— This post was double-checked and expanded in October of 2018. Happy reading! —
Need a graphic novel for a young adult or older kid? You’re in luck, because these days they’re exploding out of the publishing industry so fast that I can’t keep up. Here’s another roundup of favorites I’ve discovered since my last post of comics recommendations for this age group.
Compared to comics we recommend for younger kids, these books have more complex stories and themes, paired with young protagonists, that we suspect would be super-appealing to middle school and high school kids. They’re all excellent books that I personally enjoyed. These books may have more romance and sexuality, and perhaps a little light profanity, so some parents will want to pre-read.
Before we jump in:
- All comics listed here can be bought as graphic novels/collections, not only as single issues. Your library may own many of these!
- Amazon links are affiliate links.
- Need more recs? All my kids’ comics recommendations are here.
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- Any questions, corrections, recommendations? Let me know via the comments or my contact form.
Americus by MK Reed, with art by Jonathan Hill.
Neal Barton has it tough. First, he’s a fantasy-loving smart kid trapped in a scary little conservative town. Second, he has a pretty negative take on life. While the attitude may well be an effect of the town, he’ll need to find some positive thinking if he’s going to get through what’s coming. His favorite series, The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde, is about to come under fire by conservative Christian town citizens trying to save children from the evils of witchcraft. I love so many of the characters here, especially the town’s youth librarian who is SUCH a fangirl it’s not even funny. In this book, young people aren’t viewed as second class citizens by the good adults, and that’s refreshing. Bonus: a fairly happy gay teen character who may not have the parents he’d choose, but who seems to be getting along fine anyway.
Aya: Life in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet, with art by Clément Oubriere. Translated by Helge Dascher.
A young adult / new adult “slice of life” comic that takes place in the Ivory Coast in the 1970s. Girls sneaking out of the house to go dancing, boys drinking a little more than they should, parents at their wits’ end, all kinds of drama! And poor Aya, all she wants to do is study and become a doctor, not get dragged into her friends’ misadventures. Abouet’s childhood memories were the inspiration, but she’s a strong storyteller who built a fully realized community and characters out of those memories. Oubriere makes each of them just as distinctive as their personalities. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. (Update: I did. Loved the rest of it too.)
Cannons in the Clouds by Daniel Woolley and Anne Gresham, art by Jorge Donis, colors by Kirsty Swan, and letters by Peter Semeti.
Steampunk adventure and fisticuffs! Plucky teen girl protagonist! Pirates! Woolley and Gresham take a storyline of “rich girl hates wearing dresses and studying boring stuff, prefers adventure” and set it in a word rich with political conspiracy and interesting characters. Sela, our main character, is rebellious but not (quite) reckless, and as a smart action heroine she’s totally believable. (Her cagey best friend is my favorite, though.) I’m intrigued to see where this story goes.
A Bag of Marbles, adapted from Joseph Joffo’s memoir by Kris, with art by Vincent Bailly, translated by Edward Gauvin.
Of the young adult graphic novels I’ve read so far about the Holocaust, this one really stood out for me. Ten year old Joseph and his brother Maurice are forced to leave home and travel across France multiple times from 1941 and 1944, hoping to avoid capture by Nazis, and trying to reunite their family. The art is beautifully detailed and distinctive. The pacing of the story lets you celebrate with the boys when safety is found, even when you fear it might only be temporary. It celebrates family and courage. And in multiple ways it shows what good people can do when faced with evil. A valuable lesson at any age.
Days Like This by J. Torres, illustrated by Scott Chantler.
It’s the mid 1960s. Anna Solomon just got divorced from her husband, who seems to be running his own record label into the ground. Anna learned a lot from her now-ex’s mistakes, so she decides to start her own label. At her daughter’s talent show, she finds just the girl group she’s looking for… but can Tina and the Tiaras overcome family resistance, find the right songwriter, and make a hit happen? This book is sweet, and refreshing in how it centers women’s and girls’ stories. No one’s perfect, but just about everyone is doing their best. We were fans of Scott Chantler from his other work, a fantasy epic, so it was fun to see him doing something quite different.
