2016 in Review: The Year in Words

For fans of children’s literature, social media has enabled a community of kindred spirits to collectively speculate about what might win the year’s biggest awards at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards — which determine the cream of the crop, the most excellent books, the most distinguished contributions to literature. The excitement that starts off as buzz in the spring builds to a crescendo by the fall and reaches a fever pitch in early January. Now that several months have passed, we have the opportunity to reflect on 2016’s literary output from a broader perspective than that afforded by the criteria of any individual award. As we parse out the various themes and messages that emerged over the course of the year, several shared traits come to the forefront. Let’s begin with the continued expansion of the definition of “literary merit” to include works that combine words and pictures.

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell is arguably the most distinguished book of the year. Entirely deserving of its numerous accolades — the National Book Award plus an unprecedented four YMA awards: the Printz Award, the Coretta Scott King Author Award, the Sibert Medal, and the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction — it is a crowning achievement in both the fields of comics and young adult literature. So seamlessly do the words and pictures blend together in March that the hand-lettered text frequently becomes part of the artwork — or is it that the artwork becomes part of the text? John Lewis and Andrew Aydin chronicle the most chaotic and turbulent years of the civil rights movement, taking readers from one instance of injustice to another, each one seemingly more abhorrent and intolerable than the last. When fused with Powell’s illustrations, these moments quickly become a veritable torrent of violence. Reflecting on these events some fifty years later through Congressman Lewis’s eyes, this story remains as timely and relevant as ever.

March’s virtual awards sweep is also notable in that it marks the third year in a row that graphic novels have won major recognition, including Newbery Honors for El Deafo (in 2015) and Roller Girl (in 2016) and Caldecott and Printz Honors for This One Summer (in 2015). And it seems fitting that in 2016 comics creator Gene Luen Yang was named the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

It wasn’t just graphic novels; several picture books were recognized for both their words and pictures, and in this case each touched on themes of civil rights and injustice. Ashley Bryan won a Newbery Honor for Freedom Over Me, a searing collection of poems and portraits that resurrects and reimagines the forgotten voices of enslaved people. (In previous years it might have been hailed as a subversive Newbery choice — only a very few picture books have been recognized by the Newbery committee in modern times — but its Newbery recognition came on the heels of the picture book Last Stop on Market Street winning the 2016 medal.) Bryan’s book was also recognized by the CSK Jury: it was named both a CSK Author Honor book and an Illustrator Honor book. Carole Boston Weatherford won the Charlotte Zolotow Award for the text of Freedom in Congo Square, while its illustrator, R. Gregory Christie, earned a Caldecott Honor. Both Freedom Over Me and Freedom in Congo Square are testaments to the perseverance and fortitude of enslaved people, and taken together the two books set the stage as a sort of historical prequel for the monumental civil rights struggle portrayed in March.

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Nonfiction for young readers has — because of the incorporation of illustrations, primary source material, archival photographs, and creative design work — become one of the more visual genres of children’s literature. In Some Writer!, the Orbis Pictus Award–winning biography of E. B. White, Melissa Sweet raises the bar significantly. Her illustrations incorporate letters, words, and primary sources, effectively blurring the line between text, art, and design. On the other hand, in Pamela S. Turner’s Samurai Rising, a biography of Japan’s notorious samurai Minamoto Yoshitsune, the words are unabashedly the star of this show. A rollicking example of good narrative nonfiction, this 2017 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award finalist employs Gareth Hinds’s brush-and-ink illustrations — an atypical choice for a young adult book, but an effective one.

Another welcome development: it was, again, a standout year for author Jason Reynolds, who won ALA awards in 2016 for a pair of young adult titles, All American Boys and The Boy in the Black Suit. He was just getting warmed up, it turns out, as this year, for his two middle-grade titles, he probably took home more hardware than anyone save John Lewis and company. As Brave As You won the Kirkus Prize, the Schneider Family Book Award, and a CSK Author Honor, while Ghost won the NCTE’s Charlotte Huck Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Another exciting and relatively new voice is Nicola Yoon, winner of the CSK’s John Steptoe New Talent Award for The Sun Is Also a Star; the year’s top-rated romance also netted a National Book Award nomination and a Printz Honor.

