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10 Great Kids Comics for Early Readers

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Art Baltazar/DC Comics

When a child is just learning to read, comics can be a great supplement to help foster love and enjoyment for books. As detailed in this wonderful handout, “Raising a Reader,”  from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, comics have a lot to offer young readers. For that crucial first stage of early reading (ages 5-8, grades K-2), though, it can be hard to find appropriate comic book reading material. Many parents will either disregard comic books as a reading option or assume that any old superhero comic will do. The appropriate range of choices for this specific age group and reading level is actually pretty narrow, but it contains some fabulous picks.

I’ve put together a list of 10 great choices to consider giving your early reader. I’ve tried to keep in mind both reading level and content appropriateness. Also, it should be noted that 98% of today’s superhero comics are written for a minimum age of at least 13. Both Marvel and DC publish a couple of choices for younger readers based off their animated TV shows, but even those tend to skew older than the reading level we’re talking about here.

1. Toon Books

Without a doubt, the best go-to option for parents looking for quality comics for early readers is the many graphic novels from Toon Books. Started in 2008 by comics power couple Françoise Mouly (art and comics editor for the New Yorker) and Art Spiegelman (creator of the literary comics masterpiece Maus), Toon Books is the only comics publisher that organizes their publications by reading level. For early readers they have a number of great offerings spread across two levels: Brand-new readers (ages 3+, grades K-1) and Emerging Readers (ages 4+, grades 1-2). They also publish books for later stages like grades 2-3 and beyond.

The best part about Toon Books is the quality of the creative talent that Mouly and Spiegelman have tapped. There are books in these early levels by outstanding cartoonists such as Lilli Carré, Renee French, and Rutu Modan, and children’s book award-winning contributions from Jeff Smith and Eleanor Davis. Most books come in hardcover and softcover format and are pretty readily available in bookstores, but you can browse them all on Toon-Books.com.

Difficulty: The best part about Toon Books is they clearly label each book according to grade level beginning at K-1 up to Grade 3+.
Content: Think of these as a bridge between reading picture books and reading comics. The varied offerings include lots of books about cute, anthropomorphic animals learning moral and educational lessons.
Where to start: You can’t go wrong with Eleanor Davis’ award-winning Stinky, about a monster who is afraid of people but learns that, once you meet them, they’re really not that scary.

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2. Owly

For early readers who are still trying to gain their confidence with the written word, there are comics like Andy Runton’s Owly that let the pictures do the talking. These cute, award-winning books are mostly wordless, sometimes using word balloons that contain pictures instead of words. This is a great way of getting new readers into the flow of reading—especially comics reading—without stumbling over word recognition. The stories usually center around friendship, loyalty, and nature and are charmingly innocent. While there may not be any words, Runton’s illustrations will give you and your little reader a lot to look at and talk about.

Difficulty: Since there are no words, even pre-readers can pick these up.
Content: These are very innocent stories, completely devoid of violence or adult themes.
Where to start: Runton is in the process of shifting to self-publishing the Owly books and you can learn about them on his website (he even has a lot of free PDFs you can download to sample). There is a pretty big library of Owly books that are readily available in most comic shops, bookstores, or Amazon.com. Why not start at Volume 1?

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3. Tiny Titans

Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani have made a name for themselves by creating all-ages superhero comics in their very recognizable kid-friendly style. They’ve applied this style to everything from their own creations like Patrick the Wolf Boy to “Itty Bitty” versions of horror comic characters like Hellboy and Vampirella. The book that put them on the map, though, is Tiny Titans which ran for 50 issues from 2008 until 2012, twice winning the comics industry's top award for Best Kids Series, and has been collected across 8 volumes of trade paperbacks.

Difficulty: The books consist of short stories—mostly 2-4 pages in length—and the storytelling relies a lot on visual gags so the word count is pretty low and non-intimidating.
Content: The stories are focused on elementary-school versions of many DC Comics characters (primarily those associated with the Teen Titans like Robin, Cyborg, Beast Boy, and Aqualad) and it’s more about being in school than fighting criminals. Some of the jokes may require some familiarity with the DC Universe and other pop culture for kids to fully “get” them, though.
Where to start: You may be able to find some random back issues at certain comic shops, but since the series has ended, your best bet will be the trade paperback collections like Tiny Titans Vol. 1: Welcome to the Treehouse.

