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.