Family Pets by Pat Shand and Sarah Dill, with letters by Jim Campbell
Thomasina’s parents died when she was five. She moved in with her grandmother, then they moved in with her aunt, uncle, and cousins when money got too tight. Now she’s in high school. She’s not loving life. Her best friend is a pet snake. She doesn’t feel close to her family. But that doesn’t mean she’s okay with her family turning into animals, and she’s really not okay with her pet snake disappearing. Okay, kind of disappearing. (No spoilers, Skye!) Who cast the spell that did all this damage? And how’s Thomasina going to fix it?
There’s a lot of emotion here, but it doesn’t get too heavy. Dill has a lot of fun with character designs and expressions, and Shand keeps the story moving nicely. There’s a love/crush sub-plot with a little bit of rivalry, but nothing extreme. The snake provides comic relief, and it feels great when Thomasina’s family starts pulling together. Plus, Latina protagonist in a graphic novel, HURRAY!
Gunnerkrigg Court by Tom Siddell.
Antimony Carter begins her school year at boarding school Gunnerkrigg Court to find it’s far more than a normal British school. Robots, ghosts, dragons, demons, gods, conspiracies… and she still has to attend class. Siddell is great at creepy atmosphere, and I quickly bonded with Antimony. Now that we’re four volumes into the paperback version of the series, I have way too many characters as favorites, and I love the uneasy feeling of never quite knowing what new strange discovery is going to happen next.
This was originally a webcomic, and you can read Gunnerkrigg Court online if you choose. I am patiently resisting the urge to jump online instead of waiting for the next paperback version.
Ichiro by Ryan Inzana.
Ichiro grew up in the U.S. with his Japanese mom. His white American father died when he was just a baby. When his mother scores a temporary job opportunity in Japan, she takes teenage Ichiro with her so he can spend time with his grandfather. Ichiro didn’t feel like he fit in back in the U.S., and he certainly doesn’t feel like he fits in now, in an unknown country. Plus, all his grandfather does is tell weird old stories. It’s going to be a boring few weeks, he thinks… until one night when things get really, really strange. He finds gods, monsters, and magic in an alternate world that he may be trapped in forever. Deep thoughts about war and forgiveness in this one.
Imagine Agents by Brian Joines, illustrated by Bachan, with colors by Ruth Redmond, letters by Deron Bennett, and additional character design by Khary Randolph
A secret entity that polices children’s imaginary friends? And those imaginary friends are starting a revolution so their evil leader can take over the world. How did Joines come up with this? This book is zany fun and also has so much heart. Agents Dave and Terry are up against Dave’s nemesis Dapple, with a kid caught in between, so it’s up to them to save the world AND the hostage. The characters are all interesting, even the “bad guys,” and there are plenty of laughs to go along with the danger.
Because of the imaginary friends subject matter, we read this with our seven year old, who adored it, but there is a bit of mild “language” and some fairly distressing backstory for at least one character – I was kinda wishing I’d waited? I can’t quite tell who the intended audience is supposed to be, age-wise. But no one ended up with nightmares so I guess it all worked out okay, and as an adult I found it fascinating.
Kat and Mouse by Alex de Campi, with art by Federica Manfredi.
Cute series! New girl and teacher’s daughter Kat ends up friends with social outcast Mouse, and they take on the bad girls at their rich kid prep school. There aren’t a lot of surprises (at least to an adult reader), but there is a mystery to solve. Who’s stealing things around the school and signing her or his notes “The Artful Dodger?” I was particularly impressed with Manfredi’s work on the facial expressions. How can she do so much with so few lines?! The art will feel homey to manga lovers, but it’s a little less stylized, so it’s also welcoming to those not yet familiar with manga. I’ve read three volumes so far and definitely need to track down the fourth so I can finally find out who the Dodger is.
Meteor Men by Jeff Parker with art by Sandy Jarrell, colors by Kevin Volo, and letters by Crank!
Alden Baylor is just a normal teenager. Alden Baylor is about the become the most important person in the world. The meteor shower that was supposed to be an interesting view turns out to be an alien invasion and things will never be the same. When my husband and I had both finished reading this, he said “I liked how it didn’t have a happy ending.” My response: “Or maybe it DID!” It’s not a book with a pat, easy resolution just because it has a teenage main character. Good science fiction book.
