The Newbery and Art

When most people think of the Newbery Award, they think of words, not art. After all, the Newbery criteria stipulate that “the committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.” But the list of Newbery winners and honorees with illustrations is surprisingly long. And it’s almost impossible to separate some Newbery winners from the illustrations that grace their pages. If you think of the 1953 Honor Book by E. B. White, can you do so without seeing Fern in your mind’s eye — just as Garth Williams drew her? Or without seeing “terrific” Wilbur standing under Charlotte’s web? Can you imagine E. L. Konigsburg’s 1968 winner From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. ­Frankweiler without her grainy drawings?

An overwhelming majority of the Newbery Medalists and honorees since the award’s inception in 1922 contain art. This includes the inaugural winner, The Story of Mankind, for which Hendrik Willem van Loon provided his own pen-and-ink illustrations, which Leonard S. Marcus describes as “witty hieroglyphs.” It isn’t until the late 1970s that we finally encounter a year in which none of the Newbery winners or honorees have any interior art — the one 1979 Honor Book, ­Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins, and the 1979 winner, Ellen Raskin’s The ­Westing Game. (Interestingly, Raskin herself was an accomplished artist and designed and illustrated the dust jacket of the first ­edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1963 Newbery-winning A Wrinkle in Time.) That’s an impressive fifty-seven-year streak.

Granted, most of the artwork in Newbery books can be described as fairly sparse. Think of Ruth Gannett’s lithographs for Miss Hickory (1947 winner); Raymond Lufkin’s portraits for Story of the Negro, the 1949 honoree that marked the first time a Black author (Arna Bontemps) received Newbery recognition; Junyi Wu’s hazy, haunting illustrations for Scary Stories for Young Foxes, a 2020 honoree. Think of the powerful art by Tom Feelings for Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave (a 1969 Honor), David Small’s shivery portrayal of Gar Face in The Underneath, Kathi Appelt’s 2009 honoree, and Dave McKean’s drawing of the ghouls in Bod’s graveyard in The Graveyard Book, the big winner by Neil Gaiman that same year. No matter how memorable, these illustrations must be classified as supplementary. They enhance the ­atmosphere of each book but don’t work in ways that make the books “less effective.” (I have always wondered how committee members define this. I can say for myself that there are many books for which I’d prefer my own imagination to supply the visuals, and I am glad they are not illustrated.)

What about the Newbery books in which the art, rather than being incidental, is integral to the book? These began before picture books got their own award, the Caldecott, in 1938. As early as 1929, Wanda Gág received a Newbery Honor for her ground-breaking (with its invention of the double-page spread) Millions of Cats, then another one in 1934 for The ABC Bunny (though one of the six 1929 Honors, the deservedly obscure Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo, includes a wordless story, told only through art). In 1973, Arnold Lobel’s easy reader Frog and Toad Together also won a Newbery Honor. And in 1982 Nancy Willard’s illustrated narrative poetry volume, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, shocked the children’s literature world by winning not just a Caldecott Honor (for Alice and Martin Provensen) but also the Newbery Medal. This was followed soon after by a 1983 Newbery Honor for William Steig’s Doctor De Soto. Still, for most of the Newbery’s history, it was unusual for committees to recognize picture books or abundantly illustrated books.

But then came the twenty-first century, and the gates truly opened for Newbery recognition for books with integrated art. Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village, a hard-to-classify and heavily illustrated collection of monologues, was the 2008 winner. In 2016 the picture book Last Stop on Market Street won gold. Since then picture books have won honors — in 2017, 2018, 2020, and 2021. And this year Andrea Wang and Jason Chin’s poignant and powerful picture book Watercress became both the Caldecott winner and a Newbery honoree.

Graphic novels have experienced a similar journey: from the 1950s, when comic books were seen as inferior and even dangerous to young, impressionable minds, to Newbery Honors for Cece Bell’s El Deafo in 2015 and Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl in 2016 before Jerry Craft’s New Kid won the 2020 Medal.

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What accounts for this apparent new openness to art in Newbery books — integrated art, not just decorative? And with more and more books with significant art content being recognized, how are Newbery committee members approaching the books?

Perhaps committee members considering books in which art is an integral part of the storytelling and books in which the text and art are interdependent are devising their own methods for focusing solely on the text. Examples include the committees that awarded a 2006 Honor to Jacqueline Woodson for Show Way, a picture book with the mixed-media illustrations of Hudson Talbott, and a 2011 Honor to Joyce ­Sidman for Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night, with the dramatic and atmospheric relief prints of Rick Allen.

One former committee member I talked to said that, solely for her own purposes, her process was to type out the text of a graphic novel that her committee eventually awarded an honor. She wanted to see if the text stood alone — without the illustrations. Readers may always envision Jordan Banks precisely as Jerry Craft drew him, but committee members clearly decided that the text alone of New Kid, as separate from its detailed visual world, was distinguished enough to give it an award for writing. The 2020 Newbery committee did the same for Kwame Alexander’s poem in The Undefeated, giving the book an honor.

But here’s the rub: I can’t imagine The Undefeated without Kadir Nelson’s exceptionally moving illustrations. I marvel at that book’s three “unspeakable” spreads and how the ­illustrations — which depict the Middle Passage; the four Black girls killed in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in ­Birmingham; and the deaths of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin — tell us what the words do not. That is, the illustrations truly extend the text here, which is a unique hallmark of picture books. On one striking spread (“And the ones who didn’t [survive]”), Nelson eschews art and lets the negative space dominate. This also speaks volumes. Here, even the absence of art, amidst ­Nelson’s exquisite oil paintings on all other spreads, extends the text. In Last Stop on Market Street, when CJ says he sure wishes he “had one of those,” it’s Christian Robinson’s artwork that shows us he longs for earbuds and a smartphone that plays music. In Watercress, it’s Jason Chin’s illustrations that show us the gravity of the loss the protagonist’s mother experienced as a child, while the text alone only hints at it.

These illustrations clearly aren’t the “text” in the part of the Newbery ­criteria that states that “the committee is to make its decision primarily on the text.” But it can be argued that they are a kind of nonverbal language in as much as art conveys meaning and tells a story. The rules stipulate that ­illustrations come into play when they make a book “less effective,” but the criteria are mute on those instances in which art supports the text. Essentially, these picture books and graphic novels challenge twenty-first-century committees to consider a more wide-ranging definition of “text” and the role authors play in the story structure behind the art — that is, executing plot, themes, tone, etc., that allow for illustrators to step in and partner with them in storytelling.

Maybe books that garner Newbery recognition can be seen as a proxy for our appreciation of art in the time in which we live. The digital revolution has led to more visual storytelling and content in our day-to-day lives, and that is becoming increasingly so. We navigate emoji, Memoji, GIFs, avatars, and apps. Streaming services; digital cameras; social media platforms — our days are filled with images. And the members of contemporary Newbery committees are informed by our world’s visual landscape. Will this lead to more art-filled books receiving Newbery recognition? Only time will tell if pictures continue to be worth a thousand words.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also reviews for The Horn Book, Kirkus, and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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