Brilliant worlds. Or, we need to talk about graphic novels


Mr Fullerman's beady eyes from Tom Gates

For reasons which may not become apparent for a few years (if at all), I’m currently immersing myself in the world of graphic novels. Comics of a certain type have always been a sideline interest, but a whole new world has opened up for me thanks to my illustrator friend Paula Knight, whose graphic memoir The Facts of Life, will be published next year. This world of graphic medicine explores how healthcare and comics can interact, and even inform medical practice – it’s absolutely fascinating stuff.

In the last few weeks I have read a whole raft of graphic novels related to health or illness (which is less depressing than it sounds), spent a day at a Guardian masterclass with such comics luminaries as Paul Gravett and Karrie Fransman, heard Katie Green talk about her brilliant memoir of her eating disorder, Lighter than my Shadow (I’m making no apologies for being a bit of a fangirl around Katie) and made a trip to the British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition.

So far so (mildly) interesting you may think, but what has this got to do with the essential point of this blog, which is children’s books? Funnily enough, despite all of the above being focussed on comics which are very much for adults, it’s all made me think more about the children’s book world – albeit in a different way than I do normally.

The BL exhibition left me wondering two things: why isn’t there more emphasis on the progression from children’s books to comics, and why aren’t children’s books exploring the graphic novel form? Of course picture books are the obvious means by which children learn to read in a pictorial way. But then something shifts – some kind of higher power seems to dictate that when children are reading fluently themselves, they ‘should’ be reading books with fewer pictures, and at the next stage, with no pictures at all. My son has been questioning the infrequency of pictures in the books he’s now reading, and – perhaps not coincidently – has also discovered comics, and can be found most days lying on his bed reading The Dandy or The Beano.

Brilliant World of Tom Gates front cover

Brilliant World of Tom Gates front cover

Which brings me to the completely and utterly Brilliant World of Tom Gates. There have been some great illustrated YA books (the best example being A Monster Calls, which I often rave about), but they’re very much rooted in the picture book tradition. Tom Gates is different – it’s funny, it’s quirky, it’s a bit subversive – it is a progression from pictures books, but also rooted in the comic tradition. It doesn’t use the convention of frames, it freely intersperses narrative and drawings, and there aren’t many speech bubbles, but if there’s one thing I took away from the graphic novel masterclass it was that there are no rules in this genre.

Tom Gates is essentially a graphic novel for kids.* It’s also a perfect bridge for fluent and older readers between picture books (too babyish) and ‘proper’ novels (no pictures). What’s more, it’s wildly popular with readers of about 8 upwards, and has catapulted its (already well-established) author Liz Pichon into the children’s uber-author territory of those such as Julia Donaldson, Jacqueline Wilson and Anthony Horowitz.

We need more Tom Gates’s. Come on children’s book world, you’re missing a trick. We talk about picture books, we talk about middle grade, we talk about YA. Let’s start talking about the graphic novel!

 *The other obvious example to use would be Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but a) I haven’t yet read it and b) it’s aimed at a slightly older age group, so I’m not including it here.

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The Seven Ages of Picture Books

I recently wrote a guest post for the wonderful Picture Book Den blog. If you’re an author, illustrator or reader of picture books the blog’s a great read, as some fantastic picture books authors write for it regularly. This post is an edited version of the one that appeared there.

A selection from the 'Seven Ages'

A selection from the ‘Seven Ages’

My daughter is almost seven, and takes any and every opportunity to read. She will happily get through a book a day, and we make weekly library visits to replenish her supply. Current favourites are anything by Holly Webb, the pervasive Rainbow Fairies, Mr Gum, and the first ‘Little House’ books. Regular readers of this blog will know that she’s flown in wishing chairs and climbed up faraway trees and that she and I are working our way through the Narnia series (almost done). Her reading is fluent and sophisticated; she’s done with picture books.

Or so I assumed. Yet when I read to my children, my daughter invariably chooses a picture book, and listens enraptured. She never says, “too babyish” or “picture books are boring”. She listens to the story and investigates the illustrations with as much fascination as her just-reading younger brother.  I watched her class listening to their teacher reading them a John Burningham book the other day, and I considered this enduring appeal of picture books to older, literate children, and their presence in my adult life. It’s almost as if there are seven ages of picture books.

First age

My daughter’s first ‘reading’ experience was My Bunny Book. It’s a cloth book in bright colours, containing different sound and touch effects – crinkly bunny ears, boingy bunny leaps, strokable bunny fur. It’s tactile, dribble- and rip-proof, designed for chewing, grabbing, scrunching and bashing. The first age is all about wonder, discovery and curiosity, laying the vital foundations for a book-reading life.

Second age

This is the golden age of picture books. Now it’s all about real pleasure and appreciation – sharing books, understanding and discovering the absolute joy that stories can give. It’s the age of “Again!” “Read it!” and “More!” when 12 pages of short sentences or even single words become embedded within a parents’ consciousness, and libraries come into their own. It’s when you don’t just read, but talk about stories, characters and illustrations together, and children delight in discovering that there are other children (human or animal) that are like them.

Third age

My son is learning to read, and loves spotting words when I’m reading to him. In this third age of picture book reading a new world opens up, where a child can take control of their reading, and become more independent in their enjoyment of stories. It also adds another layer of interaction between adult and child – when I read to my son now, we share the experience in a more active way, and he can start to make the telling his own by using a different voice to mine.

This third age is also about stories taking on deeper meanings and enabling children to deal with life challenges and concepts. Of course such issues can be approached using picture books when they’re younger, but it seems that during this third age picture books offer a safe, non-threatening way to explore concepts and feelings that children can’t articulate. Recently, I read my children The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside, and I have rarely seen my daughter sit so completely still. I could almost feel the intensity of her interest in it, and it made me realise that perhaps there were anxieties that she felt unable to share which were being addressed by the book.

Fourth age

Now comes the pleasure of picking up a favourite picture book and actually being able to read it to yourself, rather than waiting for someone else to do it for you. The book is there to discover or re-discover for yourself, completely on your own. A child in this fourth age of picture-book reading has moved into that wonderful and everlasting realm of I’m Reading My Book.

Fifth age

This is where my daughter is now, a fluent, voracious reader, working her way through the middle-grade bookshelf. And yet she returns again and again to picture books, perhaps to re-create that security and comfort she felt as a baby or toddler being held close by a parent, when she didn’t have the responsibilities or requirements of school or friendships to manage and negotiate. She enjoys me telling her that Dear Zoo was one of her favourites, or that she loved the Blue Kangaroo books, in the same way as she loves looking at her baby photos.

Sixth and seventh ages

These are the adult ages. The sixth is all about nostalgia – I have shelves full of books that I owned as a child, the oldest being One Morning in Maine, which was given to me in 1973 on my third birthday. Many I have read to my own children, all three of us feeling the specialness of ‘mummy’s books when she was a little girl’. I have my own childhood memories and feelings bound up in them – I often find that memories are triggered by illustrations in a favourite picture book. Which leads me on to the seventh age – the reading of picture books to one’s own children, re-experiencing old ones, and discovering new ones.

I have written picture books, blogged about them, and read them to my children every day of their lives so far. And yet I have underestimated their power. Picture books lay the foundations of our future and become a constant in our lives, as enduring as the seven ages of life itself.