Comic Books for Children

Otherwise known as graphic novels or graphic literature. (But those are just fancy ways of saying “comics”.) Comic books are all about using words and pictures together. The sequential artwork and word balloons tell great stories – granted, mostly about superheroes, but there have been some AMAZING comics created for kids over the past few years.

Clone Wars Adventures, Volume 1

The children have to learn about The Clone Wars sometime, right? Right?

Welcome to the third installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, a good-natured peek at the FIVE books my five-year-old daughter checked out during our last trip to our local library. We’re going in order, so let’s talk about the third book my daughter picked out, otherwise known as “the book I have no control over.”

Remember, in my introductory post to this series, when I said that my daughter gets to pick put one book every time that I can’t veto? Well, per usual, for her no-veto pick, she went for a book based on a movie or a TV show. Usually, that means Scooby Doo, but this week it meant… Star Wars.  Specifically, a Star Wars comic book anthology called Clone Wars Adventures, Volume 1.

And, as a big pop culture geek, Star Wars is kind of a hot button issue with me. Like a lot of people, I adore the original trilogy, despise the prequels, and beyond-despise the various unnecessary and artistically-suspect revisions George Lucas has made to the original trilogy. But, after observing my daughter’s first year of kindergarten, I have to say – there is NO other pop culture property that is more prevalent in the minds of young children than Star Wars right now. Maybe it’s the due to the popularity of Star Wars Legos or maybe it’s because the children of the ‘80s grew up, had kids, and decided to share their favorite trilogy with their offspring at a very young age, but, man oh man, in my experience, five- and six-year-old boys and girls will NOT stop talking about Star Wars.

(I said “boys and girls” right there to be inclusive, but I will say, in my limited sphere of experience, boys do seem to be WAY more into Star Wars than girls. And I don’t know why. It might be the guns. It might be that the overwhelming majority of Star Wars characters are male. It might be the big, glowing, phallic swordfights… who knows? But I will say, earlier this year, my daughter was the only girl invited to an all-boys Star Wars birthday party and… yeah, I’m still brimming with pride.)

Darth Vader and Son

Being a parent in the Star Wars era isn’t easy… (Image taken from the very funny “Darth Vader and Son” by Jeffrey Brown.)

However, the Star Wars issue is difficult in our house because, while it is VERY much on my daughter’s radar, I won’t let her watch the movies or the Clone Wars TV series yet. I just think she’s too young and it’s too violent. And that’s hard because almost ALL of her friends watch the movies frequently. So, instead, since she is really, really eager to learn about Star Wars, we talk about the Star Wars universe A LOT. (Fortunately, as a card-carrying geek, I have an almost-photographic memory about Star Wars lore.) I’ll flip through Star Wars books with her and she has some Star Wars toys (including some of mine from my childhood). I also show her a decent amount of YouTube clips – a selection of short glimpses of Star Wars-related material that I deem appropriate.

For example, there are some pretty funny animated Lego Star Wars videos online at the moment. Or there are these crazy “Star Wars Dance-Off” videos from the Disney Studios Star Wars Weekends that have to be seen to be believed. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Chewbacca’s Axl Rose impression.) Or, at times, I will show her small clips from the actual movies. I normally keep these short, but I have given her brief looks at lightsaber fights, space battles, Ewoks, etc. Since it is SUCH a front-of-mind topic with her peers, I have no problem sharing with her knowledge of the Star Wars universe – showing her videos, having discussions, letting her play with the toys – but I’ll be damned if I let peer pressure force me to show her the movies before I feel she’s ready for them.

Clone Wars Adventures, Volume 1

How do I explain Jedi haircuts to my daughter?

That’s a long preamble to say that, when my daughter showed up with a Star Wars book in her hands at the library and asked if she could check it out, I definitely went through some conflicting emotions. (Particularly since it was a Clone Wars book. Why did my child have to be born in the age of the prequels?) I eventually let her check out the book in question – Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures, Volume 1 – and here are the three reasons why:

1. It wasn’t a mindless retelling of the movies. It was a new story. Granted, Clone Wars Adventures is set during the Clone Wars – the dumbest of all wars – but nothing is worse than a corporate-produced kids’ book that just recounts what happened in a movie. At least, the author had to try to create something new and not just say “and then this happened… and then this happened…”

2. It was a graphic novel – a format that I really love and that my daughter is really enjoying. She’s very into comic books right now and Clone Wars Adventures is a neat little Star Wars comics anthology series, published by Dark Horse Comics, with three separate stories per volume. The format is also pretty cool for young readers – big readable text, only 2-3 panels per page, and the library-binding editions are hardcover and super-tough. [read the rest of the post…]


My Very First Mother Goose

This is a great nursery rhyme collection... that I very, very rarely read to my daughter.

