Comic Book Curious

YA Comics Aren’t Just For Kids

July 5, 2021

by Markie Rustad |

When you hear someone talking about graphic novels, what are the first ones that come to mind? I posed this question to a large group of friends and got responses like Watchmen, Sandman, and Locke & Key. As you can see, most of these are adult novels. What I think of though, is a list the length of my arm that is full of various choices from all age ranges, styles, and content. While most people focus on adult graphic novels as being the end-all, be-all of the genre, there is some amazing and groundbreaking work being done in young adult and middle-grade graphic novels as well.

A purple background with a smiley sticking its tongue out in exhaustion.

Credit: Scholastic

One such graphic novel is Guts by Raina Telgemeier, a graphic memoir on her middle school years of learning to deal with anxiety, and how it physically caused her to have issues with going to the bathroom and throwing up. It also goes over starting to deal with puberty, losing and making friends, and learning healthy coping mechanisms. At one point Raina mentions going to therapy as her “big secret” at a slumber party and finds out a few of her friends go as well. I love this novel because it talks about mental health in a casual but appropriate way for all ages. It also highlights how her parents continue to try to be supportive of her as she goes through this stage, and try to help in whatever way they can. It’s a fantastic novel for kids and teens to see that they are not alone or for adults to see a perspective on how their kid/teen may feel going through something similar to this.

A cartoon image of girls peeking out of the bathroom door

Credit: First Second

Another fabulous graphic novel that I know helped me this past year was Go with the Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann which follows four sophomore students who are fed up with their high school never having enough tampons or pads available but manage to sink loads of money into the football team. The girls band together to help raise each other up, support one another and raise awareness of the “bloody” problem their school has. This graphic novel has LGBTQ+ representation, diverse characters, and a character who is struggling with endometriosis. It tackles the idea of what is the right way to protest/demand change from an institution, and what is the wrong way to do so as well. It is beautifully illustrated, unique, and tackles a commonly taboo subject that shouldn’t be taboo at this point. Even as an adult, reading about a character that was struggling with endometriosis as I was doing the same thing and trying to fight for surgery made me feel less alone. This novel really does a great job at showing a modern-day issue, what we commonly refer to at “the pink tax,” and how it affects everyone at every stage of life.

A woman measures a prince’s outfit inside the silhouette of a woman in a dress

Credit: First Second

This next one has been a favorite of mine since it came out in 2018, and I think is often overlooked because it looks too much like a teen graphic novel. The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang is a story of a Prince whose parents are in search of a bride for him, all while the Prince is trying to maintain his secret life as Lady Crystallia, Paris’ hottest fashion icon. He manages this because of the dressmaker he has under contract, who has become his best friend, and who makes the daring and widely beloved dresses that Crystallia wears during her night-time escapades. It's a tale of identity, art, family, love, and most importantly, embracing who you are. I loved the fairy tale-esque aspect of this story, and the storyline of finding someone that loves you both as the Prince, and the Lady is lovely. Any age group could enjoy this story, there is no harsh language or nudity, etc., and who doesn’t love a story that ends with an absolutely epic Drag Show?

A kid stands holding up three fingers as he is engulfed by flames

Credit: Henry Holt and Company

Finally, there is Flamer by Mike Curato that follows a young teen boy on a boy scouts trip who is discovering himself and struggling with what he is finding. Having been raised in the Catholic church, he believes his gay thoughts are sinful, but he can’t be gay because he is a good person. All the while he struggles with being bullied at school, at camp, and even at home by an angry father. The only friends that he claims to have are his pen-pal Violet, and Elias, a boy at camp he is suddenly having strange feelings for. The book covers the harmful impact of gendered toys/clothes/books, the struggle of coming to terms with your religion and your sexuality, and accepting who you are. These are all things that I know many people go through at various points in their lives. On top of this, it even goes as far as referencing suicide, and an attempt that is stopped by the main character’s mind rationalizing with him. Curato does a fabulous job at handling these topics carefully but honestly, as well as making sure to provide resources in the back of the book for those that may need help for the various situations mentioned in the book itself. This is a great novel for anyone struggling with their identity, or understanding their child’s struggle with their identity.

We overlook a lot of books, comics, and graphic novels because they “just aren’t my thing.” On the other side of that coin though, we miss so much by not exploring some of them. When I chose to open up my bookshelf and mind to graphic novels intended for younger audiences a few years ago, I found myself reading about a shocking amount of current struggles in our society. Outside of these that I have mentioned, I have read graphic novels on undocumented citizens, internment camps, split families, gender identities, and teen pregnancy that are all intended for teens or younger. All of them I took some type of lesson from and found myself looking for more information on that subject. While I still love and appreciate graphic novels for adults like Maus, Persepolis, and Saga, I love learning things from a younger perspective because it reminds me that our younger generations are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.

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