When Raina Telgemeier was a kid in the 1980s, she fell in love with comics. “They were the perfect combination of all the things I liked: characters and stories and humor and artwork,” she told TIME for Kids.
But she had a problem: a shortage of reading material. Two types of comics were widely available to kids. There were comic books about superheroes. But those weren’t her thing. She wanted comics that told stories she could relate to as an ordinary kid. And there were newspaper comic strips. Telgemeier loved some of them, especially Calvin and Hobbes. But she wanted more.
At around 10, she started drawing her own comics. Twenty-three years later, she published Smile. It’s about Telgemeier’s middle school experiences with braces and dental surgery.
Before Smile was published, in 2010, it wasn’t clear the book would succeed. People in the publishing industry had doubts. They figured kids wouldn’t enjoy a graphic novel about an average girl.
They were wrong. Smile became a Number 1 best-seller. Since then, Telgemeier has published several more popular graphic novels. There are more than 18 million copies of her books in print. Telgemeier’s success has made a big impact. Industry experts say she paved the way for many more graphic novels for kids.
STEPHEN BLUE FOR TIME FOR KIDS
Comics have been around since at least the 19th century. Traditional comic books are short. Often, they’re about adventure or superheroes. “Comics have this history . . . of either being very funny and silly or having a lot of punching of things,” Gina Gagliano says. She works on graphic novels at Random House. That’s a publishing company.
Today’s graphic novels are different. Authors use comics to tell a book-length story. It can be any genre. It can be realistic.
In 2018, sales of graphic novels for kids and teens jumped by more than 50%. Compare that to sales of printed books across all categories. They increased by about 1%.
As sales boom, attitudes about comics are changing. This year, New Kid became the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Medal. That’s a prestigious award in children’s literature.
New Kid author Jerry Craft says that when he was a kid, he read mainly comics. He knew some adults didn’t approve. “In certain schools, if they saw you reading a comic, they would confiscate it, because they thought it was rotting your brain,” he says. “They didn’t realize the amount of imagination and storytelling and vocabulary in those comics.”
New Kid’s Newbery shows what many kids already understood: Graphic novels are real books. “It’s a victory for all graphic novels,” Craft says.