For All That’s Real and Fair(e): Two Outstanding MG GNs
As the Newbery Committee manual dictates, the “committee is to make its decision primarily on the text” and “[o]ther components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.” In other words, good designs and fabulous illustrations that enhance the overall reading experience, theoretically, should not be discussed at all. So, what about Graphic Novels? One might argue that the images are not mere illustrations and the panel, font, and other graphic design elements are integral t0 the narrative structure. Indeed, I would argue that if one is to nominate and analyze a graphic novel for the Newbery, one cannot skirt around illustrations and over all design.
Just three short years ago, when Nina Lindsay discussed El Deafo on this same blog, she definitely tried to isolate the text in order to justify the book’s Newbery award worthiness even when she started challenging the status quo and broadened textual definition to include what could be achieved by the sequential art form: setting, pacing, character development, conflicts, tension, etc. El Deafo received a Newbery Honor in 2015. When Nina supported Roller Girl in the subsequent Heavy Medal year, she stated that the text alone wouldn’t have made the book Newbery worthy for her without all the other elements and how all the illustrations and designs make Roller Girl a shining example “of a story presented in exactly the right format.” Roller Girl won a Newbery silver in 2016.
Will 2018 be another year in which this seemingly new but already well established genre garner accolades again? I’d say that there is quite the chance, given some strong 2017 Graphic Novel titles such as Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham and All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson (creator of Roller Girl.)
Both titles deal with the turbulent years of middle grade to middle school: although one is a memoir and the other fiction. Both main characters are girls with distinct personalities but also much self-doubt, eager to fit in while couldn’t quit escape from their own uniqueness.
I love the setting in All’s Faire: it offers the framework of a quest, the rising and falling actions of a piece of theater, and the juxtaposition of what’s “real/normal” vs what’s “ideal/unusual.” When Imogene breaks down and accuses her parents of “not even having real jobs,” she is really accusing them of not having a “normal,” year-round job. In a way, as readers, we all are a bit envious of that almost dream-like existence of Faire Life and finding ourselves question what IS real and who’s to say what makes something “normal.”
Real Friends, on the other hand, is set solidly in the every day life of a young girl whose rich inner life got in the way, sometimes, of her fitting in and who would grow up to make up fantasy tales featuring fierce young heroines. The strength of Real Friends is its totally open and often painful honesty. I am floored by the authors’ abilities to capture the difficult family dynamics and troubling friendships with candor and tenderness in words and images.
Stylistically, Real Friends is darker, more unsettling: with tilted panels (pages 46/47) and the frequent images of a huge, looming wild bear, representing the internal turmoils of Shannon’s older sister (pages 78-81 and 175, 178, etc.,) while All’s Faire in Middle School is lighter with orderly panel sequences, projecting a sense of security, even when things are really rough going for Imogene.
Emotionally, I would say that Real Friends is definitely a lot more painful, more realistic, and the final reward of her reconciliation with her sister is higher — because readers could see how things might just not turn out well for Shannon. (And things never did work out with Jenny.) All’s Faire also does not shy away from some realistic consequences of Imogene’s choices, but readers never quite worry about her the same way as we worry about Shannon. We expect that Imogene’s parents and brother would come around and embrace her and we couldn’t quite care about whether things work out with Mika — because she’s there as a device, a catalyst, not a real person.
If I must choose one of the two to nominate as a Newbery contender, I will go by how a good super-hero comic is measured: based on whether there is an effective “villain/antagonist” that allows for deeper understanding of all that’s fair/unfair in human relationships.
To me, Mika and her group of popular girls are never quite three dimensional in All’s Faire. Even though their “defeat” in the end feels satisfying, it also seems a bit easy and without much depth. Once it’s done, we move on. I never stop to think to myself: I wonder what’s going on with Mika after her birthday party?? Whereas Shannon’s adversaries are real challenges – her older sister’s rage and depression and her “friends” Jen’s and Jenny’s mercurial and puzzling behaviors, make for gut-punching episodes. After putting down the book, I keep wondering about all that transpired and continue to gain insights when reconsidering these complicated and not quite resolved relationships.
I would not hesitate to put forth Real Friends as one of my 7 Newbery Nominations for 2018. Heavy Medal readers: what is your verdict?
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Roxanne Hsu Feldman
Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at email@example.com.
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