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4. Nursery Rhyme Comics/ Fairy Tale Comics

How can you go wrong with nursery rhymes and fairy tales? Especially when they’re drawn by some of the best cartoonists in the business? First Second Books and editor Chris Duffy had the brilliant idea of putting together two separate large collections (there are 50 nursery rhymes in one book and 17 fairy tales in the other) by a dream lineup of primarily indie-comic stars like Roz Chast, Gene Luen Yang, Mike Mignola, Jamie and Gilbert Hernandez, Emily Carroll, Raina Telgemeier, David Mazzuchelli, Eleanor Davis, Stan Sakai, and others.

Difficulty: As you might be able to surmise, the Nursery Rhyme collection skews a little younger, but both are perfect choices for this reading level.
Content: Kids will recognize most of the stories here, but they do mix things up with a couple of obscure selections in each. The fairy tales are certainly no more disturbing than any Grimm fairy tale you read when you were young.
Where to Start: Both books should be pretty easy to find wherever books are sold.

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5. Scooby Doo Team-Up

Unexpectedly, one of the most enjoyable kids comics to come out in recent years is Scooby-Doo Team-Up which, each month, has the Scooby Doo gang meet various DC Comics heroes as well as characters from classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons like the Flintstones and the Jetsons. Parents reading along will appreciate writer Sholly Fisch’s inside jokes in relation to these old shows.

Difficulty: The vocabulary should be within most early readers' ability. These are written a little more like a standard comic book than the previous entries on this list, with lots of word balloons and pages with many individual panels. This will pretty much be the case with the rest of the items on this list, but I point it out because navigating the architecture of some comic pages can be intimidating for some readers.
Content: These are fun stories and actually a better, kid-friendly introduction to superheroes like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman than you’ll find in 95% of all other superhero comics today.
Where to start: As of this writing, the 9th issue of the series was just released, so most comic book shops should at least have the recent issues in stock. You can start with any issue as they are mostly self-contained stories.

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6. Uncle Scrooge

Why not start them with the classics? Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge comics from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s are widely considered to be some of the greatest comics ever made. Unlike a lot of comics from that era, though, they hold up really well and will still get laughs out of kids today.

Difficulty: There is some complicated wordplay at times and the occasional old-fashioned jokes and plot line that may go over some kids' heads.
Content: At a certain point Barks—and later Don Rosa—began to tell stories with Scrooge McDuck and his nephews Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, that took on a globe-trotting bent with archeological digs and explorations of far-off cultures. These would inspire the popular Duck Tales animated series of the 1980s. Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s adventures may inspire a yearning for knowledge in your own little Junior Woodchucks.
Where to start: Fantagraphics has put out many collected volumes of the classic Uncle Scrooge comics. They generally run about $30 each but are beautifully put together. Most public libraries are bound to have an Uncle Scrooge book or two on their shelves if you want to sample them that way.

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7. Hilda

Luke Pearon’s Hilda series of graphic novels follows a young elementary-school-age girl who lives in a village called Trolberg, populated by talking birds, giants, black hounds, and, of course, trolls. Otherwise, her world is not much different from our own and Hilda is not much different from any other girl her age. She’s smart and sassy, lives alone with her mom, and loves animals. That realism amidst the fantasy world she exists in is what makes this series so enjoyable for kids (boys and girls alike). Pearson has a wonderful, European sensibility to his cartooning, which matches the vaguely Northern European setting of the stories and makes these books a delight to read.

Difficulty: The reading level shouldn’t be a problem for grades 1 and up and the page lengths (the first two books are 44 pages and the third is 64) are long but achievable.
Content: Very kid-friendly stories with nice life lessons, but they’re also thoughtful and sophisticated in a way that makes them rise above kiddie fare.
Where to start: The very first book, Hildafolk, is a 24-page comic, but Pearson has moved into a longer, more European-style graphic “album” format. He has released three book-length adventures so far and the most recent, Hilda and the Black Hound, is absolutely fantastic, with Pearson taking everything he’s built so far and making a nearly perfect all-ages comic.

