As sales of middle grade graphic novels continue to grow, publishers are bringing the format to a younger audience, with a new wave of graphic novels for early readers, ages four to eight. Within the past year, the number of graphic novels aimed at the youngest readers has increased sharply, including titles such as My Pencil and Me by Sara Varon (First Second); Donut Feed the Squirrels by Mika Song (RH Graphic); Pea, Bee & Jay by Brian “Smitty” Smith (HarperAlley); Baloney and Friends by Greg Pizzoli (Little, Brown); and Dewdrop by Katie O’Neill (Oni)—with more on the way.

Established authors are getting into the act as well: Jonathan Stutzman and Heather Fox, creators of Llama Destroys the World, are launching a new series, Fitz and Cleo, this May at Henry Holt. Beak & Ally, which debuted from HarperAlley in January, is by Norm Feuti, author of The King of Kazoo. And the Baby-Sitters Little Sister graphic novels, launched last year by Scholastic Graphix, are already bestsellers.

Though many publishers prefer standalone graphic novels for early readers, others are bringing the graphic format to existing brands: HarperCollins’s I Can Read Comics, Simon & Schuster’s Little Simon Graphics and Ready-to-Read Graphics, and Holiday House’s I Like to Read Comics will all launch in 2021. The educational publisher Capstone, which has published My First Graphic Novel books for more than a decade, added a second early readers line, Discover Graphics, earlier this year.

The first graphic novels specifically designed for early readers were Françoise Mouly’s Toon Books, which launched in 2007 and whose titles have won numerous library and industry awards over the years. More recently, the success of Ben Clanton’s Narwhal and Jelly series (Tundra), which are pitched at readers ages six and up, has caught editors’ attention.

“Just as [Raina Telgemeier’s] Smile turned us on to an entire category, the popularity of Narwhal and Jelly is something publishers are clearly hoping to emulate,” says Andrea Colvin, editorial director of graphic novels at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “There are three or four times more early reader graphic novels that have been announced but not yet published than those in the market right now.”

The Narwhal and Jelly books led Michelle Nagler, v-p and associate publishing director of Random House Children’s Books, to start thinking about extending graphic novels down to younger readers. “The graphic novel moment had begun,” she says, “but we were starting to see it in that younger chapter book space.” Random House launched two early reader graphic novel series in 2020: Stephen Shaskan’s Pizza and Taco in May and Brian Yanish’s Shark and Bot in September. Two more will debut in 2021: Mélanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel in May and Vikram Madan and Nicola Slater’s Bobo and Pup-Pup in September.

“All the parents I know tell me there’s tremendous interest in graphic novels from their younger readers,” says David Saylor, editorial director of Scholastic’s Graphix graphic novel imprint. “But not all younger readers are ready to dive into a book by Raina Telgemeier, Kazu Kibuishi, or Jeff Smith. We feel there’s a real need, and room on the shelves, for graphic novels more directly tailored for emerging readers.” Graphix recently launched its own young readers line, for “newly independent readers” ages six and up, with Jess Keating’s Bunbun & Bonbon, Kevin Sherry’s Squidding Around, and James Kochalka’s Banana Fox.

Some of these books overlap with Graphix’s middle grade titles, such as the Dog Man series, which is targeted for ages seven to nine. “Categorizing kid readers is always a bit tricky, because I think all children read things that are below their age level, at their age level, and above their age level, often all at the same time,” Saylor says. “At the end of the day, these distinctions end up being a general guide so that parents can make buying decisions and retailers can figure out where to shelve the books. These new books are kid friendly and kid focused, and absolutely appeal to fans of Dog Man. So in short, I do feel it’s an overlapping audience.”

Colvin sees the category as encompassing several different age levels. “I think there are actually a few types of early reader graphic novels,” she says, “ranging from the very young—maybe the book you read right after Elephant and Piggie—to the just pre-middle-grade—the book you read right before Dog Man. And these represent rungs on the ladder from pre-reader to reader.”

The increased acceptance of graphic novels led Capstone to create Discover Graphics, which associate publisher Beth Brezenoff describes as a bit more sophisticated than its My First Graphic Novels line, which launched in 2009. “Discover Graphics still assume you are not quite at the point where you can read the big kid graphic novels,” she says, “but because it’s been 10 years, we think there is a little more general knowledge of graphic novels, so we have elevated the art style a bit. We want them to look a bit more like the big siblings’ graphic novels.”

Formats with kid appeal

Though publishers are using several different approaches for early readers, all agree on some basics. “Simply, simplify, simplify,” says Sarah Gaydos, editor-in-chief of Oni Press. “Really think about how this book is going to be enjoyed: likely with an adult reading to the kid at first, and then hopefully they are able to enjoy it themselves. Keep vocabulary on the younger edge of things; [use] fewer panels and super-clear storytelling.”

