Children’s Books vs. Comic Books: Are They Always Different?

As someone who has little reading experience with graphic novels or comic books, I sometimes feel like I missed a prerequisite for this class. The only ones I have ever read are Persepolis and V for Vendetta, both for other college classes. When I was trying to think of a blog topic, though, it dawned on me: I’ve read Captain Underpants. I don’t really remember any of it, but this got me thinking. Ever since I first learned how to, I have been an avid reader and pretty lucky in that my mom runs a home day care and therefore has found it useful to cultivate a pretty large home library of children’s picture books. So as I sat there thinking about all my favorite books as a kid, I got to wondering, why are they really different from comic books? Is the only important difference length; are children’s books to comic books as short stories are to novels?

That, at least, can be ruled out fairly easily: an important difference between children’s books and comics are illustrations. Children’s books tend to almost always follow traditional narrative form, letting the words describe the action and the setting, etc., rather than letting the images “speak” for themselves. This makes the pictures in children’s books more extraneous to the actual story line rather than actually illustrative. (For example, listen to this reading of the Caldecott Medal winning “Hey Al” by Arthur Yorinks without watching the video. Then go back and watch the video with Richard Egielski’s illustrations—though there are some differences from the book itself, the effect is mostly the same.) Their main purpose seems to be simply to keep small children interested and give them something for their eyes to focus on as they listen. In comics, however, the images tend to be much more important—they actually move the story along and contribute to it.

Consider, as another example, The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. By the third page and within the first minute of this video, the images and the words are telling two different stories. And I would like to emphasize the fact that they are both telling stories. Once readers get to page 5, for example, there are a series of 29 panels and four pages (1:39 to 2:45 of the video) almost completely without words that are still able to compel the story line.

It is also important to note that children’s books can use images to create a story, too. I doubt most people reading this have never heard of The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. The Snowman is entirely a picture book, i.e. it has no words at all yet it tells a complete, moving story and its intended audience is children. The picture-only story isn’t that uncommon for either children’s books or comic books, but usually in comics it is part of a larger whole, like one set of panels in a serial or a few pages in a book whereas children’s books tend to be wholly segregated: either the words tell the story and there are some bonus images for added enjoyment, or the pictures tell a story and don’t need words at all.

There are several other important aspects to the children’s books/comic books relationship, including but not limited to: the use of panels vs. pages, thought and speech bubbles vs. italics and quotations, the history of each genre, didacticism vs. “corruption,” and relative brevity. I intend to take a closer look at some of these in my future blogs, so if you’re interested look for those whenever it is a Justice League blogging week.


[image source]

  6 comments for “Children’s Books vs. Comic Books: Are They Always Different?

  1. kwilsher
    February 15, 2013 at 11:19 am

    I really like the idea of the words and the pictures telling two different stories. Sometimes, without realizing it, I’ll read a page that seems to be primarily picture panels without realizing that there was a little bit of text hidden in there–obviously this can change my entire perception of what I’ve just read. I’ve always been interested in children’s books as well, because although the stories are so incredibly simple, it’s the images that take precedence and also the way in which the words are read. I listened to the video you linked of the reading of the book, “Hey, Al,” and I have to say, without seeing the pictures of the cute little dog, I thought he was a rude, presumptuous little brat. To a kid seeing the pictures while having the words read to them in this way, it would be funny to them.

    Also, your idea on the effects of different typography/etc. within comic panels sounds really interesting! Can’t wait to see what you come up with. Good blog!

    • junewalker
      February 26, 2013 at 2:48 am

      Thank you! I am really looking forward to going home for break next week, getting at my mom’s collection of children’s books, and hopefully having a little bit more time for some research.

  2. jrandal2
    February 17, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    There are some graphic novel/comics books that are completely images without any words that are very adorable and worth reading, including Owly. Most of those comic books without words that I’ve seen are marketed as being for children, which is an interesting connection. Anyway, great topic, I hope you saw my blog post last week about Millions of Cats, which was on children’s books as well.

    • junewalker
      February 26, 2013 at 2:49 am

      I didn’t see (and can’t seem to find) your blog post, or I certainly would have tried to respond to it in some way. That is an interesting connection about text-free being automatically for children.

  3. Tara
    February 20, 2013 at 10:59 pm

    I too felt a little overwhelmed at the beginning of this class, not have much experience with graphic novels and comic books. However, in the context of comparing comic books to children’s books I think it is important to take into account the purpose of each book. Comic books are very different from graphic novels. I don’t think it is fair to put the two in the same definition. There are aspects of one that are similar, but also very different from the other. Going back to children’s books, I have had a lot of experience studying children’s literature. I am an education student and primarily interested in literary development and comprehension. One of the reasons I like the idea of linking children’s books to graphic novels is because graphic novels are stories told in a visual perspective. Many children rely on picture books because they are also dealing with learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, or are ELL (English Language Learners) really benefit from the visual element of comic books, graphic novels, and picture books. That element provides an extra layer of deatil that text creates in traditional prose. Think of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and the section where Max’s room slowly transforms into the forest. That scene can be equated to panel transitions. There are many moment is Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs where we are witnessing different weather patterns illustrated on the same page with no text to specifically describe what we see. Instead the pictures tell the story. I think if really look there are many children’s books that share this level of depth within its art.

    • junewalker
      February 26, 2013 at 2:51 am

      You’re right, I was too broad in my equation of comic books and graphic novels. I tended to mostly say comics in this blog post, but I’m not sure if I even knew whether I was referring to them or graphic novels. This raises an interesting connection (which may or may not actually make sense) in the serialization of both: these days, correct me if I’m wrong, graphic novels tend to be published as a whole rather than chapter by chapter. Comic books, however, are either chapter by chapter or just shorter, inclusive stories in a series–like the individual books about Arthur the Aardvark, Franklin the turtle, or the Berenstain Bears. That’s not to say this is the only distinction between comic books and graphic novels, and I’m not even sure if it IS one, but if it is then it would indicate that children’s books are much more closely related to comic books than to graphic novels more because of their shared episodic nature rather than simply their length.

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