If you asked me to look back at my home library experiment so far and identify the one area of children’s literature where I really feel like I dropped the ball, the one area in which I feel that our library has the worst overall coverage, I already know the answer. NURSERY RHYMES. I have completely, completely failed to give my daughter a proper education in nursery rhymes. Why? I’m not totally sure. We have some nice nursery rhyme and Mother Goose collections at home, including a particularly cool one – My Very First Mother Goose – that’s edited by Iona Opie with illustrations by Rosemary Wells (I’d definitely recommend it), but, for whatever reason, we haven’t really read any of them all that much.

I’m not quite sure where my unconscious prejudice against nursery rhymes comes from. Maybe I felt that we had enough sing-songy-type picture books, books that we recited and sang so often that it made up for our lack of reading “Humpty Dumpty” or “Three Blind Mice.” (We used to recite Bill Martin and Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? on our drive to daycare every morning.) Maybe, as guy who used to edit reference books on children’s literature, I’d read way, way too many academic essays on the historical origins of nursery rhymes and I got it into my head that I didn’t want to have to explain to my kid the socio-political subtext of “stuck a feather in his hat and called it Macaroni.” Maybe I was turned off by the sepia-toned, English nursery illustrations in so many of the Mother Goose collections – with the girls in big frilly dresses and the obscenely cute anthropomorphized animals being so freaking precious all the time. I don’t really know.

Kate Greenaway Little Miss Muffet

I know Kate Greenaway is a legend of children's illustration, but these dainty, precious nursery rhyme images always turn me off.

In retrospect, it seems so odd to me. Before she was born, I was obsessed with making sure that my daughter had a strong library of fairy tales and folklore. As I’ve mentioned on the blog previously, I made sure that she had to have a “Dad approved” version of Cinderella, Snow White, The Little Red Hen, and so on, even if only so she’d be able to get all the various references to “classic fairy tales” that populate so many modern picture books. (How could she understand the genius of The Stinky Cheese Man if she’d never read The Gingerbread Man first?) But, for frankly stupid reasons, it apparently never occurred to me to make sure that she had the same education in nursery rhymes. Sure, I did buy a few nursery rhyme collections, but I never really pulled them out all that often. And I have no idea why. (Is “nursery rhyme prejudice” a recognized mental disorder?)

To be honest, my daughter got most of her education in nursery rhymes from a “Songs for Kids” CD that my mother bought to play in the car whenever she picked up my daughter for a play-date or sleep-over. While, at first, I found the CD a little obnoxious, it eventually won me over. I hadn’t really thought about how my daughter would eventually learn about “classic” children’s songs like “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” or “Pop Goes the Weasel,” but the CD in Grandma’s car actually did a fantastic job of making her fall in love with a nice mixture of old songs and nursery rhymes set to music. The first time I heard my daughter singing “Ba Ba Black Sheep” to herself – with full knowledge that neither I nor my wife had taught her the song – was both a weird and really wonderful moment.

Nursery Rhyme Comics

I thought my kid was too old for nursery rhymes. This book proved me wrong.

This long preamble is my way of telling you that I really, really didn’t expect my daughter to like Nursery Rhyme Comics, a 2011 collection of “50 timeless rhymes from 50 celebrated cartoonists”, edited by Chris Duffy. Now that my daughter is five, I thought the window for her enjoying nursery rhymes had passed. I thought that, thanks to my nursery negligence, the rhymes would just be too “baby” and uninteresting for her. And, when we took it out from the library, I was very aware that I was more taking it out for me than for her. I’m a big comics fan and some of my very favorite artists – Scott Campbell, Kate Beaton, Jaime Hernandez, Jules Feiffer, Gene Luen Yang, Tao Nyeu, Tony Millionaire, and more – had contributed to the anthology, so, personally, I just really wanted to read it. I didn’t actually think that my daughter would care that much about it.

Now, long-time readers of my blog can feel me building up to something here. And what I’m building up to is the reveal of the ONE seemingly constant and unchangeable rule of parenting that I never seem to be able to escape. A rule that I’ve referenced over and over again in my book reviews. What’s that rule? The fact that – when I make a parental decision or even when I speak a particularly declarative sentence – I am almost always, always WRONG.

My daughter was intrigued when I checked out Nursery Rhyme Comics from the library and asked me to read her a few of the rhymes at bedtime. I said we’d read five rhymes, expecting that her interest would quickly wane and we’d move onto something else. But we did not read five rhymes that night. We read ALL FIFTY rhymes. TWICE. I was completely unprepared for the sheer, unbridled JOY that Nursery Rhyme Comics brought to my five-year-old. She went NUTS for it. She LOVED it.

Do you want to know how much she loved it? The next day, after I had to read her the whole anthology AGAIN, she asked me, “Do you think Santa will bring me this book for Christmas if I ask him?” For those of you without kids, just FYI, that’s maybe the single greatest endorsement ANY kids’ book can EVER have. That’s like a movie winning 12 Oscars and making a billion dollars at the box office. [read the rest of the post…]


I have a big, big geek-dad crush on Toon Books, a fascinating publishing company that has the ridiculously admirable job of making readable comic books for young readers. And, Little Mouse Gets Ready, their Level One comic for beginning readers by Bone creator Jeff Smith, is quite simply one of my favorite books that I’ve ever bought for my daughter.

