Text, Image, and 2010: Why Baby Needs a New ALA Award
Roundabout this time of year a young girl’s thoughts turn to the upcoming award season. By now most of the fall releases have been produced in ARC, galley, or F&G form. The buzz is building. The mock Newbery/Caldecott discussions are starting. And in the midst of these discussions will arise a question that shall come up over and over and over again until ALSC does something about it.
What do we do with these books that are chock full of images?
Consider the strange case of Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg or Countdown by Deborah Wiles. Two books handling two very different and serious subjects: Overcoming family grief and the Cuban Missile Crisis, respectively. Different stories, same problem, though. In the case of Silberberg we are looking at a title that integrates comic panels and interstitial illustrated bits to complement the text. In Countdown, the book describes itself as a “documentary novel” and includes photographs, song lyrics, and other timely ephemera. These creative elements give the books the extra added kick needed to make them wholly new art forms. It also dooms them when the award season comes around.
Illustrated elements when incorporated into a book’s structure serve to increase the reader’s appreciation of the book itself. Those of you that doubt the previous statement might enjoy Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which delves into this idea at more length. Unfortunately, by choosing to add such details the books are now less likely to be serious contenders for awards like the Newbery and Caldecott. Why? Well, a Newbery Award (criteria here) has to go to the most distinguished work of American children’s “literature”. Are illustrations “literature”? Not usually (the criteria specifies that “the committee shall consider all forms of writing—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry”), which indicates that if you separate the text from a book and it isn’t as strong without the pictures then the “literature” in the book can’t stand up to significant scrutiny. Could comics win Caldecotts then? No, a Caldecott (criteria here) must go to a “picture book for children” with “distinguished” illustrations. A graphic novel might have a chance if it was definitely a “picture book” but even so, the art would have to be stronger than the text. This is not to say that comic-inspired picture books haven’t won before (The Red Book by Barbara Lehman, for example), but they are picture books first, graphic literature second. So it is that many a fine novel or graphic novel is shot down in the course of award discussions each and every year.
This is particularly maddening when you consider how strong a year 2010 is in terms of graphic novels. Already we’ve seen an incredible crop of titles this year. Here are my favorites so far:
- Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch
- Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by Greg Neri
- Zeus: King of the Gods and Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess by George O’Connor
- Meanwhile by Jason Shiga
- Shake, Rattle, and Turn That Noise Down: How Elvis Shook Up Music, Me and Mom by Mark Alan Stamaty
- Smile by Raina Telgemeier
- Ghostopolis by Doug Tennapel
- Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye: Hamster and Cheese by Colleen AF Venable
- Thunder from the Sea: Adventure On Board the HMS Defender by Jeff Weigel
Had I the power I’d give each and every one of these books an award. As it stands, the ones written for older readers will be lucky if they can finagle a Printz, National Book Award, or Eisner nomination in a young person’s category. The rest might try for a Scott O’Dell Award (risky but sometimes it works) or something along those lines, but it’s hardly a given.
The time has come for ALA to establish an award for books like these standard GNs and for books like Countdown and Milo, like The Arrival by Shaun Tan, or The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger. In short, books should be rewarded for creatively mixing together text and image in new and unforeseen ways. Sure, The Invention of Hugo Cabret won a Caldecott Medal, but how often are you going to get a committee willing to do something so radical? Cabret deserved every award it received. However, until we get an award for books that strive to push boundaries and attempt new things, they will generally be forgotten. For every Cabret you’ve hundreds of Secret Science Alliance titles disappearing into the mists of obscurity.
Now whenever someone suggests something along these lines you meet the old there-are-too-many-awards-anyway argument. I understand why folks would feel that way. Sitting through each year’s ALA Children’s Media Awards announcements increasingly starts to resemble the running time of the Oscar Award ceremonies. That said, a distrust of graphic literature harkens back to the days when librarians looked at comics askance with a jaundiced eye. If we can change our perceptions of the form, and for the most part I believe we have, then we can find ways to judge the best in the field and promote them to our kids.
New award category, please! Name Suggestion: The Walt Kelly, or just “Kelly Award”.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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