New for New Readers: Beginning-Reader Comics Roundup

Beginning readers and comics are natural partners. Both use visual support to help readers make sense of their stories. In beginning-reader comics, this allows authors opportunities to use more difficult words and tell more complex stories without losing their audience. Beginning-reader comics also serve as a bridge to the exciting world of kids’ comics, which can then lead to a love of good old-fashioned weekly comic books, manga, and graphic novels galore. With comics, there is the opportunity to develop not just a lifelong love of and facility with words and language but also a lifelong appreciation for visual art — something we celebrate at the picture-book level but undervalue in other types of books.

The appeal of comics also crosses the divide between children who are enthusiastic readers and those who struggle or whose primary interests lie elsewhere, and this is where comics have power. Comics have cachet with kids. They’re cool, and maybe even a little transgressive. In the case of beginning-reader comics, the best of them embrace this spirit along with literary and artistic ambition, as in Sergio Ruzzier’s Fox + Chick series, which features expressive and distinctive watercolor illustrations with lived-in touches such as mismatched sheets on the beds and crumbs on the counter.

Many kids who won’t pick up other types of books will voluntarily pick up a comic, and more beginning-reader comics are speaking to interests and life experiences that go beyond the cozy vibe of traditional beginning readers (think Cynthia Rylant’s stalwart Henry and Mudge series). There’s nothing quite like the nonstop action and artful blending of Spanish and English in the El Toro & Friends series by Raúl the Third; the sharp humor and scientific asides of the Arlo & Pips series by Elise Gravel make it another nontraditional standout.

Here are reviews of some of the best in the recent crop of beginning-reader comics (and find more at ­

I’m Ogre It [I Like to Read: Comics]
by Jeffrey Ebbeler; illus. by the author (Holiday)

Izzie has just about had it with her older brother, Ollie, spending the entire day in his room playing Smash Tower on his game console. Then she meets Tim, an ogre who just moved into the cave in her backyard. Izzie takes Tim to meet her brother, but Ollie doesn’t even turn his head to say hello, so he fails to notice anything unusual about their new neighbor. Over the course of a few pages, while self-absorbed Ollie yammers on about his game, Izzie and Tim slowly clear his room of furniture. Ebbeler uses appropriately minimal text, but his art understands that new readers can follow plots and concepts that are much more sophisticated than what they can read, and each panel is full of details worth poring over. When Ollie finds himself alone in an empty room and goes looking for Izzie and Tim, Ebbeler shows rather than tells how Izzie and Tim have used Ollie’s possessions to set up a real-life Smash Tower they can all happily play together. These are sibling dynamics with which most ­children are all too familiar, and this beginning reader will have them — and their caregivers — nodding in recognition.

Smart vs. Strong [Thunder and Cluck]
by Jill Esbaum; illus. by Miles ­Thompson (Simon Spotlight)

In their third series outing, dinosaurs Thunder and Cluck trade boasts while preparing to play a game of tag. Thunder insists that size and strength will win the day; Cluck says, “But I am smart. Smart is better than strong.” The rest of the book tests these theories. Nimble Cluck dodges and hides, evading Thunder through several pages filled with action that bursts out of the panels and into a couple of double-page spreads. The fun comes to a quick halt, though, when Thunder falls into a pool of quicksand. Thompson uses a cinematic lens in his compositions to create ­excitement — zooming in and out, changing angles — while bright colors heighten the frenetic tone and signal moments of strong emotion. Esbaum’s dialogue is a step or two beyond sight words, but when she uses less typical vocabulary (zigzag, quicksand, blubbering), she repeats it to reward readers for doing their decoding work. In the end, the dinos must work together to solve their problem, but the story closes with a humorous suggestion that perhaps the ­lesson hasn’t been learned, and leaves room for more adventures from this energetic pair.

