With a beautiful blend of art and prose, graphic novels are one of the most accessible mediums out there. Even if you’re not a huge reader, a graphic novel is easy to pick up and digest. More than just superhero comics and manga, graphic novels contain stories from many different genres—mystery/thriller, romance, sci-fi/fantasy, and so much more. While comics and graphic novels are certainly not a new thing, their popularity continues to rise, and many best-selling books and shows now have graphic novel adaptations. Did you know Game of Thrones has a graphic novel adaptation? Or Octavia Butler’s Kindred?
My favorite subgenre, though, is graphic memoir. These are real people telling their stories through the medium of comics. The visuals add another layer to the story, bringing more atmosphere and emotion to the work and giving the reader a more vivid picture of events on the page. Graphic memoirs allow readers to visually understand the author’s perspective and picture what life is like for someone else in a deeper way, transporting readers to situations and places other than their own.
This format also presents a unique opportunity to make memoirs accessible and appealing to younger readers. In fact, there are many graphic memoirs marketed to both middle grade and young adult readers, introducing diverse perspectives and important issues to kids at a young age in a tangible and digestible way.
No matter your age or experience, graphic memoirs are accessible and valuable for all. They are a testament to how powerful a story can be even with minimal exposition.
Here are some recommendations:
Maus by Art Spiegelman—In 1992, Maus became the first, and so far only, comic to win the Pulitzer Prize. A brutally moving work of art—widely hailed as the greatest graphic novel ever written—Maus recounts the chilling experiences of the author’s father during the Holocaust, with Jews drawn as wide-eyed mice and Nazis as menacing cats. Maus is a haunting tale within a tale, weaving the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father into an astonishing retelling of one of history’s most unspeakable tragedies. It is an unforgettable story of survival and a disarming look at the legacy of trauma.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei—A stunning graphic memoir recounting actor/author/activist George Takei’s childhood imprisoned within American concentration camps during World War II. Experience the forces that shaped an American icon—and America itself—in this gripping tale of courage, country, loyalty, and love.
Long before George Takei braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father’s—and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future.
In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.
They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.
When Stars are Scattered by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson—Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Life is hard there: never enough food, achingly dull, and without access to the medical care Omar knows his nonverbal brother needs. So when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future… but it would also mean leaving his brother, the only family member he has left, every day.
Heartbreak, hope, and gentle humor exist together in this graphic novel about a childhood spent waiting, and a young man who is able to create a sense of family and home in the most difficult of settings. It’s an intimate, important, unforgettable look at the day-to-day life of a refugee, as told to New York Times Bestselling author/artist Victoria Jamieson by Omar Mohamed, the Somali man who lived the story.
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka—The powerful, unforgettable graphic memoir from Jarrett Krosoczka about growing up with a drug-addicted mother, a missing father, and two unforgettably opinionated grandparents.
In kindergarten, Jarrett Krosoczka’s teacher asks him to draw his family, with a mommy and a daddy. But Jarrett’s family is much more complicated than that. His mom is an addict, in and out of rehab, and in and out of Jarrett’s life. His father is a mystery—Jarrett doesn’t know where to find him, or even what his name is. Jarrett lives with his grandparents—two very loud, very loving, very opinionated people who had thought they were through with raising children until Jarrett came along. Jarrett goes through his childhood trying to make his non-normal life as normal as possible, finding a way to express himself through drawing even as so little is being said to him about what’s going on. Only as a teenager can Jarrett begin to piece together the truth of his family, reckoning with his mother and tracking down his father. Hey, Kiddo is a profoundly important memoir about growing up in a family grappling with addiction, and finding the art that helps you survive.
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui—An intimate and poignant graphic novel portraying one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam, from debut author Thi Bui. This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.
At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent–the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.
Smile, Sisters, and Guts by Raina Telgemeier—These three graphic memoirs from New York Times bestselling and multiple Eisner Award-winning author Raina Telgemeier recount the author’s experiences growing up and are perfect for middle-grade readers. These memoirs deal with things like having braces, relationships between siblings, tummy trouble, changing friendships, crushes, embarrassing moments, and all of the normal experiences and trials of growing up. Raina Telgemeier brings a thoughtful, charming, and funny true story about growing up and gathering the courage to face—and conquer—her fears.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel—A critically acclaimed national bestseller, Alison Bechdel’s groundbreaking graphic memoir charts her fraught relationship with her late father.
Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the “Fun Home.” It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve.
In her hands, personal history becomes a work of amazing subtlety and power, written with controlled force and enlivened with humor, rich literary allusion, and heartbreaking detail.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi—Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming—both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.
Edgy, searingly observant, and candid, often heartbreaking but threaded throughout with raw humor and hard-earned wisdom—Persepolis is a stunning work from one of the most highly regarded, singularly talented graphic artists at work today.