CaldeComics, Part One

Today on Calling Caldecott, Alec Chunn writes about three 2018 graphic novels. He will contribute a second graphic novel round-up post later this year. —J.D.

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer was (controversially) chosen as a 2015 Caldecott Honor book. A graphic novel hasn’t received recognition since, though Thi Bui and Bao Phi’s 2018 Caldecott Honor book A Different Pond has graphic novel elements. This begs the question: which comic will be the next to get some Caldecott love? Or, to put it more succinctly, which title will be the next “CaldeComic”?

In case you missed the news, the ALSC Board recently voted to establish a Graphic Novel Consideration Task Force. The task force’s charge is to examine award manuals “to address how graphic novels should be considered within the context of each award’s terms and criteria.” I’m interested to hear what the task force comes up with. For now, though, we must continue to look at each graphic novel as a picture book (see this post from Jonathan Hunt, if you still need convincing that they are one and the same, per Caldecott criteria).

Without further ado, here are three CaldeComic hopefuls that I believe have a fair shot at getting noticed by this year’s committee.

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

Caldecott Honoree Brosgol (Leave Me Alone, 2017) takes readers back to her childhood in this graphic memoir about time she spent at a Russian summer camp in upstate New York.

Brosgol draws upon her skills as an animator to bestow the characters with distinct personalities and facial expressions. A master of repetition and sequencing, Brosgol often replicates illustrations across several panels, while making small changes to a single character — usually the narrator. This visually connects with young Vera’s insecurities, isolating her as somehow different from her peers.

Shades of olive, white, and black are the only three colors you’ll see in this book. But colorist Alec Longstreth delves deeply into nuance, expertly mixing the colors to convey time of day and heighten emotional sequences. Most of the story is confined to panels, but there is one rare double-page spread where young Vera encounters a moose in the woods by herself. The emotional payoff of this moment — told nearly wordlessly — allows Vera’s social anxiety to give way to a moment of stillness. It’s a captivating illustration: the centrally placed moose drinks water in a shadowy black pool underneath an olive sky; the white moon glitters in the water. I wish I could give an award to this single image.

The Dragon Slayer: Folktales from Latin America by Jaime Hernandez 

Hernandez makes his kids' comic debut with this collection of folktales from Latin America (one of which is written by Alma Flor Ada). With its “collective unity” of concept, the slim volume exemplifies the Caldecott criteria’s definition of a picture book. Recurring Aztec and Maya design motifs (credited to Genevieve Bormes) unify these folktales as part of a larger community tradition. Each story’s title page also features a different font and font color that allows for individuality. The result is a rousing collection — with invaluable backmatter to boot (although Pura Belpré's name is spelled incorrectly therein).

But we’re here to talk about the pictures. This is not a flashy book by any means. But it’s one of those books that deceives readers with its simplicity. Most pages have six panels of equal size and shape. It appears as if colorist Ala Lee used flatting to render the colors as solids without adding much lighting or shading. (Flatting is a process used in comics coloring, where a colorist adds “flats” of color digitally before overlaying shading, textures, etc.) Each story also sticks to a restricted color palette. The result is a classic look that feels understated when compared with more visually dynamic graphic novels. But the look is appropriate to the younger child audience, who may still be learning to read comics. Hernandez’s line work and character design do the heavy lifting to add dimension to the story. For instance, pay special attention to the characters’ eyes. They are so expressive that readers could flip through the book without even reading the words and more or less understand the entire thing. That’s powerful, efficient storytelling.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

In a sentence, The Prince and the Dressmaker is about a burgeoning romance between two teens: a seamstress and a gender-fluid prince. Wang’s art is beautifully inked, with bold, flowy black lines, outlining characters and panels against the white of the paper. The liberated elegance of Frances’s haute couture stuns in the late-nineteenth-century Parisian setting. Though the art is digitally rendered, the color palette speaks to the fashionable whimsy of the Art Nouveau movement. But the most beautiful feature of this book is its visual representation of silence — the silence between Frances and Prince Sebastian/Lady Crystallia, as they look into each other’s eyes, and the silence of the crowd as it takes in the latest fashionable look. There are many poignant images of characters gazing, often breaking the fourth wall.

Let me share an example. When the stewards enter the room to check on Prince Sebastian and unknowingly expose his identity to Frances, the Prince looks directly at readers over his shoulder as he closes the door. In the top right panel on the following page, Frances returns his gaze by looking at readers, inviting them into the moment. Beneath that panel is a short, wide panel where a small-scale Prince Sebastian holds his face in his hands. The empty background behind the Prince visually illustrates his shame and isolation; the black outline of the panel confines the Prince in the moment. It’s an incredible sequence of visual storytelling — and one of many in this book. The sequence also sets the context for later scenes in which Lady Crystallia triumphantly breaks free of the panels' constraints.

Any of these three titles could be the next This One Summer. I’d love to know which (if any) you’re rooting for. All my bets are on The Prince and the Dressmaker, but I might just be saying that because, should Jen Wang win, I expect a full-on runway at the Newbery/Caldecott/Legacy Banquet.
Alec Chunn
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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