Best-of lists can be fiercely difficult to compose, as even the most voracious reader can miss a great title or favor certain genres over others. That’s why we at Good Comics for Kids assembled a crack team of reviewers to ensure that our list reflected the depth and breadth of 2009’s best kid-friendly offerings. Our contributors included librarians Robin Brenner, Esther Keller, Eva Volin, and Snow Wildsmith; self-described "manga mom" and blogger Lori Henderson; and comic-professional-cum-library-science-student Scott Robins.
A few words about our list. We divided the winners into three broad categories: The Best Comics for Young Readers (4-8), The Best Comics for Tweens (9-12), and The Best Comics for Teens (13-18). Though our list encompasses a variety of serious genres — historical fiction, memoir — we also felt it was important to include titles that were just plain fun, especially for beginning readers. We also realize that there can be a gap between what critics deem "excellent" and what kids are actually reading, so we encourage you to share your own experiences: How have kids reacted to the books on our list? Do you agree with our age recommendations? Are there titles that we overlooked?
N.B. For the librarians in our audience, we have provided a separate list of ISBN numbers at the end of the article. For ongoing series, we have provided the full ISBN number for each volume.
BEST COMICS FOR YOUNG READERS (4 – 8)
For years, the only kid-friendly manga available in the US had direct tie-ins with established toy-game-cartoon franchises such as Pokemon. UDON Entertainment is one of a handful of publishers working to change that, launching a new imprint this year called UDON Kids. Of the four debut titles, The Big Adventures of Majoko is the standout, a fantasy-adventure for young girls who have outgrown picture books but aren’t quite ready for stories with longer, more complex narratives. Though Majoko teaches the importance of teamwork, courage, and friendship, these lessons are imparted in an unobtrusive way; Majoko‘s real strength is its cute, anime-influenced artwork and its plucky heroines, who meet mermaids, one-eyed monsters, and thieves in the course of their many adventures. —Katherine Dacey
Binky the Space Cat. By Ashley Spires. Kids Can Press.
Silly jokes have an enormous appeal to kids and tweens, and this series explores the truths about dinosaurs while mocking them mercilessly. Every short chapter makes me laugh out loud. The clear line art is relatively accurate but also fluid enough to engage kids with gags and slapstick. I fear too often when people think of "best of" lists they turn to the more serious, dramatic-impact sorts of titles (myself included) and while this might be a light, goofy choice for this list, I can just see all those guys sitting around chortling over Dinosaur Hour, pointing out favorite jokes to their friends and family, and re-reading with pleasure. –Robin Brenner
Happy Happy Clover. By Sayuri Tatsuyama. VIZ Media. (3 volumes; ongoing)
If Beatrix Potter had been a manga-ka instead of a proper Edwardian lady, she might have produced something like Happy Happy Clover, a charming series about a spunky rabbit and her woodland friends. Like Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, Clover has an insatiable curiosity that frequently gets her into trouble, whether she’s looking for the tastiest berries in the forest or trying to steal a carrot from a farmer’s field. Each story has a moral to impart — look before you leap, listen to your elders — but is never didactic or condescending to the reader. Button-cute artwork and gentle humor make this a great choice for young readers. –Katherine Dacey
Little Mouse Gets Ready. By Jeff Smith. Toon Books.
Little Mouse gets ready to go to the barn with his mother and siblings. While getting ready, Little Mouse details how he gets dressed and all the things he plans to do in the barn. The lively, full-page illustrations make this read like a picture book, though the dialogue is in comic form. The punch line at the end… that mice don’t wear clothes… will delight young children. This is a great read-out-loud or a great choice for emergent readers. —Esther Keller
Luke on the Loose. By Harry Bliss. Toon Books.
While visiting Central Park with his dad, Luke spies a flock of pigeons and gives chase, pursuing them through the park and onto the streets of Manhattan, sowing chaos in his wake. Author Harry Bliss, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, captures the geography and cultural diversity of New York City in energetic, appealing illustrations that abound in clever details: a cameo by Harold of Magic Crayon fame, a "Wanted" poster featuring The Hulk. Like all Toon Books, the vocabulary is just right for beginning readers, whether they’re tackling the book solo or with a parent, and the durable binding is designed to withstand grubby fingers and many readings. —Katherine Dacey
Ninja Baseball Kyuma. By Shunshin Maeda. UDON Kids. (1 volume; ongoing)
Kyuma Hattori is a ninja-in-training who has been living alone in the mountains with his dog Inui, waiting to be called to duty. Kaoru is the captain of his baseball team and is searching for someone to help them win. Their chance meeting gives Kyuma the purpose he’s been looking for and Kaoru and his team a chance to win. This series has some really well-written characters as well as entertaining stories. The combining of ninjas with baseball works. Both boys and girls will enjoy this title. –Lori Henderson
Even middle schoolers are enjoying this title! —Esther Keller
BEST COMICS FOR TWEENS (9-12)
Adventures in Cartooning. By James Sturm. First Second Publishing.