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8. Ordinary People Can Change the World

Brad Meltzer and Chris Eliopoulos’ Ordinary People Can Change The World series of picture book/graphic novels about famous people who made a difference in history is an easy-to-read and fun way for a child to learn about important figures like Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, and even (in an upcoming volume) Lucille Ball. Both writer and artist are familiar names in the comics world. Meltzer is more famous as a novelist, but comic fans will know him as the writer of DC’s Identity Crisis, while Eliopoulos has illustrated a number of comics for kids like Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius.

Difficulty: There are some lengthy picture book-style text pieces in addition to the comic book-style word balloons, but it’s all written for a Kindergarten-and-up audience.
Content: I think some educators and sticklers for facts have questioned the validity of presenting biographies in this way, but it’s certainly a great way to get young kids interested in history.
Where to start: There are currently 5 stand-alone volumes (I am Abraham Lincoln, I am Amelia Earhart, I am Rosa Parks, I am Albert Einstein, and I am Jackie Robinson) that are readily available in the children’s section of most book stores.

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9. Abigail and the Snowman

Abigail and the Snowman is published by Boom! Studios and written and drawn by Roger Langridge (most recently known for his spectacular run on the Muppet Show comics). It’s a funny story about friendship in which a 9-year-old girl named Abigail moves to a new town with her single dad and struggles to make friends until she meets Claude, a Yeti who has escaped from a secret government lab and who only Abigail and the other kids at school can see. Kids of all ages – boys and girls alike – will get a kick out of Abigail and Claude’s friendship.

Difficulty: Langridge is masterful at character design and physical comedy and that really goes a long way in making this fun to read.
Content: There are some government agents chasing Claude but the danger here is not too scary.
Where to start: This is a four-issue limited series that is still in the midst of its run as this is being written. The fourth issue is yet to be released, but most bigger comic shops may still have the first three issues. If not, a trade paperback collection will surely be out in a couple of months.

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10. Anna & Froga

For kids who enjoy an odd sense of humor, Anouk Ricard’s delightfully weird graphic novel series Anna & Froga is an easy read that will earn some giggles. Each book contains a collection of short stories centered around a young girl named Anna and her animal friends—Froga the frog, Christopher the worm, Bubu the dog, and Ron the cat. Like any group of friends, they tend to bicker and tease each other while also accepting their idiosyncrasies. Ricard’s drawing style is fun and childlike, but her understated, sometimes testy dialogue among the friends is what makes this so fun.

Difficulty: This can be easily read by most new readers, but the sense of humor—the books are translated from French—may be too subtle and low-key for some kids.
Content: The friends do fun, innocent stuff like go to an amusement park, make their own movie, and take a trip to the lake, but there’s a healthy dose of sarcasm involved.
Where to Start: Drawn & Quarterly has published four volumes of Anna & Froga stories: Fore!, Thrills, Chills and Gooseberries, Want a Gumball?, and I Dunno, What Do You Want To Do? They all feature various self-contained stories so you can jump in anywhere.

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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
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How Superman Helped Foil the KKK
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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images

The Klansmen were furious.

Dozens of them had congregated in a nondescript room in Atlanta, shaking cloaked heads at the worrisome news that their sect leader had just shared: An act of gross subterfuge had transpired over the airwaves. Millions of Americans had now become privy to their policies, their rankings, their closely guarded methods of organized hatred.

All of it fodder for some comic book radio show. Their mission had been compromised, sacrificed at the altar of popular culture. Kids, one Klansman sighed. His kids were in the streets playing Superman vs. the Klan. Some of them tied red towels around their necks; others pranced around in white sheets. Their struggle for racial purity had been reduced to a recess role play.

Stetson Kennedy listened, doing his best to give off irate body language. He scowled. He nodded. He railed.

The covert activist waited patiently for the Klan to settle down. When they did, he would call radio journalists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, offering the results of his infiltration into the group for public consumption.

He’d also contact Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman radio serial. Maxwell, eager to aid the humanitarian mission of the Anti-Defamation League, would promptly insert the leaked information into his show’s scripts. In between fisticuffs, his cast would mock the KKK’s infrastructure, and the group’s loathsome attitudes would be rendered impotent by the juvenilia.

The Klan roared, demanding revenge on their traitor. “Show me the rat,” their leader said, “and I’ll show you some action.”

Kennedy cheered, just as they all did.

