Picture books and books with graphic elements

I hate to follow such a serious discussion with one that is not exactly fraught with such wide societal concerns. I am still thinking about all the ideas Martha and Thom brought up. At this moment (10/3/2013), the U.S. government is shut down, Obamacare is on everyone's mind, and I am thinking about comic books. Go figure.

Let's just start with the truth: I am not any sort of expert on graphic novels or comic books, unless having lugged around a box of Archie and Richie Rich comics and mumbling "wanna trade?" with other geeky middle schoolers on an Army base in 1970 Germany counts. However, I can't help noticing how graphic elements are a part of many picture books this year. What I DO know is that the Center for Cartoon Studies' Adventures in Cartooning, pictured above, is a grand book to help start your personal education about cartooning and how comic books work.

How do the presence of speech bubbles, comic panels, and other graphic elements fit into the picture book format? Is there a place for them? Is a graphic novel a picture book? How about a book that is completely composed of graphic elements? Is that eligible? Since Hugo Cabret won the big gold sticker in 2008, all bets are off. If I were on the Caldecott committee this year, I would be calling on experts for a crash course on graphic novels. Each committee is different, but committee work involves education.

Let's take a gander at the criteria. Again. This is how the committee will decide if a book is eligible.

  1. In identifying a “distinguished American picture book for children,” defined as illustration, committee members need to consider:

    1. Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;

    2. Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;

    3. Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;

    4. Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;

    5. Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.

  2. The only limitation to graphic form is that the form must be one which may be used in a picture book. The book must be a self-contained entity, not dependent on other media (i.e., sound, film or computer program) for its enjoyment.

  3. 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.

Sergio Ruzzier stated (on September 23 in the blog comments about illustrated vs. picture books): "I hope they will not start to consider graphic novels as Caldecott contenders, because graphic novels use a completely different language than picture books. How can you mix, say, novels and poetry? Or apples and oranges? Well, if you mix apples and oranges you get a fruit salad, but I never heard of a literary award given to a fruit salad."

Here are some books published in 2013 that employ graphic elements in the storytelling.

Bully by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (varying sizes of speech bubbles)

Mr. Wuffles! by David Wiesner (panels, alien speech bubbles)

That Is Not a Good Idea! by Mo Willems (not actually sure if these would be considered panels, but the old-time movie narration is sort of like them)

Bluebird by Bob Staake (panels)

Odd Duck by Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon (almost, but not quite, a graphic novel)

I like all these books, and will talk about at least two of them later in the season. If you have seen any of them, would you call them picture books, or something else? Do you think the committee will find them eligible? Those of you with expertise in this area need to help the rest of us figure out how to talk about them.

Robin Smith
Robin Smith
Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.
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Torsten Adair

Sorry I'm a bit late to the conversation. I discovered this page following First Second's announcement that they would begin to use their talented roster of graphic novel creators to produce picture books. http://comicsbeat.com/first-second-on-their-picture-books-program/#comment-937347 But as a comics reader, collector, connoisseur, and librarian, I've always been searching for comics which snuck under the radar at libraries (before the nerd diaspora stormed the gates via MLS degrees). So there's Sendak's "Some Swell Pup", which is a bit bizarre and rare. But what about the bestselling graphic novel in the United States? How many libraries have a copy of "The Monster at the End of This Book"? (662 according to WorldCat.) Not only is this a comic book/graphic novel, but it's a very sophisticated example! Grover breaks the fourth wall, there's amazing lettering throughout the book, and the metaphysics...wow! Or maybe you have some books by Raymond Briggs? A silent comic book and a silent picture book are one and the same... using sequential images to tell a story. Sure, one may have panels, one may nicer paper and art... but they fulfill Scott McCloud's definition of "comics". (ESPECIALLY if there are multiple images on a page!) And finally, not only did Mr. Wiesner score a Caldecott Honor for "Mr. Wuffles" which uses comics (word balloons! panels!), but Toon Books won the Geisel in 2010 (and another honor the same year). How many Toon Books do you have in your collection? (And there were FOUR graphic novels/picture books noted in this year's ALA awards list. King, Caldecott, Alex, Sibert.) Let me correct the misconception: Comics (and picture books) are not genres. They are formats. Print media used to communicate. Could a picture book win a Newbery medal? Why or why not?

Posted : Feb 06, 2014 05:42

Roger Sutton

I would hesitate to call Hugo Cabret a graphic novel--to me, that implies an interplay of text (narration, dialogue, captions) and pictures that is a world away from what Selznick did in his book.

Posted : Oct 07, 2013 06:13

John Hanley

As a long-time reader of graphic narrative (stories with pictures and sometimes but not always words) and creator of a HS English course titled Literature in a Visual Culture, this discussion led me to wonder first and foremost at all the hubbub about the GN category. Not a little of the resistance seems to stem from a horror that our beloved picture books would somehow be subsumed by (gasp!) comics with all their attendant low culture connotations. Having said that, my second thought was to wonder whether Shaun Tan's profoundly moving tale, The Arrival, had received the honor it so richly deserved. A quick net search revealed that it had not, as it was not the work of an American, but I would like to believe that if it had been eligible that not a single thought would have been given to it as being anything our than what it was -- a superior use of pictures to tell a story. All that said, I understand the desire of those closest to the form customarily honored by the Caldecotts to define it in some sort of functional way.

Posted : Oct 07, 2013 02:57

Sam Bloom

I am still nowhere near an expert on the Caldecott criteria, but I can tell you that when I was on the Newbery I read picture books, chapter books, nonfiction, graphic novels, poetry, books in verse, and who knows what else. Why shouldn't any book with graphic elements be eligible if it meets the criteria? (And yes, I'm slowly becoming more aware that said graphic elements must do a great deal of the heavy lifting when it comes to storytelling.) Robin, you brought up Hugo Cabret, and I think that's a perfect example: here is a book that is 500+ pages long, but Selznick is able to tell so much of the story through his illustrations. It's downright eerie, actually, how good he is at that. On the other hand, I've spent many an hour sobbing uncontrollably at the thought of Kadir Nelson not winning/getting an Honor for We Are the Ship, but I understand now why he was overlooked: that text could have survived without any graphic elements. It doesn't change the fact that those oil paintings are superhumanly gorgeous. Anyway... (it always comes around to Kadir for me, doesn't it?!) going back to the original idea behind this post, I guess I'd say that as long as the graphic novel is one like Matt Phelan's Bluffton, where the graphic work independently of the text for the most part, I'm all for them being considered by the committee.

Posted : Oct 04, 2013 08:45

Sergio R.

"And, if some elements are okay, why not a full-on, well-made comic book?" Excellent question that renders me speechless (but with or without bubbles?)

Posted : Oct 03, 2013 08:50

Elisa Gall

When The Invention of Hugo Cabret won the Caldecott, some of my colleagues were disappointed because they couldn't share the winning title with their youngest patrons. I think that the unofficial idea has become (rightly or not) that the Caldecott is for younger children, and the Newbery is for the older kids. Books of diverse lengths and formats (plays, picture books, poetry, etc.) have won the Newbery and/or Honor. Why shouldn't the same allowances be made for the Caldecott? Maybe committees are less prone to decorate books for older readers (including graphic novels)? Or maybe plenty of longer picture books have been considered but they ultimately didn't reign most-distinguished? Either way, comic books are picture books. Graphic novels are just longer (or, as Art Spiegelman says, comics that need a bookmark.) My take on it is that any picture book can and should be considered, as long as it meets the criteria. What do y'all think?

Posted : Oct 03, 2013 08:50

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