I can say, without bias, that my seven-year-old niece is the best. She invents words like “jingle-spook,” has a healthy amount of sass, and the most fun family picture poses I’ve ever seen (the secret is varying degrees of surprise in the face and drama in the hands). She’s a dang glitter-laser igniting dusky skies, and now, with much whoa and awe, she’s cracked the world open: she’s learned to read.
For some time now, my curmudgeonly feelings have been receding alongside my hairline, but still, watching my niece read is a way greater experience than I anticipated. She sounds out each letter until BOOM—there’s a whole word, then another, then an entire sparkling diamond of a sentence. And it’s already jumped to another amazing level: she’s started reading comics. Comics!
I find myself evaluating every comic book I read or read about to see if it’s something I can share with my niece. I can’t remember if my brother-in-law asked me for comic recommendations or if they spewed forth without my control upon learning that he and my niece visit comic shops on a regular basis, but I have a running list of niece-comics based on a few criteria:
- Female protagonist(s). I want to introduce my niece to positive female role models, to women who can do the impossible while being emotionally rich and relatable. I want my niece to feel like she can do anything, and I think that dipping into worlds with boss women who can punch walls on fire or toss around space jerks all while dealing with human emotion and conflict can help instill that belief.
- Kid-friendly, of course. While I’d love to be able to talk about “The Wicked + The Divine” or “Rat Queens” with my niece, there’s the issue of all the blood and cursing that I enjoy but may not need to be absorbed into this child’s grade-school chatter or nightmares. Maybe she could handle books intended for adults, but it’s not my call as her uncle.
- Pacing. Anyone who’s hung out with a seven-year-old can tell you that keeping their interest can be difficult. Comic books have the benefit of (often) containing a lot of action and motion despite being a static medium. A good chunk of comics are made with the intention of being exciting. This doesn’t mean explosions or laser sprays have to be in every panel, but, you know, a good helping of exciting things, please. Hopefully a somewhat fast-paced book will promote the idea that reading can be fun. If there’s one thing I’m okay with using the slogan “Hook ‘em while they’re young” for, it’s reading.
- Keeping adults in mind. My brother-in-law reads to, and now with, my niece, so I wanted to keep him and the other adults in my niece’s life in mind with my recommendations. I want her parents to enjoy these comics too, the best-case scenario being that comic books serve to become an activity that might lead to even more activities, like going to comic shops, maybe even conventions, writing, art, making comics, etc. I guess I’m hoping that the many facets of comic book fandom become options for my niece and her family that lead to some sort of fulfillment for everyone involved, whether it’s personally, professionally, or both.
- Diversity. It’s a great time to be a comic book fan who’s longed for more inclusion in the comics industry. So many comics series on the racks today feature protagonists who are POC, LGBTQA, body diverse, and gender diverse, and from it the industry is surging with new life. I want my niece to have the opportunity to learn of, and from, other perspectives, and comic books are providing such opportunity in a way they haven’t before, with the bonus of using both art and prose to do so.
- (Optional) An ongoing series. If my niece can follow an ongoing series, she might be attracted by the excitement of the release of a new issue or a story arc. Following an ongoing series adds an extra dose of fun, I think, that can enhance the experience of reading a great comic book.
I tried to cater my recommendations to my niece’s specific interests and personality in addition to the above criteria. The Disney princesses have been a big deal to my niece since she was old enough to form interests. She’s got the princess Barbie dolls, princess costumes, costume jewelry, and has requested, on one occasion, that her hair be styled like the character Elsa from “Frozen.” A fascination with pop stars is growing as well, so my niece generally likes all things fabulous and glam. But she likes being tough, too.
Her father practices jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, other mixed martial arts, teaches mixed martial arts to children, and her stepmother is in the U.S. Air Force. It’s a tough family. When she was old enough to want sparkly dresses and faux jewelry, she was also tugging at kettle bells and trying get a successful armlock in on her dad. The girl’s a warrior princess—slash aspiring pop star, and in a few years, probably, a lifestyle brand maven—and we (her family) all love to encourage it. Comics are the perfect contribution to this encouragement, with universes full of women from all over the glam-tough spectrum.
