There was a time in human history when some people didn’t think comics were suitable reading material for girls. (There are some, even today, who don’t think comics are suitable reading material for anyone, but that’s a whole other outrage.)
Maybe that’s because the vignettes on the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry – long thought to be a forerunner of graphic novels – depicted scenes conventionally associated with masculinity, like war and setting stuff on fire and grunting loudly at the gym. (Although there was also one scene on the tapestry about cooking, so maybe the eleventh-century man was more cosmopolitan than we think.)
Maybe it’s because some of the earliest comic book superstars – Superman, Batman, Spider-Man – were so masculine that “Man” was not just their identity, it was their last name.
Or maybe it was just because dudes didn’t want women horning in on their cool guys-only stuff like comics and basketball and video games and being vice-president.
Fortunately, things have changed. Batman and Spider-Man now have to share vigilante duties with Wonder Woman and Squirrel Girl. And there are countless graphic novels on the shelves created by female-identifying artists and featuring girls as the main characters. Nowhere is that more evident than in the runaway success of Raina Telgemeier.
Telgemeier, who has millions of copies of her books in print, “single-handedly created the market for middle-grade graphic memoir,” according to her publisher. Those autobiographical comics, together with her graphic adaptations of Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club books, combine to make Telgemeier one of the most popular authors on library shelves.
Telgemeier’s influence can be felt in some of the other books listed below, many of which share her interest in complicated characters interacting in realistic family and classroom settings. (Although some of them are about outer space travel and unicorns.)
In this, the first book in her “Emmie and her Friends” series, Libenson constructs a familiar dichotomy between shy Emmie and her popular classmate Katie that turns out to be more sophisticated than it first appears. Libenson maximizes the potential of the comics format by chronicling Emmie’s and Katie’s experiences in vastly different graphic styles.
Also the first in a series, Sunny Side Up shares Raina Telgemeier’s interest in autobiography and a digestible approach to complicated real-life problems, only in this case it’s set in a distant and exotic land: 1976 Florida.
Appealing to a reading audience that extends a bit younger than some of the other books on this list, Holm’s popular pink-tinged Babymouse series combines adroit comic dialogue with a simple and energetic drawing style.
This buddy comedy between an imaginative child and her talking animal with a strong personality may superficially recall Calvin and Hobbes, but it’s got its own flavor, and like so many other titles on this list it tells the story of a girl grappling with the challenging social milieu of her peers. If you enjoy Phoebe’s world and its punchline-per-page rhythm there are many more books in the series where this one came from.
Between its credible depiction of learning a challenging new skill from scratch and its deeply felt exploration of the ebb and flow of adolescent friendships, this Newbery Honor book is maybe the most relatable thing ever written about roller derby.
Roller Girl creator Jamieson shifts from one subculture – roller derby – to another – Renaissance fairs. When Imogene makes the bumpy transition from homeschooling to public school, her parents’ RenFaire community is a source of embarrassment, until it becomes a source of support.
This series-starter is another Telgemeier-esque memoir of interpersonal strife and domestic challenges, occasionally leavened – as might be expected from the creator of The Princess in Black – with imaginative flights of fancy.
The first in a series, Click is yet another story about friendship, but instead of familiar dynamics like bullying and unpopularity it navigates an unusually distinctive exploration of what happens when you get along pretty well with everyone but don’t have a specific crowd of your own.
This is another comics memoir of the author’s childhood experience as a child of Russian immigrants, with all the complexity and idiosyncrasies that come with that. But it’s also a summer camp story, so: bathrooms and underwear.
The first in the Berrybrook Middle School series, Awkward is another exploration of social crises in and around the classroom, bolstered by Chmakova’s deft way with characterization and her manga-influenced drawing style.
Steinkellner’s imaginative tale, Halloween-appropriate but enjoyable all year round, touches on issues like family heritage, systemic bigotry, and standing up for oneself, but at its center is the complex and satisfying relationship between the thirteen-year-old titular witch and her mother.
Nancy has been a newspaper comic since 1938, when it was created by Ernie Bushmiller, and its every incarnation since has been under the guidance of a male creator until 2018, when it was taken over by the pseudonymous Olivia Jaimes. Jaimes doubles down on Bushmiller’s occasional fourth-wall breaking, and mixes in a preoccupation with modern technology and social media and a newly robust awareness of Nancy’s many endearing and hilarious character flaws. Forever angling to indulge her appetites, evade responsibility, and neglect the needs of her friends, this new Nancy is one of contemporary American culture’s great antiheroes.
Though the titles in this list all share the attributes of being created by women and featuring female characters, they’re intended for all audiences – gone are the days when stories about girls were only for girls. There are lots of great comics about girls by male-identifying creators – look up Zita the Spacegirl and Claudette the Giant Slayer – but that’s a whole other blog post.