Putting together this series with all our favorite comics for kids has been a lot of work! And now we’re at the last post (for now), which is all the non-superhero comics we love for older kids and young adults. We won’t recommend a book just because it’s on a topic kids like. For us to recommend it, a graphic novel has to be a good book: well-written, with art we appreciate.
There are plenty of books we recommend for younger kids that will also work great for older kids, young adults, and even grownups. The books in this post, though, have more serious vibes or topics and possibly more realistic violence and dating content.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Three interconnected stories about being who you are, and how painfully hard that can be – especially when stereotypes chase you everywhere you go. This is the comic to read if you don’t believe comics can be serious literature, because that’s only one of the many stereotypes it blows away. Amazing book.
The Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi. Amulet has some of the most gorgeous art I’ve seen in comics. It’s a 5 book and counting saga about Emily, a young girl who inherits her great-grandfather’s legacy of fighting a possibly losing battle against evil, in an alternate magical world. Her mother and younger brother are pulled into this world with her. Amulet is possibly too dark for some younger kids. While it’s a book about coming together and fighting for a good cause, the setting and tone vary from mildly alarming to bleak and hopeless. There are evil are characters so twisted and cruel, that they scare me. Good characters also die in very sad ways. If you think your younger child would be fine with it, I wouldn’t disagree, as we read it with Boy Detective when he was four and he really liked it. He doesn’t scare easily, though, never has. But with younger readers you may want to skip the intense prologue in book one. It isn’t necessary for the story and is more harrowing than the rest of the series.
Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol. Anya falls down a well… no, really, she does. And she picks up a companion who follows her back out. Having a ghost for a friend seems like a good idea for a while, especially when you’re the kid who can never quite fit in and needs a little help. But what happens when it starts to seem like not such a good idea after all?
This will always be one of my favorite YA comic recommendations! Brosgol initially drives the story with some of Anya’s bad choices, but they’re understandable choices instead of stereotyped teen behaviors. (Having worked professionally with teenagers, I love seeing them represented properly as three dimensional people.) The first time I read it, I was so caught up in the plot that I didn’t fully appreciate Brosgol’s art, especially her gift for facial expressions. This time, I slowed down to enjoy. Her art style is so crisp, and she gets so much done with just black, white, grey, and blue. I knew Brosgol’s name because she did a little bit of work on Hopeless Savages (see below), and I’m so glad that led me to her.
Azumanga Daioh by Kiyohiko Azuma. I did NOT want to read this incredibly large book. Not because of how much it weighs, but because C-Man had tried to ensnare me in the anime adaptation once, and the voices were all so high pitched. I could not deal. Lucky for me, I got really sick, and what I desperately needed was non-angsty that would distract me and last a while so I wouldn’t have to get out of bed for another book. Azumanga Daioh to the rescue! It covers several years in a girls’ high school. What struck me the most was how each of the characters has such a distinct personality. It’s almost as if teenage girls are unique and individual human beings. Who knew? (That was sarcasm, by the way. Of course they are!) C-Man says that to him, it’s the Japanese equivalent of Peanuts comic strips, delivering the same wit in bite-sized chunks.
Bandette, by Paul Tobin and illustrated by Colleen Coover. I’ve always been a fan of Coover’s fun art style, and Tobin is a good storyteller. This book knocks it out of the park! Bandette is an irrepressible Parisian teenage master thief with the proverbial heart of gold and an affinity for first editions of good books. The police love to hate her but sometimes need her help. Her rival “Monsieur” wants to save her life, even though she’s after his reputation as the world’s greatest thief. The ballerinas and street urchins just want to help. And poor Daniel! Will his heart belong to the mysterious Bandette forever? This book has a retro, French/Belgian adventure comics feel, like Tintin, but completely fresh. Keep your eye out for the female matador!
Drama by Raina Telgemeier. I am not a big fan of teenage angst books. I enjoy teenagers themselves, perhaps more than other adults do, but morose and melodramatic teen lit I can live without. Drama has its share of pain and suffering, but its fundamental core is about high school kids trying to connect with each other and do right – no matter how bumpy the road may be on the way. A couple of good portrayals of gay characters in this one, too! The book follows Callie, a theater addict who’s the set designer for her school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi. How is this show going to turn out when the cast members are getting together and breaking up and no one’s buying tickets? More importantly, is that cannon really going to work? (Yes, I said cannon.)
Emiko Superstar, written by Mariko Tamaki with art by Steve Rolston. This was one of the books from the ill-fated D.C. Comics line called Minx, designed to appeal to teen girls. Despite the heavy rotation of youth graphic novels in most libraries, somehow D.C. couldn’t make enough money on Minx to continue it. Emiko Superstar was one of my favorites from this group. Emiko is an Asian Canadian suburban teenage babysitter looking for excitement, escape… something! She borrows pieces of other people’s identities to stage a performance art piece, but there’s a heavy dose of guilt along with her newfound fame and double life.
