Graphic Novels

I have noticed that a lot of readers seem almost afraid of graphic novels—and I was too when I first started reading them! But reading graphic novels is actually a skill—the more you read, the better you get at reading and enjoying them! Here, I'd like to outline things to keep an eye out for if you're looking to get started with graphic novels—and I'd also like to recommend a few graphic novels that are great for beginners! Then I'll walk you through my special graphic novel rating system, Ratings for the Graphic Novel-Averse.

And here's a pro tip—if there's a graphic novel you're anxious to read, ignore all of my advice below and go read it! I'm not trying to keep you from reading what you'll enjoy with some kind of reading-level-esque nonsense—rather, I'm trying to help those more reluctant to try graphic novels get acquainted with the format in the way that may work best for them. And also, the list below isn't necessarily a list of graphic novels for young readers (in fact, young readers may instinctively have a better sense of graphic novels than other readers)—rather, the list is aimed at readers who are hesitant about starting with graphic novels in the first place.

First, here's a quick link to view all my graphic novel reviews! >>

Now, here's what to keep an eye out for

  1. The composition of panels. Different illustrators have different styles, and some illustrators cram their panels with all kinds of objects and characters and effects. This kind of illustration can be hard to make sense of. Generally, the simpler the panel composition, the easier the panel is to make sense of.
  2. The color scheme. Somewhat related to the clarity of illustrations is the graphic novel's color scheme. Graphic novels illustrated in full color tend to be easier to make sense of, because the different people and objects in a panel contrast with each other quite nicely. Some graphic novelists can use so much color that the panels become overstimulating (see point 6), but there are quite a few graphic novels with just enough color to make panels easy to parse. Graphic novels with monochrome color schemes can be slightly tougher to parse at a glance, although it depends on the art style and the use of color.
  3. The amount of words. Graphic novels vary widely in how many words they use to tell their story. Some graphic novels are so wordy that you can practically read them like a prose book and ignore the illustrations, and some have so few words that the illustrations are what really convey emotions and plot events—others find a happy medium between these two extremes. Graphic novels with a reasonable amount of words are generally best for beginners, especially if those words are slightly redundant and have corresponding cues in the illustrations that readers can learn to recognize as well. But you probably don't want a graphic novel that drenches you in too many words—those can get to be a little bit overstimulating.
  4. The presence of narration. Some graphic novels have narration, but some choose to get by with just dialogue and illustrations. Narration can help clear up the character's inner thoughts and feelings, but graphic novelists can convey that stuff surprisingly well with just dialogue and illustrations. I honestly don't think narration is that necessary even if you are just starting out with graphic novels—but if it's absent, the graphic novel needs to convey the characters' inner worlds clearly through other methods.
  5. The panel layout. This issue is rare, but some graphic novelists arrange their panels in positively byzantine ways—panels are crammed into weird crevices, strangely shaped, or even arranged to where you read each row across the spine of the book over to the right-hand page before moving to the next row on the left-hand page. Generally, panels that are rectangular and arranged from page to page are clearest, although a few full-page spreads don't hurt either.
  6. The energy. If you have a child (or are a child), you might know that there are some kids' TV shows that are nice and soothing, and there are others that bombard you with lights and colors and sounds and shrill voices. The same factor applies to graphic novels. Some graphic novels have bombastic color schemes, panel layouts, and effects that can start to feel overstimulating, especially for readers who are used to reading books in prose that tend to feel calmer. I much prefer graphic novels that, while sometimes adrenaline-filled, are closer in energy to prose and verse novels.

Great graphic novels for those new to the format

Please note: I recommend starting at the top of the list and moving down, although feel free to exclude any books you're simply not interested in reading!

Click on a book cover to head over to the review!

Smile
This book pretty much started
the MG graphic novel craze,
and besides its unique skill
at depicting the middle school
experience, it also has Raina
Telgemeier's crystal-clear art
style, full-color illustrations, and
a nice amount of narration. If
you're not concerned about
narration, you could substitute
this with pretty much any of
Telgemeier's books!

When Stars Are Scattered
This impactful true story of two
brothers' experiences in a refugee
camp features clear if dense
compositions and plenty of narration
to anchor the story. And it's in full
color too!

This fun mix of music, history, and
time travel has fabulously clear full-
color art! And although there's no
narration, Shaheen and Tannaz's
dialogue pretty clearly states
whatever they're feeling.

Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Journey to Justice
This fascinating MG graphic biography
of Ruth Bader Ginsburg features a
crisp, clean art style with lots of white
space and red-and-blue outlines,
making it a great pick if you want to
start trying some monochrome color
schemes. And it's quite wordy too,
as you might expect for a biography!

The Prince and the Dressmaker
There's no narration in this delightful
story of royalty, Paris, and destroying
gender norms, but Jen Wang's full-color
art is crystal-clear, and her facial
expressions are pitch-perfect, making
this book a great way to start interpreting
characters' feelings from the art itself.

Go with the Flow
In a similar vein to the book above,
this graphic novel has crystal-clear art
(albeit monochrome rather than full-
color) and no narration, which makes it
another wonderful starting place for
readers not as used to interpreting
plot lines from illustrations alone. And
it helps that this story about period stigma
and activism is not just informative,
but also delightful, with a phenomenal
main cast and so many real-life high
school issues that get explored!

Just Roll With It
This delightful story of a girl starting
middle school who is defined by her
kindness, interests, and relationships
rather than her obsessive-compulsive
symptoms features easy-to-interpret,
clear art arranged into easy-to-follow
panels! There's no narration, but there's
enough text that it's not a major issue.
This is a good one if you want to try
something higher-energy that is
still easy to understand!

