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CaldeComics, Part Two

Today on Calling Caldecott, Alec Chunn writes about three 2018 graphic novels. This follows his October post, in which he wrote about three others. If you missed part one, it’s here— J.D.

Though Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt made a pretty solid case for board books being recognized by the Caldecott this year, I still think 2018 is the year of the graphic novel. Heck, it’s a strong year for conventional picture books, too. But, if these past few Youth Media Awards announcements have taught me anything, it’s that committees are really digging deep into the criteria and shaking up the too-often-conventional literary canon of yore. Gone are the days of shutting out graphic novels from Club Caldecott — and good riddance!

On that note, here are three more 2018 graphic novels that each deserve their own sticker of admittance.

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

Don Brown has a knack for creating powerful and affecting graphic nonfiction (Drowned City; The Great American Dust Bowl), and his latest is perhaps his best yet. With a brief introduction to the events surrounding 2011’s Arab Spring, Brown shifts to focus on the displacement of those who flee Syria for Europe in the war zone’s wake. Rather than focus on individual refugees (although he does give voice to many), the book serves as a holistic look at the refugee experience. There are many deaths, many bombs, and many threats, as the mass exodus moves toward peace. As much as it is about empathizing with the refugees’ plight, the book also shakes a finger at those who look on the refugees in anger or resentment.

In both illustration and text, Brown doesn’t shy away from any of the grim details. This suits well the scratchy-lined, almost hollow aesthetic of the characters and setting. Some of Brown’s most skillful moments of visual storytelling appear on double-page spreads, when he breaks from the regular, sometimes frenetic pace of the panels. Readers’ eyes are given a moment to rest, but it’s not always on a pleasant sight. One image that has stuck in my mind is the one of the man swimming to shore in a nearly empty sea after the others who were on the ship with him drowned. The man fills up a small portion of the double-page spread; the only other humans in the sea are presented as scribbles. The arresting way Brown depicts fire and explosions is also noteworthy, adding surprising bursts of warm colors and jagged angles to the otherwise cool, subdued settings.

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Shortlisted for the National Book Award, Krosoczka’s graphic memoir has already made waves this year. With his mother struggling with addiction and his father a mystery, Krosoczka ends up being raised by his grandparents — the only real constants in his life, besides his art. Readers first meet young Krosoczka as a preschooler, then follow him to his teen years as his mother floats in and out of his life. A driver’s license grants teen Krosoczka a chance to dig deeper into his relationship with his mother and forge one with his father. The resulting journey is a powerful rollercoaster of emotional honesty, the kind of book that truly changes lives.

There is a lot to talk about here — the hazy gray overtones, the ever-present darkness, the lack of panel borders — but I want to focus on the art within the art. The author’s note reveals that the drawings from Krosoczka’s youth that are included in the text are historically authentic, based on actual drawings that Krosoczka saved. While this first and foremost lends authenticity to the title, it also allows readers to follow Krosoczka’s emotional journey through a second layer of art (the first being his own lens as illustrator). The double-page spread of a preschool-age drawing of his family holds particular resonance for the panic it causes when Krosoczka tells his teacher he doesn’t have a mom or dad at home. This image is repeated in a later sequence that analyzes the differences between Krosoczka’s intentions with art at various ages. At first, he draws to get attention; later, to impress his friends. In his teen years, he draws “to survive”; those drawings are moody, abstract, sometimes grotesque — a stark difference in technique but also in Krosoczka’s psychological state. That readers get to see Krosoczka’s art evolving in front of their eyes is a gift and a narratological masterstroke.

The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell

Now, I’ve already written a little bit about this one as a Stonewall Book Award contender, but I honestly think it has potential for a multiple-award sweep. It’s just that good. Several story lines follow a group of neighborhood kids who are each struggling with the status quo. The one place they can put those worries or confusions away is in the paradise of their neighborhood’s make-believe Cardboard Kingdom. There, the children adopt alter egos — be it robot or beast, sorceress or banshee — and just, well, play. In the process, they learn a thing or two about who they really are. It’s a brilliant middle-grade exploration of self (and selves) that includes a wonderfully diverse cast of characters.

Cool fact about the art: though the stories have multiple writers, there is only one artist. Sell makes the most of every detail, using shadows and juxtaposition to unify the book’s two realms. For example, the chapter title pages introduce new characters through childlike drawings. These drawings, with blocky lines and imperfect coloring, depict each child’s alter ego. Often juxtaposed next to each drawing is a more detailed, full-color cartoon rendering of that character. This artistic motif places value on the kids’ imaginations. In some cases, readers are even introduced to who the characters want to be before they meet them outside the Kingdom. But, whether in one realm or the other, Sell ensures that readers recognize that the characters are intertwined. My absolute favorite example of this is the final sequence, where the kids run into school at the end of summer. Their shadows show their alter egos trailing behind them. It’s the perfect punctuation mark.

With this post and the last, all my bets are in. What graphic novels do you think we’ll see on the YMA projector screen, come January?

 

Alec Chunn About Alec Chunn

Alec Chunn is a librarian and book reviewer in Eugene, Oregon. He served on the 2018 Rainbow Book List Committee and currently co-runs the mock Stonewall Book Award blog, Medal on My Mind.

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Comments

  1. The only one of the three here I have read (and own) unfortunately is HEY, KIDDO, but what a masterful work, fully deserving of an Caldecott (and/or Newbery) discussion. My wife, two sons and I had the great fortune of meeting and chatting with Mr. Krosoczka briefly two weeks ago after a dazzling presentation he made with children’s literature icon Jacqueline Woodson at the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch. Krosoczka spoke about his problems growing up in a family with addiction issues, and read generously from the novel, utilizing a big screen and projector to highlight some of the book’s most unforgettable passages. I certainly agree with that the book is life-changing.

    I know Dan Brown’s previous non-fiction works and they are masterful so I want to The Unwanted (as well as well as Sell’s The Cardboard kingdom) ASAP. Thank you for a fantastic review on this extraordinary trio!

  2. I’m really rooting for Cardboard Kingdom to show up in the awards. I think it’s a long shot for the Newbery because of the wordless chapters, but I hope that it will be recognized elsewhere. I think Hey Kiddo looks more sophisticated and pushed more limits for the artist, but Sell’s approachable style is a homage to comic books for kids and a perfect fit for the glimpses into moments both joyful and profound throughout the kingdom.

  3. Susan Dailey says:

    I’m not usually a graphic novel reader, but the story in “Hey, Kiddo” really stayed with me. I’ve shared it with many colleagues and one has it now so I can’t comment on the illustrations. But kudos to Krosoczka for being willing to share his story with bravery and honesty.

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