Fist Stick Knife Gun, a graphic novel adaptation by Jamar Nicholas of Geoffrey Canada’s memoir. Canada grew up in the South Bronx in the late 1950s. This masterful adaptation of his work traces the violence he saw around him, that he himself committed, and that he finally renounced and committed his life to working against. C-Man describes it as real, thought-provoking, but still compelling as a work of literature, instead of one of those “true story” books you want to sleep through. I’d agree, and I think it’s because the book doesn’t spoon feed you. Instead it presents a series of quiet vignettes, with depth and human emotion for all parties involved.
Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, whom C-Man and I describe as “bulletproof” because she seemingly cannot write or draw anything that we don’t like, if not outright love. Friends With Boys is no exception. Protagonist Maggie starts high school after being homeschooled with her three brothers for her whole life. Their mother left, and Maggie’s never really had any friends outside of her family. Everything’s new. And the least scary part is that Maggie’s haunted by ghosts. Writing this, I’ve just realized I need to read this book at least three more times, really soon. The characters are pitch perfect, and you can root for Maggie even if you’ve never been in her exact situation. (Who has, really?)
Hopeless Savages by Jen Van Meter, with art by a great group of collaborators. Jen Van Meter has my undying gratitude for writing these stories about the Hopeless-Savage family, a clan comprised of two parents who met during their careers as punk rock musicians, then settled down to have four children, in a suburban setting which isn’t always the best match. The first arc is centered on the youngest daughter, Skank Zero Hopeless-Savage. (Um, yeah, there’s a lot of “language” in this book, just so you know.) We also get good arcs about each older sibling, including her gay older brother and his awwwww! sweet relationship with his boyfriend. Whether foiling their parents’ kidnapping, de-brainwashing their oldest brother who is working for a corporate coffee chain, or living through a documentary film crew following them around, she’s one of the most genuine and wonderful teenagers I’ve had the pleasure to read about. When I met Van Meter at Geek Girl Con a couple of years ago, she said there would be more Hopeless Savages, so I’m hoping that does work out. Or that a suburban punk rocker family adopts me.
I Kill Giants, written by Joe Kelly and illustrated by J.M. Ken Niimura. I asked C-Man to give you the sell on this one, since it’s one of his favorites: “People like to use the word raw to describe things, and most of the time that’s not an accurate description, but in this case it IS accurate.” It’s a combination of anger and grief, as young Barbara Thorson struggles to deal with an impending terrible loss which may overwhelm her. Saying more than that might give things away. Heavy stuff, extremely good.
Joe the Barbarian, by Grant Morrison with art by Sean Murphy. Joe’s just a 13 year old kid, albeit one with diabetes, a dead father, and a house the bank’s about to take away from him and his mom. After missing one too many meals, Joe has a blood sugar crisis, and finds out (or does he?) that he may also be the savior of a magical parallel realm whose inhabitants strangely resemble his toys. Magic, steampunk, adventure, reality, family, and even though Grant Morrison wrote it, it makes sense. (I love Morrison, but he can be reallly strange.)
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, by Prudence Shen with art by Faith Erin Hicks. Okay, so I didn’t realize how much work it was to compile a 5-part series covering about 80 books. I am tired of writing about comics now. This one is devilish funny, and has a killer robot competition and evil cheerleaders. Go read it! I bought it for myself, but would share with Boy Detective if he was older.
Pantalones, TX by Yehudi Mercado. This is a realllly strange book. Mercado lives here in Austin and I’d kind of like to run into him sometime, just to get an idea of what he’s like. It opens with a joke about urinating outside. Normally that would put me off but we’d already bought the book, and I’m glad I kept reading. Chico Bustamante is the coolest kid in Pantalones, TX, the town where underwear was invented. His best friends are Pig Boy, who’s some kind of mutant? And a Jewish vegetarian from Brooklyn. Chico is the town sheriff’s nemesis. He’s determined to get his name into the history books of Texas, and not even the sheriff’s giant chicken is going to stop him… even if he needs a bar mitzvah to become a man to gain admittance to the Soulbreaker mechanical riding bull in the back of the saloon to do it! You see why I want to meet the guy? Like I said, it’s a strange book.
Play Ball, written by Nunzio De Filippis and Christina Weir, and illustrated by Jackie Lewis. De Filippis and Weir are solid storytellers, and this is one of the only graphic novels I’ve found centered on sports. Dashiell and her sister Arica are at a new school, and this one has a championship-level baseball team. Good news for Dashiell, a talented softball player… until the inevitable drama arises because she’s a girl playing on a “boys” team. While Arica’s trying to fit in, Dashiell’s making waves. Add in some boy-girl drama, and everything gets a little complicated. But it’s all okay in the end! The characters and the story are sweet and satisfying even though the story doesn’t have much surprise factor.
