My home is filled with comics, graphic novels, and books about comics and graphic novels. My kid has thus been surrounded by comics her whole life, though it was only last year, when she was three, that I started reading them aloud to her.
Though comics are often referred to as “kids’ stuff,” they can be surprisingly challenging to read aloud to pre-literate kids. Advice on “how to read comics with your kid” seems to be aimed at parents of kids with emerging literacy, which is awesome, but we are not there, yet.
So here is a collection of tips and strategies I’ve found useful in reading comics with my own kid. I hope they help you share comics with the young children in your life as well!
Select for clarity as well as content.
Plot: In terms of content, I think it’s good to look for plots about things your kid already understands to be important, like friendship, helping, exploring, or learning. You don’t want anything too scary or too complicated, or anything too outside of their wheelhouse.
It can be helpful to think about what movies your kid likes and why. My kid likes seeing Moana explore, understands that it makes Anna sad when Elsa doesn’t want to play with her in Frozen, and loves watching Satsuki and Mei meet creatures and play in My Neighbor Totoro.
On the other hand, even if the story doesn’t have swear words or sex or violence, she’s not going to be particularly interested in an office romance, for instance. Your kid might be different.
Words: You probably already know that your kid isn’t going to know a billion long words, but you should also be wary of an abundance of “hip” slang (I’m lookin’ right atcha, Stan Lee) that does not age well and will not be easy for a young child, who is still learning real words, to parse. Puns are especially annoying, since they are popular for kids a little bit older, but won’t be funny to pre-literate kids.
Look for clear language use and sentence structure, and look for the bulk of the writing to be spoken dialogue. Some narrative captions and sound effects can be fine, but a lot of narration, thought balloons, or spiked text balloons when a voice comes from a radio or something can be confusing.
Images: We probably all have an idea of what “child-friendly” pictures in a comic book look like, but in this category as well, I suggest aiming for clarity. Rounded, brightly colored cartoony characters can be great, but if they are too abstract, it can be tough to tell them apart. I got my kid a Tiny Titans book and she cannot tell the characters apart reliably, and the plots are extremely short and often pun-based. I bet she’ll love reading it to herself in a couple years, but right now, it is not working as a read aloud.
On the other hand, Bone, in which Fone Bone and Phoney Bone actually canonically look confusingly alike, works fine, because my kid just calls Fone Bone “the naked one.” Clarity.
When you’re reading aloud, use your hand and voice to guide and engage.
Use your hand: Be consistent. Read the text balloons in order. Put your finger under the character who is speaking, and leave it there while you read the whole balloon. Then move your finger to the next character who speaks. This was a strategy mentioned to me years before I had a kid of my own by a student in a children’s literature course I was teaching at Hunter College. She said that she read every book I assigned (not the secondary sources) aloud to her young son, and when we got to the comics, I asked: how? She told me, “I put my finger on the character who is speaking,” and I remembered that when I started reading comics to my own kid years later.
In a wordless panel, still put your finger under each character in the panel (and maybe something else important, such as a sandwich, if you want to draw attention to it) before moving on to the next panel. This helps your kid keep track of where in each image the words correspond, and clues your kid into the idea that we are also “reading” the images. Wordless panels can be a great place to engage your kid, too.
Use your voice: Just like any read-aloud situation, pause to ask, “How do you think she’s feeling right now?” “Have YOU ever done something you were proud of? When?” “What do you think he’ll find behind the door?” “Do their faces look happy or annoyed?” and so forth.
In addition to these standard questions, I also find that comics are particularly well suited to encouraging punctuation literacy. You can ask your kid to look at the characters’ faces for clues about emotion, and then get them to correspond those depicted emotions with “!” and “?”
Comics we can recommend as read-alouds
We are reading the small, glossy, color editions, published by Scholastic. Bone is the comic that my kid picked up, on her own, asked me to read her, and then asked to read more of, and then said she’d rather read more of it than have “iPad time.” It does not have captions, and the characters are immediately engaging. They have child-friendly emotions and reactions, and my kid just loves the dragon. Just loves him. It might get scary for her as we get deeper into later volumes, but it hasn’t yet.
DC Superhero Girls: Date with Disaster
We got the first chapter of this as a single issue on Free Comic Book Day and read it so many times in a row that I purchased the whole book in self-defense. It’s good! We’ve read it a few times. Harley’s speech patterns are difficult for my kid to grasp, so sometimes I surreptitiously smooth it over for comprehensibility. The rest of the characters’ dialogue is easy to understand, though, and the art and plot are clear, and it is about friendship and solving a mystery. My kid has scrutinized the back of the volume, seen that other books exist in this series, and asked if we can get all of them. I said, maybe.
Jim Henson’s Storyteller Comics
WWAC’s own CP Hoffman recommends these as “a great transition between storybooks and comics because of the way they’re told. They’re comics with a narrator.” Conveniently, they are also each “done-in-one, so it’s easy to just read them randomly in whatever order, pick and choose ones that look interesting, etc.”
Of course, the very best way to find out what comics your specific kid will like is to read a bunch of them enthusiastically with your kid!