by Sarah Diamond
Graphic novels are experiencing a popularity spike in young readers, especially among the middle grade crowd. Brein Lopez, manager of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, reports that out of the hundreds of graphic novels he has in stock, “they are almost all oriented to middle grade; fourth and fifth graders through eighth grade. That’s the key spot for a lot of these titles.” Legendary cartoonist Will Eisner termed comics and graphic novels as “sequential art”, which is “the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea”. This medium, which was once primarily focused on adult superheroes and sci-fi romps, has found new stories to tell: the agony of first crushes, summer camp highjinks, and intimate family drama.
This phenomenon can arguably be traced back to 2010 when Raina Telgemeier published her first original story with Graphix, Scholastic’s imprint dedicated to producing graphic novels for children and teens. Without a superpower in sight, Smile was the touching, funny, and true account of Telgemeier’s experiences in junior high after tripping and injuring her front teeth. Smile struck a nerve with readers, and the book’s popularity caused a paradigm shift in the industry.
Telgemeier says the response didn’t happen immediately. Smile had a “quiet” release and took a year and a half to hit the New York Times bestseller list. “A lot of folks still pushed back against the idea of a graphic novel as a ‘real’ book,” she says. “Now, graphic novelists receive Newbery and Caldecott medals, they are National Ambassadors for Children’s Literature, they headline conferences around the world and their first print runs are in the multiple millions. We are more likely to be recognized as “real” authors, and we constantly hear from kids who aspire to graphic novelist as a career.” (CLICK HERE to read our full interview with Raina Telgemeier)
The last decade has produced a myriad of progressive and highly acclaimed graphic novels by female artists for middle grade readers. One of Graphix’s recent hit offerings is The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag, and its sequel The Hidden Witch, a fantasy about a 13-year-old boy who defies his society’s rigid gender norms to embrace his magical powers. Ostertag won a star review from Kirkus and recently sold The Witch Boy rights to Fox Animation. “I’m a visual thinker,” says Ostertag. “I love that readers can take their time with graphic novels, absorbing visual details at their own pace, drawing conclusions based on pictures. Young readers are especially fun because they love to re-read–you will always find details you missed the first time around.” Ostertag’s work also attracts reluctant readers and ESL students, who find the visual storytelling more approachable than text-heavy novels.
Another new and notable voice is Svetlana Chmakova, writer and artist of the Berrybrook series (Yen Press), the slice-of-life middle grade stories Awkward, Brave, and Crush, earning her an Eisner nomination and frequent spots on School Library Journal’s 10 Best Graphic Novel lists. Chmakova, who got her start in webcomics and manga-style series. “I loved the way sequential art was able to incorporate anything and everything—I’ve read comics with effects, with sounds, with chunks of prose embedded in the page… The flexibility and accessibility of the medium is unparalleled.”
For aspiring cartoonists, Chmakova emphasizes the importance of building an internet presence: “Get a twitter account; have a pinned tweet with your work or a link to your comic, and participate in comics chat/drawing hashtags.” She even recommends publishing your comics online. Self-published books are usually recommended as an alternative to traditional publishing, not a road to a contract with a major publisher, but the world of self-pubbed webcomics is a little different. “My understanding is that many editors actively look for people online now in those spaces. It’s a way more effective discovery tool than the traditional slushpile. I know of more than a few creators who were discovered this way, and I am one of them myself!”
Ostertag was also discovered through webcomics, a viral sensation called Strong Female Protagonist. “All you have to do is draw a comic and post it regularly, and in many cases the quality work is recognized and rewarded by readers. This no-gatekeepers-involved form of distribution has helped elevate creators and narratives who face discrimination from traditional publishers.”
