Introduce your awkward pre-teen to our most-loved and best graphic novels for middle school aged kids.
After the school year we’ve had, everyone deserves a break. There’s no better way for middle school students to recharge over the summer than to find a comfortable place to sit, preferably away from the parental units, a cold beverage, and a giant stack of graphic novels. This is a list of graphic novels that we’re confident middle school students will enjoy. As always, you know your kid better than I do. Some of these comics might be more interesting to your kid than others, but they’re all terrific.
The transition to middle school is overwhelming for a lot of kids, and some of them react by retreating into their own heads where it’s safe. The Emmie and Friends series start with Invisible Emmie, about a girl who doesn’t feel like she stands out in any way. A bully humiliates her, “popular girl” Katie notices and Emmie and Katie find that they have a lot in common. Terri Libenson’s version of middle school is more complex and naturalistic than other graphic novels set in the middle grades. She understands that middle school isn’t a weird break from real life, it is real life for the kids who go there. There are additional books in the series that center around other kids at Emmie’s school: Positively Izzy, Just Jaime, Becoming Brianna, and Truly Tyler. Just Jaime is particularly good for kids who are finding their path through the ways that their elementary school friendships change and sometimes end in middle school. Additionally, the main character Jaime is a young woman of color, something that’s still too rare in graphic novels for middle school students.
Maria Scrivan’s Nat has a lot in common with Emmie: they’re both middle school students, they’re both artists and they’re both in their own heads a little too much. Nat’s best friend Lily has moved across town, and while they still go to the same school, their friendship is disintegrating. Nat tries to keep her friendship with Lily alive, but her efforts aren’t enough, and Lily joins another friend group. Nat eventually learns that Lily has dropped her as a friend because she’s not cool enough, which leads Nat to wonder if she’s “enough” at all. Nat makes new friends and enters an art competition, which helps her learn what it is to be “enough” for herself. Middle school is a good time for kids to hear this, because that’s when the voices telling them that they are not enough to start getting a lot louder, especially for girls. Nat’s story has a happy ending, but it’s sometimes tough getting there. There are two sequels: Forget Me Nat and the soon-to-be-released Absolutely Nat.
Did you know that in the 1940s, a Superman radio serial told so many people the truth about the Ku Klux Klan that it permanently reduced the Klan’s membership and income? I sure didn’t, but Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru did, and they used that knowledge to help create Superman Smashes the Klan. I love the way the art team Gurihiru draws Superman. Their Superman is huge and powerful, but also graceful and light on his feet. Even so, Superman Smashes the Klan isn’t really Superman’s story. The heart of the story is Lan-Shin “Roberta” Lee, an Asian-American girl who has just moved into a white neighborhood in Metropolis, where the Ku Klux Klan try to drive them out. The main villain isn’t a straw man- he’s fleshed out just as well as the other characters. He gives his nephew good advice at the beginning of the story, which throws his evil into sharper relief and makes him more believable. If your child loves superheroes then check out our list of best superhero games for kids by age.
A lot of kids realize that every adult has their own history right around middle school. Snapdragon, by Kat Leyh, is about a girl who learns the histories of two of the most important adults in her life: her grandmother and her friend Jacks. Long ago, Grandma and Jacks were in love, at a time and in a place when that was dangerous for two women. Jacks is, as it happens, the town witch. She takes the girl, whose name is Snapdragon, on as an apprentice and teaches her both taxidermy and witchcraft. Snapdragon’s friend Louis is on a hero’s journey of his own, learning that he’s not straight like his brothers and finding a real friend in Snapdragon.
Wings of Fire is a popular fantasy series that I had no idea existed until my daughter started reading them. In the Wings of Fire graphic novels by Tui Sutherland and Mike Holmes, seven tribes of dragons wage constant war on one another. The Talons of Peace, a group of dissident dragons, seeks to end the conflict by fulfilling an ancient prophecy. To this end, they raise a group of five dragonets (dragon kids) from different tribes in an isolated cave. After an attack, the five dragonets leave their cave and are almost immediately captured by a dragon queen and made to fight in a gladiatorial arena. In subsequent graphic novels, the five dragonets visit other dragon tribes, seeking a place they can call home. There is an enormous and slightly intimidating amount of Wings of Fire content. There are four graphic novels: The Dragonet Prophecy, The Lost Heir, The Hidden Kingdom, and The Dark Secret. The graphic novels are based on a series of 14 prose novels and there are also outrigger series like Wings of Fire: Legends and Wings of Fire: Winglets. If your family loves fantasy and Dungeon and Dragons, then check out our list of fantasy board games that the whole family will love.
Cleopatraaaa Innnn Spaaaace! Exactly what it says on the label, Cleopatra in Space tells the story of how middle school-aged Cleopatra VII Philopater, the last Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt gets zapped through space and time, becomes a student of some talking cats, and is embroiled in a galaxy-spanning conflict against the armada of Xaius Octavian. Mike Maihack’s version of Cleopatra may be familiar to the parents of middle school students: bright but not studious, she excels at the things she’s interested in (fighting) and ignores the things she’s not interested in (languages, science). Over the six books in the series, Cleopatra focuses her impulsive energy to become the leader her people need.
Rumiko Takahashi’s manga classic Ranma ½ is about Ranma Saotome, who is under a curse that means that every time he is splashed with cold water, he turns into a girl. When his father, Genma, is splashed he turns into a panda. Ranma’s just trying to mind his own business, get through high school and avoid the arranged marriage that his father neglected to bring to his attention, but this whole gender switch/ turning into a panda thing keeps rippling his pond. My favorite part of Ranma ½ is how calmly everyone handles the fact that there is a panda around, sweeping the courtyard or trying to make phone calls. The Viz edition has been “flipped”, or mirrored so that it reads left to right, rather than right to left as it would be in Japanese. My daughter and I aren’t purists. Flipped comics are easier for us to read. You can get an “unflipped” edition as well that is slightly longer and about a dollar cheaper. Like Wings of Fire, there is a lot of Ranma ½: 36 graphic novels, an anime series, and three movies.