Thursday, July 26, 2012

Graphic Novels and the Newbery

Here's a question that came up in informal talks at the ALA annual conference: Could a graphic novel (previously known as a comic book) win the Newbery Medal? According to the official criteria, there is no reason it couldn't. However I will quote one passage: "The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective."

That is fairly damning. You can't consider illustrations unless they detract from the text. I imagine that is why The Invention of Hugo Cabret didn't win its year.

I'm receiving boxes and boxes of free books from publishers. (245 unique books at last count, 293 total - I get ARCs and then final copies and a few duplicate copies.) Initially I believed all members of the committee were receiving exactly the same shipments, but not so. Chatting during our meeting in June revealed that I might be the only one receiving some extra Graphic Novels.

Clearly some publisher has noted "Graphic Novel Buyer" beside "Newbery Committee Member" in their database and that is lovely. Though I can't guarantee it, it is most likely I'm the most prolific/experience graphic novel reader on the committee. Hence our discussion.

And so I began to ponder, could a graphic novel be the winner. I have some graphic novels from this year that are eligible in every other way (author is US resident, publisher is US based, etc) and so I pulled them. 20 pages into Giants Beware by Aguirre and Rosado and I was hooked. This is clearly an outstanding children's graphic novel.

But can it win the Newbery? For the next five pages, I covered up the illustrations with post-it notes except for little gaps around the text bubbles and the people's heads (so I could see who said what) and then I started reading.

Note: for this to be a truly effective experiment, I should have had someone else cover up the illustrations so I never even saw them. People already think I'm crazy, this request wouldn't even have them raising their eyebrows.

And then I read. And it didn't work. Without the illustrations the text was fun, but mostly flat. The setting was non-existent. And far too much was lost. I mourned a little bit as I replaced it on my shelf.

Then I pondered for a week or so more. Do I want a graphic novel that could win the Newbery Medal? The beauty of a graphic novel is in the interplay between text and illustration. In the best ones, the two work together, build off each other, complement each other. What one lacks, the other supplies, but you need both to fully appreciate the experience. A graphic novel that could win based on text alone would feel redundant. Constantly the text would be repeating what was clear in the illustrations: the emotions, the setting, and all those subtle effects.

Once as an experiment I checked out a "described" VHS tape (a million years ago) for the blind from the library. In breaks of dialog, the action and setting were verbally described for the benefit of the visually impaired. I found it boring, irritating, and jarring to have what was in front of me constantly described. (A lot of DVDs offer this feature, try it someday.)

So in theory a graphic novel could win the Newbery Medal, and it might be an astounding book, but I imagine it would be an awful graphic novel. Much like watching an audio described movie feels to a non-visually impaired person would be the graphic novel that wins on text alone.

And I don't want to read that graphic novel.


Marge Loch-Wouters said...

During my Newbery year, we had a very fine and moving book. It was an illustrated fiction and I was on fire to nominate it. But then I stopped myself. Was I responding to the illustrations as well as the text? I typed out the text (it was a long time ago). When I read it, without the art, it was much flatter than I realized. The text could not stand on it's own.

I have always believed that there are other awards out there (the Zolotow, for instance) that honor text and illustrations and that any possible Newbery nomination has to have dazzling writing. It precludes many books...but then again, celebrates many others.

Chris Schweizer said...

I think that the biggest point on which this issue rests is whether or not the images in a graphic novel are illustrations. I believe that they are not, or at least that they are not when the comic medium is used effectively (which, to be fair, is often not the case).

One of the reasons that comics work so well as a literacy aid, and are so universal as an instructive medium (note the safety cards in an airplane the next time you fly) is that the images are meant to be read. Actually READ, in the same manner that one would consume text. They are not meant to illustrate or to bolster the text. The drawings are information, meant to be digested in exactly the same way that prose is meant to be digested, as a means by which the author conveys a very specific idea at a very specific point in the reading process.

The Newbery is, and will likely continue to be, the most prestigious children's literature award out there. I find it disheartening that great works of children's literature might never be eligible because they employ a written language that is considered by many librarians to be illustration. Again, I contend that it is not. That this language is malleable and visually representational does not strip it of its function, which is to convey information as efficiently and elegantly as possible.

By any of the applicable definitions of "text" ("the original words AND FORM of a written or printed work" or "the main body of printed or written matter on a page"), comics should be eligible. As one who makes graphic novels myself (hence my vested interest), I can assure you that the visual component IS written. Every stroke is considered from the standpoint of how it will move the story forward and affect the reading experience.

That said, I commend your eagerness to consider the role of graphic novels within the existing framework of the Newbery Award guidelines, even if I disagree with your conclusions.

Jesse Post said...

Yeah, what Chris said. I wonder if this is a too-narrow reading of the word "text" and that the rules actually do permit graphic novels or other illustrated books when the pictures ARE the text rather than complementing it. (Meaning, text is defined in the sense of, text vs. subtext, or even more simply, as the story.) It strikes me that the rule is meant to discourage judges from awarding a sub-par story, told badly, because it has beautiful illustrations next to it, not to close your eyes when looking at the pictures.

Of course, another way to include graphic novels in the selection process is to simply have a Newbery Award for graphic novels.

Eva Volin said...

I think the word that is being defined too narrowly is "primarily." Yes, the text comes first. The Newbery is an award for writing, after all. But there is nothing that says illustrations can't complement the writing. Even enhance it. Would Where the Mountain Meets the Moon evoke the same sense of wonder one gets when opening a volume of classic fairy tales without Grace Lin's illustrations? Or Jacqueline Woodson's Show Way grab at your heart the way it does without the reach added by the art of Hudson Talbott? I think not.

The writing doesn't have to stand alone. It just has to be the first thing considered. To pull the words away from its accompanying art does a dissevice to the work as a whole. The criteria cited above says the artwork may be considered when it makes the text *less* effective. It doesn't say the artwork can't be considered if it makes the text even more effective.

Monica Edinger said...

When I was on the 2008 Committee the criteria read, "Other aspects of a book are to be considered only if they distract from the text. Such other aspects might include illustrations, overall design of the book, etc." So the language is now the milder "less effective" but the problem remains.

That is, I still think the criteria as they are now make it enormously difficult for graphic novels to be fairly considered. And (as I just wrote as well over at Heavy Medal) that frustrates me enormously. Yes, there are other awards, but none have as much clout in the public eye as does the Newbery. And with the evolving nature of book storytelling for children I do wish there was a way to consider this for the award.

What bothers me is that the only way to do so is to spend huge amounts of time debating how to interpret the criteria, determining what story is, etc etc. As stimulating as that is, it takes away from the need to be able to focus on the work itself. I served the year of Hugo Cabret so I spend an enormous amount of time considering this, I can tell you!

It may be an impossible dilemma, but every year it becomes a bigger problem.