It’s November… and we are all thinking about Graphic Novels

At Heavy Medal and at Born Librarian, Jonathan Hunt and Elizabeth Moreau both offer their views on whether a Graphic Novel can be considered for the Newbery (pretty much, yes, it can be considered but the winning chance is slim) and if so, how does one consider and weigh its merits against its intrinsic weaknesses: namely, lack of expository paragraphs, textual settings, other descriptive languages, since most of the text in a graphic novel is in dialog form.

Jonathan’s opinions are closer to mine — that we must judge and examine the text of a graphic novel as what it is and what it does and not ask it to be something else.  Elizabeth’s method of covering up illustrations in graphic novels or typing up just the text to read serves some purposes, but I would say that does not respect the fact that the text is MEANT to be viewed with the illustrations as a whole.  The authors of graphic novels (usually) are the originators of the stories, whether the books are illustrated by the authors themselves or by other artists.  (Traditionally, few graphic novel writers are illustrators.  But Children’s book world seems to be upsetting that tradition quite a bit!)  I have studied the “behind the scenes” process of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series (included in the Absolute Sandman volumes.)  Neil Gaiman gives out copious notes of scene directions, settings, “camera angles,” etc. to the illustrators.  I don’t think that’s how all authors work.  But, to think that the graphic novelists only write dialogs and a few text boxes of descriptions of settings is to discount the rich creative palette of the authors.  They have to make the same choices as any prose novelists do: the details of the world the story is set in, the characters that play off of each other: their personalities and voices, the events that unfold to propel the plot and to unveil thematic matters, etc.  In fact, there is so much self-editing and paring down that a graphic novelist must do that some prose novelists can never successfully achieve.

So, I say, do not judge the apple and demand that it should be bursting with citrusy juice and do not demand a lemon to be sweet and crunchy.

When I examine graphic novel texts: I read the whole book as IS.  No covering of any panel illustrations.  No thinking that the text MUST STAND ALONE.  And No demanding that the theme must help the readers to “gain a greater understanding of what it means to be human” (Jonathan’s words).  Let’s just look at how well the text does its job: do the dialogs capture the personalities and voices of different characters?  Does the PLOT engage, move along at the right pace, help the readers grasp the theme and offer clear causal-effect relationships, etc.?  Are the settings clearly defined and serving the story well (yes, we see the pictures, but we also understand that there are “directions” from the creators to direct the artists of the settings): for example, are things always taking place inside a room or events happen all around the story universe: whichever is appropriate to the “story at hand”?

I am reminded of the recent Newbery winner, Good Masters, Sweet Ladies.  The “setting” is done with separate historical nonfiction passages, accompanied by detailed illustrations, while the main body of the text is presented as monologs (or dialogs) that do not even progress with a linear plot line.  The book must have been  examined by that year’s Newbery Committee on its own merits: how effective are the monologs, how accurate and interesting to the intended audience are the nonfiction passages, and how clearly and movingly as a whole the various “voices” bring a medieval manor town to life by the author’s choices of “characters” and their interior struggles and exterior interplays.  I imagine that the members of that Committee found great success in each aspect pertaining to that specific book and not a general notion of “what a good kids’ book should look like.”

I feel that I’ve clarified for myself how I should consider Graphic Novels as a Newbery committee member — but, will the other members (including Elizabeth) consider them the same way?  And will we agree on whether a text is successful even if we do agree on these principles?  Reading is such a subjective experience.  I am more excited than ever to hear other opinions and to convince or to be convinced or to accept that we civilly disagree with each other perpetually!

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