Readers, we have a special treat for you today. In our most recent Ask Anne Anything episode of What Should I Read Next, I fielded a reader question asking for graphic novel recommendations. Brenna and I briefly discussed the genre, and when she mentioned on-air that she could recommend a few great titles for my TBR we were subsequently FLOODED with requests for her list of favorites.
(It’s not necessary to listen to that episode for context, but those episodes are always fun. If you’ve never listened, give it a try!)
Today, I’m sharing that list. Please enjoy 8 of Brenna’s favorite graphic novels, plus 11 more honorable mention titles to keep you in books for a long, long time.
8 favorite graphic novels to introduce you to the genre
One Hundred Nights of Hero uses the framework of Arabian Nights to write a love letter to women’s relationships with each other. Sisters, mothers, elders, friends, lovers, WOMEN. It manages to somehow be a novel, a short story collection, and a nonfiction social commentary all at once. It is funny, and sharp, and deep, and magical, and lovely, and intensely relevant in a way that is kind of hard to describe. I want everyone to read it. Not every storyline in it has a happy ending, but I found it to be deeply satisfying all the same.
This graphic memoir that will be relatable to anyone who had a childhood passion that ended up getting a little ruined for them. It’s about Tillie Walden’s childhood and teen years as a figure skater, discovering her identity, and hiding from the desire to become an artist. Spinning is one of those graphic works that just flows easily along and no matter how long it was, I could just read it forever. It could be an encyclopedia length account of her entire life from birth to death, and I’d be engaged the whole way.
All of Tillie’s work is beautiful, I can’t wait to get my hands on her newest fiction work On A Sunbeam, published earlier this year.
Fantasy that’s friendly for all! The main character is a touchy shapeshifting troublemaker who becomes the sidekick to a supervillain, Ballister Blackheart, who is out to defeat his ex-best-friend, the local hero Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. There’s a coy little romance subplot if you watch for it, and it’s overall just… a silly joy of a fantasy novel with a heart and a purpose. It was also a National Book Award finalist! If the idea of fantasy is still not your thing, try the trade paperbacks of Noelle Stevenson’s comic series Lumberjanes for feel-good summer camp girl-power and mischief.
France has contributed a lot to graphic-novel classics canon, so it seemed wrong not to include a translated French work in this list. The Initiates follows two men – one a wine maker, and one (the author) a comic artist, who agree to immerse themselves in each other’s worlds for a year. The author works with in the vineyard, learns about aging wine, tasting wine, and selling wine. His friend comes with him to a book printing shop, and begrudgingly reads classic French graphic novels to try to understand where the author’s passion comes from. It’s a very French book—by which I mean leisurely, ponderous, and in touch with the seasons and the land. Well-suited to reading in the fall, with a glass of wine and the changing leaves in eyesight.
I Kill Giants is one of the graphic novels I recommend to absolutely every kind of reader. The story is about a little girl dealing with some serious emotional upheaval (which we slooowwwllly piece together the cause of), and the complex rituals and roleplays that weave through her whole life to feel safe from the uncontrollable thing she fears. It is a deeply moving book about childhood mourning and mental health (award-winning for a reason). Plus there is a SPECTACULAR movie adaptation available on Amazon Prime.
An almost wordless, totally unique graphic work that uses photographs/short letters/found-item collages to tell the Romeo-and-Juliet romance between two teens who come from very different home lives. It’s compulsively readable: set aside an hour or two, because you basically HAVE to read it in one sitting. It’s like the narrative hovers above the pages, invisible, as you pick up new puzzle pieces from the photos and tell the story to yourself. You know those I-Spy books? Chopstick is I-Spy for older readers, plus a heart-tugging narrative.
Something wonderful about graphic novels is that the cover isn’t where the beauty ends—The Witch Boy has gorgeous colors on the cover, and they run through the whole book’s illustrations. This is a middle grade graphic novel about Aster, magical boy in a magical community whose magic isn’t the right kind of magic. His family’s culture says he should be a shapeshifter, but he is drawn to spell-casting in private instead, a practice forbidden for boys. But when shapeshifter boys from the village start disappearing, it’s up to his secret skills and an unexpected friend from the non-magical side of town to save them. If you love underdog stories and kids who follow their hearts, this one’s for you.
We’ve already mentioned Knisley’s book Relish: My Life in the Kitchen on WSIRN, (and then on WSIRN again…) which is a GREAT introduction to her, but really all of her travelogues and graphic journals are wonderful. I give her book Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride as a gift any time a friend of mine gets engaged. She tells the story of her engagement-through-wedding’s-end and all the stress of that season, rearranging her priorities and realizing when she’s making decisions based on what’s expected by her family vs what she and her fianceé want her day to be like. It is a thoughtful, frank, and expectation-setting account of that time of life. She is a master of the fresh-and-candid memoir, preserving her life as it happens, like a photographer in the present instead of a historian looking backward.
• Through The Woods, by Emily Carroll (perfect spooky/unsettling October graphic short stories)
• Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel. Essential reading for the graphic memoir enthusiast, and inspired a Tony-award winning Broadway musical.
• Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki, by Mamoru Hosoda. A cute, unexpectedly emotional stand-alone manga about a single mother and her shapeshifting toddlers.
• The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. A Vietnamese immigrant tells the story of her family’s journey to America, and the multi-generational struggle of being both someone’s child and someone’s parent at the same time.
• The Sweet Tooth series, by Jeff Lemire. A gritty and mystical apocalyptic graphic novel series that I IMMEDIATELY re-read all the way through; it was just that good.
• Maus, by Art Spiegelman. It’s a graphic classic for a reason.
• SuperMutant Magic Academy, by Jillian Tamaki. Fantasy high school vignettes, like if Harry Potter were a collection of indie short films.
• Rosalie Lightning, by Tom Hart. Absolutely devastating, about the author losing his toddler.
• Friends With Boys, by Faith Erin Hicks. The only-mildly-spooky story of a homeschooled girl going to public school for the first time, and the graveyard she passes on her way.
• The Saga series, by Brian K. Vaughan. This will be one of the classic graphic works of this era, a sweeping space opera about a family that refuses to be torn apart. (Be warned, “graphic” is an understatement here, there is adult content.)
• Blankets, Craig Thompson. One of my favorite graphic memoirs of all time, about trauma, church camp, and first loves.
Are you a graphic novel fan? Please tell us all about your favorites in comments!