It Doesn’t Scare Me!: A Discovery! [Archie & Reddie]
by Candy James; illus. by the author (Razorbill/Penguin)

In this fourth installment of the beginning-reader comic series featuring best-friend foxes, Archie is sleeping over at Reddie’s house when a storm rolls in. Archie, already unsettled by the storm, becomes even more frightened when the electricity goes out. James’s art has a splash of manga in the characters’ large, expressive eyes and heightened emotions; there’s also a dash of Lichtenstein in the compositions’ dots, thick lines, and bold colors. The combination effectively conveys both plot and emotion, as in the spread in which Archie denies panicking while clearly panicking and resourceful Reddie pulls out the flashlights that save the evening. James aims the text at new readers who are building confidence. Each spread includes ten to twenty short words that are part of most children’s lexicons, and clear cues from the illustrations support the more challenging vocabulary.

Rainbow the Koala [Surviving the Wild]
by Remy Lai; illus. by the author (Holt)

Star the Elephant [Surviving the Wild]
by Remy Lai; illus. by the author (Holt)

These two entries in Lai’s comics series for new readers teach lessons about the natural world through realistic stories with high-stakes plots. In Rainbow, the titular young koala is just leaving his mother and trying to stay safe while coping with the effects of a long-term drought. Lai effectively builds tension as Rainbow evades escalating dangers — a car, a pool, a bushfire. She constructs a clear progression of panels with images that use soft lines and gentle earth tones that won’t needlessly frustrate a newly independent reader. Lai employs the same tools and approach in Star, in which food scarcity forces the elephant, his mother, and his aunt to search for new territory. But when humans capture Star’s mother and aunt, he’s forced to strike out on his own. Both stories resist minimizing the perils these animals face, from both the natural environment and changes people have made to it, and Lai doesn’t offer easy answers, providing a level of suspense rare in beginning readers. Back matter in each volume provides additional information about the real-world situations that inspired the tales.

Owl and Penguin [I Like to Read: Comics]
by Vikram Madan; illus. by the author (Holiday)

Here are three gentle adventures in the lives of two friends, Owl and Penguin. In the first, Owl and Penguin encounter difficulties getting ice cream; in the second, Owl struggles to find a way for Penguin to fly; and in the third, Owl tries to play in the rain with Penguin without getting wet. Each story is all but wordless, relying on a handful of sight words and ample repetition that children just beginning to read independently will be able to handle. For readers still struggling to achieve independence, the plot is clearly delineated in the illustrations. Plainly sequenced panels and compositions focus on actions and emotion. Madan’s success is largely in his mastery of facial expressions, as in a wordless panel where we see Owl bursting with excitement about Penguin flying in a hot-air balloon while it is equally clear that Penguin is disappointed not to actually fly. Owl and Penguin’s points of tension are humorous because they’re so relatable. A wonderful example of how a comics format can work well for even the earliest readers.

Oh, What a Show! [Sprinkles and Swirls]
by Lola M. Schaefer; illus. by Savannah Allen (Simon Spotlight)

This is the third installment in a series about Sprinkles and Swirls, sentient cupcakes that go on adventures every evening when the baker closes up shop. One night, Swirls insists that the duo should enter a talent show even though Sprinkles has no idea what to perform. Swirls tries to help Sprinkles identify a special talent — doing flips, juggling, riding bikes — but their efforts end in bumps and bruises. Schaefer keeps the text to a minimum, relying primarily on sight words and straightforward, short sentences. Allen’s illustrations fill in the gaps with bright, dynamic compositions that strike a balance between focusing on the plot and providing details that round out Sprinkles and Swirls’ world. The appeal of these books is not in the plots so much as in the lively cupcake characters living in a world sprinkled with hearts, stars, and rainbows. A beginning-reader comics series with frosting and cherries on top.

From the January/February 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Adrienne L. Pettinelli

Adrienne L. Pettinelli is the director of the Henrietta (NY) Public Library. She has served on several book award committees, including the 2015 Caldecott Committee, and is the author of Helping Homeschoolers in the Library (2008).

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