I limited my comic recommendations to ten different series. This list is not intended to be comprehensive and is affected by my personal biases. Again the list is ever-growing as well. Here are 10 comics recommendations for my niece:
“Jem and the Holograms” – Written by Kelly Thompson, Art by Sophie Campbell, Colors by Victoria Robado, Letters by Robbie Robbins
First, SO GLAM. “Jem and the Holograms” is a glittery pink singularity, and for a little girl who’s into princesses, pop stars, and fairies, this series has strong appeal with its mix of the the fantastic world of pop music with flecks of sci-fi for added flavor. Campbell’s art, with the characters’ sense of style, exaggerated hair, and touches of the fantastic is mega fun. And behind the pop-star flash and glamour, the characters in “Jem and the Holograms” are diverse in their body types, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. The series shows how effortless it can be to write comics that pass the Bechdel test as well.
“Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” —Written by Ryan North, Art by Erica Henderson, Colors by Rico Renzi, Letters by Clayton Cowles
Who could be a better influence on a seven-year-old than Doreen Green, a.k.a. Squirrel Girl—a superhero with a can’t-stop-won’t-stop attitude and a mountain of confidence, who in her secret identity is going to college to pursue her STEM dream. Squirrel Girl is kind, is supported by an international network of squirrels, takes on huge, earth-threatening foes, has fun little catchphrases, and manages to somehow work in the word “nuts” whenever possible in a totally non-annoying way. As a series “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” has a great sense of humor, ethnically diverse characters, body positivity, and, again, easily passes the Bechdel test (see, it’s not hard, you can do it!).
“Ms. Marvel” —Written by G. Willow Wilson, Art by Adrian Alphona, Colors by Ian Herring, Letters by Joe Caramagna
The “Ms. Marvel” series has been a shining force for good in the comic book industry and beyond (you saw those bus ads, right?). Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, is one of the most relatable comic book characters I’ve ever encountered. She’s smart, funny, nerdy, hero-worshipping, and shows that with determination people can do great things, even if they make some mistakes along the way. Ms. Marvel is the perfect “do what’s right no matter what” type, and I don’t think I’ve felt so emotionally invested in a superhero since I was a kid watching the “Spider-Man” cartoon every Saturday morning.
Writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona have created a series that has shown the industry how financially profitable POC female protagonists can be, in addition to creating an incredibly endearing superhero. The series’ profitability didn’t influence my recommendation, but it has had me fist-bumping this series for all the positive ripples it’s generating.
“Princeless” —Written by Jeremy Whitley, Art by Emily Martin, Colors by Kelly Lawrence, Letters by Dave Dwonch
“Princeless” is all about princesses who are tough, go on adventures of their own, and don’t need to be rescued by some puffy-sleeved dream-fail with dead eyes and stunted emotional depth. Take note, Disney! “Princeless” fits my niece’s tastes to a T, as the series parallels Disney princess movies with its fantasy settings, fantastical characters, princess protagonists, and fun, magical supporting characters. Thankfully the premise of “Princeless” adds a key ingredient those movies lack: a sense of agency in the princesses, the main characters. The “Princeless” princesses get things done on their own, they do them, and that’s exactly how I want my niece to be—as boss as it gets.
“Adventure Time: Bitter Sweets” —Written by Kate Leth, Illustrated by Zachary Sterling with Chrystin Garland, Inks by Jenna Ayoub and Brittney Williams, Colors by Whitney Cogar with Fred Stresing, Letters by Aubrey Aiese
“Adventure Time,” whether in the form of comics or the TV series, is always good for some weird fun. A great thing about “Adventure Time” comics is that the line contains arcs exploring the female characters of the show, such as Bubblegum Princess and Marceline the Vampire Queen. The book shown above, “Adventure Time: Bitter Sweets,” follows Bubblegum Princess as she journeys to three other kingdoms righting wrongs and making people be better people. Kate Leth’s dialogue is real fun and interesting, keeping in line with what I think is the reason the TV series appeals to audiences across age demographics.
Again: princesses? Check. Agency? Check. Super fun lands of enchantment and hijinks and also lessons on being a good person? Check and mate… your play, children’s ever-changing interests.
“Terrible Lizard” —Written by Cullen Bunn, Art by Drew Moss, Colors by Ryan Hill, Letters by Crank!
