The Marvels, or What is Text?
Brian Selznick’s latest gives his visual/textual literary form yet another twist, as he tells one story first completely through image, then another completely in text, accomplishing a seemingly binary but actually complex interweaving of stories within stories. Though the package presents itself as simple and straightforward, the effect is multi-layered and powerful, and unlike any reading experience I’ve had.
We talked about Wonderstruck several years ago, and it poses a unique exercise for parsing the Newbery criteria, which say:
2. 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.
As “text” is commonly defined as “written words,” my stance has traditionally been that we can therefore base a Newbery discussion on the written parts of an illustrated book or graphic novel, even when the graphics do the work of furthering plot, character, etc. Let the pictures do their part, and evaluate how well the words do their’s.
This has been a somewhat grumbling “play-by-the-rules” stance, as I don’t see why “literature” has to be defined as “text,” or “text” as “word.” We put this argument through its paces last year with El Deafo. There, graphic novelist Matt Phelan commented:
I think it comes down to how you define Text. For graphic novelists, the Text is the words AND pictures together. We use pictures like prose authors use adjectives. Instead of writing “very scary” bear, we draw it. Pictures are part of the toolbox for creating the story, as are the design elements such as panels, balloons, and effects like fading of the dialogue.
Is the Text just words and sentences, or is it the cumulative result? Is it how the book affects the reader? I’m honestly asking, because it seems to be the sticking point in the discussion. When discussing a graphic novel for Newbery, everyone always bends over backwards to separate the words from the drawings but that seems to me like considering a prose novel but being required to remove all adjectives and descriptions first.
He’s right, it has been a matter of bending over backwards. So I’d like to take El Deafo’s Honor as an excuse to stand up straight.
The Newbery Medal was initiated by publisher Frederic Melcher in part “To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels.” It was about acknowledging that children deserve as much attention to quality in their literature as adults, and gave honor to 18th century John Newbery, who was among the first to demonstrate that literature written specifically for children could be a commercial success.
But because artists were being overlooked by the award, the Caldecott came along 15 years later. The Caldecott was named to honor Randolph Caldecott, the illustrator who was first recognized as created what we commonly think of as a “picture book”, where pictures actively communicate the story in partnership with the text.
Both of these awards honor quality, but in their names honor change in the field of children’s literature. Aren’t we seeing a comparable transformation today, in the inseparable marriage of word and picture to create narrative? Of images’ ability to tell a story as completely and richly as the written word?
While literal definitions of “text” point first to “written words,” they broaden to be understood as the “thing” that is “read” …sometimes the body of a work without front or back matter…sometimes a piece of music. Why can’t the entire main body of The Marvels, starting after the title page and concluding before the after-matter, be considered its “text”? Don’t we read the whole thing, and don’t we take every applicable element of narrative called out in the Newbery criteria from each page, whether that page is drawn or typed? Don’t we do the same with El Deafo, with March: Book 2, with any other graphic novel worth its salt?
At this point this conversation usually devolves into…”But if you expand the Newbery to allow pictures what happens to the Caldecott?” or “Why not create an award for Graphic Novels?” Let’s skip that today. The Newbery is for “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.” What does that mean to you? And how does The Marvels fit into that definition?
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at email@example.com
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