Format is also important. The Random House titles are paper-over-board hardcovers with a 6 1/2” × 8 1/2” trim size that makes them feel more like graphic novels than picture books. All are chapter books. “Chapters lend a sense of accomplishment,” Nagler says. “They lend a structure to the story.” The early reader books are shorter than middle grade graphic novels, and they have fewer panels and simpler vocabulary.

While Random House Graphic publishing director Gina Gagliano doesn’t have strict guidelines for authors of books for early readers, she does discuss reading levels and storytelling with them. “One of the things we think about is how many characters are talking in a panel,” she says, “because we want to get that one comprehensible moment at a time, so kids are able to easily follow the story without people having a back and forth conversational exchange within a single panel.”

Andrew Arnold, editorial director of HarperAlley, also emphasizes clarity in storytelling. “The reader should always know who’s speaking/thinking/narrating, how to move from one panel to the next, and how to decipher a particular character’s pose and/or expression,” he says. “And even though these books are for beginning readers, I also think it’s important to avoid exposition as much as possible. The beauty of comics storytelling is its ability to communicate through both illustrations and text, so while the two should reinforce each other, they should enhance each other as well.”

This interdependence between text and art makes graphic novels particularly appropriate for early readers, says Karen MacPherson, children’s and teen services coordinator at the Takoma Park (Md.) Library. “One of the frustrations of a beginning reader is that when you are sounding out the words, you are losing the thread of the story,” she notes. “In the traditional beginning reader, words are paramount, and pictures provide detail. Toon Books made the pictures paramount and words provide the detail. For many young readers who are struggling, that makes a big difference. They can keep track of the story and are eager to learn the words.”

Indeed, Mouly says she got the idea to create comics for early readers when her son was learning to read. In the early readers she saw, the text simply repeated what was in the pictures. Comics, on the other hand, use text, pictures, onomatopoeia, gestures and facial expressions, even the way the panels are arranged.

“All of these together tell a story,” Mouly says, “and if a kid is not understanding one word, it’s one word in a symphony, so you start understanding the story through the context, which is exactly what reading is. It’s creating that context and putting the pieces together. All the early readers were doing the opposite—they were isolating the words.”

When she first tested Toon Books in classrooms, Mouly observed that students would quickly understand the story and even read the dialogue with the correct intonations. “At the end,” she says, “the teacher often asked, ‘What was your favorite part?’—and the kids knew exactly their favorite parts. They were uncannily perceptive about coming to the turning points and climaxes of the story.”

In terms of content, there’s a strong trend in early reader graphic novels toward humor, often involving animals, food, or animals named after foods. Most are structured as series because, as Nagler says, “we know when a kid loves a character at this level, they really want to stay with them.”

Though some of the publishers who are extending their leveled-reader lines to include graphic novels are building on existing series, Holiday House is taking a different approach with its I Like to Read Comics, says v-p and editor-in-chief Mary Cash. “Our I Like to Read Comics are originals,” she notes. “We view the format of picture book and graphic novel readers as quite distinct. These formats are telling stories in different ways. Although the art strongly supports the texts in our I Like to Read series and in many cases is essential to the plots, character development, and settings of those picture books, pictures in graphic novels play an even more integral role. Graphic Readers provide a more cinematic experience that requires and helps develop more kinds of visual skills such as sequencing, imaging, and reading facial and body cues.”

Regardless of publishers’ approaches, it’s clear that young readers are not only ready but eager to dive into graphic novels. MacPherson sees preschoolers pulling middle grade graphic novels off the shelves, attracted by the colorful artwork, and deciphering the story through the pictures. And as the field has evolved, so have the gatekeepers.

“Parents and gift givers are much less likely to show aversion to comics and are handily using the term ‘graphic novel,’ ” says bookseller Griffin Mauser of BookPeople in Austin, Tex. “While they continue to encourage chapter book reading, they are slowly becoming aware of the value and depth of quality graphic work, and increasingly recognizing its bridging effects [to other books]. For the youngest, these are serving as alternative readers and first chapter books.”

What’s next? While young readers are snapping up stories about animals and snack foods doing silly things, Gagliano sees more variety on the horizon. “The next step is you’re going to get all sorts of different stories, from mysteries to stories about people to the sweet, quiet, thoughtful stories that you find in so many picture books,” she says. “There’s definitely something in the category that is working, and now it’s time to branch out and try more things.”

Brigid Alverson is a comics journalist and the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog.