In defense of graphic novels: a guest post by Jonathan Hunt

boxers and saints2 211x300 In defense of graphic novels: a guest post by Jonathan HuntEarlier this season, Robin tackled the definition of a picture book (as contrasted with an illustrated book) and then went on to consider the proliferation of graphic novel elements in picture books. I’d like to revisit these issues, but this time in light of the fact that this year has produced the most amazing crop of graphic novels in recent memory. And for my money the best of the bunch are Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang and March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. Why shouldn’t these books contend for the Caldecott Medal? Because they’re not picture books?!? Pshaw!

Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: it’s a game of semantics. You don’t get to glom on to your favorite definition of what a picture book is, whether it’s what That Great Scholar said or This Great Illustrator said; Common Sense; Thirty-two Pages; or even what Most Picture Books Look Like. Rather, you have to go by the very broad definition listed in the Caldecott terms and criteria. It’s like an algebra equation: x + 5, let x = 13. It doesn’t matter if x in the previous ten equations was always 10. It doesn’t matter if 7 is your favorite number. It doesn’t matter if 0 makes it easier for you to solve. X=13. Period. End of discussion.

1. A “picture book for children” as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.

I don’t think anybody would seriously argue that the books I mentioned above do not “essentially provide children with a visual experience” or that they don’t “have a collective unity developed through the pictures.” So, instead people opt for circular reasoning by arguing that they are not “picture books.” Doesn’t work, folks. Onward.

  • Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
  • Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
  • Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
  • Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
  • Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.

I don’t think we need to spend very much time discussing whether or not Boxers & Saints and March are distinguished in terms of these criteria. Their excellence is pretty self-evident. Some people will quibble with the audience for these books being middle school and junior high, but the Caldecott Medal, like the Newbery Medal, goes up to and includes the age of 14.

It’s true that it’s a strong year for conventional picture books, and I couldn’t fault the committee if it should recognize nothing but conventional picture books, but I do hope they will at least look outside the box. Because surely the artwork in Boxers & Saints and March is among the most distinguished of the year, and since there is no limitation as to the character of the book, it makes no sense to consider, say, Mr. Wuffles!, Bluebird, and Odd Duck but not Boxers & Saints and March.

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About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is a school librarian for the Modesto City Schools District in California.

Comments

  1. Sam Bloom says:

    Well said, Jonathan. I was looking carefully at those criteria again, because I was on the fence on whether the graphic novels you mentioned knocked it out of the park in this particular criterion:
    * Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures

    But then I noticed that “or.” And then I realized that these criteria leave so very many openings for interpretation – moreso I’d say than the Newbery criteria. That “or” really swings my vote over to your side. I’d only differ with you on one of the titles: I’d put BLUFFTON or GREAT AMERICAN DUST BOWL ahead of BOXERS&SAINTS, personally.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    BLUFFTON and GREAT AMERICAN DUST BOWL are great and they’re both in that next second tier for me, but they may be easier to build consensus around as they both reach a younger audience than BOXERS & SAINTS and MARCH. BOXERS & SAINTS has that two-voume problem, not to mention this conundrum: Does Lark Pien share the Caldecott Medal for her work as colorist? I think color is an important part of BOXERS & SAINTS, so I would say yes.

  3. Sam Bloom says:

    Well, I would hope that everyone involved in the art for a graphic novel would share the medal, if it came right down to it. I think the two-volume problem, as you call it, is what would hurt B&S most for me if I was sitting at the Caldecott table. I don’t see a problem with it in terms of the age criteria or anything else, but how can you judge it as a single entity when you can buy the books and/or check them out from a library seperately? Might be okay for the NBA (or Printz?), but I think that point will kill it with Newbery or Caldecott judges.

    • Jonathan,
      You had me at Pshaw. I love how you explained your perspective here, and I agree that the competition is fierce this year for all types of PBs.
      As far as 2014 goes, I think the B&S two-volume problem is a big one. As Sam pointed out, if there’s no guarantee that it will be read as one work (because of how it can be purchased and checked out), it’s hard to imagine the seal on two separate volumes. Then again, the fact that it is non- traditional makes it stand out for me. The colorist question is interesting. They’d share it, right?

  4. KT Horning says:

    How do you know they’re not being considered? Past Caldecott committees have applied the same terms to select Hugo Cabret as the winner and Bill Peet: An Autobiography as an honor book. Neither is a traditional picture book.

    You’ve made a persuasive argument for graphic novels but, like Sam, I think Bluffton and Dust Bowl are better selections. Otherwise you will get sidetracked with the inevitable age-level discussion.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Oh, I don’t know that they aren’t being considered, but I would like to see one or more recognized, not for the sake of breaking barriers, but because I really do think they are among the most distinguished “picture books” published this year. All four books are excellent, and worthy of the honor (as are many conventional picture books), but I do agree that you run the risk of getting de-railed on the audience issue with the two I have chosen to lobby for.

  6. Love all the points made here. That said, I do think it is hard for those who create classical picture books. I remember some unhappiness expressed in some places when Hugo Cabret got the medal. I personally was delighted (especially because I was on the Newbery that year and did struggle with the text/art problem when considering it for that award so was glad to see it recognized by our sister committee) and am all for expanding notions of what a picture book is, but do sympathize with those who want traditional books acknowledged too. It makes me think of my difficulty with the age issue — I “get” that it goes through 14 and have to fight my personal yearning for a book for younger kids.

    Can’t wait to see the 2015 Caldecott Medalists (when…ahem…the writer of this post will be on the committee:). Start your engines all of you who have GNs coming out in 2014!

  7. I don’t know, man. It seems to me your entire argument hinges on the belief that language is like an algebra equation. But language is not mathematics (to suggest otherwise is a false equivalence). It’s always open to interpretation. We can only ever say: this means this to me, and to no one else. That said, I believe language exists in the Caldecott’s terms and criteria which would safely allow a judge to evade your claims, should they wish to.

    For example, the first sentence from the first definition reads: “A ‘picture book for children’ as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience.” That word “essentially” gives plenty of leeway to a judge. There’s no doubt, graphic novels provide a visual experience, but it’s not essentially a visual experience in the same way it is with picture books. That’s partly due to the length of most graphic novels and the kinds of stories they tell, often with more dialogue, character development, even exposition. It also has to do with the arrangement of panels on the page and the leaps of time and action that occur between them, which are part of the semi-complicated visual grammar inherent to graphic novels. (Yes, picture books sometimes have panels too, but they’re not usually a defining feature, and those books often have other picture book-like features that distinguish them from graphic novels.) In my opinion, panels are a completely different–even diluted–visual experience, to the point they require a different cognitive process to be “read” correctly. Children of a certain age (certainly within that age limit of 14) may be able to do so, but having to “read” panels is a clear step away from the more basic visual experience a picture book offers.

    Okay, on to the second sentence of the first definition: “A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.” If we take the amorphous definition of “collective unity” as far as it goes, we could include every artform under its net. So again the difference here is a matter of degree. Yes, the graphic novels you mentioned have some collective unity, but these elements aren’t nearly as unified as they are in a picture book. I believe length is the biggest contributor to that difference. There is no exact length cited in the Caldecott terms and criteria, but artforms are fundamentally changed when new elements, such as length, are added or subtracted. There are no firm boundaries either, with fuzzy gray areas in between, but that doesn’t mean one artform should be defined under the exact same terms as the other. For example, what’s the difference between short stories and novels? Is it only length? But that one difference leads to other differences, such as the kinds of stories that are possible and how different narrative techniques are employed. Looking over the history of both artforms, it’s clear that short stories have a collective unity of story-line, theme, and concept that just isn’t possible in novels. I believe a similar disparity exists between picture books and graphic novels.

    I’m aware that Hugo winning the Caldecott likely weakens my “collective unity” argument to the point of it collapsing. But if I’m going to stick to my guns, I’ll claim that Hugo winning the Caldecott was an anomaly, maybe even a mistake. Ultimately, I don’t think Hugo is a picture book, but I think it’s closer in nature to picture books, and to the Caldecott terms and criteria, than graphic novels are.

    Finally, you accuse us of circular reasoning or appealing to authority or playing a game of semantics (never mind that all language is a game of semantics) when we argue the unique nature of picture books, and you could probably make a case that my arguments fall under one or more of these things, but I’m not sure the burden of proof even lies with us. Since you’re making claims that attempt to disrupt the accepted interpretations both of an established artform and the criteria of its highest award, I think the burden of proof lies with you. If that is the case, you offer precious little evidence to back up your claims. Phrases like “I don’t think anyone will seriously argue…” and “I don’t think we need to spend very much time discussing…” don’t cut it. You cite the Caldecott’s terms and criteria, but you don’t attempt to prove how the graphic novels you mention fulfill the criteria or, even more importantly, how these graphic novels fulfill the criteria better than picture books. Because, if we’re sticking as much as possible to the Caldecott’s terms and criteria, you can’t ignore those final few sentences: “Each book is to be considered as a picture book. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the illustration, but other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective as a children’s picture book. Such other components might include the written text, the overall design of the book, etc.” So, do you think the unique components of graphic novels make them more effective as a children’s picture book? If so, how? If not, why try to pass them off as picture books in the first place?

    • Jonathan Hunt says:

      Why are MR. WUFFLES and BLUEBIRD picture books, but BOXERS/SAINTS and MARCH are graphic novels?

    • I’m not convinced that reading a book written in the comics format (or with graphic novel elements) is all that different from reading picture books. (Like I said in my Odd Duck comment the other day, I think of comics as living underneath the PB umbrella.) Whether one can make sense of visual narrative isn’t dependent on length or medium—it’s dependent on the reader and the specific book.

      Isn’t the gutter—the space between panels—like that space between PB page turns, when the reader infers the passage of time and anticipates what’s to come? If I took an Elephant and Piggie book—or better yet, This is Not My Hat—and drew boxes around each page spread, it would look just like a comic to me. (Those boxes/panels would be worthless, however, because the design of those books is such that the pages themselves function as panels.)

      The argument that PBs have more unified elements than graphic novels is hard for me to wrap my head around. Sure, some PBs do. But this goes to your point about looking specifically at every title. If “each book is to be considered as a picture book,” every eligible book—no matter how long it is or if it’s for older kids or younger kids or if it is traditional or atypical—should be considered and discussed. Let the book be evaluated for the work that it is, and trust that the committee will be looking at all of the little pieces to determine whether or not it shines under the lens of the award criteria.

      You’re absolutely right that PBs are an established artform, and the award stakes are high. I just don’t see challenging the status quo as a bad thing. What’s wrong with questioning the “accepted interpretations” and thinking outside of the panels every once in a while?

    • Martha V. Parravano says:

      Maybe it’s early, but I think I just realized that graphic novels are picture books with more page turns. Ie, the panels essentially function as page turns. Has that been obvious to everyone else all along?!

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Bradin, here’s a fuller response to some of your points . . .

    1. You write, There’s no doubt, graphic novels provide a visual experience, but it’s not essentially a visual experience in the same way it is with picture books.” Does it have to be essentially a visual experience in the same way it is with picture books? Can’t it just be essentially a visual experience? I think so. I’m not sure your arguments about length or panels hold up very well. MAKE WAY FOR THE DUCKLINGS (76 pages) and THE BIGGEST BEAR (88 pages) defy the length of the standard picture books. Does that make them not-picture books? And as for the panels, you’ve yet to convince me that MR. WUFFLES is essentially any different from BOXERS/SAINTS. Are they?

    2. You also write, “Yes, the graphic novels you mentioned have some collective unity, but these elements aren’t nearly as unified as they are in a picture book.” Once again, I’m not sure I agree with you, but still: Do they have to be as unified as a picture book–or can they just be unified? And as for short stories vs. novels, since both of them can win the Newbery Medal, then why shouldn’t both picture books and graphic novels win the Caldecott Medal?

    3. And still later: “Since you’re making claims that attempt to disrupt the accepted interpretations both of an established artform and the criteria of its highest award, I think the burden of proof lies with you.” Accepted interpretations are not necessarily correct interpretations, and I believe ALSC encourages each committee to wrestle with these terms and criteria anew every year. Most committee members, myself included, will come to the table with a preferential bias toward conventional picture books, and some people will not be able to move beyond that bias, but that doesn’t mean that it should be institutionalized in the committee process, and used as a way to shut down the conversation.

    4. I’m guilty as charged in terms of not defending my choices according to the criteria At least not yet, maybe a follow-up post is in order? I’m not arguing that they should be recognized this year, as much as I’m arguing that they should be considered (which as K.T. mentioned, I cannot ever really know) and that they should be part of our conversation (which I can know, and quite frankly I don’t see or hear very much Caldecott buzz for these kinds of books).

    • Jonathan, thanks again for your response. It’s definitely made me think about these issues way more than I ever have before and I appreciate the chance to articulate an argument. Since you numbered your responses, I’ll follow suit, and it can be assumed our numbers correspond.

      1. If the word “essentially” didn’t exist in that first sentence of that first definition, I think it would be difficult to dispute you. But it does exist and it provides just enough wiggle room to dispute your claim that graphic novels are picture books. But I need to clarify my points about length and panels. I think Elisa made goods points that the pages of a picture book are essentially giant panels and the page turns act as gutters. But contrary to how it might appear on the surface, I think that comparison strengthens my argument! Because a more accurate measure of length than page count would be panel count. You asked if Make Way for Ducklings and The Biggest Bear would still qualify as picture books because of their longer-than-average page count, and I would respond with a resounding Yes! If you count up the “panels” in Make Way for Ducklings, for example, it comes to around 31 (depending on where you start to count). In contrast to that, Boxer reaches thirty one panels by page 9 (in a 325-page first volume). If we were to count every panel in that book, I’m sure it would number well over a thousand. So, if someone were to illustrate a thousand individual pages in order tell a story, would it still be a picture book for children? Maybe but doubtful. I think it depends on how it’s illustrated, and here’s where a big difference lies between picture books and graphic novels, and why I argue that graphic novels are not “essentially” a visual experience.

      I’m going to use Boxers as an example. It’s not hard to imagine the opening panels of the book being illustrated and presented like a picture book, with each individual panel blown up and given its own page. But by the time we get to page 11 (in the original book) or page 38 (in our hypothetical one) that experience starts to break down. It becomes strikingly less about the visual experience and more about the interactions between characters and advancement of plot. As this continues on, page after page, we might become bored and start to question why each illustration even needs its own page, especially when those illustrations play second fiddle to the story’s other concerns, like plot and character development. When visuals start to play that supporting role, it’s no longer essentially a visual experience but something else. And keep in mind, we’re not even describing graphic novels yet, because they take the whole process a step further away by shrinking the pages down into smaller panels and arranging them on the page in such a way that they must be “read” in order to appreciate what’s going on. Compare this to a picture book where the illustrations are always its primary concern and it becomes clear: the importance of every single picture over every other concern is what makes the picture book an essential visual experience. And the shorter page or “panel” count allows for this kind of impact, which just isn’t possible in a longer graphic novel.

      So, to answer your question about the difference between Mr. Wuffles and Boxers. Since I must stick strictly to the Caldecott’s terms and criteria (if I didn’t have to, I could come up with plenty of other reasons why Mr. Wuffles is picture book, but Boxers is not), I would say its presentation and shorter length allow for an essential visual experience that isn’t possible to replicate in the much longer, baggier Boxers.

      2. I’m tempted to just cede this point to you, since this sentence of the definition doesn’t contain a useful qualifier like “essentially” to mount a proper defense. Like I said in my original comment, “collective unity” could be defined in such a way that it would include every artform and artwork under it. (If you included the rest of the sentence, you could probably even make a case for Calvin and Hobbes or Ladybug magazine as picture books–which I think shows how inherently awkward it is to only use the Caldecott’s terms and criteria for a definition.) But I still think the difference in “collective unity” between a picture book and a graphic novel is stark enough to give one pause. Again, look at Boxers. I’ve just started reading it (because of your post), but already there are many characters, plot lines, and themes being introduced. Some of these elements must necessarily stand alone or only relate to a few other parts. You could likely remove a single minor character or situation or even a few panels and the whole thing would still hold together. But in a picture book, each element is utterly necessary to the whole, and removing even the smallest element would cause the whole thing to unravel. That may not be absolutely true with every single picture book, but certainly it is true with the best ones.

      As for the Newbery, it states blatantly that all forms of writing should be considered. The Caldecott makes no such claim and even goes out of its way to distinguish picture books from other forms of illustrated books.

