Thank you to local independent bookseller Books with Pictures for sharing kids’ graphic novel recommendations for these interesting times. Books with Pictures is open for limited browsing in their Southeast shop, free in-store pickup and free local delivery for all Portland metro locations.
By Katie Pryde
This is a weird time to parent, and if your kids are anything like mine, they are spending more time on screens for learning, socializing, and play. A paper book can help break the screen cycle, and finding books that captivate, engage, and educate our kids is a critical parenting task right now. As a parent of two grade schoolers, and the owner of Books with Pictures, a comic book store in SE Portland, I’m here to help. Here are some graphic novels — about racism, disease and civics — relevant to the current moment.
With marches, protests, and sometimes scary-looking demonstrations every day in Portland since late May, kids can contextualize what they’re seeing by reading up on the history of the American Civil Rights movement. Congressman John Lewis, who passed away in July, wrote a graphic novel trilogy about his time as a leader in that movement in collaboration with comics writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell. The three volumes of March are targeted at middle-schoolers and above, and are compelling and unflinching about the racism and violence that the protestors faced in their fight.
For a more contemporary look at racial injustice in America, the short 2018 graphic novel Something Happened In Our Town gives a fictionalized account of a police killing of a Black child, and the responses of Black and white communities in its aftermath. Its authors, Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, are all Atlanta-based child psychologists who focus on storytelling in their therapy work. With illustrator Jennifer Zivoin, they create a powerful tool for talking frankly with kids about racism and anti-Black violence in our present moment. Recommended for ages 5 and up.
Reading memoirs by Black creators can help kids and teens, especially non-Black kids and teens, to think more critically about their race and their relationships with kids of other races. Ben Passmore’s short pamphlet Your Black Friend is a frank chat about all of the things that he would like to say to his white friends about microaggressions, everyday racism, and his experiences as a Black man in New Orleans. Ebony Flowers’s short story collection Hot Comb examines her experiences of Black girlhood and coming-of-age through the lens of her complicated relationship with her hair.
Recent fantasy adventure takes on Black life and racism in America include Black Mage, from Daniel Barnes and DJ Kirkland, in which Tom Token, the only Black student at historically White wizarding school Ivory Academy, joins with the ghosts of Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass to fight video game inspired battles against the Klansman head-of-school and save the day. (It’s charming, but not subtle.) For kids 10 and up. In David Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene’s Bitter Root, a family of Black monster-hunters battle literal racism demons in the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Pulp-style violence makes this great for teens. The protagonist of Kat Leyh’s gentle magical adventure Snapdragon connects with her town’s “witch” while exploring themes of race, gender, socioeconomic hardship, and the compassionate treatment of roadkill. For kids 8 and up.
There are also a number of illustrated books in the category of inspirational nonfiction that feature Black protagonists and are absolutely worthy of your child’s bookshelf. Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos’ Ordinary People Change the World series for very young readers includes volumes on Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, and Harriet Tubman. Fast Enough: Bessie Springfield’s First Ride is about being brave enough to follow your dream– its protagonist went on to be the first African-American woman to travel solo across the United States on a motorcycle. Young, Gifted and Black, Black History: In their Own Words, and A Black Woman Did That all combine biographical storytelling with compelling illustrations to survey lesser-known achievements in Black excellence.
As far as other current events go, there are some good nonfiction books about disease that your kid can gross you out with. Publisher First Second’s Science Comics line includes a volume on Plagues, in which creator Falynn Koch examines the history, biology, epidemiology, and medicine behind history’s most destructive disease outbreaks. And Don Brown’s The Fever Year examines the influenza pandemic of 1918, specifically as it occurred in the United States and Europe.
Finally, civics. With the election approaching, this is an essential time for kids to learn about the mechanisms of American democracy– and maybe you could use a refresher, too? First, queue up a YouTube playlist of Schoolhouse Rock videos, so that they can learn about how a bill becomes a law the old-fashioned way. Then, give them Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy, Daniel G. Newman and George O’Connor’s account of how wealth and power have unbalanced America’s political systems, and what everyday activists can do to start setting it right. Age 10 and up.
Books with Pictures has limited browsing space for you to stock up on summer reading. Open from 12 pm to 6 pm daily with helpful staff. They are still offering online purchasing, including personal shopping, with free in-store pickup and free local delivery for all Portland metro locations.