CaldeComics 2021, Part Two

Today on Calling Caldecott, Niki Marion writes about two more 2020 graphic novels. Read her earlier CaldeComics post here.

 

When we talk about the Caldecott Medal, we often assume that because the award recognizes “the most distinguished picture book for children,” the winner must be a picture book in the traditional sense. The criteria defines children, however, as “persons of ages up to and including fourteen.” So, why do we rarely see books for older readers honored?

The famous outlier is, of course, This One Summer, for which JIllian Tamaki won a Caldecott honor and a Printz honor in 2015. (I could also mention 2008 medalist The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but I consider Brian Selznick to be a total format innovator and don’t classify that book as a graphic novel proper. Feel free to disagree, but I am firmly in the Brian-Selznick-is-a-format-bending-original camp!) This One Summer is marketed toward twelve- to eighteen-year-old readers, and I think Tamaki is supremely deserving of the honr. (Tamaki is also supremely deserving of the Medal proper, and I think it could be awarded to either of the two books she’s published this year: My Best Friend or Our Little Kitchen. Both exquisite, both so different, but both expressly Tamaki’s own.)

Despite the meager recognition since then, I want to offer for Caldecott consideration two more books for older readers — Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang and Flamer by Mike Curato. 

Dragon Hoops

With his passion for superhero comics, I really wasn’t expecting Gene Luen Yang’s next graphic novel to be about basketball. Though, after thinking about it, it’s a natural and frankly obvious next step. Because: aren’t sports stars — and basketball players, in particular — heroic in their command of physical strength, agility, and technique?

My one concern was that Yang does rely on a firm harmony of explanatory text and illustrative art in his work. Because this is part-history, part-sports epic, part-autobiography, I wondered if the graphic novel would read as text-heavy, but I shouldn’t have worried.

Yang’s artistic expertise shines most brightly in his dynamic depictions of basketball games. He uses irregular quadrilateral-shaped panels for players’ angled movement and speed, helpful scoreboard and countdown inserts to orient the viewer in time during games, and highlight reel panels that assemble the game’s best moves in one frame. These compilations are highly effective, especially when juxtaposed with sparely composed panels.

Yang establishes many of these techniques in an early sequence detailing one play in the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons’ decades-long quest for the state title. In their 1987 championship game, they’re down by one point in the final moments of the fourth quarter, and then-player Coach Lou floats a jump shot in the very last second. Sandwiched between two time clock snapshots, reading 0:01 and 0:00, three tall vertical panels across the verso page show Coach firing up the shot, background fading to white with each panel.

Across the top of the next page, Yang suspends the hoop and the ball against a crisp white backdrop, both rendered small so that the negative space conveys the heavy audience anticipation (both intra- and extradiegetic). Directly beneath this scene, in a horizontal closeup panel, sweat drips down Coach’s temple as his expectant eyes widen. Though Yang predominantly colors this book with flats, here he shades Coach’s face in detail, emphasizing the cruciality of the moment. Below, another triptych displays the ball approaching the hoop, hitting the rim, then the backboard, all sans background. And the result? Turn the page ... it’s a bucket!

Viewers won’t realize until a few pages and celebratory embraces later that this removal of the background and focalization on the shooter allow Yang to leave out fabulously critical context: another O’Dowd player goal-tends, devastatingly rendering the basket ineligible. The Dragons lose! Through this deliberate artistic focus, Yang conveys that even when superstars make us feel like the rest of the court falls away, basketball is still a team sport — for better or worse.

Yang balances these compelling action sequences with a good deal of historical context, and this graphic novel is a heavy tome at 430+ pages, so I am interested to see if the Caldecott committee thinks Dragon Hoops is an artistic feat as well as a narrative one, as I do.

Flamer

Best known for his picture book illustrations, Mike Curato, like Gene Luen Yang, departs from his MO in his latest work. His first graphic novel, Flamer, is about a teen navigating the confusing intersection of Christian faith and burgeoning gay identity at an all-boys summer camp. For this endeavor, Curato aptly selects a black-and-white color scheme and employs a sketchy style full of thick lines that can be bold or chalky, firm or hesitant.

As viewers might expect from the title, fire plays a major thematic, symbolic, and artistic role, and in Curato’s most effective sequences performs triple duty.

In an early and evocative expression of fire, main character Aiden tends a campfire on the verso page of a double-page spread image. Its smoke, wafting to the recto, morphs into a monstrous, blackened caricature of his abusive father, maw open and full of jagged, hand-lettered vitriol. The gutter acts as a threshold, and crossing it transitions the viewer from a cool white background to an angry red that highlights Aiden, his mom, and his younger twin siblings as they cower into the page-turn. In the ensuing panels, Curato layers dark swipes of crayon over stoplight-red outlines and washes to emphasize his father’s anger. These devastatingly effective stylistic choices demonstrate how quickly fire can transform from a source of light and heat to a deadly hellfire that burns all to ash.

Because of his limited color scheme, Curato can manipulate both white and black negative space in decisive moments to dramatic effect. For the majority of the novel, Curato uses white backgrounds, but leading up to and at the book's climax, Curato fades to black to convey Aiden’s complete despair and hopelessness. After the worst is over, though, viewers notice a shift back to a fresh, crisp white: the hottest flame in the heart of the fire, resilient and clear, offering acceptance and possibility. Curato crystallizes this concept perfectly on the book’s cover and title page: he overlays the white flames of the title on a vibrant red-orange blaze.

This graphic novel might wear its intensity on its sleeve, but Curato also uses fire and its colorful warmth to signify in countless innovative ways. I’m always in awe of artists but especially so of illustrators like Curato, who can make the jump from one format to another so seamlessly and enviably.

And when so many illustrators in children’s literature also demonstrate their expertise in both formats — picture books and graphic novels — for a full range of ages (Molly Mendoza, Jarrett Krosoczka, all-star Jillian Tamaki, to name a few), it just makes sense to honor their achievement in both formats. Here’s to more recognition of such effort from the Caldecott committee this year!

Niki Marion

Niki Marion is the children’s outreach manager at Third Place Books in Seattle. She holds a master’s degree in children’s literature from Simmons University.

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