      3. I’m going to recant here and distance myself from my earlier accusation that the burden of proof lies with you. After thinking it over more, I’ve come to the conclusion that your use of the Caldecott’s terms and criteria IS the evidence to your claim, and I think it’s sufficient enough that it becomes incumbent on anyone who disagrees with that to disprove it. If we can’t, then your claim is probably valid and doesn’t need additional evidence to support it. I got hung up on some of the language in your post, which seemed to me like an evasion. I don’t think that’s the case is anymore–or at least not enough that it invalidates your claim–and I apologize for the accusation.

      4. I’m not sure I see the point about considering graphic novels as picture books, if you’re not also making a case for them to be recognized. Why ask committee members to look at graphic novels and judge them as picture books, if the defining components of graphic novels make them less effective as children’s picture books? Or maybe you think they don’t. I’m still wondering about that and would love to hear your answer to the final few questions in my original comment.

    • Jonathan Hunt says:

      1. Since two thirds of the story in a graphic novel is conveyed visually, I think that makes them essentially visual experiences in any reading of the term, and that is never truer than when you compare graphic novels with prose novels. You may find picture books to be superior visual experiences, and I would expect your arguments and choices to be filtered through that viewpoint. What I take exception to is the assertion that we must all adopt that viewpoint from the outset of our discussion, and not even consider graphic novels in relation to the criteria. But you seem to have backed off this stance.

      2. I find that the range of visual experiences within the respective fields of picture books and graphic novels to be just as great as the differences between them. For example, I have read picture books with panels and speech balloons and I have read graphic novels without either of those features. I have read picture books that read more like illustrated books (FABLES is the example Robin cited earlier this year), and graphic novels that are virtually wordless. Is THE ARRIVAL by Shaun Tan a picture book or a graphic novel? I think you kind of admit this when you start talking about what happens in the “best” picture books. You seem to be implying that some picture books are not worthy of the appellation, correct?

      3. Consensus kind of dictates who has the burden of proof. If the make-up of the committee is such that the majority of people are not open to considering graphic novels as picture books, then it’s a lost cause–and vice versa. It’s entirely possible, but extremely unlikely, that you would have fifteen people who are open the idea of recognizing graphic novels. They would still have to come to consensus on which book(s) to recognize, and having at least four excellent candidates in BOXERS/SAINTS, MARCH, BLUFFTON, and THE GREAT AMERICAN DUST BOWL could well divide even the most open-minded committee.

      4. As I replied to K.T. below, I haven’t decided which picture book is the most distinguished of the year, but I’m all about finding excellence within the field of picture books, whatever they may be, and if that means that it’s a graphic novel or a book of photography or computer-generated artwork then so be it. I’ve never pushed this issue before because I’ve never found graphic novels that were distinguished according to the criteria, and who knows if I ever will again. Maybe this year is just an aberration. As part of my thinking process, I would love to have a discussion about these books in terms of the criteria–so that I can be persuaded one way or another. I don’t have an agenda beyond wanting the most excellent “picture books” recognized. Clearly, I don’t think that the defining components of graphic novels make them less effective as children’s picture books–at least, that’s not an a priori assumption. I would need to consider a case by case basis, and when that happens I may find myself hypothetically voting for three conventional picture books.

    • Okay, just one more comment and I’m done. This is your house, so to speak, and I don’t want to overstay my welcome (too late?).

      1. Where did you get the two thirds from and how was it calculated? What if it were one third or five eighths or exactly one half? Would those constitute an “essentially visual experience in any reading of the term”? Where and how would you draw the line between just a regular old visual experience and one that is essentially so?

      It’s not that I find picture books to be superior visual experiences, but when I look at the language in the Caldecott’s terms and criteria–”A ‘picture book for children’ as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience.”–I see only picture books fitting that definition, and graphic novels falling under “other books with illustrations”. Elements combine in graphic novels–elements like length, multiple panels juxtaposed in a certain way on the page, illustrations that exist only to support plot and character development, and so forth–to such a degree that the visual experience is diluted with other concerns. In other words, the “novel” half of a “graphic novel” precludes it at the outset from being defined as a children’s picture book. I’m not backing off from that.

