Need some comics for your kids (or you) to read? Today’s stack is all about comics for kids—fun stories about drawing, exploring, and solving mysteries … all things that are a bit harder to do ourselves during lockdown, but reading these stories might give kids at least a little bit of normalcy in the midst of all this weirdness. If your kids (like mine) are stuck at home this summer, these comics can take them on some adventures. Solve mysteries, bring drawings to life, and make something awesome!
Chad Sell is the creator of The Cardboard Kingdom (mentioned in this Stack Overflow column), about a bunch of kids in a neighborhood who create a world out of cardboard costumes. That book was a collaboration with several other writers; Doodleville is Sell’s first solo book. While it does feature several kids, it’s less of an ensemble piece like The Cardboard Kingdom and is more focused on Drew, a girl whose doodles come to life and can leave the page. Unfortunately, Drew’s not always able to keep her drawings under control, which can cause some problems.
Drew’s friends in art class are all creating their own characters and building out their worlds, but Drew’s doodles get out of hand. In particular, one of Drew’s drawings turns into a monster, which begins to terrorize the other worlds. I like the way that the doodles are extensions of Drew’s own personality traits, and that understanding the monster and how to deal with it runs parallel to Drew learning about herself and her feelings. I also like the way that each of the kids’ is reflected in their own character drawings. I liked the way that The Cardboard Kingdom shifted its spotlight onto each of the various kids throughout the book and I missed that a little in Doodleville, but this also tells a longer story instead of a series of vignettes.
Here’s another story about drawings coming to life, but with a different spin. Andrew and Foz are new best friends, and they’ve decided to draw a comic book crossover between Andrew’s superhero Drew and Foz’s villain Doctor Danger. The book switches between the story of Andrew and Foz, and the story in their sketchbooks, which look like they’re colored with crayons on various recycled papers.
As Drew (with his dog Jot) and Doctor Danger battle it out, though, some strange things happen: first, Drew’s little sister Patsy decides to take a crack at introducing her own character to the mix. And Doctor Danger even tears himself out of the notebook entirely and escapes! The story is pretty goofy—there are poo monsters, crowds of sasquatches, and a floating cow, and lots of other silliness you might expect from three kids making a comic book. There aren’t necessarily tough lessons about friendship or anything—the three kids seem to get along (and get over conflicts) pretty easily without a lot of tension. Most of the tension is within the superhero story itself.
Chasma Knights takes place in a world where everyone has a different elemental core, which can catalyze with the cores in toys to activate and transform them. But Beryl is a Neon Knight—the only element that can’t catalyze with anything. But she’s got ideas and invents her own toys. Coro, meanwhile, is an Oxygen Knight, one of the most powerful types, and while she’s great at catalyzing with toys, she’s also a bit of a show-off and doesn’t always know her limits. The story shows how these two very different knights wind up becoming friends, though not without some difficulty.
It can be a little confusing at first, because it just drops you into the middle of the world, and you have to pick up on what’s going on, and the book is short enough that there’s not a lot of exposition or world-building. But the drawings are a lot of fun, especially the way that the various toys transform when they’re activated, and overall it’s a good story about being yourself and figuring out your strengths.
This is the second book in the Mr. Wolf’s Class series, which features an elementary school class of animals and the various antics the kids get up to. In this book, a couple of the kids start a mystery club to investigate a few things, like what happened to Mr. Greens (a former teacher) and whether the girls’ bathroom is haunted.
There’s an overarching storyline, but it does feel at times a bit like a series of little vignettes—Abdi won’t put his soccer ball away and eventually causes some chaos in the classroom; Randy is having a birthday party soon and is handing out invitations and also asking everyone she sees whether they take showers or baths; rats (who are much smaller than the other anthropomorphized animals, but are still wearing clothes) keep popping up all over the place and running off.
I have to admit that it feels a little odd to be reading about a bunch of kids in school (and going to a birthday party) at the moment. But Mr. Wolf’s class seems to just have the run of the school: several kids go out in the hall with the pretext of having a book club, and then just wander around the school freely to interview teachers about Mr. Greens. It’s a cute book targeted at middle grade readers (I believe Mr. Wolf’s class is in fourth grade), and there are three books in the series currently, with a fourth expected this fall.
