Reading the Pictures
Scott McCloud, a well respected expert about Comics and Graphic Novels, declares, “Pictures ARE text” and “Pictures ARE meaning” in an interview (17:45) and that they are not just illustrations in a novel of words. I already cited these words in a comment about Shannon Hale’s Real Friends in January and urged Heavy Medal readers to expand the meaning of “text” — or for Newbery manual to be updated so that images in a graphic novel would not be considered separately from the words.
As I “read” both the words and the pictures of two outstanding middle grade graphic novels, I attempted to evaluate the pictures and the panel sequences at the same time as I considered the dialogue, descriptors, plot progression, and presentation of themes and to not privilege one over the other.
Since both Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol and The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang were created by single author/artist, like Roller Girl and El Deafo, previous Newbery honored titles, we do not have the conundrum of attempting to figure out whether the author or the artist is responsible for certain imagery and effective choices.
Be Prepared is a raw, sometimes heart-wrenching, but eventually triumphant memoir of a summer camp full of middle grade perils: mean girls, obnoxious boys, and feeling perpetually an outsider. There are moments of hilarity, but the tone leans darker and unpleasant – as is the apt choice of a sickly green on all the pages. The gradual realization of her situation and growth from dependent on others for validation to self-reliant and more confident would resonate with many young readers.
These panels below showcase Brosgol’s dexterity in capturing the mood of each scene and and her ability to convey movements and exaggerated humor.
I especially appreciate these two small panels toward the end: readers can see not only that Vera appears more assured and has a brain for a mastermind (see those eye brows, narrowed eyes, and the steepled hands), her two friends/allies are excited about her “better idea.” Note how the friends that only appear as elbow and hair but lean in further to Vera, with secretly satisfying smiles. The book is full of such detailed moments.
Jen Wang created both an original tale and one that echoes certain artistic tropes in The Prince and the Dressmaker. One of the final scenes definitely remind me of the musical (stage & movie) Bird Cage (La Cage aux Folles) – effective and fitting — and, I imagine, unfamiliar to the target readers.
The tale is light and warm, with moments of revelation and tension. The relationship between Prince Sebastian and Dressmaker/Designer Frances from employer/employee to close friends to potential lovers progresses naturally, with serious bumps and dips along the way, is a delight to follow. Jen Wang conveys the narrative in fluid combination of words, pictures, and panel designs, interpreting the theme of self-expression, friendship, and familiar support effectively. Take just a couple of pages for example:
Here is a masterful set of choices of perspectives and panel resizing and nesting for dramatic effects: half of the really tall door opening without revealing who’s entering the room, the long shot of Sebastian as he slams the door, the closeup of his face first in shock and then the nested panel showing his emotional reaction just with the dropped jaw and slightly crooked mouth, paired with the words, “I need to go out in that right now.”
This is an emotionally effective, wordless page, capturing their intense first realization of the changing tenor in their relationship — is it too cliché? or simply just right? Could it be both?
What other graphic novel offerings this year you’d like to see us discuss (Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka is one of the five finalists for National Book Awards so we will most likely include it in a future post.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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