A princess who can’t draw. An elf who’s willing to teach her. And a knight who needs to find the princess. All while showing young readers the elements of how to create their own comic book. —Esther Keller
Jellaby: Monster in the City. By Kean Soo. Hyperion.
Jellaby is back and in this second volume, he’s off to Toronto with Portia and Jason in search of his home. As the clues to Jellaby’s origin begin to unravel, things turn a bit sinister with the reveal of another monster like Jellaby, but one that eats children. The combination of the sweet relationship between Jellaby and his friends and the darker mysterious undertones offer something for every reader. –Scott Robins
Kit doesn’t want to move and leave his best friend behind, but is packing his friend in a moving box really the best idea? Townsend’s first book in a series is Babymouse for boys–lots of silly fun, brightly colored pages (orange here, rather than pink), and a realistic look at the troubles of being a kid. –Snow Wildsmith
Leave it to PET! The Misadventures of a Recycled Super-Robot. By Kenji Sonishi. VIZ Media. (3 volumes; ongoing)
The premise of Leave it to PET! sounds like something dreamed up by a well-meaning group of educators: make recycling seem fun and exciting by writing a comic book about a super-powered robot who began his life as a plastic juice bottle. Though recycling does play a minor part in the ongoing story, Leave it to PET! is actually fun and subversive, as its robot hero turns out to be an inept goofball whose super powers have a tendency to make situations much worse. The jokey script is nicely complemented by bold, simple artwork that’s easy for first-time manga readers to follow. A great introduction to the medium. –Katherine Dacey
Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers. By Chris Eliopoulos and Ig Guara. Marvel Comics.
Lockjaw, the Inhumans’ teleporting dog, embarks on a quest to find all the Infinity Gems. Along the way, he meets fellow superhero pets Throg, Hairball, Red Falcon, Lockheed and… Ms. Lion? This motley crew of animals travel through time, jungles, and oceans to face the powerful Titan, Thanos, who seeks to reclaim the Gems. This was a fun series to read with lots of comedy and adventure that kids will love. It even features a guest star appearance by presidential pup Bo! –Lori Henderson
My Mommy Is In America, And She Met Buffalo Bill. By Jean Regnaud and Emile Bravo. Fanfare/Ponent Mon.
When we meet five-year-old Jean, he’s anxious about his first day of kindergarten: what will he say when the teacher asks him about his long-absent mother? Eager for information about her, Jean is all too willing to believe his neighbor Michele when she claims to have received a postcard from Mme. Regnaud. The reader quickly realizes the truth about these colorful (and colorfully spelled) missives, but Jean has a longer, more painful journey to learn what happened to his mother. Regnaud’s memoir is funny and bittersweet, with a script that captures the rhythms of grade school speech with great fidelity, while Emile Bravo’s muted, earthy palette and slightly naive illustrations add a distinctively 1970s flavor to the story. —Katherine Dacey
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. By Eric Shanower and Skottie Young. Marvel.
Eric Shanower and Skottie Young offer a faithful rendition of Frank L. Baum’s classic fantasy novel, restoring many of the episodes and characters trimmed from the 1939 movie. The resulting story is darker, weirder, and more like a fairy tale than the Technicolor version we’re used to seeing; tweens may be surprised to learn just how baroque Baum’s imagination could be. Young’s sharp, stylized character designs bring fresh life to the story — what’s not to like about a Cowardly Lion who looks like a giant Pomeranian or a Tin Man with a thick, brushy ‘stache? — while Jean-Francois Beaulieu’s expert use of color emphasizes the strangeness of the setting. —Katherine Dacey
Bayou. By Jeremy Love. Zuda. (1 volume; ongoing)
In thinking about the comics that lingered in my mind, Bayou has to be at the top of my list for 2009. Although periodically horrifying, given that Bayou deals with the realities of racism and lynching during the Depression in the South, this title has strong appeal to smart teens interested in how history and storytelling have been intertwined and skewed. Jeremy Love introduces readers to a vividly imagined mirror world populated with the best and worst of southern folklore and stereotype, all rendered in lush art that seems like it might just creep off the page. The whimsical style of legends combines with malevolent prejudice in this gripping, unforgettable journey. –Robin Brenner
Cat Burglar Black. By Richard Sala. First Second.