Toon Books

Toon Books: Comics 'R Good for Kids

But let me backtrack a little and explain why I’m about to so effusively gush over Toon Books.

I’m a comics fan and have been since I was a kid. My house is filled with comics and graphic novels, so, of course, my daughter started to show interest in these cool, colorful books with lots of pictures that are stacked up in piles all around Daddy’s office. And that made me incredibly excited. I was dying to share my love of comics with her and quickly started taking her with me to our local comics store (Detroit Comics – GREAT store). I let her pick out some kids’ titles she was interested in – Muppets and Fraggle Rock comics, Monsters Inc., Tiny Titans, Scooby-Doo – and it didn’t really bother me that they were mostly commercial property spin-offs.

I knew enough to steer her away from the really heinous stuff, and I knew that even dorky media tie-in comics can act as great gateway drugs into real, honest-to-god comics comics. My own pathway into comics fandom began with Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe, a comic based on a toy property, which drew me in, taught me how to read and appreciate comics, and eventually led me to the X-Men, the Avengers, Captain Britain, Milk & Cheese, Plastic Forks, Sam & Max, Dark Knight Returns, and so on and so forth, onwards and upwards. So, sure, I didn’t want to let my daughter think that Scooby-Doo was the pinnacle of kids comics, but I knew I had to let her get interested in comics on her own terms. Nothing will turn a kid off comics faster than a parent shoving titles at them and complaining, “No, no, you don’t want to read that – that dumb book YOU’RE interested in. THIS is the one…”

So we bought her a stack of her own comics and she loved them. LOVED them. She’d flip through them endlessly and read them at night under her covers with a flashlight. I was in geek-dad heaven. Until…

Until she asked me to sit down and READ the comics with her. And then, very, very quickly, something horrible – something I really, really didn’t want to admit – became readily apparent.

Reading comic books with a kid can be a huge pain in the ass. [read the rest of the post…]


Otis and Rae is a book that I always enjoy recommending to other parents for two reasons – 1). It’s a fun read, and 2). it’s a relatively unknown title. I don’t know anyone else in my immediate circle who has it or has even heard of it, our whole county library system only has 4 copies of it, and even the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” suggestions on its Amazon page only has four other suggestions total (as opposed to the 17 pages of suggestions for other titles). So, yes, it gives me that heady hipster-esque rush that comes with saying “well, you probably haven’t heard of it”, which is a really repugnant, self-satisfied emotion to indulge in. But don’t take my horrific moral failings out on Otis and Rae. It’s a very cool picture book with some really interesting things going for it.

Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk

Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk

Published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin, Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk by Laura and Leo Espinosa is all about two best friends who set out on their “very first camping trip ever”, tramping out into the forest for a fun night of telling ghost stories and eating PB&B sandwiches. (Otis is a big fan of peanut butter and banana sandwiches.) Around the campfire, the ever-cheerful Rae tells stories of the mysterious Grumbling Splunk – a huge creature that grumbles like a freight train – who, apparently, haunts the nearby woods. The tales of the Splunk freak Otis out and, after he accidentally runs into the Splunk at night, Rae happily runs off in pursuit of the creature and Otis, in turn, runs off after Rae. The two friends eventually find the Splunk and realize that his size and tendency to grumble might have given them the wrong impression.

I discovered Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk at a new and used book sale at my office, and I immediately dug its design and format. The world of Otis and Rae evokes a design aesthetic that fans of Sanrio (i.e. Hello Kitty) or the cuter creatures of Hayao Miyazaki (think My Neighbor Totoro) should really enjoy, but the characters aren’t totally Japanese inspired. They just tap into that ultra-cute, big-head design school that Japanese pop culture does so well. Illustrator Leo Espinosa has found a way to really evoke that “cute balanced with hand-drawn personality” style that you can really see on display in Sanrio, Uglydolls, Nick Jr’s Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, or the stuffed animals at your local IKEA. If that aesthetic appeals to your child, they will really respond to this book.

Otis and Rae and The Grumbling Splunk

Onwards towards the Splunk....

The other thing that I really like about Otis and Rae is that it is a terrific hybrid of a picture book and a comic book. About 60% of the book is structured like a traditional picture book – illustrations with text above or underneath – and the rest uses the panel design, sound effects, and word balloon structure of a comic book. The format is really dynamic and engaging, and the simple, easy-to-read text makes this an excellent transitional title to help young readers get used to the comic format.

My daughter is getting more and more interested in comic books and, to be honest, with many comics, the format is too cluttered and the word balloon text is just too small for a learning reader to follow without getting easily confused. (As a parent, even though I LOVE comics, I’ll admit that trying to read those kinds of comics to your kid can be a real pain in the butt.) However, I think Otis and Rae introduces kids to the rules and structure of a comic book in a very gradual, clever way, showing off a design style that elegantly bridges the gap between picture books and comic books. [read the rest of the post…]