Graphic Novels + Middle School: A Newbery Medal Combination?
It seems like graphic novels really began to take off about ten years ago when readers embraced Raina Telgemeier’s SMILE. It was published in 2010, but as I remember it took a little while and a lot of word of mouth for it to explode in popularity. These days the graphic novel format is used in so many highly creative ways…but at my library at least, it’s those “If you liked SMILE…” kind of books that still draw the most loyal readers. They’re realistic, usually with light humor, and often take place, at least in part, in the wonderful world of middle school. A couple of those have won Newbery recognition: NEW KID won the 2020 medal and ROLLER GIRL was a 2016 honor book (EL DEAFO, if I remember right, was more about elementary school).
Here are a handful of 2022 graphic novel/middle school titles that could easily be a part of the discussion for this year’s Medal:
GROWING PANGS by Kathryn Orbmsbee & Molly Brooks
Like THE TRYOUT (below), this one is based on the author’s own tween-hood. A good part of it is straightforward friend/family/school dynamics (though in this case it’s homeschool dynamics). Lying behind that, though, is Katie’s increasing struggles with Obsessive-Complulsive disorder. The author presents that very effectively. By consistently sticking to her point of view, that challenge kind of gets mixed in with her other concerns: surgery, an estranged friendship, acting ambitions, etc., and that seems exactly how it could be for a girl in her situation.
INVISIBLE by Christina Diaz Gonzalez & Gabriela Epstein
In a comment under an earlier post on plot development I mentioned my appreciation for the storytelling approach in this book. Even though it’s set up by a jump back from the present to a few weeks earlier, we don’t really know where the story of the five kids’ community service experiences is going, and how it will lead back to the principal’s office. Along the way we get to know the kids as they tell different portions of the story. And the kids are getting to know each other too. The fact that all five speak Spanish, but have very different interests, experiences, and personalities emerges strongly through the story (though maybe a bit too overtly towards the end?).
RIDE ON by Faith Erin Hicks
This graphic novel set around the world of horse stables is especially strong on characterizations. The story is driven by relationships and the interactions of distinct characters. Norrie’s over-the-top personality doesn’t work with Victoria at first, but she tones it down, finds common ground, and friendship develops. Sam and Hazel emerge into fully developed kids as the stories around the stable competition and the tv series revival go forward. And Victoria becomes more relatable and eventually really likeable as her backstory emerges. Here’s an example of how dialogue establishes character, when Victoria and Sam are gradually building trust:
Victoria: “Are you going to tell me to be tough and face my fears?”
Sam: “Yikes, that sounds terrible. Why would I say that?”
Victoria: “I dunno. Seems like something boys say to their friends.”
Sam: “Does it seem like something I’d say to my friends?”
Victoria: “No, of course not.” (166-167)
[11-04-22: I learned after this post that RIDE ON seems to be ineligible for the Newbery because the author is Canadian. I’m leaving the summary here, though, because it’s a really good book… – se]
THE TRYOUT by Christina Soontornvat & Joanna Cacao
Christina Soontornvat continues to display her acumen with all forms of writing in this memoir. The plot built around cheerleader tryouts seems conventional, but the author does a great job of capturing the nuances of Christina’s world. She uses thought bubbles effectively to show the girl’s personal thoughts, which of course don’t always match her words. Like when she and Leanne both sincerely wish each other good luck in the tryouts, but are both thinking: “But not if you take my place on the squad!” (154) She covers themes like dealing with racism, negotiating friendships, and finding your own path with insight and deftness.
TWIN CITIES by Jose Pimienta
Twins grow apart when Teresa decides to attend middle school just across the border in Calexico while Fernando stays in Mexicali. Their divergent choices lead to behavior shifts and strains their formerly close relationship. The author/illustrator uses the format effectively to tell their parallel stories. Sometimes he sticks with one child for several pages. Other times he alternates every panel, as when we see Teresa silently struggling with an essay while Fernando goofs off with his friend at the same time (48-49). The book is an engaging exploration of the two neighboring cultures through two distinct characters.
This is just a partial list of GNs about middle schoolers from this year. We discussed SWIM TEAM in an earlier post, and I still haven’t gotten to SMALLER SISTER by Maggie Edkins Willis and FREESTYLE by Gale Galligan, which also seem to fit. Of the books I have read, I like them all and am glad to have them in library collections. (Kids are glad too: my library system owns 72 copies of the five featured titles and 66 of those are currently checked out). They’re all extremely relatable and also explore topics that are relevant and thought provoking. I’m not sold on any of them as a true Newbery contender, though. But graphic novel evaluation in Newbery terms is tricky, at least for me, and I’m open to being convinced if anyone feels that any of these should rate higher in my Newbery thoughts…:
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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