Publishers are far more likely to take a chance on a single cartoonist than on a writer who requires an illustrator. This can make it difficult for aspiring comics writers who don’t illustrate their own work, though there are notable exceptions. Shannon Hale, known for novels and chapter books like Goose Girl and The Princess in Black series, is one of those exceptions. “I feel very fortunate that I get to write graphic novels, even though I am not a cartoonist,” she explains. “A graphic novel is a massive undertaking for an artist. It’s hard to compare but a picture book might have 32 paintings, and a graphic novel might have 1000 panels. I can understand why any artist might be hesitant to illustrate someone else’s story.” Despite this challenge, Hale teamed up with artist LeUyen Pham for the award-winning bildungsroman Real Friends (Macmillan) and, with husband Dean Hale, co-authored Rapunzel’s Revenge, which was illustrated by Nathan Hale. She says that most of the popular advice about publishing picture books also applies to graphic novels. “As always, publishers don’t want writers to find their own artists. Just write the script and sell that on its own merits.”
The graphic novel script, however, is an entirely different animal. While comic scripts are like picture books in their focus on brevity, they are laid out more like screenplays. Grace Ellis, writer and co-creator of popular comics series Lumberjanes and Moonstruck, which are also anthologized into trade volumes, writes her scripts with an “imaginary camera” in her mind, visualizing each individual panel. Although she doesn’t illustrate her own work, it’s important for her to design what the scene should look like before she hands the script over to an artist. “You don’t want to pack too much on a page because it’s really easy to overcrowd,” she explains. Her general rule is to design no more than seven panels on a page, and no more than three characters per panel. She recommends the book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud as a foundational resource for getting started, plus reading a wide variety of comics, and studying stage plays for examples of effective character dialogue.
Ellis says the same cultural shift towards diversity which has become a priority in the traditional publishing world is also affecting the comics industry. Many “all-age” comics for young readers are featuring more protagonists who are female, POC, and LGBTQ+, which would have been a rarity ten years ago. “Publishers have started to realize that what they’ve thought of as the traditional market of white men between 18 and 34 is such a small piece of the pie, so from a business sense it doesn’t make sense to only cater to that demographic.”
Molly Ostertag credits some of this change to the popularity of webcomics, especially the stories that were self-published by creators who felt marginalized by mainstream publishing. “Once those comics find success online, publishers can look at the grassroots fan bases that emerge around webcomics by and about LGBTQ people and people of color, and see that these stories were proven to be successful and popular. It’s frustrating to have to prove the validity of having inclusive stories, but the industry does feel like it’s at a point where publishers recognize how important they are.” Often it is the young readers themselves who are taking the lead, making choices that push the industry in new directions. Brein Lopez notes that in his store, the readership of graphic novels is split equally between boys and girls. “For some reason, graphic novels don’t have a lot of the same issues you might have with gender, where boys only want to read boy characters and girls want to read girl characters.” While traditional middle grade novels have made strides in this area too, the change has been slower and difficult to predict.
According to Shannon Hale, it is the innate accessibility of graphic novels that make them such a wonderful tool for nudging young readers out of their comfort zone. “The visual hook pulls readers in. I swear to you, put a My Little Pony graphic novel near an 18yo boy who considers himself a non-reader and he will read it. Give a child who thinks they don’t like non-fiction a graphic novel about John Adams and they will read it. It’s absolutely revolutionary. And they aren’t replacing prose novels. Teens who read graphic novels still read more prose novels more than their non-GN-reading peers. This is why we need more of these books by creators of lots of backgrounds and experiences!”
Graphic novels by Raina Telgemeier:
Graphic novels and comics by Molly Knox Ostertag:
Graphic novels by Svetlana Chmakova:
Graphic novels by Shannon Hale:
Real Friends; illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Rapunzel’s Revenge; cowritten with Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale
Comic trades by Grace Ellis:
Lumberjanes vol. 1; cowritten with Noelle Stevenson, illustrated by Brooke Allen
Moonstruck vol. 1: Magic to Brew; illustrated by Shae Beagle and Kate Leth
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative by Will Eisner
Comic Book Script Archive — This free archive collects the scripts of published comic books. Many feature adult content, but they provide a look at the form and structure writers use to communicate with an artist.