Polly and the Pirates by Ted Naifeh. Polly is a sweet young girl, no trouble at all, content to follow the rules. Um. Yeah, that lasts. Turns out when your mom was a famous pirate, you won’t be staying at finishing school long enough to learn where all the silverware goes. This is a black and white by Naifeh that’s full of adventure and intrigue. My favorite bit is how the Navy captain reacts to the new Pirate Queen. Priceless. Very fun book. I had thought this one was great for even younger kids, until I re-read it and found all the references to young ladies’ virtue, and also the subtle reference to prostitution. That wacky Ted Naifeh! Also, some cussing. And possibly drinking. It’s pirates, people, what do you want from me?! Also note that Polly and the Pirates 2 has a different artist, and I didn’t like it as well for that reason. Your mileage may vary.
Re-Gifters by Mike Carey, illustrated by Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel. We read this with Boy Detective when he was three or four, and that was a mistake. There’s a little too much interpersonal drama mixed with the martial arts. We’re glad we showed him a portrayal of an Asian-American girl who’s a strong fighter, early in his life, but we’ll come back to this one later on. Dixie, the girl in question, is a Korean-American girl who’s a competitive athlete in Hapkido. She makes a mistake in falling for the wrong guy… possibly jeopardizing her chance to compete in the championships. Luckily, she has friends around to help out. It’s so, so, so good! The people are real, the decisions are often teenager decisions, but it’s handled with such compassion and respect for the characters, I really enjoyed this.
Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane by Sean McKeever and illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa. C-Man’s take: “It has really good art, not just crappy Westernized knockoff of manga style art. It’s all teenage drama but the characters are likeable.” My take: “OMG I LOVE THIS and I am embarrassed by how much money I spent to get the 2 hardback volumes that comprise Sean McKeever’s run.” This is NOT a Spider-Man book. This is a book about what happens at his high school, focused on Mary Jane, and he’s usually Peter Parker. He does make appearances as Spider-Man, and his double life does become an issue, but this is really pure high school dating/friend drama. And it’s lovely, like a sweet little high school soap opera without any “on a very special episode of…” after-school special junk. Just kids being kids, and most of them trying to be good kids.
Suburban Glamour by Jamie McKelvie. Pretty, pretty pictures. McKelvie is one of the best artists working in comics today. He can draw a panel that’s just two people looking at each other, and it says more than some of the “artists” working on mainstream superhero comics can say in an entire book. (I’m looking at you, GREG LAND!) Anyway. Suburban Glamour is about what happens when Astrid turns out not to be who she always thought she was. There are some talking toys, and some fairies, and some great shoes.
There is an implied joke about how sex is the only thing kids in small towns have to entertain themselves, teenagers drink and smoke pot, and someone spikes a girl’s drink at a party but her friends protect her. So this one may be a little old for a pre-teen or young teen, depending on their parents’ or guardians’ comfort level.
Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai. This is the first volume of a long-running series about a masterless samurai rabbit who works as a bodyguard. Lots and lots and lots of killing and body parts, though it’s in a cartoon style, not a realistic one. C-Man loves Sakai’s art and Boy Detective was into the story, even though a few points required some explanation because we read it to him when he was pretty young. (We have a lot of discussions here about how some things are fun in pretend, like battles, but you would NEVER want to have them in real life.) I thought the stories were well plotted and interesting. And the good news is, if the young reader in your life likes it, there’s tons more where this came from.
The War at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks. As you may catch on during this series, C-Man and I are big fans of Faith Erin Hicks. This is my personal favorite of her projects so far. Juniper is a 13 year old smart girl whose family has no money. A scholarship to an elite boarding school seems like just the ticket. Until she gets there and earns the enmity of the ruling Mean Girl. You know what else is more interesting than she had anticipated? Whatever’s lurking in the forest nearby. One thing I love about Hicks’ work is that no character is ever a stereotype. Even the Mean Girl. Everything doesn’t wrap up at the end in a pretty bow either. But you feel pretty good about Jun’s future. My only complaint is that I seem to have a mental block against spelling Ellsmere properly. Thank goodness for C-Man proofreading this post as he was contributing his thoughts on the books.
I wrote a whole post on An Aurora Grimeon Story: Will O’ the Wisp when illustrator Megan Hutchison was kind enough to contact me for a review. She and author Tom Hammock have created a spooky, interesting comic with a strong teenage female lead in a diverse community. Read more here!
And that’s our list, so far, of well-loved comics for older kids and young adults! If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments – and thanks for sharing on social media or with friends!