Critics of graphic novels will often say that reading graphic novels isn’t truly reading and nothing could be further from the truth. While there might not be as many words within a graphic novel, the pictures themselves are there to help tell a story. Much in the same way directors and cinematographers must think about lighting and composition when making a movie, so must the artist work together with the writer to help create the setting, the characters, and even events that help move the story along. Therefore, graphic novel adaptations of popular works are not a dumbed-down version of the story, but tells the story in a different way. This is the case for the graphic adaptation of Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait Till Helen Comes, illustrated by Meredith Laxton and Russ Badgett.
Those who remember Hahn’s tale of middle school hauntings and family drama will find the same story beats here. The story still follows siblings Molly and Michael, who are annoyed by their younger stepsister Heather who does everything she can to get Molly and Michael in trouble. The blended family move out to the country where, in the graveyard near their home, Heather discovers a grave belonging to a girl named Helen. She soon starts to threaten her step-siblings that they will be sorry because Helen is coming. Helen might not be as dead as Molly and Michael thought, and she seems to be willing to do whatever Heather asks.
Hahn’s stories are just the right fit for young readers who like just a little scary, even if adults might find it tiresome. There are elements of genuine spookiness and dramatic tension in this adaption by Scott Peterson, but adults especially might notice that there is no real sense that anything too terrible will happen. Sure, the blended family is a great source of conflict, particularly when Heather’s dad takes up for his daughter no matter what she does, but those dynamics aren’t the story’s focus; instead, it focuses on Molly, Heather, and Helen. Heather and Helen have a very parallel narrative while Molly, as the main protagonist, is the one who must develop some kind of sisterly bond with a sister she and the readers can barely tolerate. Adults might call this kind of story “Terror with Training Wheels,” but it’s perfect for kids who want a bit of terror beyond R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps.
The artwork by Laxton and Badgett isn’t spectacular splash pages and precariously placed panels. Instead it simply serves the purpose of moving the story along. Fans of Hahn’s original stories might like to see if their version of Molly fits into how she is drawn here, but they will also see Helen as a ghost who could easily be a living character painted white and having access to a fog machine. There are a few moments when Heather warns her older siblings that Helen is coming, and they can see her expression turn slightly sinister, but the artwork here isn’t designed to dazzle the reader.
But does this basic approach make this graphic novel adaptation a bad one? To answer such a question, it’s important to ask why go through the trouble of adapting a well-known story into a graphic novel format. There are possibilities to experiment with how the story is told, or even how it’s portrayed. Different looks for Heather and Helen could have made the book even scarier, but that might distract from its purpose to introduce Hahn’s stories to fans of graphic novels. The book might not be breaking new ground in this story, but it is perhaps a less intimidating introduction to Hahn’s work and to juvenile horror in general. This adaptation of Wait Till Helen Comes is still asking young readers to process how the pictures and words tell a story, which may lead into a deeper appreciation of graphic novels and, in general, of reading.
Wait Till Helen Comes
By Mary Downing Hahn, Scott Peterson
Art by Meredith Laxton, Russ Badgett
Harper Collins, 2022
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)