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.