Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.
No matter the age, there are readers who shy away from pages filled with text. What better way to draw them in to literature than through exciting plot-driven graphic novels? These titles are able to engage uncertain readers from grades three to seven.
Beginning with grade three+, Big City Otto: Elephants Never Forget, by Bill Slavin, is the first book in a series about Otto the Elephant on a quest to find his estranged monkey pal, George. With his parrot friend, Crackers, Otto's adventure begins with him shrink-wrapped as baggage on a plane to America, ending up at the zoo, where a locked up cayman connects him with some shady characters “on the outside” (including a croc with a French accent and a hiphop gangster who uses Otto's peanut allergy to his benefit; a few big sneezes and the gangsters are busted out of the zoo.) The speech bubbles have minimal text and many ironic one-liners like: "This is America. You can't go around looking oversized (and) special."
Also for grade three, is Big Boy: Into the Woods, by J. Torres and Faith Erin Hicks. A modest amount of text is spaced in a way designed for the hesitant reader. Rufus is not happy about being dumped off at his grandma's house in the woods for a few days. He finds a necklace in the forest which allows him to turn into a Sasquatch. A flying squirrel helps him turn back into a boy—a naked one, which leads to some awkward situations with his new neighbours, two native sisters. Rufus ends up being stalked by cops investigating "red bear sightings" and wolves who want the totem for their own evil purposes.
Jellaby, The Lost Monster, by Kean Soo, and the sequel, Monster in the City, feature Portia, a super bright oddball, struggling to fit in at her new school. Late one night outside her window she discovers Jellaby, a friendly purple monster who needs to get home via the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. With the help of another misfit, Portia takes the monster on the subway. It's Halloween, and Jellaby poses as a trick-or-treater but a strange man is after them. In the sequel, they meet a magician and a few more monsters that end up as catalysts for Portia coming to terms with her absentee father. For grade three+.
The following compilation of three stories has the fast-moving pace of Indiana Jones for a grade four reading level. In The Collected Alison Dare: Little Miss Adventures by J. Torres and J. Bone, protagonist Alison Dare's parents are separated. When her explorer mom leaves her alone in the desert, Alison finds a genie in a bottle and her three wishes land her in the middle of 1001 Arabian Knights (yes, with a K), all hailing Alison as the sultana. The other tales tell how her mom and dad met, how her father became a superhero, and how Alison helped capture some Incan mummy-child kidnappers at the museum.
Do You Know Chameleons?, by Alain M. Bergeron and Michel Quintin and Sampar, is the non-fiction choice for the reader transitioning from pictures to text. It's a grade four reading level but makes for a good readaloud for ages five+. This title is one in a series of very cleverly illustrated books with one fact per two-page cartoon spread. The page showing chameleons' colour- changing ability being connected to emotions depicts a jail cell with a few rodent-gangsters playing cards and a depressed chameleon with black-and-white-striped skin, lamenting the fact that he now sees the world in black and white. Significant vocabulary is in bold throughout, with corresponding definitions in a small glossary (under a dozen manageable words) at the back. The index is easy to read, too. Other topics in the series include toads, hyenas, leeches, praying mantises and more.
Tower of Treasure (Three Thieves), Book 1, by Scott Chantler, features a travelling circus-performer threesome—a juggler, a strong man and an acrobat during medieval times. When one decides to rob the palace, they all go along but Dessa, the acrobat, has another quest—to take revenge on the man she thinks killed her mother and brother. It's written in three acts, each ending with a plot twist that compels the reader to continue. This intrepid troupe invites a grade five-six reluctant reader to get hooked, as there are more in the series.
The only serious book on the list is War Brothers, by Sharon E. McKay and Daniel Lafrance. (See our guest post by Sharon McKay's guest post on the experience of translating her book into graphic form.) The graphic form allows for the grade six+ reluctant reader to get caught up in the fictional (based on real interviews) world of Jacob, age 14, in Uganda. He gets abducted from school and indoctrinated as a child soldier. While waiting for his father to rescue him, Jacob watches good kids become killers and sees "returnees" to their communities treated with distrust and suspicion. This story sheds light on the complex reasons kids succumb to a life of violence.
On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press in 2011.
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