Evaluating Graphic Novels for the Newbery: A conversation with Shannon Hale
Last year, the Heavy Medal team chose Real Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham, as one of the finalists and it stirred up quite a host of comments, trying to parse out how to evaluate a book where text/panels/illustrations are so seamlessly entwined and yet not penned and illustrated by the same creator. This has long been a hotly debated topic and author Shannon Hale has thoughts from the authorial end about what she would like the award committees to consider when evaluating a graphic novel. Heavy Medal caught up with Shannon during her busy book tour time and we really appreciate all she has to say to us and Heavy Medal readers.
Heavy Medal: Congratulations on the publication of Best Friends. Many young readers have already read it and others have requested the book from school and public libraries all around the country. How long ago was the manuscript finished? And what do you wish young readers take away from this follow-up title?
Shannon Hale: Thanks, Heavy Medal! I had to check the dates on my files to remember… looks like I turned in a final draft in May 2018. And then after seeing the finished art, I always make text changes so everything works together perfectly (mostly deleting text – I think a graphic novel especially shouldn’t use one more word than is absolutely necessary). That all took us into spring 2019. But of course since it’s a memoir, it all really started in 1985…
I really wasn’t sure I wanted to write a second one. (I really, really wasn’t sure I wanted to write a first! Memoir is so HARD!) As I looked through my notes and journals, what stood out to me was how unique 6th grade is in kids’ development. 11/12 is the year everything starts to change (or, change AGAIN). I find transitional ages fascinating as an observer/writer and confusing/alarming as the person living through them. I thought it was worth another book to just focus on that one age and be as honest as I could about how it felt. I find that kids are so relieved to see their own feelings mirrored back to them, both to know that they’re not alone and also to gain some perspective. It’s easier to understand when we watch someone from a distance feeling a thing than when we’re drowning in the middle of it ourselves. Also, I wanted to spend more time addressing anxiety, which was such a big part of my childhood.
HM: Do you think they have to read the two in sequence?
SH: No, I don’t believe the books need to be read in sequence. I always aim to write standalone books, even those that are part of a series.
HM: Could you talk a little bit about your collaboration with LeUyen?
HM: I started writing Real Friends on my own, not really sure where it was going. I’d been telling stories about my experiences in elementary school for years and I often thought of using them as a basis for a fiction story. It wasn’t until it occurred to me to do it as a graphic memoir that it all clicked. But memoirs are such BEASTS to write, I was feeling very unsure of myself. After my husband Dean, LeUyen was the very first person to see my script. I just sent it to her as a friend asking for help! I wanted her feedback as an illustrator before I sent it to my agent and eventually found a publisher. Uyen says she immediately connected with the script and asked to “throw my hat into the ring as illustrator” which was an amazing offer and one I didn’t expect (graphic novels are such BEASTS to illustrate!). After I sold it to First Second (and after dozens more revisions) my editor, Connie Hsu, agreed with me that we’d be lucky to work with Uyen on this book.
The whole process was very collaborative. I made sure the script was completely ready to go before she started sketching, of course, but we communicated throughout. I tend to make minimal art notes. I’d be crazy not to trust an illustrator like Uyen. Plus everything she did was brilliant. I felt like she’d climbed into my head and drawn my memories. Sometimes I purposefully left out details so it wouldn’t be too obvious to those involved who the real people and places in the story were, but then she’d draw it exactly right anyway! It was uncanny. We joke that we share a brain.
The process was pretty much the same for Best Friends. It seems like sequels should be easier, but every story is tricky to tell in its own way.
HM: Many readers find difficult to evaluate Graphic Novels that are not penned and illustrated by the same creator and some might think that the authors are simply creating the captions & dialogs whereas the artists are responsible for setting the scenes/backgrounds and facial expressions, transitions, etc. Could you address this?
SH: Perhaps the confusion comes from examination of other illustrated works. E.g., when we write Princess in Black manuscripts, we include zero art notes. The text that’s on the page is all there is. Like in picture books, it’s up to the artist (along with the editor, art director, etc.) to come up with images to enhance the story. But graphic novels are completely different animals. The majority of the writing I do doesn’t show up on the finished page. Like most graphic novelists, I write panel-by-panel. For each panel, I describe the visuals that the artist will draw in that box: the characters, setting, action (I have to pick the best freeze-frame moment of action), emotions/facial expressions, even weather and lighting if necessary, as well as including any dialog, captions, text, sound effects, etc. A wordless page of a graphic novel was written. It’s most similar to a screenplay, but in my experience graphic novel scripts are even more challenging because you can’t rely on motion or sound. You have to find a way to communicate everything in a series of still images. A writer who isn’t the illustrator will likely have more detailed scripts than the writer who is also the illustrator. LeUyen tells me I write more detailed scripts than others she’s seen, but every writer and every illustrator are different. There’s no set format.