The year saw a profusion of excellent books with LGBTQ characters and themes. Looking at all the titles this year that boasted multiple starred reviews, no fewer than a dozen had significant LGBTQ content (and another dozen had incidental content). The most visible titles in this category include the Stonewall Book Award winners If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo and The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan; When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, longlisted for the National Book Award and a Stonewall Honor Book; Girl Mans Up by M-E. Girard, a finalist for the Morris Award; and the much-starred The Best Man by Richard Peck. Note that most of these books move beyond a simple gay/straight binary to explore the intersection of gender and sexuality; two of them have transgender protagonists, one a gender-nonconforming protagonist, and even The Best Man — which in many ways feels the most traditional, the most like the books that came before — has a nuanced exploration of masculinity, telegraphed in the title.

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The genres of poetry, historical fiction, and fantasy made exceptionally strong showings in 2016. In poetry, awards went to the already-discussed picture books Freedom Over Me and Freedom in Congo Square as well as Jazz Day, Roxane Orgill’s homage to Art Kane’s famous photograph of jazz musicians in 1958 Harlem, winner of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Picture Book (although as a true genre-bender it might just as easily have won in the BGHB’s Fiction and Poetry or Nonfiction categories). Three poetry picture books received lots of pre-January buzz and multiple starred reviews: Before Morning, Joyce Sidman’s hauntingly wistful invocation, brilliantly interpreted by Beth Krommes; When Green Becomes Tomatoes, Julie Fogliano’s vivid, evocative tribute to the four seasons, illustrated by Julie Morstad; and Wet Cement by Bob Raczka. This last is, technically, not illustrated, but the visual nature of the playful concrete poetry makes it feel part of this group. Expanding the focus to include verse novels, Kwame Alexander’s Booked was longlisted for the National Book Award, while Wilder Medal winner Nikki Grimes gave us the thoughtful Garvey’s Choice.

Historical fiction’s broad umbrella this year sheltered a pair of Newbery Honor novels — The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly; Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk — as well as the Scott O’Dell winner, Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm. Gidwitz’s book reads like equal parts fantasy, adventure, comedy, historical fiction, religious allegory, and homage to The Canterbury Tales. Wolf Hollow is more straightforward historical fiction, but what it may lack in The Inquisitor’s Tale’s multi-pronged appeal it more than makes up for with its tight focus on its riveting plot and characters. In Full of Beans, the 1934 Key West setting is so tangibly real, so artfully woven, that it feels absolutely integral to the fabric of the story.

Another handful of memorable 2016 historical fiction titles provided additional depth. Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, shortlisted for the National Book Award, tells the semiautobiographical tale of a young girl making new friends even as she copes with her father’s abandonment in 1970s central Florida. Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina, in the running for the National Book Award, Kirkus Prize, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize (and also set in the seventies), takes readers to the gritty streets of Queens for a story about a resilient teen. And The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry, a Printz Honor book and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, plunges readers into the distant past of medieval France in a spellbinding story rife with miracles, mysticism, and feminism.

Vivid settings also defined a number of the best fantasy books of the year. Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree became only the second children’s book ever to win England’s prestigious Costa Book of the Year Award (the other was The Amber Spyglass). This highly original, evocative, and unabashedly feminist Victorian-era mystery/fantasy also won the 2016 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Fiction and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In addition, 2016 saw a trio of beloved series wrap up. A Tangle of Gold by Jaclyn Moriarty capped the sweetly funny Colors of Madeleine trilogy; The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater brought the Raven Cycle to a satisfying conclusion; and Grace Lin’s When the Sea Turned to Silver, shortlisted for the National Book Award, proved a perfect companion to her two previous Chinese folklore–inspired fantasies.

And, finally, a fantasy novel was also named the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill is the first fantasy (not counting animal fantasies) to win the Newbery Medal since The Graveyard Book, eight long years ago. The Girl Who Drank the Moon begins as a simple fairy tale but grows increasingly complex over the course of the novel: the world of the novel expands to larger proportions, the characters move from stock types to more fully realized ones, the plot becomes ever more intricate, and the themes more deeply explored. Ultimately, this is a book about how love in all its various permutations triumphs over baser emotions.

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Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Of course March: Book Three and The Girl Who Drank the Moon are very different books: stark, brutal realism versus a lyrical flight of fancy. Yet, very broadly, they can both be described as books about brave people fighting against fear, hatred, intolerance, and injustice — and, in truth, many books from 2016 touched on this theme. It is a message for our times. In different stories and different genres and different formats, our children receive the priceless gift of empathy by walking in someone else’s shoes.

From the July/August 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2017. Read Minh Lê's companion article "2016 in Review: The Year in Pictures: Somehow Still Beautiful."

Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education.

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