Sky Island is the second book about Trot and Cap’n Bill (see here for the first book, Sea Sirens), a young surfer girl and her one-eyed cat. In the first book, Trot (and her grandfather) befriended the Sea Sirens and stopped an underwater war. Now, the Sea Sirens have sent a message because they need her help: Merla, one of the Sea Sirens, has been kidnapped! The boat that captured her was from Sky Island, an old theme park that was supposedly abandoned years ago. Trot and Cap’n Bill set out to rescue Merla along with a team of friends old and new, and discover some surprises about Sky Island once they get there.
As I said before, the artwork stands out because it’s unlike what I typically see in comic books, especially for kids. The underwater scenes and sea creatures are beautifully rendered, though sometimes I feel like the people look a little caricatured in comparison. The story this time is a little more focused than I felt the first book was, with some adventure, mystery, and even a villain in the mix.
Shirley and Jamila don’t really have much in common. Shirley can be pretty intense and is great at figuring things out, but doesn’t make friends easily. Jamila is new to town and just wants to play basketball, but her mom is very protective and doesn’t want her walking to the park on her own. The two end up together out of convenience: a buddy to walk to the park with Jamila, and a space outside of the house for Shirley to do … whatever it is she’s doing? As it turns out, Shirley’s the local Sherlock Holmes, and kids come to her for help. Eventually, Jamila gets pulled into the mystery-solving as well.
I really enjoyed this one for a variety of reasons. Jamila’s family are Pakistani-Canadians, and I like the way that we get glimpses of what their family life is like without exoticizing them. It’s a realistic portrayal of an immigrant family: there’s a mix of cultural traditions, and the kids can struggle sometimes to fit in, but it’s also not Jamila’s defining characteristic. Shirley is portrayed a bit like the BBC version of Sherlock: a keen mind for observation, but not so great at interpersonal relationships. That can feel a little bit of a caricature of kids on the spectrum, even though she’s never explicitly described as such. But the story itself is about the friction between two different personalities, and how they learn to make compromises to get along and become better friends. Plus, there’s the mystery itself—about a missing gecko—but I won’t spoil that part.
Aside from Shirley and Jamila, there’s a host of other colorful (both figuratively and literally) characters, like the day care informant, the grumpy high schooler, and the siblings who’ve lost the gecko. Unfortunately my kids are sequestered right now and can’t go hang out with a bunch of kids this summer, but at least they can read about these kids having an adventure in their neighborhood.
Gabby loves mystery novels, and would rather be reading than doing almost anything else, even when the family’s on vacation at the lake house. This year, there’s a new family that moved in next door, and Gabby’s parents encourage the kids to be friends—but it’s not easy. Paige seems like a bit of a trouble-maker, and her younger brother Bryan is unpredictable. Still, they’re all intrigued by the local mystery: the fancy lake house that’s been sitting empty ever since the couple vanished suddenly. Paige convinces everyone to break into the house to look for clues, and Gabby begins to write a mystery novel about what took place.
The primary mystery is what happened to the couple: Gabby’s mom remembers the house from when she was a kid, and their old neighbor seems like he might be involved somehow, too. But Gabby is also trying to figure Paige out: why did her family move out to this lake from Chicago? Are they hiding something, too? And, finally: why is Gabby’s dad acting so strange?
While there are some curious mysteries to clear up, the book is primarily focused on Gabby: her relationship with her family, the way that she handles conflicts, and her new friendship with Paige. Working on her mystery novel—and getting unwanted input from Paige—helps her learn some lessons about herself.
Time for some more Maker Comics! This series from First Second covers a variety of topics (like fixing cars and baking) with lots of tips on how to get started. Each one has its own framing story for the topic, too. Grow a Garden! is about the Garden Gnome Academy, where several young gnomes arrive for their first day of school, ready to learn about gardening. Our protagonists get stuck with Mr. Butternut, the least popular teacher who gets excited about dirt and trash, and gets looked down upon by Mr. Thorn, who loves working with exotic plants in the greenhouse.