HM: Could you share with us an example of your manuscript?
Sure, here are the first few panels for Real Friends. [Each panel description is inside brackets and text for that panel follows.]
[Salt Lake City, Utah, 1979. Summer. Five-year-old SHANNON at home on the couch with MOM. Shannon has straight red hair and bangs, very skinny, freckles, usually wears older sisters’ hand-me-downs and so is perpetually out of style. Mom has short feathered hair, dark auburn with “frosted tips.” Mom is on the phone taking notes about something on a notepad on the side table. Shannon crawls onto Mom’s lap. Mom is 8 months pregnant.]
CAP: When I was little, I didn’t worry about friends.
MOM (on phone): Okay, what time on Wednesday?
[Mom is forced to readjust, trying to write and talk, while Shannon tries to nestle into her lap, which doesn’t have much room due to huge pregnant belly. Little sister CYNTHIA, a one-year-old redhead, is standing at Mom’s knee, wailing. Her big sisters sit on the carpet playing cards: WENDY, 10-year-old with buck teeth and dirty blonde straight hair, glares at Shannon; LAURA, 8-year-old with frizzy red hair, rolls her eyes. Arrows labeled with their names point to the three sisters. Another arrow points to Mom’s pregnant belly labeled “Joseph.”]
CAP: After all, I had Mom.
WENDY: Don’t be so clingy, Shannon.
LAURA: Yeah, you’re not a baby anymore.
[Shannon curls up tighter on Mom’s lap.]
CAP: I just wanted her all to myself…
[Shannon closes her eyes]
[Imagination image: Shannon is inside Mom’s tummy, wearing little baby clothes, cozy and utterly content]
SH: That’s not to say that the artist isn’t free to adapt from the script. There are panels in Real Friends that are different from what I scripted. For example, LeUyen might think it’d be better to start a particular scene with an establishing shot instead of the close panel I scripted. When she sketches it, either I say “yes you’re right that’s so much better,” or “can we go back to how it was scripted because I think it has more emotional impact and will mirror a later moment” etc. It’s very collaborative. With a picture book, an artist and illustrator might never speak or even meet, but Uyen and I were talking, emailing, texting all the time. It’d be hard to do a graphic memoir any other way.
HM: How would you like award committee members to examine graphic novels?
SH: I’m a complete outsider to this process, so I hesitate to chime in, but I have thought a lot about this. And graphic novels and illustrated books are only going to become more and more common, so it feels like a good time to have these conversations. I respect so much these awards and the work that they do. By honoring children’s literature, awards encourage book creators and publishers to push themselves and make really great books. The goal is always: great books for kids. Of all kinds. So that kids can both see themselves reflected and gain empathy for others. Develop solid literacy skills that will help them succeed in school, work, and life. Be challenged with ideas and perspectives that spark them to think and analyze. Feel seen, find joy, laugh, take a break, learn and expand and just enjoy stories.
Given that goal (always: great books for kids) I have a hard time understanding the purpose of separating art from text when evaluating books. Kids don’t do that when they read. They’re taking in the story as a whole. I think it can do a disservice to books and readers to try to chop up a book into bits like that. After all, we all work really hard to create a unified story! Every book (illustrated or not) is a team effort. Additionally, I’m confused by the requirement of trying to figure out who came up with which ideas. That’s really unfair to those who evaluate books. How can they possibly know? E.g. in a prose novel, some of the great ideas were likely suggested by the writer’s editor or writer friends or spouse. Does that diminish the value of the book or disqualify the author from receiving an award? We don’t (and shouldn’t) disregard a picture book illustrator’s contributions when their images are illustrating ideas the writer came up with. I don’t think that graphic novels should be evaluated by their scripts. Not present in this script, for example, are all the conversations and emails that Uyen and I had about look, feeling, tone, character. Plus the goal is the end product, the unified book, the story that the readers see.If we focused more on the book as a whole (as the readers do) and less on who-did-what, I think it’d be more in keeping with that goal: great books for kids.
HM: Thank you so much, Shannon, for sharing your process and insights with us.
Do Heavy Medal readers have questions or musings after reading this post? Please share with us. This is also an invitation to discuss Best Friends, which I find painful to read (just like Real Friends) but incredibly effective and resonant.
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.
SLJ Blog Network