      2. There certainly are a range of visual experiences within defined artforms, and stealing or borrowing elements and techniques from other artforms is common practice. However, just because some picture books borrow heavily from graphic novels or vice versa, doesn’t mean we scrap the accepted definitions of either artform, or at least not without good reason. Is the ability to capitalize on some fuzzy language in an award’s terms and criteria good reason enough? I don’t think it is. Also, just because it’s difficult to categorize a particular work–such as The Arrival (I’m assuming, since I haven’t read it)–doesn’t mean the definitions are null. Contrary to that, exceptions prove the definitions exist and that they apply in all other cases.

      I’m not sure what you think I’m implying by admitting some picture books have a lesser degree of collective unity than other picture books, but I’m certainly not implying that these picture books are not worthy of being called picture books. “Collective unity” is just one aspect of picture books, among plenty of others. To admit a picture book is lacking in collective unity does not automatically change its identity to something else. It’s still a picture book, just not a very good one. If a graphic novel were to somehow have an abundance of “collective unity” (again, something that becomes increasingly difficult to pull off as more elements, such as multiple plot lines and characters, are introduced into the work) that one feature alone would not make it a picture book either.

      3. I have not much to say here. I’m not sure how we got on a discussion about the decision-making process of the Caldecott committee. When I brought up the burden of proof stuff, I was referring only to your claim and the disputation that arose from it on this web page. But it’s always interesting to hear how decisions are made behind the closed doors of an awards committee.

      4. Finally, I sympathize with your desire to find and recognize excellence in artforms other than picture books. But to do so is entirely dependent on first proving graphic novels (or whatever other artform you’d care to include) ARE picture books. I think it was a strong but flawed attempt to only use the Caldecott’s terms and criteria to define your case, and it was bolstered by your bold, literalist approach. I know I was nearly convinced by it at first, and I don’t doubt you changed the minds of more than a few people. It made me feel unmoored somehow, since it called into question my belief that picture books are a unique artform, so I set about to formulate an argument that would resist your literal approach to language and to provide an “out” for anyone who still believes in a picture book’s unique nature. I’ll leave it to others to decide how I did, but I know for myself I feel like I’m on solid ground again.

  9. This is just a quick note to say I appreciate the comments and I’m working on my responses to them. I’m a horribly slow writer, though, and probably won’t have them done until this weekend. I’ll try to get them out sooner.

    However, I do want to make one thing clear right away. In no way do I think challenging the status quo is a bad thing, and I would never suggest that “accepted interpretations” be used to institutionalize biases or shut down conversations. But in a disputation the burden of proof must be established, and most often that responsibility lies with the person making the assertion. In other words, if someone makes a claim, especially if it’s an extraordinary one, they’re expected to back it up. To say the responsibility of providing evidence lies with the opponent is called shifting the burden of proof, and it’s a logical fallacy. So, Jonathan made the claim that, according to the Caldecott terms and criteria, graphic novels are picture books. Instead of offering evidence to back up that claim, he left it to his opponents to prove that graphic novels are NOT picture books. The purpose of my original comment was to point out that the burden of proof lies with Jonathan, and it was never intended to suggest there’s something wrong with questioning “accepted interpretations” or anything like that.

    • Bradin, Thanks for thinking this through and sharing your ideas. I appreciate the viewpoint and look forward to reading your additional responses.

  10. This has been a very interesting discussion. But can we talk about the Elmo in the living room?

    There have been a few references to the number of pages, and Jonathan’s question about Mr. Wuffles seems to be designed to get someone to say the only difference between that book and a graphic novel is the number of pages. There. I said it. And now, Jonathan, you can point out that there is nothing in the terms that says a picture book must be a certain number of pages.

    And you’d be right. But while there is nothing in the Caldecott terms that indicates a picture book must be no more than 48 pages, most people in the children’s book field have page length as an unspoken part of their definition of picture book. We can point to all sorts of evidence for this simply by looking at the way libraries and review journals categorize children’s books. Look at which books are included in the reviews, for example, that are categorized as picture books. What do they all have in common? Most are 32 or 40 pp. Will you find Mr Wuffles there? Yes. Will you find Bluffton there? No. What is the difference? Page length.

    Even the oft cited Hugo Cabret was never categorized as a picture book in any of the review media or best of the year listsfor the year it was published. How many libraries or bookstores out there shelve it in their picture books sections? Are there any?

