Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

February 28, 2012

On Comics for Pre-Schoolers

I never really enjoyed reading comic books to my 3-year-old. I am a comic geek, so I thought I’d love it, but I hadn’t realized the particular challenges of reading word bubbles to the illiterate.

It began the first time I read one of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books: there’s a lot of dialogue, but without the “…elephant said” and “…piggie said” cues of a picture book (or even a novel), Maggie couldn’t tell who was saying what. So we resort to pointing to the characters as we go through the panels. This is an acceptable beginner tactic, but as comics get more complex, it stops working. Characters sometimes speak from “off panel”. Sound effects come from – where? We muddle through with the aid of funny stage voices and elaborate sound effects, but the activity is exhausting. I didn’t like reading comics.

That didn’t deter my child. Though it was exhausting for me, graphic novels are almost an ideal middle-point for a kid who is interested in the more sophisticated content of a novel, but still wants the visual cues of a picture book. There’s just so much going on within a panel, let alone a page. She has discovered she can “read” the narrative through the progression of panels in a way that picture books don’t especially allow. Kids memorize picture books, but can invent a complex and involved story the very first time they encounter a comic.

We’re deep down the graphic novel rabbit hole now, let me tell you. Thankfully graphic novels for kids are a ballooning media, and Toronto has an exceptionally reliable source in the newly-established Little Island Comics at Bathurst & Bloor. Little Island is an extension of the (best comic book store ever) Beguiling, who have become a world leader in promoting both graphic novels as a literary form and graphic novels for kids.  Supplying collections to school libraries is only one of their many above-and-beyond services. They know their stuff.

Maggie has a (probably genetic) fascination with dragons, and so most of her favourite comics feature them.  Last TCAF we picked up a copy of Dragons! Comics and Activities for Kids and she was absolutely smitten with Nogard the Dragon. Not long after we learned that Nogard and his buddies were products of Alec Longstreth’s Isle of Elsi comics, published predominantly in zine format! For those of you who were born on the internet, that’s code for “not available anywhere”. After reading Nogard for the nth time, my husband threw up his arms and flatly refused to read it again, leading to a week-long sulk in which Maggie insisted she didn’t have enough books with “monsters and other beasties” in them. So we thought we’d give Bone a go.

Bone, for those of you familiar with it, might seem wildly inappropriate for a 3-year-old, but our findings were surprising. Jeff Smith’s story of a trio of marshmallow-fluff little dudes caught in the middle an epic fantasy show-down between dragons, rat men, elder gods and ordinary folk is, until the 6th or 7th book anyway, funny, exciting, and easy to understand. Okay, so Maggie didn’t grasp at all the ins and outs of rigging a cow race, or the tactics of divide and conquer battles, but she knew who was nice, who was mean, and who was funny. We’d read approximately half a trade per night with an increasingly long series recap at the beginning of each session. She’d make us re-read EVERY stupid rat creature scene. There’s a slap-stick element to Bone which is so kid friendly, and the narrow escapes of those early books are exciting without being traumatizing. Add to that a story in which the women are the heroes, the bad guys are kinda cuddly, and the smaller you are, the safer you are, we have the perfect storm of things my kid loves. We re-read the first 6 books of the series four or five times over two months almost to the exclusion of anything else.

But even a good book gets old when you’ve read it five times in a row, so we had to move on. We engaged Kean Soo’s Jellaby. In a way this is more appropriate for a little kid, but it really depends on what freaks your kid out. There are fewer monsters and less blood and violence than in Bone, but the underlying themes of bullying, lonely kids and, my daughter’s biggest bugaboo, parental separation are pretty intense for a little kid. Maggie just ADORES the first trade. I can’t emphasize this enough. Jellaby is funny, cute, and reassuring to even a tiny child. Who doesn’t want a giant purple secret dragon friend? The second graphic novel delves into darker territory, and Maggie was especially upset by a scene in which the lead character Portia meets her missing father in a dream. But a few weeks after we first read it Maggie tentatively pulled it back off the shelf and went over it herself for hours over several days, then declared she wanted to read it again. The second, third and nth readings were better for her as we explained and unpacked the content. Just as she’d been fascinated by the rat creatures in Bone, Maggie is taken with the “bad” monster in Jellaby: Monster in the City. There’s something fundamental about monsters in a child’s experience. I think it helps them grasp and objectify the bad and scary things in the world. Better seen than unseen and imagined.

Our latest craze is Magic Trixie. We assailed Little Island’s Tory Woollcott not long ago for “more dragon comics for pre-schoolers” and came away instead with several superior suggestions. Among them was Jill Thompson’s Magic Trixie comics, the adventures of a little witch girl and her monster-archetype friends. Think Monster High if the characters were eight years old and not a bunch of tramps. This was originally on the plate because the third trade features a dragon, but the success around here is because of the friendly, conflict-free space in the comic. The stories are simple ones about wacky friends doing friendly things and being harmless, something my little one is fond of despite her sympathy for monsters. I think I enjoy this one because it affords a bit of breathing space after the deep themes and heavy unpacking we need to do with other books – Trixie is just plain fluffy, but fun. It also helps that Trixie’s father looks like Maggie’s!

I have to add a honourable mention for one more book, Rabbit and Bear Paws. Someone left this issue on a table at the Palmerston library and Maggie insisted we take it home. I was in a hurry and groaned a yes even though it seemed to me to be totally beyond her both in terms of length and content. Wow, was I ever wrong! Yes, it’s long. Despite the trim size of the book, it takes a full 45 minutes to read out loud cover to cover. Yes, the content is slightly confusing – 3-year-olds barely grasp the existence of romantic love. But Rabbit and Bear Paws, the lead characters, are also just two kids watching a bigger world around them which they don’t fully understand. While the adults are resolving adult storylines, they are getting into trouble and glimpsing child-sized portions of the bigger whole. The comic emphasizes slapstick, another plus, and Maggie loves a setting there the kids have so much outdoor freedom. It’s a world of trees, water, animals and space to run and adventure. Also, Strawberry is totally badass.

We’re extra excited now for TCAF because this year, we have a kid who will unquestionably be up for some of TCAF’s extensive children’s content! And if we can’t wait until then, I’m told Little Island hosts Saturday afternoon “make your own comic” workshops, along with colouring for smaller bodies. Where was this stuff when I was a kid??? Brewing, I guess. It’s an exciting time to be a kid who’s into comics!

5 thoughts on “On Comics for Pre-Schoolers”

  1. Kerry Clare says:

    Little Island has caused our whole family to fall in love with comics. Have you seen this? http://us.macmillan.com/nurseryrhymecomics/VariousAuthors It’s our very favourite thing ever. Love this post and will take up some of your recommendations. Thank you!

    1. Charlotte says:

      I saw that at Little Island when we were there! Really, we coveted so much while we were there I was about ready to take out a second mortgage to have it all. 0_o I think we’re restricted to monthly visits…

  2. I’m glad to hear that Maggie enjoyed Nogard the Dragon! I have big plans for Isle of Elsi, which I will be launching as an all-ages webcomic later this year.

    1. Charlotte says:

      You have no idea how happy this makes me! That should happily coincide with Maggie’s ability to read it to herself – though I would be following along too!

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