And when he returned home, his Klan robe would be traded for a cape.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kennedy, born in 1916, was an unlikely undercover operative. After a back injury kept him out of World War II, the Jacksonville, Florida native decided he wanted to combat anti-American forces on the home front. With Klan members alleged to have assaulted his family’s black maid when he was a child, the Klan—once again gathering steam in an era of segregation and racial divisiveness—was a favored target.

Having convinced a “Klavern” in Atlanta, Georgia that he shared their bigoted views, Kennedy donned the ominous attire of a Klansman, attended cross burnings, and covertly collected information about the group that he would then share with law enforcement and media. Radio journalist Drew Pearson would read the names and minutes of their meetings on air, exposing their guarded dialogues.

Revealing their closed-door sessions was a blow—one that Kennedy didn’t necessarily have to confine to nonfiction. In 1946, Maxwell, who produced the Superman radio serial broadcast around the country, embraced Kennedy’s idea to contribute to a narrative that had Superman scolding the racial divisiveness of the Klan and airing their dirty laundry to an enraptured audience.

“The law offices, state, county, FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, they were all sympathetic with the Klan,” Kennedy said later. “The lawmen were, ideologically at least, close with the Klansmen. The court of public opinion was all that was left.”

Ostensibly aimed at children, Superman’s daily radio dramas were often broadcast to assembled nuclear families; one phone poll showed that 35 percent of its audience was composed of adults.

But regardless of whether parents listened, the activist believed the younger demographic was worth attending to. “Even back in the ’40s, they had kids in the Klan, little girls dressed up in Klan robes at the cross burnings," Kennedy said. "I have photos of an infant in a cradle with a complete Klan robe on. It seemed like a good place to do some educating.” 

In “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 16-part serial airing in June and July of 1946, Superman opposes an organized group of hatemongers who target one of Jimmy Olsen’s friends. Exploring their network, Clark Kent uncovers their secret meetings and policies before his alter ego socks the “Grand Scorpion” in the jaw. The idea, Kennedy wrote in his account of his work, The Klan Unmasked, was to made a mockery of their overblown vernacular.

When traveling, for example, Klansmen might identify one another by asking if they “knew Mr. Ayak,” an acronym for “Are You a Klansman?” Although Kennedy may not have actually shared their code words on air—a longstanding myth that was debunked in Rick Bowers’s 2012 book, Superman vs. the KKK—their histrionics were perfect for dramatization in the breathless structure of a radio drama. Given shape by actors and sound effects, all the clubhouse tropes of the Klan seemed exceedingly silly.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Kennedy continued to serve up Klan secrets to Superman, he watched as Klan morale dipped and membership enrollment ebbed. Desperate, the Klan tried calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s, a new sponsor of the show, but racial intolerance was no match for the appetites of post-World War II homes. Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes remained breakfast table staples, and Superman’s battles with the close-minded continued. Emboldened by his success against the Klan, Superman took aim at Communism, a favorite target of the show’s anti-Red star, Bud Collyer.

Kennedy would go on to burden the Klan using proof of uncollected tax liens, and eventually convinced the state of Georgia to revoke their national corporate charter.

Kennedy died in 2011 at the age of 94. While some of his accounts of subterfuge in the Klan later came under fire for being embellished, his bravery in swimming with the sharks of the organization is undeniable. So, too, was his wisdom in utilizing American iconography to suffocate prejudice. Fictional or not, Superman may have done more to stifle the Klan’s postwar momentum than many real people who merely stood by and watched.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon by Jake Rossen with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright (c) 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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Courtesy of Highlights for Children
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7 Engaging Facts About Goofus and Gallant
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Courtesy of Highlights for Children

For well over 60 years, the preadolescent readers of Highlights for Children magazine have gotten regular lessons in morality from Goofus and Gallant, a pair of kids of indeterminate age and relation who offer sharp contrasts in behavior. Gallant is prone to exhibiting perfect manners; Goofus is selfish, thoughtless, and has even been seen torturing small animals. (Honest: He has stoned birds and once subjected a frog to some disturbing cruelty.)

The two-panel strip has become so ubiquitous that warring ideologies are often described as “Goofus and Gallant” types. If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s more to Gallant than being a goody two-shoes or whether Goofus is flirting with juvenile delinquency, check out our round-up of the pair’s storied history.

