Comics for Kids! An Interview with Scott Robins and Snow Wildsmith

GuideFinding good books for kids can be a daunting challenge, even when it comes to graphic novels. To help overcome this, School Library Journal contributors Scott Robins and Snow Wildsmith have put together A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics (Krause Publications, 978-1-4402-2994-7, $16.99, release date: May 31), a comprehensive look at 100 graphic novels that are both entertaining and appropriate for children. Broken down by grade level, each entry includes a summary of the book, educational tie-ins, possible objectionable material, and recommendations of similar reads.

BookShelf spoke with Robins and Wildsmith about the process of making the book and what makes a good comic for kids.

This seems like quite an undertaking. How long did it take to put the book together?

Scott: It was definitely an undertaking! Snow and I first started talking to our publisher about this book last June and they had said they wanted a quick turnaround time to get the book out as quickly as possible. This left us about three months to write the manuscript and in that time we lived and breathed children’s graphic novels. There wasn't a moment of time for either of us when we didn't have our nose buried in a kid's comic. After completing the manuscript it took another month or so to complete edits and write all the extra stuff including our introduction and the 'how to use' part of the book.

What inspired you to write the book?

Snow: One of our editors, Maggie Thompson, approached me with the idea. She has worked in comics for years and is one of the editors of Comic Buyer's Guide. Maggie saw that kids comics were undergoing a resurgence and wanted a book that would talk about what was available. She asked around and Michael Martens at Dark Horse gave her my name.
At the time Maggie contacted me I was also working on a five-book nonfiction series and I knew I couldn’t do another book all by myself. Scott and I have been friends for several years. He knows comics, especially kids' comics, because of his work at Scholastic and Kids Can Press, his work as a librarian, and his work planning the kids' programming for Toronto Comic Arts Festival. We've worked on projects together before, so I knew we would work well together. I asked him to join me on the project and, luckily, he agreed!

How difficult was it to come up with the list? How much research did you have to do?

The initial list was pretty easy to compile, mainly because Snow and I have decades' long interest in and knowledge of kids' comics. The list was tweaked on an ongoing basis, especially after Snow and I came up with loose criteria to determine which books to include. Also, we had some discussion with our editors about titles that they wanted us to include in some form or another, stuff like Archie and superhero titles from Marvel and DC. Research-wise, Snow and I read a LOT. There were many instances where we had read one volume of a particular series but not the entire run. It was a great opportunity to finally read many of the titles on both our ever-expanding 'to-read' lists. I think the majority of research was reaching out to creators and publishers to get information on new releases. We wanted this book to be as current as possible.

What were the criteria for the graphic novels you chose? How did you decide what made it in?

Snow: There were a lot of elements to consider. We wanted to make sure we had a fairly equal number of titles in each grade level, which was tricky because there's more of a focus to publish for the 9-12 age range or for teens. But with publishers like Blue Apple and Toon Books that focus on graphic novels for beginning readers, and with the new Eisner category of "Best Publication for Early Readers," there's definitely growth in graphic novels for the younger set.

We also wanted to make sure we had a wide range of genres, from romance to high action, and titles with a wide range of appeal including titles with irreverent potty humor to more tamer fare. We tried to represent as many publishers as possible, since there are many houses publishing kids' comics for all different types of markets, including traditional book publishers, mainstream superhero publishers, independent comics publishers, school/library publishers, and small press publishers. Finally we selected books, for the most part, that were readily available (at least from an online source), in print (at the time we wrote the book), and, in most cases, carried by a number of libraries, as registered in WorldCat.

The graphic novels listed are graded for reading levels. Did you grade them yourselves?

We did. We used a variety of factors to set the grade level, such as reading level, the publisher's suggested age range, and the complexity or maturity of the content. But these grade levels are just suggestions. The actual appeal of the book depends a lot on the reader. For example, we placed Bone by Jeff Smith at grades 6-8 because it's a complex story with some violence and darker themes. But, we know that Bone is read and loved by kids in 2nd grade, as well as a lot of adult and teen readers.

What were some of your favorite books in the list?

My interests are all over the map - I love the big name series like Bone and Owly but anything with a good sense of off-the-wall humor I tend to really enjoy, such as series like Lunch Lady, Guinea Pig Pet Shop Private Eye, and Binky the Space Cat. As well, I have a real love for quiet books like The Storm in the Barn, which I think is vastly underrated and absolutely brilliant.

Snow: I've always enjoyed science fiction, so I tend to gravitate towards titles like the Captain Raptor series (dinosaurs! in space!), Missile Mouse, Zita the Spacegirl, and Twin Spica.

For the last couple of years, it seems like a lot has been made of the dearth of comics and graphic novels for kids (at least in terms of the superhero publishers). Has this been your observation? Have there been any trends you’ve noticed in terms of what's available?

Scott: Marvel and DC have made it pretty clear that publishing comics for kids is a pretty low priority in their overall publishing plan. And the notion that there are very few comics or graphic novels appropriate or appealing to kids is a huge myth that Snow and I hope this book will dispel. All kinds of different publishers are coming out with some amazing books that kids devour as soon as they get their hands on them. In regards to trends, children's publishing is pretty healthy and I think that the number of available graphic novels is going to continue to grow and expand. I think we'll also see an increase of graphic novels for beginning or early readers as more educators understand how graphic novels can be used to get kids excited about reading and how they can be used to spark interest in their classrooms.

What would you say makes a good comic for kids?

Snow: A great comic for kids is one that presents the world as a child sees it. Super Diaper Baby, a spin-off from the hugely popular Captain Underpants chapter book series, is popular because the series has a child's sense of humor and perspective on the world, right down to the slightly crude artwork and the misspelled text. Chi's Sweet Home is much different in tone from Super Diaper Baby, but kids will identify with the main character, a kitten who is separated from his mother and adopted by a human family. Chi's confusion about the world and his love of exploration and discovery are feelings that children understand and are familiar from their own life.

Scott: A good comic for kids is one that isn't afraid of complexity or exploring challenging issues, but still maintains appropriateness for the age level. I've heard many people, when discussing comics for kids, with a fear of stories being 'dumbed down,' when in fact, children's literature has a long tradition of tackling big issues like death, fear, or growing up. I think of series like Amulet, The Elsewhere Chronicles, and, of course Bone that all touch on complex issues. Even books for younger readers like Owly and Raymond Briggs' classic The Snowman tackle weightier issues in a way that a young child would understand or at least ask questions about.