Don't believe the hype that kids should be sheltered from learning and talking about difficult topics. They are eager to learn! These graphic novels about tough topics tackle subjects like mental health, illness, addiction, identity, racism and microaggressions.
Graphic novels are an excellent medium though which to talk to kids about tough issues. The interplay between illustrations and text provide a dynamic reading experience that draws in even the most reluctant reader.
Just because these graphic novels tackle tough topics and serious subjects (I love a bit of alliteration) doesn't mean they don't contain humor or heartwarming messages. Several of these books are memoirs, which can help give further validation to readers who may be going through similar experiences.
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Graphic Novels for Kids about Tough Subjects
Sunny Side Up (series) by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm
This graphic novel is a wonderful book to gently introduce the subject of addiction and how it affects families. Sunny is sent to spend the summer with her Grandfather in Florida. She's not too thrilled with living in an "old person's" neighborhood but she meets Buzz, and the two of them have some crazy adventures you could only have in Florida! Sunny is certain that there is a mysterious reason she has been sent away to Gramps' place and later she learns that her older brother is struggling with substance abuse. I like the message that addiction should not be kept secret but addressed out in the open so people can heal. Ages 9 and up.
Stealing Home by J. Torres and David Namisato
Topic: Japanese Internment Camps, Racism
Sandy Saito's family lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Sandy loves baseball, and especially going to games with his dad to watch the Vancouver Asahi team play. In 1941, the Canadian government places restrictions on Japanese Canadians, including forcing families like Sandy's into internment camps. Life in the camp is hard, and Sandy uses baseball as a way to help him manage his new reality. Ages 9 and up.
MORE: Graphic Novels about Sports
The Golden Hour by Nikki Smith
Topic: PTSD, anxiety
Manuel witnesses an attack on his art teacher, which leaves him with trauma-induced anxiety. He loves taking photos and uses photography as a way to help him cope with panic attacks and flashbacks. His friendship with Sebastian and Caysh, with whom he works on a school project, furthers the healing process, especially when he spends time on Sebastian's family's cattle ranch. I like the positive message about the importance of connecting with friends and finding solace in art and the outdoors. Ages 9 and up.
Living with Viola by Rosena Fung
Topic: Anxiety, Depression, Microaggressions
Chinese-Canadian Livy is the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong. Even though she has activities she enjoys and is finally starting to make friends at her new school, she feels plagued by feelings of self-doubt, anxiety and depression. These feelings manifest as Viola, an imaginary version of Livy that constantly tries to undermine her with negative feedback. Viola is visually represented in dark grays, in contrast to Livy's brightly colored life. Livy wrestles with how to handle her emotions and finally decides to seek support by revealing her struggles to others. Ages 9 and up.
MORE: Middle Grade Books that address Mental Health
A Tale As Tall As Jacob
Topic: ADHD, Sibling Rivalry
When Samantha's brother Jacob was born, he was adorable, but as he begins to walk and talk things take a turn. Jacob's ADHD means he struggles with impulsive behavior and although Samantha loves her brother, she finds it hard to connect with him. She notices, however, that Jacob's personality, fearlessness and curiosity helps Samantha through some tight spots and may even help her break out of her comfort zone. I especially appreciated how nurturing the parents were, supporting the needs of both Jacob and Samantha. Ages 8 and up.
MORE: Middle Grade Books told from the POV of Neurodiverse Characters
Stargazing by Jen Wang
Topic: Illness, Cultural Identity
This was such a lovely story. Christine's mom invites a single parent and her daughter, Moon, to live in their guest house. Christine and Moon couldn't be more opposite on the outside but learn they have more in common than they thought. Soon Moon shares a secret with Christine; she has visions from celestial beings. Moon's visions turn out to be a symptom of a serious medical condition and Christine finds her friendship tested and must rise to the occasion. Ages 8 and up.
Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen
Topic: Tough Emotions, Grief
One day when Willow feels overwhelmed by difficult emotions, she runs away to the woods where she meets Pilu, a tree spirit. Pilu is lost and sad because she thinks her mother doesn't love here. When Willow realizes Pilu's home is a familiar magnolia grove, Willow offers to help Pilu find her way back. Both characters must face their feelings and overcome their fears. Simply wonderful. Ages 8 and up.
MORE: Graphic Novels with No Violence
Consent (for Kids!): Boundaries, Respect, and Being in Charge of YOU by Rachel Brian
Topic: Consent, Boundaries
Hands down, this is the best book on the subject of consent and respecting physical boundaries I have read. The comic book format, simple but clever illustrations, and the witty humor make a tough subject very approachable. I highly recommend parents start reading this book to children as young as 4. You will want to adjust your conversations appropriately, of course. I even read it out loud with my then-11 year old and he had some insightful observations. A must read. Ages 4 (with a parent) and up.
