WE CONSIDER ONLY THE TEXT . . .
Each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature. 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.
BUT THE TEXT NEED NOT STAND ALONE
Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.
We have developed this mantra over the past couple years to guide us as we consider literary works of a highly visual nature. We often talk of covering up the illustrations to read the text alone. We do this not to see if the text stands alone, but rather to appreciate the qualities of the text without being prejudiced by the illustrations. In the past, we’ve discussed these issues as they relate to picture books and easy readers, but now I’d like to examine the format in which words and pictures seem to be the most inextricably linked: graphic novels.
A VISUAL MEDIUM OF STORYTELLING
Because graphic novels are a visual medium of storytelling, it would behoove us to spend some time comparing and contrasting them with some other visual mediums: film, television, and theater. While we can identify all of the literary elements in stories told in these mediums, we typically don’t think of film and television as literary achievements. We do, however, think of plays this way.
First of all, a play is published with an eye toward future performances, and while other elements of a production change dramatically, the words remain relatively unaltered. The best plays prove their literary worth time and again. But the permanent record of a filmed performance negates the need for the multiple performances of live theater, rendering the lone performance of those screenplays definitive and iconic. Classic films do get remade, but never with the same kind of fidelity to the original script that we see in theater. We’ve never really come to rely on a textual experience of the stories in movies and television in order to gain a deeper appreciation of them.
Graphic novels are illustrated from scripts that look very similar to published plays and screenplays. Like published plays, a finished graphic novel is very much a textual experience, but like screenplays they are delivered once in a definitive performance. I think a more helpful question to ask is not–Can this graphic novel text stand alone?–but rather–Would this graphic novel text be just as distinguished if it was illustrated by a different person? Does it have qualities that would transcend this particular edition?
Graphic novels have one quality that none of the other visual mediums have, a quality they share with prose: the reader controls the pace of the story. They can read fast or slow. They can look back and they can skip ahead. Film, television, and theater move at their own speed and the audience must keep up or be left behind.
THE MYTH OF INSEPARABILITY
Elizabeth Moreau, current Newbery committe member, offers some interesting thoughts on the whole conundrum of Graphic Novels and the Newbery. In part, she concludes that. . .
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.
As I stated above, the criteria actually allow you to judge a text only on those qualities which are pertinent to it. So if, for example, the setting is conveyed almost exclusively in the illustrations (and–in a graphic novel–it probably should be) then we need not expect to find excellence in the text for that criteria.
I’m also not sure I agree with Liz’s general description of the relationship between words and pictures. We hear it quite frequently–but is it true? Take the pictures–and only the pictures–from WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and it could virtually serve as a wordless picture book. Sendak might have added a couple of pictures to segue into the boat and out of the boat, but otherwise it works splendidly. And the text–this works independently, too. Yes, the marriage of the two is brilliant, but it doesn’t conform to the popular logic about the strict interdependency of words and pictures. Sure, some picture books will prove that logic, but not all of them, or perhaps even most of them.
I suspect the same holds true for graphic novels. Some books are more interdependent; some are more independent. But I think even that is kind of simplistic because it ignores the fact that the relationship between the words and pictures is dynamic and fluid and can change from page to page and panel to panel. Thus, as with all of the books that we are charged with considering this year, we must operate on a case by case basis rather than from assumptions and generalities.
WHAT IT TAKES
When I say–as I did above–that we need only evaluate a graphic novel text on the qualities pertinent to it, it does sound as if I’m lowering the standard for this kind of text. While there is some truth to this–we definitely are letting it off the hook in some respects–the fact remains that in order to be a serious contender, a graphic novel text needs to be able to compete head-to-head with prose novels and come out victorious in those areas which are pertinent to it.
That said, here are some general guidelines that I think a graphic novel text must have in order to be able to seriously contend for the Newbery. First, the text must make a substantial contribution to the storytelling. I love THE STORM IN THE BARN by Matt Phelan as much as anyone, but there simply aren’t enough words there to justify an award.
Second, the text must contribute to each of the literary elements, but most especially the prose style must be distinguished. Think: STITCHES by David Small or THE ODYSSEY by Gareth Hinds.
Third, the text must have a good balance between dialogue (speech balloons) and exposition (text boxes). It can be very difficult to communicate distinguished prose through dialogue alone. Indeed, if we copied out the dialogue from some of the leading contenders, we may find it similarly lifeless. It’s not impossible to tell a prose story this way, however. Avi did it in WHO WAS THAT MASKED MAN ANYWAY?, a book that pays homage to the radio dramas of a bygone era. So it’s not impossible, just very difficult.
And fourth, theme must be a strength of the graphic novel text. We must gain a greater understanding of what it means to be human. That is the hallmark of all great literature, and if I surveyed people for the greatest literary accomplishments in the graphic novel format, we would see that the most common answers–MAUS and PERSEPOLIS–bear witness to this.
That’s a tall order for a graphic novel text: to address the six literary criteria for the Newbery and adhere to my unofficial rules. And that’s just gets a foot in the door; it’s no guarantee of Newbery recognition. I’ve found two graphic novels that I would like to discuss here–HADES: LORD OF THE DEAD by George O’Connor and LITTLE WHITE DUCK by Na Liu–so I would invite you to track these down and read them in the coming week so that you can participate in the discussion.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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