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Jumping on the “Comics for Kids” Bandwagon
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On 1 October 2011, The Beguiling, Toronto’s landmark comic book store, opened Little Island Comics, a sister bookstore that, in focusing exclusively on material geared to young readers under the age of twelve, claims to be “the world’s first comic book store for kids!” (Little Island Comics). The headline of a Globe and Mail article published during the opening week of the store announced that, “At Little Island Comics, They’re Giving Superheroes Back to the Kids” (Dixon). In this article, Guy Dixon bemoans the dark “adult” tone and mature content of contemporary comic texts and graphic novels. This new store, he suggests, is a fantasy respite for young people and comic superheroes alike: “There’s a new little store in the Annex where Spiderman and his fellow leotard-clad superhero friends can take a break from the hard, dark times of the last 40 years.” In a similar vein, Matt Demers, on the Torontoist website, uses a folksy tone—one often associated with fantasy narratives for children—to idealize the store as a whimsical space in which families read together: “In the Annex, past Honest Ed’s and just down Bathurst Street, there’s a little island. An island where books spur imagination and parents are welcome to learn right alongside their kids.” The interior design of the store echoes this nostalgic discourse of family literacy and imaginative print-based learning, paradigms that preceded the advent of cellphones and video games: bright colours, small-case lettering on signage, clean sightlines, and low-level display shelves to invite book browsing by young people constitute the primary aesthetic. Not unlike children’s programs at the public library (such as hands-on art workshops, book signings, and other family-oriented activities), public events held at the store also build on this family literacy message. In addition, bookstore staff members offer library services to assist with the selection of comic resources for public, school, and university libraries.

Little Island Comics presents a new hybrid space that combines the eclectic collections of comic bookstores with the design, educational agenda, and curatorial practices traditionally associated with children’s bookstore and library collections. Peter Birkemoe, owner of The Beguiling, highlights the pedagogic agenda behind the new comic bookstore: “People are focusing on how well-suited this medium is to children who are learning how to read, or perhaps learning English for the first time. People who are usually involved with young readers, like teachers, school librarians and parents, are sort of waking up to the fact that comics are perfectly suited for this” (qtd. in Dixon). The eclectic stock of the store reflects its potential clientele of families with young children, adult comic collectors, librarians, and teachers: recent popular comic series such as Bone, translated Japanese manga, vintage comic series such as Tin Tin and Asterix, graphic novel adaptations of classic literature, picture books that integrate comic elements, French-language texts, and a significant number of Canadian comics aimed at young readers are available. A notable selection of its stock includes texts produced by non-traditional publishers of comics, including Canadian children’s book publishers such as Kids Can Press and Groundwood Books.

The recent creation of this comic bookstore for kids reflects changing trends in the production and consumption of comic texts over the past two decades in Canada and internationally. The increased cultural legitimacy of the comic as an artistic and literary form, the changing perspective of the comic as a learning tool, as well as the current consideration of print texts in the context of (some) adult fears of digital media are all factors that have influenced the increased production of comic texts geared explicitly to young readers by non-traditional publishers of comics. In an article focusing on the burgeoning field of New Comics Studies, Charles Hatfield observes evidence in the United States of “a rising investment in comics among mainstream children’s publishers” and cites the launch of Scholastic’s graphic novel imprint Graphix in 2005 with the reprint of Jeff Smith’s multiple volume series Bone as a stand-alone graphic novel in colour (361). Children’s publishers have also produced a number of picture book–comic hybrid...

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