1. THEY USED TO BE ELVES.

Goofus and Gallant

Goofus and Gallant were the creation of Garry Cleveland Myers, a child psychologist and popular syndicated parental advice columnist. Myers debuted the strip, then known as the The G-Twins, in Children’s Activities magazine in 1938. While the twosome were already displaying their radically different approaches to life, Myers depicted them as fanciful creatures with pointed ears and curly-toed shoes. No one is quite sure why Myers opted for the fairy tale aesthetic, although one theory is that he wanted to depict bad behavior rather than bad children.

After Myers and wife Caroline started Highlights for six- to 12-year-old readers in 1946, they were eventually able to acquire the rights to the strip. Goofus and Gallant debuted in their magazine in 1948; by 1952, they had morphed into two regular kids. Their parents lost the elf ears, too.

2. THEY MAY HAVE BEEN BASED ON REAL KIDS.

Highlights turned into a family enterprise, with the Myers’s children and grandchildren having a hand in its publication. In 1995, Kent Brown Jr., the Myers’s grandson, told the Los Angeles Times that he was the inspiration for Goofus and that his cousin, Garry Myers III, was the model for Gallant. Myers III denied the accusation. “Kent gets great glee out of claiming to be Goofus," he said. Brown later stated that all of Myers's 13 grandchildren helped inform the characters.

3. ONE ARTIST DREW THE STRIP FOR 32 YEARS.

Goofus and Gallant

Once Myers secured the rights to the two characters for Highlights, he enlisted illustrator Marion Hull Hammel to draw their adventures (and misadventures), taking them from the elfin creatures of the early days to the human boys of the 1950s and beyond. Hammel wound up drawing it for 32 years; Sidney Quinn took over when she retired and worked on it through 1995. Current artist Leslie Harrington has been on the strip since 2006. 

4. GALLANT GETS HATE MAIL.

While the recurring theme of Goofus and Gallant is to exercise the Golden Rule, not all juvenile readers are on board with Gallant’s impeccable manners. "I got a letter from an attorney who'd grown up with the feature," Rich Wallace, the magazine's then-coordinating editor, told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “He had something he wanted to get off his chest: 'Gallant was a wussy.'" Other readers have expressed similar disdain for Gallant, observing that they identify more with Goofus.

5. GOOFUS IS NOT A SOCIOPATH.

Goofus and Gallant

In the absence of any in-panel clinical diagnosis of Goofus’s reckless behavior—including but not limited to playing with fire, being unkind to peers, and vandalizing school books—we’re left with the editorial directives of Highlights. In a 1993 interview with the Chicago Tribune, magazine publicist Tom White admitted that Goofus is a “surly, uncooperative, ill-mannered child” but that "he is not a sociopath.” Good to know!

6. THEY’VE BEEN FEATURED IN ROUGHLY A BILLION ISSUES.

Discounting the two years they were absent from Highlights from 1946 to 1948, the antics of Goofus and Gallant have appeared without fail in every subsequent issue. In 2006, the magazine celebrated its 60th anniversary by shipping its one billionth copy. The magazine went from selling 20,000 copies of its first issue to averaging 2.6 million readers a month in the 1990s.

7. ONE EDITOR’S THEORY WILL BLOW YOUR MIND.

Goofus and Gallant

When Goofus and Gallant began their broadly-drawn moral plays in the 1950s, they were depicted as identical twins. Later on, editors for Highlights indicated the two were brothers, but not twins. By 1995, they were simply two unrelated boys. But according to former coordinating editor Rich Wallace, the two might actually be part of a Fight Club-style twist. “I’ve theorized they’re two sides of the same kid,” he said.

We were so awed by this possibility that we asked Highlights editor Judy Burke if it held any water. "We show the boys with different parents in the panels and they look slightly different from each other," she says. More recently, the two have seemed to become aware of the other's existence. "In April 2016, we had them breaking through their respective art panels and pranking each other for April Fools’ Day, which they couldn’t have done if they were the same child."

That doesn't mean that readers can't have an existential crisis of their own. "Each time we run Goofus and Gallant, we include the line, 'There’s some of Goofus and Gallant in us all,'" Burke says. "When the Gallant shines through, we show our best self.  We also include a few 'Goofus and Gallant Moments' from kids, where they tell us about times when they felt like either Goofus or Gallant. These two aspects of the feature support the theory that both characters reside within the same individual, and it’s up to that person to choose how to behave."

All images courtesy of Highlights for Children and used with permission.

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