Contrary to popular belief, you can never grow out of picture books. Okay, yes, maybe you don’t want to read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” when you’re 21-years old, but the world of illustrated books doesn’t stop when you turn double-digits.
Technically, graphic novels aren’t a genre -- they’re a format. They’re similar to comic books since they use sequential art to tell a story, but graphic novels are generally stand-alone stories with more complex plots. They can be fiction, non-fiction, history, fantasy, memoirs, and anything in-between. Within the format of “graphic novel,” there are a few main “sub-genres” or predominant ways to categorize them including manga, superhero stories, personal narratives (“perzines”), and non-fiction.
Manga is the Japanese word for “comic” but in the US, it is used to describe Japanese-style comics. It’s read from top to bottom and right to left since that is the traditional Japanese reading pattern. Titles: Death Note, Full Metal Alchemist
Superhero graphic novels have taken the most popular form of comics and turned the brief episodic adventures into sagas. Superhero comics are dominated by the mainstream publishers Marvel, DC, and Darkhorse. Titles: Batman: Dark Knight Returns, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Astro City.
Personal narratives, or “perzines,” are autobiographical stories written from the author’s personal experiences, opinions, observations, and life in general. Titles: Fun Home, Blankets, Lucky, The Quitter.
Non-fiction graphic novels are similar to perzines since they are also usually written from the author’s personal experience, but the author generally uses their own experience to add to the discourse around a greater social issue or event. Titles: Pedro and Me, Maus, Persepolis.
Graphic novels have become a safe haven of intensely beautiful stories full of good (and accurate) representation, fostering a community that accepts anyone and everyone. There are stories about coming out, accepting your gender identity, reckoning with intergenerational trauma, life as a child of immigrants, being disabled, and countless other stories beyond the white, cisgender, heteronormative, patriarchal norm in literature.
Graphic novels will always hold a special place in my heart because it was within their pages that I was able to say, “Hey! That’s me,” and that is extremely powerful. Below, I’ve listed a select few graphic novels from authors that I love and stories that will always live in my heart.
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden (and really any of her other books)
This is a queer coming-of-age story about a girl who travels the universe to find a long- lost love. It’s a story about how to thrive in a society that doesn’t understand who you are or what you can do. While the book may look intimidating to read (544 pages), it’s a pretty quick read because I guarantee you will not be able to put it down until you finish it. The story and drawings toy with time, space, love, friendship, and identity. I credit this book with how I fell in love with graphic novels. (Also, you can read it all for free here: https://www.onasunbeam.com/). Tillie Walden’s other books have also become favorites of mine which include Spinning, Alone in Space, Are You Listening?, and The End of Summer. She also illustrated this digital zine on girl in red (https://wepresent.wetransfer.com/story/girl-in-red-graphic-novel/).
The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen
This graphic novel tells the story of Tiến Phong, a second-generation American Vietnamese teenager, who helps his mother learn English through fairy tales while struggling to tell her about his sexuality. The illustrations in this book are breathtaking, and the story is impossible to not fall in love with.
Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe
Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears. Gender Queer started as a way for Maia to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, but it has now become a resource for advocates, friends, and people in general. Even if you don’t identify as ace or non-binary, almost everyone can relate to the themes of awkward adolescence, not knowing where you belong, and (eventually) settling into who you are.
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
The Best We Could Do chronicles Thi Bui’s parents’ life before and during the Vietnam War, their escape from Vietnam when Bui was a child, their eventual migration to the US as refugees, and Bui’s own experiences growing up as an immigrant in the US and becoming a mother. It touches on themes such as family, parenthood, belonging, the meaning of home, and the importance of education. This was one of the most touching graphic novels I’ve ever read - both the illustrations and the story.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis is an autobiographical series of bande dessinées later published as a complete graphic novel that depicts Satrapi’s childhood up to her early adult years in Iran and Austria during and after the Islamic Revolution. It has since been made into a movie (but I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment on it yet, haha). This book is honest, raw, and explicit as it details Satrapi’s life without censure.
Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau
Ari has grown up working for his family’s bakery, but now that high school is over, he longs to quit that job and move to the big city with his band. Enter Hector, an easygoing guy who loves baking and starts to work in Ari’s family’s bakery. It’s an adorable story about young love, difficult choices, facing consequences, growing up, and learning what it means to love someone.
Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
Synopsis: “Catrina and her family are moving to the coast of Northern California because her little sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn’t happy about leaving her friends for Bahía de la Luna, but Maya has cystic fibrosis and will benefit from the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea. As the girls explore their new home, a neighbor lets them in on a secret: There are ghosts in Bahía de la Luna. Maya is determined to meet one, but Cat wants nothing to do with them. As the time of year when ghosts reunite with their loved ones approaches, Cat must figure out how to put aside her fears for her sister’s sake – and her own” (https://goraina.com/ghosts). This is a touching story about sisterhood, illness, and family. Raina Telgemeier’s other books are also worth a read, centering on many familiar themes about growing up and finding who you are.
There are countless other graphic novels for you to explore, so what are you waiting for?!