It’s no secret that curating an exciting and engaging reading list for kids is a crucial step to fostering their love of books in their preteen years and beyond. But while you’re adding kid-lit classics and school-mandated reading to their bookshelves and e-readers, make sure to include a few of the biggest and best graphic novels, too. While some parents may have balked at the idea of comics as worthy reading in the past, the genre has exploded in recent years to include everything from long-running high-fantasy series to non-fiction historical texts. And graphic novels are often considered the perfect jumping off point for kids of all ages and fans of any genre, from bookworms to more reluctant readers—especially among those kids for whom visual learning has proven to be a key to success. Whether you’re already convinced of the merits of the genre or are still a little dubious, there’s no better way to discover the hilarious fun, heartwarming depth, and countless opportunities for continued learning that graphic novels can inspire than to read them together as a family.
We’ve curated a list of some of the best graphic novels for middle grade readers below—from fantasy mainstays like Ben Hatke’s Mighty Jack to contemporary standouts like Jen Wang’s Stargazing—that make the perfect plots for kids and their parents to read together. Whether you want to bond through laughing at the wacky exploits of crimefighting alligators and man-eating pumpkins, or you’re hoping to open up discussion to bigger issues like bullying, cultural differences, and fitting in among wildly changing friend groups, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for in the graphic novels below. Whether you decide to read together before bedtime or peruse separately and then discuss thoughts and feelings afterwards, you just might find that the easily digestible graphic novel format can lead to endlessly rewarding emotional and mental growth—and of course, tons of fun for kids and adults, alike.
Stargazing by Jen Wang
Chinese-American middle schoolers Moon and Christine might have grown up in the same suburb, but the two girls couldn’t be more different. In this charming and heartfelt graphic novel, sheltered perfectionist Christine isn’t sure what to make of the impulsive, confident Moon—a Buddhist vegetarian who loves K-Pop and just might be an alien. But when Moon’s family moves in next door, the unlikely duo form a friendship through perennial preteen activities like watching music videos and secretly painting their toenails. Just as Christine has begun to rely on Moon, catastrophe strikes, and Christine must find the strength to overcome her own insecurities and become the friend Moon needs. Crucial conversations about the pressure kids feel to be “Asian enough” will make for educational moments—both for young readers who can relate to these feelings themselves and those who will foster more understanding of those who do.
InvestiGators by John Patrick Green
Meet Mango and Brash, the super spy alligator duo who are fighting crime one delightfully funny frame at a time. When they’re assigned to the case of missing chef Gustavo Mustachio, the pair go undercover at Mustachio’s bakery, Batter Down. But while on their first mission together, they’re called away on another urgent case at the Science Factory. Now they’ll have to put their “Very Exciting Spy Technology” to the test to solve not just one, but two mega mysteries! Fans of Mo Willems’s Elephant & Piggie books—especially those who are ready to take their reading to the next level—will fall hard for the similarly silly dynamic between Mango and Brash, while mystery enthusiasts will be enthralled by the goofy crimefighters. Parents reading along with their kids are sure to laugh out loud at John Patrick Green’s witty wordplay and tongue-in-cheek humor. The first in a series (Vol. 2 is due out later this year and Vol. 3 is coming in 2021) that your kids will no doubt devour as quickly as one of Chef Gustavo’s world-famous cupcakes.
Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke
In this modern retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack is dreading summer vacation—his single mom is working two jobs and Jack will have to take care of his little sister, Maddy, who has autism and is nonverbal. Until a miracle happens at a local flea market: Maddy speaks, telling Jack to trade in their mom’s car keys for a box of magical seeds. When the seeds spawn a fantastical jungle containing everything from biting pink pumpkins to a dragon, Jack’s summer becomes much more adventurous than he ever could have imagined. Fantasy and fairytale lovers will adore the mythical aspects of this graphic novel, while parents will love the subtle way Hatke tackles the bigger topics of unique families, sibling relationships, and ability diversity. There are three volumes in the beloved series so far—including a crossover adventure with Zita the Spacegirl, the heroine from Hatke’s other middle grade graphic novel series—so voracious bookworms will have a few stories to marathon-read alone, with siblings, or with parents.
Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
When you’re a kid, having “Best Friends Forever” seems so simple—and then you get to middle school. In Hale’s graphic memoir, she explores the topic of shifting friendships through Shannon and Adrienne, two girls who have been inseparable since childhood. But when Adrienne starts hanging out with Jen, the most popular girl in school and the leader of an exclusive clique, the girls’ friendship is thrown into turmoil. Shannon grapples with both the oft-unspoken difficulties of making and keeping healthy friendships and the ever-crucial consequences of bullying. Parents of kids who have had trouble making friends in middle school and want to encourage them to embrace their quirkiness and find others who will appreciate them for what makes them unique will find ample opportunities for crucial conversations in Hale’s frank and compassionate tale, and its sequel, Best Friends.
Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol
Inspired by Brosgol’s own childhood summer camp experience, Be Prepared follows Vera, a working-class Russian girl from the suburbs, who just wants to fit in with her wealthy neighbors. But instead of attending the fancy summer camps her friends favor, she ends up at a Russian camp where she’s sure she’ll finally feel part of the crowd. Of course, things aren’t quite as easy as Vera hoped. Her summer is soon spent navigating “cool girl” drama, Russian history lessons, and nightmarish outhouses. This graphic novel peppers in tons of hilarious hijinks that will have kids laughing out loud, with bigger themes—embracing one’s culture, figuring out where we belong, and cultivating true friendships—that parents will want to encourage discussing. Perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier who are looking for something new.
All Summer Long by Hope Larson
This coming-of-age graphic novel is ideal for readers on the cusp—kids who are not quite ready for the romance-heavy young-adult genre but are craving stories with more emotional depth. It follows 13-year-old Bina, whose summer is off to a rocky start when her best friend, Austin, leaves for soccer camp. When she unexpectedly connects with Austin’s older sister, who shares Bina’s interest in music, things start to look up—until Austin returns, and things between them are weirder than ever. Parents of preteens will recognize the emotional turmoil that many kids this age are experiencing, from evolving friendships to finding their own identities. Filled with diverse characters and families (same-sex couples and single-parent households are depicted without fuss) this is a story many kids will see themselves in—and it’s a great one for parents to read, too, and use as a jumping off point to discuss the fraught kid to teen transition.
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh
It’s no secret that the world can be a dark and scary place, especially for kids, who are so often left with more questions than answers. Parents looking for a graphic novel that tackles big issues with heart and humor, will find it in this eccentric coming-of-age tale following eponymous heroine Snapdragon Bloom. Snapdragon feels like a bit of an outcast—she lives in a trailer park with her loving single mother and their three-legged dog—and she’s dealing with the daily anxiety and discomfort of trying to find her place in a world that doesn’t quite fit. But when Snapdragon becomes the assistant to her town’s rumored witch, a woman named Jacks—they care for baby possums and learn about the animal world— and makes friends with Lu, a trans girl in her class, Snapdragon begins to discover that there is no one way to be. Messages of inclusivity and embracing all that makes us uniquely magical will inspire kids of all ages.