    And yet a Caldecott Committee was able to interpret the terms in a way that defined Hugo Cabret as a picture book, largely, I think because the terms say nothing about the number of pages. I would wager that page length was never considered necessary to note in the terms because it was thought that everyone had pretty much accepted this part of the definition of picture books. And because, well, while most are 32 pages, some are 24 pages, some 40, some 48.

    We seem to have gotten it in our heads that this view of what a picture book is is somehow stuffy or dated or limiting. But to my mind, a large part of what makes picture books such an ingenious art form are the constraints, such as page length, within which artists work to create fresh, original, and amazing books, year after year.

    So my biggest question about your defense of graphic novels is: why? To be provocative? Or because you want your favorite book of the year to have a fair shake at every possible award? Or just because the terms show you can?

    And to be honest, I could only get worked up about defending graphic novels for consideration if picture books artists had officially run out of ideas, and they were no longer able to delight and surprise us with what they could do within the constraints of a traditional picture book. If the books published in 2013 are any indication, that’s not happening any time soon. Until it does, I’ll continue speaking out in defense of picture books.

    • Jonathan Hunt says:

      Why lobby for graphic novels? Would it surprise you know that I simply want the most distinguished “picture books” to be recognized, regardless of genre? Since only two of my seven hypothetical Caldecott nominations are graphic novels that means my other five are traditional picture books, so that actually makes me the defender of graphic novels and picture books. :-)

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Bradin,

    I’m sorry for my late response as I’ve been busy the past couple of days. I don’t feel like this is “my house,” and I think think your comments are less welcome than mine. If anything, my viewpoint is the minority one, and thus probably unwelcome in many quarters. I, too, feel that this will be my last response unless somebody introduces a new angle to this discussion.

    I used to do a graphic novel seminar for BER, and the two-thirds figure came from Gene Yang’s humble comics website, but I don’t know if that information is still there. I think it’s a general estimate, and I think some have a greater visual ration and others less. Matt Phelan’s graphic novels, including this year’s BLUFFTON, always strike me as essentially visual experiences.

    I understand that the aesthetics of picture books and graphic novels are different, but I would still call both of them essentially visual experiences, especially in relation to an essentially textual experience (which I would consider the opposite). To my mind, an illustrated book is something like CLEMENTINE AND THE SPRING TRIP which has numerous spot illustrations. The graphic novels, to my mind, are essentially visual experiences compared to CLEMENTINE AND THE SPRING TRIP.

    I’ve read your comments several times and I’m still confused by your assertion that graphic novels are not essentially visual experiences, so much in fact that I feel as if I’m arguing with somebody who considers a short film to be an essentially visual experience, but not a full length feature. Yes, they have different aesthetics, but they are both still visual experiences. Can you sense my frustration here? Why I feel like we’re playing the semantics game?

    All of the books in the Caldecott canon are by its own definition “picture books,” and I know there are some people would would quibble with things like HUGO CABRET and BILL PEET, and others who may go even further and say things like FABLES are not Picture Books. Ironically, there are graphic novel snobs who would say the same thing: there are graphic novels that are not Sequential Art. Of course, both subsets of these genres of “picture books” may, in fact, be borne out in Caldecott discussion, but they cannot be assumed a priori to be superior. My earlier comments anticipated this argument, but perhaps it was unfair of me to ascribe this notion to you since I don’t really know your stance. I do know there are others who feel this way, however, and my comments remain directed at them.

    The burden of proof that I bear is to prove that BOXERS/SAINTS and/or MARCH are the most distinguished “picture books” not that they are, in fact, picture books or essentially visual experiences because as a hypothetical member of the committee I have the power to bring these titles to the Caldecott table by virtue of nominations. Our hypothetical committee, like Robin’s real one, may have engaged in a theoretical discussion of what a picture book is according to the criteria (and, in fact, that is what we are doing here), but this is a purely philosophical discussion, and what we need is to move this discussion from the abstract to the concrete, which is what having these specific examples allows us to do.

    Thanks to all for a stimulating conversation. It’s such a strong year for conventional picture books that I’ll be quite delighted with an entire slate of them. But I’d also be pleased with an unconventional picture book, too.

  12. Martha V. Parravano says:

    Jonathan, thank you so much for hosting this indeed-stimulating conversation. You are always welcome in this house!

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