“Terrible Lizard” is about a girl who befriends a tyrannosaurus rex transported from the past on accident by her scientist dad. If that premise doesn’t appeal to you, we don’t even get each other, man. What kid doesn’t want a giant, loyal monster as a friend (like, after the terror wears off)? What adult, even, wouldn’t be psyched for the same (ignoring the real-world drawbacks of taking care of large animals that probably need to be walked, like, 10 miles a day, and the vet bills for check-ups alone plus feeding costs, ugh, amiright)? It’s like getting a dog, but you can ride around on its head and hero around with it and reenact scenes from “Jurassic Park” with it in a realistic manner.
I could go on for days or weeks about the joys of having a T-Rex as a friend. Aside from the premise, Jess, the main character, is gutsy, compassionate, and instantly relatable. Wrex the T-Rex acts like a lovable, protective pup who also fights monsters, so it’s a pretty killer character combo.
“Gotham Academy” —Written by Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher, Art by Karl Kerschl, Colors by Geyser, Dave McCaig, John Rauch, Serge LaPointe, and Msassyk, Letters by Steve Wands
I believe that Batman is one of the coolest comic book characters there is, so a series connected to that guy but about characters closer to my niece’s age and experience? Win! Though I’m a fan of Batman, I think that the characters in “Gotham Academy” are far more relatable than a brooding billionaire. It’s great fun getting to know Gotham from another angle too, and seeing familiar characters under a fresh light.
I think that “Gotham Academy”’s target demographic might be a little older than my niece, but since I don’t get to be around her every day, it’s difficult to have a clear idea of how how fast her reading ability is progressing, and I don’t think “Gotham Academy” would be totally inaccessible to her even if she is a bit young for it.
“My Little Pony” (“My Little Pony Annual 2014: Return of the Mane-iac” pictured) —Written by Ted Anderson, Art by Ben Bates, Colors by Heather Breckel and Lauren Perry, Letters by Neil Uyetake
If you feel hesitant about reading a “My Little Pony” comic, chances are you just haven’t given them a chance, because they tend to be great. Typically they’re fun, self-contained stories that arrive at sentimental notes or moral lessons by the end. These notes and lessons sometimes arrive without warning, and even as an adult reading a “My Little Pony” comic, I found that at the end of the story, a strange mist arose grasping at my steely gaze. Tiny halos of sprinkling dust formed above each of my eyelids and probably the pollen index was nuts that day, so a lot of things were affecting my eye-water levels, so don’t even try to make me disclose the feels brought forth from my abyssal core by “My Little Pony.”
Since the stories in “My Little Pony” comics are self-contained, you can pick up any issue without worrying about continuity. As a side note, never has there been such a utopian catchphrase as “friendship is magic.” It’s just genuine goodness with joy frosting, and I would also like to propose that all political events across the globe, private or public, be required to include a glittery banner of said catchphrase. It just might be the one missing ingredient needed to achieve world peace.
“Spider-Gwen” —Written by Jason Latour, Art by Robbi Rodriguez, Colors by Rico Renzi, Letters by Clayton Cowles
I’ve been a Latour fan for awhile, of both his writing and art, but when this series was first announced, I knew I’d hitched my fan wagon to the right horse. “Spider-Gwen” takes place in an alternate universe where Gwen Stacy is bitten by a radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker. She becomes Spider-Woman and fights crime, is the drummer for the band The Mary Janes, and has a way hip look thanks to Robbi Rodriguez making for a nice update on a well-known character. This series feels like a good bit of justice for the Gwen Stacy character, and for long-time fans of “Spider-Man,” the series takes advantage of the fun that can be had reimagining familiar characters for an alternate universe.
“Lumberjanes” —Written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis, Art by Brooke Allen, Colors by Maarta Laiho, Letters by Aubrey Aiese
Ah, “Lumberjanes.” The series revolves around five girls at a summer camp who encounter supernatural animals and magical mystery. There’s plenty of girls being strong and cool, great humor, and endearing characters with fun dialogue (Stevenson makes it rain with fun dialogue). All of the girls in “Lumberjanes” are funny, compassionate, smart, and if they were real girls they’d be the kind of crowd I’d hope my niece would fall in with. The series gets bonus points for almost making me want to camp. If only I could count on magical mysteries to be afoot I might find camping to be a worthwhile activity instead of some strange masochistic promise that never pays off.
Have some recommendations of your own for my seven-year-old niece? Great! Wanna tell me about them, talk about them, get a conversation going? Please do! I’m always looking to expand my comics radar, especially in regards to books for my niece, so any help would be much appreciated.
(All images taken from Comixology.com)