The Legend of Auntie Po
The easy-to-interpret, full-color, and
gorgeous watercolor artwork in this
story combine with precise facial
expressions and a good amount of
dialogue and narration to tell an
impactful story of life on an 1800s
logging camp, complete with
explorations of racism, LGBTQ+
identity, and the exchange of myths
and traditions between cultures!
Panel layouts are a bit unconventional,
but it shouldn't be a big issue.

Marshmallow & Jordan
Although this book isn't a perfect read,
the fun blend of middle-school drama,
sports, elephants, and diversity should
make it appeal to young and old readers
alike! And Alina Chau's beautiful
watercolor illustrations are easy to interpret
(thanks to their full-color style and
shading). The panel layouts are also
simple and easy to parse, although
there is no narration and less dialogue
than in some of the books above.

Measuring Up
This book explores culture and the
immigrant experience in a surprisingly
nuanced way (and did I mention there's
food?), but just as Cici's story is
accessible to younger readers, the
full-color, clear art and concise yet
reasonable writing style makes this
story accessible to relatively new
graphic novel readers too.

Allergic
This delightful graphic novel, with
its rare and valuable exploration of
allergies and its meaningful ideas
about sibling and parent relationships,
benefits from clear art in full color,
easy-to-interpret facial expressions
and panels, and enough words and
narration to keep things clear! Font
size is a little small, but for young
readers, that shouldn't be a problem. 

This wonderful blend of realistic fiction,
fantasy, and romance doesn't just have
a delightful plot, meaningful messages,
and LGBTQ+ representation. It also has
Molly Knox Ostertag's expressive, clear
art style, with no facial expressions out
of place, and no panels where you can't
quite
 see what's going on. And unlike
Ostertag's books at the end of this list,
the slightly lower amount of action and
the small-but-helpful amount of
first-person narration ensures that this
book is a great graphic novel for those
relatively new to the format.

Almost American Girl
This memoir of Ha's experience
immigrating from South Korea
to Alabama here in the U.S. is
both quite compelling and
surprisingly wordy—you could
practically read it without the
illustrations! I found the style a bit
overstimulating at first, but I got
used to it quickly—and readers
who just can't get the hang of
graphic novels will appreciate
that this one is just shy of a regular
novel with frequent illustrations!

Operatic
This gorgeous, artistic exploration
of the middle-school experience and
of opera singer Maria Callas's life
and music has a monochrome color
scheme that isn't the easiest to interpret
at a glance—but that's the point,
because this book begs to be read
slowly and savored, and each illustration
is a world of its own to be explored.
This book is a lot like reading a picture
book—which is no surprise, considering
that Maclear has published 17 picture
books, last time I checked.

The Magic Fish
Again, the monochrome color scheme
here is slightly tricky (though the flat
illustration style is both spectacularly
gorgeous and easier to interpret at a
glance than Operatic's style). But
besides the interwoven exploration of
fairy tales, family, and the immigrant
and LGBTQ+ experiences that has made
this book my favorite graphic novel
ever, this book has clear compositions
and layouts that help readers stay in
touch with the characters and plot
despite the relatively low amount of
words and lack of narration.

Displacement
This exploration of the
incarceration of Japanese Americans
during WWII—which starts off with
a bit of time travel—is relatively
complex when compared to the above
books, but it's still a breeze compared
to some other graphic novels I've
seen (in terms of difficulty if not
subject matter). The limited color scheme
strikes the perfect balance between
adding contrast (so panels are easy
to interpret) and keeping the book
from feeling too energetic/frantic.
And Kiku Hughes's illustrations are
Raina Telgemeier-esque in their style
and immense clarity.

The Witch Boy
I've found that fantasy graphic
novels tend to be hardest of all to
interpret, but The Witch Boy and
its sequels avoid the chaotic
layouts and unintelligible panels
during action scenes. Instead, Molly
Knox Ostertag imbues this series
(which is unique and extremely
impactful in its exploration of how
gender norms harm boys too) with
a crisp, full-color art style that is
so easy to interpret you'll hardly
notice it's there, leaving the magic
and powerful themes to take
center stage.


Or browse by Rating for the Graphic Novel-Averse

Browse the ratings by clicking on a rating label! Note that these ratings have NOTHING to do with the book's quality—that's what my regular rating scale is for. I love some books that garnered a 1 on this scale!

Note that I am updating older ratings, so you may see books listed when you click on a rating label that have a different rating listed within the post itself. In those cases, the rating label you clicked on below is the correct one, not the one listed within the post. Sorry for the confusion while this feature is under construction!

Rating for the graphic novel-averse: 4!
Graphic novels with this rating are great for
beginners. They usually have clear compositions
and panel layouts, color schemes that allow for
nice contrast, and a reasonably high amount
of words that often includes narration. Energy
is pretty low at this level.

Rating for the graphic novel-averse: 3!
Graphic novels with this rating may have
monochrome color schemes that have a bit less
contrast, but they tend to still be good about
composition and panel layouts. The number of
words typically starts to drop here, often due to
a lack of narration. Energy is still relatively low.

Rating for the graphic novel-averse: 2!
Graphic novels with this rating may be more
energetic, with busier panel layouts and composition,
as well as more intense color schemes. The number
of words and presence of narration varies, as it also
does with a rating of 3. Here, you may start to
encounter the occasional facial expression or panel
composition that is just plain unintelligible—
readers shouldn't have to get used to those (they are
a flaw, not a stylistic choice), but they do still
show up from time to time.

Rating for the graphic novel-averse: 1!
Graphic novels with this rating have energy levels
that vary, but panel layouts and composition may
be a little unintuitive, and the number of words and
presence of narration tends to be pretty low here—
illustrations are used to convey a lot of meaning
in these books. There also might be unintelligible
details as there are with a rating of 2, or you might
encounter varied casts of characters that are hard
to keep track of due to the art style.


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