K is invited to a prestigious boarding school by her aunt. But when she arrives, her aunt has fallen mysteriously ill. There are no regular classes and there are only three other students. Kat doesn’t expect that she’s going to have to use her prior experience as a burglar. The story has a bit of a creepy Gothic feel that will appeal to teen readers, and the mysterious twist in the end will have readers wanting to know when there’s going to be a sequel. —Esther Keller
Children of the Sea. By Daisuke Igarashi. VIZ Media. (2 volumes; ongoing)
Antimony Carter’s first year at boarding school teaches her a lot more than just math and science! Gunnerkrigg Court is awash with mystery and fantasy in Siddell’s first print edition of his webcomic. The writing has just the right touch of droll to make the story believable even while fantastic things are happening. Full-color art and getting to watch the style grow and mature over the course of the volume is a nice plus. Teen fantasy/paranormal fans will find much to like here. –Snow Wildsmith
With her long black hair, creepy demeanor, and stand-offish ways, Sawako Kuronuma is often mistaken for Sadako, the main character in the horror movie, The Ring. The reality is that she’s just horribly shy, desperate to make friends and fit in with the rest of the class. When Kazehaya, the most popular boy in school, takes her under his wing, the rest of the class is forced to reevaluate their impressions of Sawako as Sawako begins to come out of her shell. Mangaka Karuho Shiina convey the emotions Sawako feels as her world expands, the pain and joy of friendship, the uncertainty and risk that come with letting people get to know you, with a sure hand. This is high school as I remember it and, I confess, I wiped away a tear or two as I read. –Eva Volin
Maximum Ride: The Manga. By James Patterson and NaRae Lee. Yen Press. (2 volumes; ongoing)
The second volume is just out, but the adaptation of the first volume really got me excited (all over again) about the Maximum Ride series. I thought that the artistry and the adaptation/shortening of the story did a great job of capturing the original series, while creating a new fan base. —Esther Keller
The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders, by Emmanuel Guibert. First Second.
Adventures in Cartooning (9781596433694)
Bayou, Vol. 1 (9781401223823)
The Big Adventures of Majoko, Vol. 1 (9781897376812)
The Big Adventures of Majoko, Vol. 2 (9781897376829)
Binky the Space Cat (9781554533091)
Cat Burglar Black (9781596431447)
Children of the Sea, Vol. 1 (9781421529141)
Children of the Sea, Vol. 2 (9781421529196)
Dinosaur Hour (9781421526485)
A Family Secret (9780374322717)
Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom (9781416964841)
Gunnerkrigg Court, Vol. 1: Orientation (9781848561755)
Happy Happy Clover, Vol. 1 (9781421526560)
Happy Happy Clover, Vol. 2 (9781421526577)
Happy Happy Clover, Vol. 3 (9781421526584)
Jellaby: Monster in the City (9781423105657)
Kimi no Todoke: From Me to You, Vol. 1 (9781421527550)
Kimi no Todoke: From Me to You, Vol. 2 (9781421527567)
Kit Feeney: On the Move (9780375856143)
Little Mouse Gets Ready (9781935179016)
Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers (9780785142713)
Luke on the Loose (9781935179009)
Maximum Ride: The Manga, Vol. 1 (9780759529519)
Maximum Ride: The Manga, Vol. 2 (9780759529687)
My Mommy Is In America, And She Met Buffalo Bill (9788496427853)
Ninja Baseball Kyuma!, Vol. 1 (9781897376867)
The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders (9781596433755)
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, Vol. 1 (9781421519180)
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, Vol. 2 (9781421519197)
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, Vol. 3 (9781421519203)
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, Vol. 4 (9781421519210)
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, Vol. 5 (9781421525839)
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, Vol. 6 (9781421527215)
The Search (9780374365172)
The Storm in the Barn (9780763636180)
The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics (9780810957305)
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (9780785129219)
Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane: Sophmore Jinx (9780785130048)