MORE: Children's Books about Consent
Zenobia by Morten Dürr, illustrated by Lars Horneman
Topics: War, Refugees
In this short graphic novel and with very few words, Dürr and Horneman tell the story of Amina, a Syrian girl who flees the violence in Syria. The book opens with Amina on a boat filled with refugees. Amina falls overboard and as she is enveloped in water, we learn her story through her memories. When Amina's parents din't return home, her uncle told her to leave and gave her money for the journey. Amina also thinks of her parents, playing and cooking with her mother, and the story of Zenobia, a strong Syrian Queen who defeated the Romans. Ages 9 and up.
MORE: Middle Grade Books about Refugees
Hidden: A Child's Story of the Holocaust by Loïc Dauvillier, Greg Salsedo, and Marc Lizano
Topic: The Holocaust
This is an extraordinarily touching book, and a very child-appropriate tale of the Holocaust. Dounia tells her granddaughter her experience of being hidden during WWII in France when her parents were taken to concentration camps. The brilliance of this book is we hear and see the story from the viewpoint of both child and grandparent, with key points told through illustrations that compel the reader to ask more questions and analyze for themselves what is happening. Ages 9 and up.
MORE: Children's Books about the Holocaust
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
I could not put down this graphic novel memoir. Jamieson and Mohamed tell the story of Mohamed's experience as a refugee living in a camp in Kenya. Readers will learn of the difficult life in a refugee camp but relate to the hopes of Omar and Hassan. Omar faces tough choices that could affect his future as well as his family and although the experiences of Omar and Hassan are likely to never be known by most readers of this book, readers will not soon forget them. Ages 9 and up.
MORE: Graphic Novels with Diverse Protagonists
New Kid (series) by Jerry Craft
Topics: Bullying, Prejudice, Microaggressions
After I brought this book home from the library, my son loved it and read it ten times in a row! I'm not surprised because after I read it, I realized how nuanced this story is. Art-loving Jordan navigates a new school as one of the few kids of color in his seventh grade class. Craft's story offers much to discover, even after multiple readings. There are now two sequels Class Act, and School Trip. Ages 8 and up.
MORE: Wonderful Middle School Graphic Novels
Guts by Raina Telegemeier
Telgemeier's funny and relatable autobiographical graphic novel illustrates the story of Raina's struggle with anxiety. What she thinks is a run-of-the-mill stomach bug turns into a long term issue. As it happens, her worries about friendships and school issues are manifesting themselves as tummy troubles. Even if they don't experience the same crushing stress and anxiety as Raina, readers will understand what it's like to have feelings of self-doubt during the trying years of adolescence. Ages 8 and up.
MORE: Books for Readers Who Love Raina Telgemeier
Go with the Flow by Karen Schneemann, illustrated by Lily Williams
In this clever and amusing graphic novel, a group of girls are fed up with their school's emphasis on boys' sports, not to mention that the feminine hygiene dispenser in the bathroom is always empty. The girls work together through the ups and downs of every aspect of high school life: crushes, dances, sports, friendships, and more, in order to create a period-positive environment for everyone. An extra fun touch is the red tone of the illustrations! Ages 9 and up.
Other Boys by Damian Alexander
Topics: Bullying, Loss of Parents, Gender Identity
Author Damian Alexander's graphic novel memoir will speak to every middle schooler who has tried to figure out how to navigate school while managing complicated emotions. Damian is entering seventh grade and to deal with his trauma over past bullying, he decides to stop talking. After the death of his mother, he now lives with his grandparents and is beginning to confront new feelings he has towards other boys. Damian's history is revealed through flashbacks. His conversations with a therapist and a few new friendships help him cope.
Borders by Thomas King, illustrated by Natasha Donovan
Topics: Injustice, National Identity
A mother sets out with her son to visit her daughter in Salt Lake City. When asked for her citizenship at the border, the mother responds, "Blackfoot." She will not identify as Canadian and so is refused entry to the United States. When turning around to re-enter Canada, she is also refused entry and the pair sits in limbo between countries. Kings' beautiful and careful storytelling asks readers to think about nationhood, Indigenous peoples, identity and justice. Absolutely brilliant. Ages 8 and up.
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Topic: Addiction, Absent Parents
This is a sensitive and urgent graphic novel memoir about the author's experience growing up. His mother is an addict, his father is unknown and so he lives with his grandparents. Krosoczka draw a picture of a childhood that is both chaotic and warm. Through the experience Krosoczka learns how to find his way and express himself through his art. Readers will be intrigued reading the memoir of the author who wrote such books as Lunch Lady and Jedi Academy.
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