasty and subversive right from the outset and warns you in the first chapter of her diary (which she has kindly allowed Mr Hobbs, her lowly assistant, to transcribe for her) that “once you enter her brain you will never be the same.”
Everything about this book is appealing, from its energetic scribbly drawings to the despicable antics of Horrible Harriet, who is so hilariously horrible that I guarantee your kids will adore her and feel quite angelic in comparison!
Buy it here
I am highlighting two extraordinary artists here, who I believe paved the way in Australia for comic artists by creating high-quality hardback graphic novels for older readers and opened our eyes to the possibilities of visual story-telling beyond the standard thirty-two page picture book.
by Shaun Tan
The Arrival is a wordless illustrated book, originally published in 2006, laid out like an old photo album of treasured memories. Turning the pages, we follow the story of a nameless immigrant arriving in a deeply confusing and sometimes frightening foreign land, one of unreadable signs, strange customs and weird creatures. But it is also a story of the kindness of strangers and our connections to home and family that is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was first published.
Shaun was fortunate to have the unwavering support of his publisher Helen Chamberlain at Lothian Books, who would take regular phone calls over the years he spent working on the book. He would ask for more pages and more time as the story grew and the book expanded until, after five years and hundreds of exquisitely detailed pencil drawings, the manuscript was finally complete. After it was done, Shaun confessed he had lost the feeling in his fingertips from having spent so much time drawing.
Buy it here
The Great Gatsby
by Nicki Greenberg
Soon after Shaun published The Arrival, Nicki Greenberg published her extraordinary illustrated version of the American classic The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 2009. A year later, she published a graphic novel version of the Shakespeare play Hamlet, which I particularly love for its clever depiction of a story within a story and a brilliant way of bringing Shakespeare to life for younger readers.
Buy it here
Like Shaun, creating these highly detailed graphic novels was a labour of love for Nicki. Gatsby took her six years to complete and Hamlet took three. This appears to be one of the biggest hurdles I have been made aware of by publishers of graphic novels in Australia. As Erica Wagner, publisher of Nicki and Shaun’s later work says: “Graphic novels are a much bigger risk and investment for publishers, as they take a long time to produce and involve often quite complex design and file preparation processes. The lead time from roughs to publication averages 3-5 years, and that doesn’t take into account developing the story over several drafts. So there has to be strong belief in the value of the project and faith that it will still stand the test of time.
“Production costs are higher, as the books are usually 2-4 times the length of a standard 32 page picture book and are unusual sizes and shapes, and so the retail prices are often high too – which makes it hard for people who love them to buy their own copies. Editorial and design processes are also more complicated, as writers and artists (often one and the same with graphic novels) have to work out how to tell a satisfying story in words and pictures. So, it’s only possible for a company like Allen and Unwin to support the from-the-ground-up creation of a handful of graphic novel titles per year – say one or two or at the most three.”
Bernard Caleo, zine and comic creator and publisher at Cardigan Press adds another hurdle into the mix: “… even though the ‘battle’ of getting the ‘Graphic Novel’ category into bookshops and libraries has been won, there is a more profound, attitudinal, and probably generational battle to be fought/negotiated in terms of how we consider comics and graphic novels in terms of the range of the way we absorb stories. Are they ‘serious’ literature? Are they ‘escape’ literature, in the ‘guilty pleasure’ category? Where do I shelve this thing?”
Australian comic artist Queenie Chan, in her excellent blog post that goes into more detail than I am able to here, writes that other comic creators have told her they’ve been advised by publishers to pitch comics as picture books. She writes: “Australian publishers trying to push a graphic novel may run into difficulty with book buyers who simply won’t stock a comic for lack of a proper section in their stores. Conversely, picture books will always be stocked, since picture books are a known category that will still make money.”
New Kids on the Block
Fortunately, in the last few years, this seems to be slowly changing.
Wandering through Readings Kids in Carlton last night, I came across a whole graphic novel section and pulled out some fabulous comics for kids that have recently been published in Australia. Gregory Mackay has created a wonderful character in Anders for younger children; Gavin Aung Than brilliantly tackles climate change in his second Super Sidekicks comic, Home Time is an extraordinary hardback graphic novel by Campbell Whyte referencing the video games and comics of his childhood and Mini Mel and Timid Tom is a beautifully self-published comic by Ben Hutchings of Squishface Studio. Even the Squishy Taylor author, Ailsa Wild, has written a fascinating graphic novel for older kids called The Invisible War about gut microbes, also illustrated by Ben Hutchings and published by Scale Free Network, a local small press.
Comics have always thrived underground through self-publishing avenues like SquishFace and the Sticky Institute, so it is exciting to see them now being taken up by mainstream publishers and reaching a wider audience. I also believe that as more bookstores designate shelving to this category, graphic novels won’t get lost among the picture book collection, and more and more Australian publishers will be willing to invest the time and energy it takes to produce great locally produced comics for kids, which is great news to me.
See you next month!