But what the kids find out is that Mr. Butternut really knows his stuff: how to make compost, the best ways and times to plant seeds, and lots of other tips like making pots or planters or grow shelves. This book also has an adventure plotline, as the kids discover a mysterious amulet that unlocks some secret rooms—it seems that the Green Hat Gnomes that they’ve seen in comic books and movies are real! Meanwhile, Mr. Thorn (with his pointy mustache and beard) is up to something in the greenhouse…
Grow a Garden! is a good mix of story and how-to, with plenty of action and humor interspersed with detailed instructions on all the things you’ll need to know to start a garden. There’s a good bit of plant science as well, explaining why you don’t want to overwater seedlings or the way that you have to acclimatize plants to the outdoors if they’ve been started indoors.
This entry in the Maker Comics line is all about making costumes. Bea and Parker, comic book fans, see an ad for an upcoming comic convention, and decide they’d like to try their hand at cosplay. The book walks through ways to create a variety of non-branded costumes, from “Magical Girl and Boy” (kind of a Sailor Moon look) to superheroes to animals to astronauts. The framing story here is less prominent, mostly just the kids talking about what other characters they’d like to dress up as, but the instructions themselves are provided by the “Costume Critter,” Bea’s pet hamster who can talk to us (but, apparently, not to the kids).
It’s a good introduction to costume-making, often focusing on lower-cost options using thrift store finds and old clothing and materials. One thing I particularly appreciated was at the end, when Bea and Parker finally go to the convention: there are some tips about what to know before you attend a convention and important dos and don’ts, including an explanation of “cosplay is not consent.” There’s encouragement to enjoy your cosplay and others, and not to worry if your attempts at a costume don’t look as professional as somebody else’s, and instructions on staying safe (and keeping your costume together!) while you’re at a convention. Okay, it might be some time before we head back to conventions, but that gives your kids some extra time to work on those great costumes!
Fault Lines in the Constitution written by Cynthia Levinson and Sanford Levinson, illustrated by Ally Shwed
I’m only partway through this one so far, but it’s definitely one that I recommend for both older kids and adults. This is the second title in First Second’s “World Citizen Comics” series, a line that encourages civic engagement and responsibility. This is a comic book adaptation of a 2017 book by the Levinsons, and will be published in September.
Here in the US, the Constitution determines how the country is run, from how laws are made to how government officials are elected: the last word in a disagreement is whether something is constitutional, though of course there are conflicting ways to interpret the Constitution.
This book takes a somewhat different approach: rather than just explaining the Constitution and how it came to be (which it does, in humorous reenactments of various debates about States’ rights and the makeup of Congress and so forth), it suggests that perhaps the framers of the Constitution weren’t perfect, and that our country’s founding document includes features that worked well enough for a small startup nation but haven’t scaled well to our current population. So far, I’ve read a lot about how laws are passed (or, more likely, aren’t passed) and why so many people feel like our government doesn’t really represent their interests.
The book often compares our government to other democracies around the world, as well as to the various ways that State governments are run, to show the pros and cons of other alternatives. I think it’s easy to just feel like the US government just runs a certain way and we have to learn how to work the machine—but this book asks the question: why don’t we change the way the machine runs, if it’s not working as well as it used to? And I think it’s pretty clear, regardless of your political stance, that our government is plagued with inefficiencies and a lot of frustrating bureaucracy.
The authors use a lot of actual cases as illustrations of certain policies or procedures, showing the ways that various rules in the Constitution play out in the real world, making it feel relevant and more immediate, rather than some old document that is best left to lawyers and judges to pore over. I think it’s a useful civics lesson for both kids and adults—the more people are engaged in the democratic process, the more we can ensure that our government works for all the people it’s supposed to represent.
Disclosure: I received review copies or proofs of these books.
My Current Stack
My reading these days bounces between attempted growth or education and escapism; I’m still reading Weapons of Math Destruction but then took a break with these kids’ comics as well. I didn’t quite get to the two sci-fi sequels that I’ve got on my to-read list, but maybe will be getting to those soon. I’ve been weeding out my shelves a bit and I’ll need to pare down our picture book collection soon but there are so many I don’t even know where to start! Hopefully I can narrow down enough that I can share some of my top picks in the coming weeks.