Back when I was a bookseller, and for the last two or three library positions I’ve worked at, I’ve had to recommend comics titles for kids–in two cases, I was not working anywhere near public services or collection development, but I was asked for recommendations as soon as I mentioned that I read comics, as comics are hot in libraries, but comics-reading librarians are still in short supply. Embarrassingly, though, youth titles are my weakest area; I just don’t read that many of them, and when I do, I’m not reading them in mind of their suitability for youth.
One of my sisters has a Master’s in Children’s Literature, and secondhand exposure to her education has led to a lot of overthinking on my part when I’m trying to recommend kids comics. So I always feel a little under-equipped dealing with them, because as a selfish adult reader, what I’m constantly looking for is glimmers of adulthood in those books–complex plotting, elegant art, darkness, sophistication–and I get excited when I see them, so excited that I sometimes forget that what makes a book a good grown-up book isn’t necessarily right in a kids’ book. The first service of children’s comics is not adult readers like me, but to children.
As obvious as that is, people miss it a lot. Children’s TV shows like Barney and Teletubbies frequently draw mockery for their simplicity and their innocence–qualities that are perfectly appropriate in material created for toddlers. Works that mix the more innocuous elements of adult appeal in with appeal to children can pull double duty–Calvin and Hobbes was pretty successful at mixing the childlike imagination with adult observations, creating a comic that could be sincerely enjoyed on several levels–but I do wonder whether that actually makes them any better as works for children. (I’d guess that a great portion of C&H’s enduring popularity with my generation is due to the fact that the adult perspective mixed into the child’s adventure gives nostalgic adult re-readers something to enjoy beyond the nostalgia itself.)
One of my favorite recommendations as a core YA manga title is Hikaru no Go, but I must confess that I like it as much as I do because it’s so solidly crafted, not because it taps into my latent childish imagination. And honestly, craft and skill weren’t all that high on my list of priorities when I looked for books as a kid–I certainly reacted to, say, the lively, funny, expressive quality of Berkeley Breathed’s cartooning in Bloom County, but I didn’t register the level of skill required to produce it until much, much later. It impresses me now on an intellectual level I just didn’t have when my brain was still a work in progress. I’ve had some good luck suggesting gorgeously made children’s comics to children and their parents, but I’ve also had some serious failures–the universal rejection of Jeff Smith’s Bone by the YA graphic novel club I used to co-host springs to mind–and I have had to learn to swallow it, and not push my adult aesthetic sensibilities on child readers.
(Incidentally, I love Bone, with all its whimsy and frolicking fun, but I wouldn’t love it as much if not for the way that the unsettling nightmares and the darkness permeate the thing. However, though the interplay of light humor and of horror in Bone is one of the highlights for me now, I think I would have been less enthusiastic as a child; I had a much lower appreciation for the sense of creeping terror when I was ten years old. Other ten-year-olds might certainly feel otherwise.)
In the vein of adult sensibilities, I really enjoyed these Thought Balloonist essays on a set of TOON books—Charles Hatfield’s essay here, and Craig Fischer’s response–not least for Fischer’s comment that despite his and Hatfield’s lack of ardor for them, “I suspect….that kids might be more enthusiastic about these books than us crabby old adults are.” But the key bit I am thinking of is in one of Hatfield’s observations on Silly Lilly, which had been praised for its deceptive simplicity: “Not to be curmudgeonly, but the flatness of the approach seems to me to invite a rather adult construction of childhood ‘simplicity.'”
I gather that’s not an uncommon pitfall in writing for children–that is, talking down to children when trying to invoke a child’s point of view. I had a similar thought while reading Guibert and Sfar’s very precious Sardine in Outer Space–there seemed to be too much winking and nodding about the formula of a child’s adventure story for the book to sincerely be a child’s adventure story. But, as my sister pointed out to me, affected childishness doesn’t necessarily stop children from enjoying a book. She cited Peter Pan to me as a classic example: it’s a condescending meta-commentary about children’s imaginations, winking at adult readers, but simultaneously it’s a very successful children’s story with demonstrable staying power and a significant hold on our cultural imagination.
Ultimately, when it comes to actually trying to match up kids to kids’ comics, I try to take my cue from what other children appear to actually enjoy, as we modern librarian-types do. I don’t trust my natural judgment in this area–at the end of the day, I like adult comics, and I like them for their adult qualities–but I’m not interested enough to cultivate the real critical perspective on the field that would better equip me to navigate children’s publishing. Blah.