Kids Read Comics. Holy cow. Where to begin. This is the cutest little comic con in the world. Last month KRC held its fifth annual celebration at the Ann Arbor District Library, and it was the best year yet.
What makes this kid’s con so cool? See below.
KRC features over seventy writers and cartoonists, and each of them are happy to talk to you about their work, other peoples’ work, the weather, where the best place to get coffee is, etc. There is none of the frenzied atmosphere so many other cons develop as harried artists get hounded in their booths — here it is shiny, happy people all day long. KRC features big names (hello Raina Telgemeier, Ben Hatke, Matt Holm, Gregg Schigiel, Ruth McNally Barshaw, Laurianne Uy, and so many others), but with such a laid back atmosphere, you can go up and chat at length with them. The creators are all so chill due to excellent roster selection by the event organizers and from the extremely hospitable venue. (Full disclosure: Once upon a time I worked at the AADL, but I have never been involved in KRC. Still, psuedo-affiliation or not, it’s an awesome library with an incredible staff).
KRC hosts a wide array of fun, fun, fun events for all ages. There are artist lead discussions, quick draws, musical storytimes, workshops on eBook comics, instruction on how to develop doodling into something more, a mini class on sketching the happiest kitty or yourself as a robot, a live podcast, making mini comics, an awards show for the best all ages comics, and that’s not all. There is something for everyone to enjoy, even for curmudgeons.
The con is not limited to comics. There is also ample information for teachers, librarians, parents, booksellers, and retailers in how to utilize comic books for education and literacy. Conference talks were held by organizations such as Reading With Pictures and nErDcamp MI, and promotional materials were readily available for anyone interested in learning more about their educational approaches.
Every table has super sweet stickers, free comics, bookmarks, pins, and what-have-you. My bag was loaded with awesome freebies. Here and there I took a break from being a total cheapskate and loaded up on comics, because tons of wares were reasonably priced. There’s no awful price-gouging here, just good times for all.
Above all else, this is a con devoted to rejuvenating kids comics as an innovative medium. With the advent of so many adult-centric titles in recent years, kids comics have become widely neglected. Renewed focus on the importance of all ages comics is nigh! And KRC is a kick-ass celebration of the movement.
Recently the event organizers, Edith Burney, Jerzy Drozd, Dan Merritt, and Dan Mishkin, answered my interview questions about the convention.
What first gave you the idea to organize Kids Read Comics?
All of the people involved — Jerzy, Dan, Dan and me — had wanted to put on some kind of new, different sort of convention aimed at providing hands-on experience with comics. As a librarian, I had a group of teens that loved comics and anime, and I held comics workshops at the library with some regularity, employing Jerzy as the instructor. Jerzy and I both felt that we would be able to reach and inspire more kids with a big celebratory event. We just hadn’t had the opportunity until 2008, when the Chelsea District Library was named the Best Small Library in America by Library Journal.
Our notoriety was such that it attracted the attention of a married couple who are voice actors, Tara Platt and Yuri Lowenthal. Tara’s parents lived in the area, and told me that the two would be willing to do a program with the library. This was the tipping point — two big-name voice actors willing to work with us. They were the sort of headliners that would attract an audience beyond the edges of Chelsea, and insure that the event would start out big and successful. I contacted Jerzy and he brought together the rest of the group. We formed a plan for the following summer to invite authors and artists to come to Chelsea for a new kind of comic convention, where artists and kids explored the art of making comics together. Even the voice actors were involved, providing a voice acting workshop, as well as judging a costume contest for teens and serving pizza at a pizza party! Everyone who tabled at the event had to be willing to do more than just show and sell their art, but also provide positive experiences for kids, whether by doing drawing demos or taking part in interactive drawing games, or teaching comics-making classes. The 501st volunteered to participate as well, leading children in a superhero parade down Main Street.
In that first year we had nearly fifty artists tabling inside the library’s main meeting room and along the library’s covered sidewalks. We had tents for events on the library lawn. We drew 600 people to Chelsea, from as far as Grand Rapids and Chicago. Both artists and visitors were wowed by the number and quality of events and programs. Artists had fun, and the kids did as well.
The event runs throughout different venues in Ann Arbor — any hopes and dreams to expand it into even more places in town?
Ann Arbor is a fantastic town to hold events, but we have learned through the years that moving slowly is best. If we find new partners willing to provide space for programming, we would certainly be willing to work with them as long as it made sense from the standpoint of the visitor — can they walk there easily? If it’s very hot or stormy outside, would it be safe to expect them to be able to get there in a timely manner from the library? These are all issues we consider. The venues we have worked with so far are established nonprofits who share our values, and are located very close to the library. So far we have worked with 826 Michigan, the Neutral Zone, Ann Arbor Art Center, and all of these partnerships have been very successful.
Do you plan to continue running KRC in Ann Arbor each year?
Our current plan is to keep the June KRC event in Ann Arbor. The Ann Arbor District Library is a fantastic partner, and Ann Arbor is a good location. Our mission of providing comics-related programs that are free to kids and families is not limited to Ann Arbor, and we are in the planning stages for some new programming. Stay tuned!
The crowds are definitely getting bigger each year. Do you ever consider holding the Artist Alley in a different downtown location?
As a librarian, I would never consider moving Artist Alley off site. I believe the heart of program should always remain in the library. This year we held the alley on the first floor of the library, right at the main entrance — we’d been on the third floor previously — and the leadership of both KRC and AADL all thought that was a fantastic change, so we’re hopeful we can remain there in future years. The main floor allowed easy access to Artist Alley for both destination visitors and accidental attendees — many people coming in for a book left with a stack of comics and a big smile!
What are your thoughts on the comic book industry’s handling of kids’ comics?
As a librarian, I have been pleased with an increase in child-friendly, library-friendly, book-style comics being published recently, and to see them aimed just as much at girls as at boys. We librarians are always looking for ways to help kids become avid readers, and comics are such an important part of establishing a love of reading! Most of those terrific comics for young readers, though, aren’t coming from the comic book industry but from trade publishers, or from creative people who do comics online or in print as a second job. For all sorts of reasons both economic and cultural, the publishers of traditional monthly comics have a much harder time than they used to creating comics for a younger audience and then reaching that audience.
Again, stay tuned! We are in the process of planning more programming, but we are also an all-volunteer organization, so planning takes time.
One other important aspect of what we do is reaching out to librarians and educators who are interested in using comics in their professional settings, but might need some guidance in how to do that. On the day before our weekend Kids Read Comics Celebration at AADL, we partner with the University of Michigan for a pre-conference that helps teachers and librarians think about how they can use comics, and offers practical tips in areas like lesson planning and building a graphic novel collection.