Category: Literacy

On Graphic Novels

rapunzels-revengeRecently, Shannon Hale wrote a blog entry on books with pictures.  In that entry, and in its follow-up, she argues against the idea that young readers eventually need to be weened from books with pictures in them, that it’s not a mark of maturity to no longer need the images to enjoy the story (in fact, the idea of “needing” pictures is missing the point entirely, but more on that in a moment).  She makes the case for graphic novels as legitimate and valuable sources of literature and literacy.  She and her husband did write one, after all.  I completely agree with her, and left a comment or two in her posts, but I wanted to expand a bit on those ideas here.

If you’ve recently wandered past the graphic novel section of your local bookstore or library, you may have noticed that it has grown.  A lot.  Sales of comics and other sequential art are climbing steadily, even in a book market trending downward.  Those who see comics as juvenile may be dismayed by that growth, but I’m all for it.  I enjoy reading graphic novels, and I’m fascinated by the potential and possibilities for storytelling in that medium.

And I think graphic novels are only going to get bigger (in popularity, not size).

Here’s why:

  • mausGraphic novels are gaining legitimacy as serious works of both art and literature.  They have been for some time.  I mean, Art Spiegelman’s Maus won the Pulitzer, for crying out loud.  While there are still plenty of immature comics out there, there are a lot of sophisticated, artistic, and meaningful works on the shelves.
  • I believe graphic novels compete better than “ye olde print” for readership in today’s media-saturated environment.  Blame TV.  Blame video games. Blame the internet.  Blame all of it if you like, but the fact is, kids growing up right now experience multi-sensory media on a daily basis, a constant stream of text, image, and sound.  And I think we can all agree that’s not changing any time soon, putting aside the question of whether or not it should.  Unlike a prose novel, graphic novels offer the reader a powerful multi-sensory combination of text and image.  (Yes, they both use vision, but they’re processed along different “channels” in the brain.)
  • Librarians and educators are getting on board.  From the linked article, I especially like the quote, “We’re a visual culture now, not a typographical culture… Comics teach visual literacy.”  The salient word for me there is “teach.”  We’re realizing we can use comics for instruction, and we’re realizing that sequential art narratives afford unique opportunities for learning, opportunities prose novels don’t offer.  And when librarians and educators get behind something, the market will follow.
  • dark-knightAnd finally, movies.  With the sudden popularity of superheroes and villains, the audience for comics is growing.  Now, I don’t know if seeing Batman, Spiderman, or Iron Man on the big screen will actually draw new readers to the comic book source material, but I would guess that to be the case.  And having a movie as phenomenally successful as the Dark Knight only makes the potential audience that much broader.

In making these points, I’m not necessarily advocating for the ascendancy of the graphic novel.  I’m merely suggesting a few reasons why I think their popularity and influence will only keep growing.

That being said, I am personally intrigued by the idea of writing one.  I grew up reading comics, and in high school even tried my hand at writing and illustrating one.  I think it’s a safe bet I’ll come back to that medium at some point in the future.  There are things a writer can do in a graphic novel that they can’t do with prose alone.

Contrary to what seems like conventional wisdom, comics do not promote “lazy reading.”  It’s just that graphic novels ask something different of the reader than prose novels do.  Graphic novels ask the reader to mentally fill in the spaces between panels on the page, to supply their own connective imagery.  They ask the reader to perceive the relationship between the text and the image.  In the best comics, the text and illustration play off each other in ways dramatic, clever, humorous, and at times, profound.  In the best comics, the text and art are inseparable.

That’s why this idea of whether a reader “needs” pictures to enjoy the book is missing the point.  Sometimes, it’s the book that needs the pictures to tell the story it couldn’t without them.

Newberiness

Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! (2008 Newbery Medal Winner)

Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! (2008 Newbery Medal Winner)

Later this month, the American Library Association will be broadcasting the ALA Midwinter Meeting on January 26th, 7:45 AM, MT.  This conference, among other things, is the time at which the winner of the 2009 Newbery Medal will be announced.  For those who want to watch the event, the ALA will have a first-come, first-serve webcast up on their site.

As the time for the announcement approaches, there’s been a  pretty heated argument raging discussion going on about the value of the Newbery Medal, itself.  It began when Anita Silvey questioned whether the Newbery had lost its way in the School Library Journal.  For a lot of people, this article was a thrown gauntlet, a call to arms on both sides of the debate.  It has provoked a succession of similarly critical articles in The Washington Post, the LA Times, and Bloomberg.com, while many others, such as Slate.com, Horn Book Editor-in-Chief Roger Sutton,  and prominent kidlit bloggers Nina Lindsay & Sharon McKellar have come to the defense of the venerable award.

You may want to read the articles, or you may not, but it’s a fascinating discussion to me.  What it really comes down to is the continued relevance of the Newbery Medal to young readers when less popular, less accessible titles like Criss Cross, The Higher Power of Lucky, and Good Masters, Sweet Ladies win the award.  What is the point of the medal if it’s given to books that kids don’t want to read?

The Higher Power of Lucky (2007 Newbery Medal Winner)

The Higher Power of Lucky (2007 Newbery Medal Winner)

Well, buried in that question (a bit of a straw man, if you’ll permit me) is an assumption that the Newbery Medal is somehow tied to popularity.  That it should be given to books that will be popular with kids, as if that were its point and purpose.  But such a consideration is not, and has never been, a part of the Newbery selection criteria.  How can the medal have “lost its way” if the criteria have not changed?

The closest criterion to “popularity” is contained in the statement, “Committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.”  But I don’t think that equates to popularity at all.  I think that statement means that the book should be judged on how well it’s written for kids.  The fact is, you can have one without the other.  Books written well for a child audience might not be popular, and popular books might very well be crap.  And it’s pretty darn clear which of those should be used in selecting a Newbery Medal winner.

The purpose of the Newbery Medal is right there in the name.  It’s there to recognize the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature published that year.  And in their definition of “distinguished” they include things like, “marked by excellence in quality,” and “individually distinct.”  I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that under that definition, I don’t think the Captain Underpants books are very distinguished, hilarious and extremely “popular” though they are.

Criss Cross (2006 Newbery Medal Winner)

Criss Cross (2006 Newbery Medal Winner)

I guess people will continue to criticize the Newbery Committees and blame them for all kinds of things when it comes to their selections each year, but in the end, the only thing I thing they’re guilty of is poor PR.  Parents, librarians, and teachers need to understand what the Newbery Medal is and what it isn’t.  That shiny golden sticker is not meant to indicate which books kids will love.  It is not meant to say that every child should even read them.  Neither is it meant to mark an enduring classic that will be adored and read for years to come.  It is meant to honor the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature published that year.

I may not like all their choices.  For that matter, I may not like any of the choices (but usually, I do).  In the end, my personal taste is kind of irrelevant, because even when I don’t care for a Newbery book, I can recognize the “excellence in quality” of the pick.  When you evaluate the Newbery Medal’s track record on its own terms, not on what other people think it should be, I think it does its job well.

(And P.S., I really enjoyed the last three “controversial” Newbery books pictured in this post.)

Update – 1/16/09, 11:04 am: Nina Lindsay linked to this editorial in the LA Times by Susan Patron, the author of The Higher Power of Lucky.  It’s worth a read.

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