Monster on the Hill by Rob Harrell
England, 1867. Every town has its own monster, which periodically rampages through the city leaving destruction in its wake. Also, excited kids and stands selling souvenir merchandise. The only exception is Stoker-on-Avon. Their monster, Rayburn, hasn’t attacked in almost two years. He just stays up on the hill, moping. Now it’s up to a disgraced scientist and a scrappy street urchin to help Rayburn get his monster mojo back. The prescription? Road trip! Which sounds like a good idea except for one small piece of information that Rayburn missed in monster school.
We read this with our six year old, who adored it, but I bumped it up in age group as a comics recommendation because there’s possibly a bit of mild “language” and one distressing scene when a nice character is believed to be murdered.
My Boyfriend is a Monster: I Love Him to Pieces by Evonne Tsang, illustrated by Janina Görrissen with additional inks by Maria Viccar. Letters by Eldon Cowgur.
If this were a movie, I’d own it and watch it repeatedly. Nerdy-cute smart high school kid Jack Chen is paired with exuberant, athletic Dicey Bell on the classic “parent an egg” project. Mutual crush ensues, which is adorable, but trouble in paradise arises on their first date. A disease outbreak, during which Jack is supposed to be taken to his scientist parents by special agents. Nothing could go wrong there, eh? The page size of this hardback means that Görrissen packs a lot of action and detail into a small space, and she pulls it off. And anyone who can resist the gal in a sundress with a baseball bat, backed up by her geeky boy-crush holding a crowbar… well, you and I just aren’t the same kind of people.
Sadly, I have tried reading all but one of the remaining My Boyfriend is a Monster series, and I could not bond with any of them. I just want the continuing adventures of Jack and Dicey! Which don’t exist. Alas!
Orphan Blade by M. Nicholas Alamand and artist Jake Myler. Letters by Douglas E. Sherwood.
The Orphan Blade is a cursed weapon, one of many created from the dead bodies of kaiju (giant monsters) after they started appearing in humanity’s world and destroying everything in their paths. Hadashi is a former sword apprentice cast out into homelessness after his dominant hand is permanently injured. When he connects with the Orphan Blade, it seems like a good thing at first… but thinks quickly spin out of control. Love the multicultural cast, love the colorful and clear art, and especially love the brief smooches at the end. Orphan Blade is a fairly bloody book, but I’m still calling it great for YA. Your mileage may vary!
Very sadly, Alamand passed away before this book was even published. He was clearly a talented writer, and cancer sucks.
Peanut by Ayun Halliday, with art by Paul Hoppe.
Peanut is about a girl who makes a very bad decision. Sadie is the girl. The bad decision? Lying about having a peanut allergy. Switching schools between freshman and sophomore year of high school is hard, after all. You’re lost in a sea of people who all already know each other. Unless you find a way to stand out, like a potentially life-threatening allergy. Clearly, that’ll help break the ice and make friends, right?
Sadie’s deception goes about as well as you’d expect. What I didn’t expect was my feeling bad for Sadie even while she’s working so hard to lie to her new friends. I didn’t quite get her reasoning behind the lie, intellectually or emotionally, but I do know (from my own past) that kids sometimes just do stupid things. Halliday just has a way of bonding you with Sadie once she’s living with the consequences of her choice. I was definitely hoping she could find a way to end the lie and move forward without being totally humiliated. Hoppe’s friendly, clean drawing style gives each character plenty of life. I’ll be looking out for more of his work.
Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula by Andi Watson.
SO CUTE! And full of monsters. What more could you want? To add a few more details, though, it’s about Princess Decomposia, who is running herself ragged with royal work while her father malingers. She’s never really thought about how unfair that is. She hasn’t had a minute to think, she’s too busy! Then a new chef arrives to work at the palace. Count Spatula is a vampire who lost his fangs to his passion for sweets, and he quickly determines that the Princess could really use a break. And some good meals. And a friend (or possibly someone who’s something different than a friend, maybe). There’s so much emotional depth and realism here, especially as Decomposia (Dee for short) starts to realize how selfish her father has been. By the end of the story, though, everyone’s headed in the right direction. I’ll be tracking down more of Watson’s work. And hoping for a sequel about this charming couple.
