Thoughts on the Debut Author/Illustrator
Last week Jackie Woodson won The National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. It was a win so deserved that I had difficulty processing it. Under normal circumstances National Book Awards for children’s books come out of left field and are so blooming unpredictable that they almost always serve my perpetual amusement. The fact that a deserving book (one might call it “the” deserving book of the year) won was enormously satisfying. Of course, Ms. Woodson’s not exactly the new kid on the block. She’s been writing for decades, her style growing sharper, her focus more concentrated. When she wins awards it’s often for personal stories (her family story Show Way was the last picture book to win a Newbery Honor, for example). Now Brown Girl Dreaming is poised to do the rare double win of National Book Award and Newbery Award, a move that hasn’t happened since Holes back in 1999.
It feels right that a familiar author who has honed her craft should accrue more and more awards as time goes on. It seems logical. Yet once in a while a wrench is thrown in the works and a debut author will pop onto the scene and win scores of awards. It’s not a bad thing. It just sometimes happens that such authors and illustrators get more immediate attention as a result than their longstanding hardworking fellows.
On a recent(ish) episode of the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour the topic was debuts. The show discussed musical debuts, acting debuts, and authorial ones as well. At one point I think it was Glen Weldon who pointed out that if you look at a typical high schooler’s summer reading list, it’s just debut title after debut title. To Kill a Mockingbird, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, The Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man, Catch-22, The Bell Jar, White Teeth, The Kite Runner, and on and on it goes.
Naturally, after thinking about this I wondered if this equated on the children’s side of things. So I took a gander at those old Top 100 Picture Books and Top 100 Children’s Novels polls I did of yore to see if the debuts were the majority of the titles there. Here are the top 20 in each category (correct me if I’m wrong about any of these):
#1 Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963) – No
#2 The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (1979) – No
#3 Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems (2003) – Yes
#4 Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd (1947) – No
#5 The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962) – No
#6 Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1941) – No
#7 Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems (2004) – No
#8 Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz (1972) – No
#9 Bark, George by Jules Feiffer (1999) – No
#10 The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone, illustrated by Mike Smollin (1971) – No
#11 Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes (1996) – No
#12 Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (1960) – No
#13 Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (1982) – No
#14 Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina (1947) – No
#15 Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel (1970) – No
#16 Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955) – Yes (in that it was the first he wrote and illustrated himself, I believe)
#17 The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson (1936) – No
#18 A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead (2010) – Yes
#19 The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (1902) – Yes
#20 Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin, illustrated by James Dean (2010) – Yes
#1 Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (1952) – No
#2 A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962) – No
#3 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997) – Yes
#4 The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993) – No
#5 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950) – Yes (for kids anyway)
#6 Holes by Louis Sachar (1998) – No
#7 From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (1967) – Yes (sorta – this was the weird case where her first two novels were published in the same year and BOTH received Newberys of one sort or another)
#8 Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908) – Yes (?)
#9 The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978) – No
#10 Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (1977) – No
#11 When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009) – No
#12 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999) – No
#13 The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (1997) – Yes (if a previously published short story doesn’t count)
#14 The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1938) – Yes (for kids, though I’m not sure when he did that Santa Claus letters book)
#15 The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) – No
#16 Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (1975) – No
#17 Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964) – Yes
#18 The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (1964) – No
#19 Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932) – Yes
#20 Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (2000) – Yes
I was admittedly surprised by how many “Yes”es there were here. To my mind stunning debuts happen from time to time but are relatively rare. This seemed to hold true for the picture books, but on the novel side of things the classics are continually peppered with debut works.
Then there’s the difference between an authorial debut and that of an illustrator. I wasn’t able to tell if Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was Ray Cruz’s debut or if he’d been working in the field for years. What about Mike Smollin and The Monster at the End of This Book?
Then there comes the question of how debut authors and illustrators are celebrated. Recently the periodical Booklist revealed an issue called “Spotlight on First Novels“. The cover showed primarily adult and YA titles, though there was an inclusion of Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Inside the regular feature “The Carte Blanche” by Michael Cart concentrated on what could potentially have won the William C. Morris YA Debut Award if it had originated in 1967. The Morris award, for folks who might not be familiar with it, “honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.” Cart’s list is good and worth reading, though it include the baffling inclusion of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (a book that never could have won since it’s so clearly a children’s title). Children’s books too often get the short end of the stick when folks discuss debuts. For example, later in the issue a list of the “Top 10 First Novels for Youth for 2014” mentions only the entirely worthy (and rather charming) The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham as the sole children’s inclusion.
Here then is a listing of some of my favorite children’s book debuts of 2014. I’m sure I’m getting folks here wrong when I say they haven’t published before, so if you see a mistaken entry do be so good as to let me know and I’ll amend accordingly.
- Anna Carries Water by Olive Senior, ill. Laura James – For Laura James. I believe Ms. Senior has written several books before.
- Anna & Solomon by Elaine Snyder, ill. Harry Bliss – Elaine’s debut, that is.
- Henny by Elizabeth Rose Stanton
- Issun Bôshi: The One-Inch Boy by Icinori
- Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse by Torben Kuhlmann
- Sparky! by Jenny Offill, ill. Chris Appelhans – He’s contributed to the Flight series, but I hardly think that counts. Jenny is a known entity and not a debut.
Middle Grade Fiction
- Caminar by Skila Brown
- Cupcake Cousins by Kate Hannigan
- Dreamwood by Heather Mackey
- Fat & Bones by Larissa Theule
- Hook’s Revenge by Heidi Schulz
- The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham
- The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy
- Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier by Ying Chang Compestine & Vinson Compestine – Vinson anyway. His mother has certainly written many of her own books over the years.
- Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
- Phoebe and Her Unicorn: A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle by Dana Simpson
- Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine Roy (she did the illustrations for books like The Expeditioners but this is her formal writing debut)
- Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus; ill. Evan Turk – For Turk, naturally, though you could probably count Arun as well.
Then there’s the question of what you count as a debut when a picture book author writes their first middle grade or a YA author writes an easy book series. I leave that to the publishers.
Is there any debut author or artist with whom you were particularly taken this year?
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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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