Toronto librarian Scott Robins recently teamed up with writer Snow Wildsmith to release A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics, a remarkably thorough guide to all the graphic novels currently available for young readers. More than a simple rundown of titles, the book carefully indexes content and age-appropriateness and provides useful synopses. It's a go-to resource for any parent (not to mention librarians) who needs help sorting through the incredible bounty of comics products available. Scott took some time to tell us about the book.
The book is incredibly thorough. How long did you and Snow spend compiling this exhaustive list?
Working in our fields (publishing, librarianship, blogging, reviewing), we already had a decent knowledge base of what kids’ comics existed. But we did spend a good month putting the majority of the list together before starting to write each entry. The list changed throughout the process: books fell off the list, other titles were added, titles shifted from main entries to read-alikes...it was a real work-in-progress.
What drove your decision to do this book now? That is, how did you come to realize that a guide like this was really needed?
That decision was made by Maggie Thompson, our editor from Krause Publications. She’s a veteran of the comics industry with an incredible amount of experience. As the editor of the Comics Buyer’s Guide, the longest running publication about comics, she has a good eye for trends. The development of modern kids’ comics has been slow, but now there are a decent number of titles available, so Maggie saw the opportunity for a guide like this.
How did you and Snow come to work together on the book?
I was fortunate that Snow asked me to co-write the book with her. Maggie approached Snow and gave her a pretty tight deadline to deliver the manuscript. At the time, Snow was working on five other books with looming deadlines. She knew she wanted to write the book, but couldn’t do it on her own, so she asked if I wanted to be involved. As a longtime cheerleader for kids comics, I was onboard immediately.
How many comics did you have to read and evaluate? How long did you spend researching, and then establishing a criteria for how the book's listings would be compiled?
We definitely read and reread a lot of titles. With the tight deadline, we didn’t have a lot of time to research and were forced to establish selection criteria quickly. We spent about a month developing the criteria and compiling the first draft of the list. We wanted to make sure that the majority of the books featured were in-print and available for purchase. We strived for a variety of genres, a mix of publishers, books with diverse characters, a balance of titles that appeal to boys and girls, and a good selection of both popular titles and lesser-known works.
One of the hardest issues facing many librarians (as well as teachers and parents) is the age-appropriateness of comics. Comics, it seems, are often more challenged than their prose counterparts simply because they contain pictures. Do you think comics are held to a stricter—and perhaps unfair—standard?
Absolutely. I think there are a few things at play here. Any kind of art that has a visual component will be scrutinized because of its immediacy. Looking at a page of comics is more in-your-face than reading a page of prose. This immediacy often causes people to make grand generalizations about comics, usually about the levels of sex and violence. Also, comics have struggled with being perceived as less literary and of lower educational value, which is a huge factor when discussing reading and books for children.
Comics have a long history of being judged unfairly—I think that’s a legacy that we’ll always have to deal with. Also, comics for kids have come a long way—the recent group of editors, publishers and creators get what making kids comics is all about.
How did you deal with that in terms of compiling the age-appropriate lists for the book?
For the most part it wasn’t an issue. If you asked this question ten years ago, it definitely would have been. Traditional children’s book publishers are putting out the bulk of comics and graphic novels for kids now. Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, Candlewick, and others have decades of experience publishing books FOR kids and know what’s appropriate and what’s not. Snow and I also have quite a bit of experience evaluating books for appropriate content: Snow used to work in a conservative library system and I was a buyer for Scholastic Book Clubs, plus we both review graphic novels for various publications. All of that experience definitely helped.
You also delve fairly extensively into manga in the book. Do you consider comics and manga more or less interchangeable?
Snow is more the manga expert of the two of us and she says definitely! Manga is simply the Japanese word for "comics." Both of us would love to see more manga specifically for children published in North America. Udon and Viz seem to be leading pack but there’s a lot more room for more.
What has reaction to the book been like?
The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve heard from teachers and librarians who call the book an indispensable guide. Parents are overjoyed when they realize how many more graphic novels are out there for their children to read. Kids love flipping through the book and discovering titles they’ve never seen before. I have a friend who is a teacher and has a copy in her classroom that gets a lot of use. We would love to continue updating the book. There are already a ton of new books that we’d love to include. Of course, this all depends on sales of the first book. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.
It’s always hard to pick favorites…but if you had to, what would be some of your absolute favorite comics that are featured in the book? Why do you love them?
It’s definitely hard to pick favorites since these are the BEST kids’ comics. I find my favorites change from moment to moment but if I had to choose a few I’d pick Elephant and Piggie for its perfect simplicity and model for friendship, Owly for its sweetness and accomplished storytelling, Guinea Pig Pet Shop Private Eye for its snappy dialogue and off-the-wall humor and Amulet for its complex story and high action. Snow loves that sci-fi has found a home in kids comics—titles like Captain Raptor with its blend of Star Trek sci-fi and dinosaurs; Missile Mouse with its blend of Star Wars, Star Trek, and animal characters; and Zita the Spacegirl with its fantasy-esque art and sci-fi concepts.
What’s a comic featured here that people might be surprised to see you selected?
I think most people would be surprised to see The Smurfs because it’s not well known that it was a graphic novel series published in Europe first, before the figurines and television cartoon made the jump to North America in the 1980s. We also selected picture books that are often overlooked as being graphic novels, such as In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak, and The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Both these have the trim size and page count of picture books, but inside they use panel layouts, word balloons, and sounds effects just like most other graphic novels.
Did any big disagreements erupt while you guys were assembling the lists? Any books that you really fought over including (or not including)?
The one thing I loved about working with Snow was the lack of disagreements we had writing this book together. Of course, we both scrambled to write entries on our favorite books, but I think we were both fair and collegial about the whole process. There weren’t any arguments about specific books to include or not include, but we found ourselves faced with a few challenges: We felt it necessary to include an Archie title but with so much material out there, it was hard to select the perfect one for the book. Also, we came to the realization of how little superhero material is appropriate for kids and readily available for people to buy. DC and Marvel don’t really have a strong commitment to creating comics for kids and what they do publish doesn’t stay in print.-- John Hogan