If you’ve ever attempted to guide a class, camp, or just one child through making comics or graphic narratives of their own, you’ll remember this as a curriculum idea that felt genius on the drawing board but was rendered challenging and chaotic in practice. Young students, even those who might recognize basic comic conventions after avid reading of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, El Deafo, or Babymouse, struggle with pacing, drawing, wording, and conveying emotion through their own comic creations. Let’s Make Comics! by Jess Smart Smiley is a how-to guide aimed at young people which walks aspiring comic artists through the ins and outs of making comics.

Let’s Make Comics! is structured as an activity book. Principles of comic-making and storytelling are illustrated by examples and exercises inviting kids to put new know-how into practice. Two characters—Bramble, a bear, and Peanut, a turtle—serve as guides throughout the book. Bramble and Peanut explain how the book works in an introductory comic and then move throughout the book with the reader, introducing new concepts and providing instructions for activities through dialogue at the top of each page. The two characters help make abstract concepts more concrete as Smiley employs them in example panels showing how to use speech bubbles, for instance, or whether a “close-up,” “medium shot,” or “wide shot” is the best perspective to take in any given panel.

While Peanut and Bramble have personalities, their appearances throughout Let’s Make Comics! don’t tell a coherent story: their purpose is to provide concrete examples, not narrative. That being said, a few complete comics are included in the book. Ostensibly created by Peanut and Bramble themselves, these comics are drawn in a more childlike style than the rest of the book’s examples—complete with crossed-out words and squiggly lines—and provide a fun storytime break in the midst of all the activities. The childlike drawing style is also useful in its accessibility: kids bemoaning that they’re “not good at art” might feel empowered when reading these simply drawn, but undeniably effective, comics.

Bramble’s and Peanut’s creations aside, Smiley’s choice to eschew a continuous narrative keeps the focus on the opportunities to learn, practice, and create within Let’s Make Comics!. Readers wishing to skip from exercise to exercise will find that working out of order doesn’t diminish the book’s usefulness. This characteristic also renders the book particularly useful for teachers who might want to use the pages on character-building and pacing in their lessons, but not those on lettering and inking. The book can also be engaged with on different levels depending on the participant’s age. Younger children might find the explanatory text and tips provided at the top and bottom of each page inexplicable without an adult guide, but enjoy adding facial expressions to the blank cartoon faces provided in one activity, or coloring in the example comics. Older children—as well as educators using the book—will find the explanatory text more useful and enjoy catching some of the subtler jokes sprinkled throughout the book.

As an activity book, Let’s Make Comics! is an inherently risky text for inclusion in most library collections, as it is designed for direct interaction. Some parts of the book are intended for cutting out and folding into a mini comic book, and one eager young reader might mar the book for future users by drawing directly on its pages. Given the increasing popularity of comics and graphic novels both in and out of school curricula, this book is a useful enough tool for those wishing to learn about or teach comic-making to make it worth the risk. For young comic enthusiasts, teachers, caregivers, and library youth programmers themselves, Let’s Make Comics! is an accessible, fun, and effective guide to understanding how comics work and making your own.

Let’s Make Comics!: An Activity Book to Create, Write, and Draw Your Own Cartoons
by Jess Smart Smiley
ISBN: 9780399580727
Watson-Guptill, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 7-10

  • Avery

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Avery is a relative newcomer to the world of comics and graphic novels who is nonetheless really excited about the medium’s capacity to enthrall, educate, and connect readers. Born and raised in the Midwestern U.S., Avery received both her undergraduate and MLS degrees from Indiana University but is now a transplant to Louisiana, where she is working as an adult services librarian and branch manager in the Tangipahoa Parish Library system. Besides reading, she’s also passionate about swimming, friendship, radical pedagogy, sewing, and trees. Her personal review blog can be found at https://aolundsmith.wixsite.com/bookcarousel.

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