Princess Ugg by Ted Naifeh, with colors and letters by Warren Wucinich.
Princess Ulga of Grimmeria travels from her mountain kingdom to the lowlands, enrolling in a snobby school for traditional princesses. No one quite understands why she’s there, and of course the “bonnie wee berserker” (as her parents lovingly call her) isn’t really damsel material. But there’s a very serious reason Ulga has left her home, and she finds an ally for her quest. Naifeh wrote Courtney Crumrin and Polly and the Pirates, so he’s at home writing strong young female characters.
My seven year old son loved this. I don’t recommend it without caveats to kids his age, though, due to a bit of fantasy violence which might be disturbing to kids, so I bumped it up to this post.
Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale.
The world clearly needs more fantasy westerns about ass-kicking female teenagers! I thoroughly enjoyed this re-visioning of Rapunzel and her friend Jack, who had a beanstalk incident a while back. They’re outlaws for hire in the Wild West, bent on taking down the Big Bad who’s destroying the land and keeping good folks in poverty. The Hales who co-wrote it do a good job pacing the story and keeping the romance light until the end. The Hale who drew it (no relation to the authors) spent over a year on the artwork, and I don’t doubt it given the detail he puts into the panels! It’s a feel-good girl power tale, recommended.
Calamity Jack, written by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale, with coloring and lettering assistance (from parties who are IMHO unclearly credited on the title page)
Calamity Jack is the follow-up to Rapunzel’s Revenge. The first 40-odd pages give us the previously untold story of Jack’s criminal past. The rest of the book is what happens when Jack brings Punzie home… kind of. Home (his family’s bakery) seems to have been destroyed in his absence. Also, a bad guy whom Jack crossed on his way out of town is now running everything. Oops. What follows is an Old West Steampunk monster-fighting adventure complete with giant ants and a love triangle. Rapunzel is her usual badass self, Jack is a dork with a heart of gold, and it was completely satisfying.
And there’s something I hadn’t realized when reading Rapunzel’s Revenge. This is a fantasy story, so I don’t want to say Jack is Native American or First Nations, but artist Hale depicts him and his family with clothing and hairstyles inspired by one or more Native American or First Nations cultures. The words “chief” and “clan” are used. I’m too ignorant to analyze what’s going on here for any accuracy. Hale is a history buff, but that doesn’t mean he got it right, and there’s certainly no content here addressing the culture or history of indigenous people in the Americas. But it’s interesting to observe and think about this family’s place in this magical alt-history.
Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap and illustrated by Mari Araki.
Tina Malhotra is writing a diary for her honors philosophy class, because her other options include things like cataloging her garbage every day or videotaping what’s in her family’s refrigerator. The goal of the diary? To figure out who she is. So, she’s writing to Jean-Paul Sartre. During the school year of the diary, Tina details friend breakups, making new friends, her first crush, her brother’s arranged engagement falling apart, and starring in a performance of Rashomon. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next with the high school drama, but it was Tina’s narration and introspection that made it compelling. I was concerned that my husband wouldn’t get past the premise and would miss out on this hilarious, beautiful, and thoughtful book. Lucky for him, he gave it a chance. It was also lucky for me, because I needed someone to be excited about this book with me. It’s so good! Tina’s Mouth is a cross between a graphic novel and an illustrated prose novel, wandering from paragraphs to illustrations and often blending the two. I don’t know how Araki decided what techniques to use with which sections, but she did a great job varying the density of the pages and keeping the story moving.
Wandering Son by Takako Shimura.
I haven’t yet read all of this Japanese manga series that revolves around two transgender children. The first couple of volumes are very slow, so much that my husband almost abandoned them. I stayed with it because the delicate storytelling, combined with the attention to the characters’ emotional lives, told me it was going to pay off. It has. He was glad he stuck with it, too. I know there’s a lot going over my head with the cultural references, but what sticks with me is the real worries and small victories of these two characters.
And that’s the list of young adult graphic novels we’ve enjoyed lately! If you cosign my endorsement of any of these fine works, please do leave me a comment. It’s always fun to hear from someone else who’s enjoyed something I’ve read. If you have any suggestions, also please leave them in the comments – and thanks for sharing on social media or with friends!