New Kid. By Jerry Craft. Color by Jim Callahan. Harper. ISBN 978-0062691194 (softcover), $12.99; ISBN 978-0062691200 (hardcover), $21.99. 256 pages.
A month ago, Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid became the first comic to win the coveted Newbery Medal for children’s literature. I came to New Kid late, and KinderComics readers may remember that I did not include it among my faves of 2019. I wish I had. I confess I put off reading New Kid because I did not love its graphic style, which struck me as cobbled together digitally, with elements seemingly cloned, rescaled, and reused across its pages. At first the work looked patchy to me, compositionally choppy, and too tech-dependent for my tastes. I didn’t see the visual flow or elegance of design that I tend to crave. So, I was closed-mind about this one, I have to say.
(This would not be the first time my aesthetic preferences blocked me from recognizing good work. For instance, I recently read Maggie Thrash’s fine comics memoir Honor Girl, done in a seemingly naive watercolor style, and realized that I had been avoiding that one also. I had sold it short.)
New Kid deserves better from me. It’s an excellent school story, not only smartly written but visually clever and insinuating throughout. Craft, with exceeding sharpness, depicts African American scholarship boy Jordan Banks and his private school mates at awkward intersections of race, class, and gender. Indeed New Kid, with miraculously high spirits, examines the effects of racism and classism without ever actually breathing those words. Craft is astute and at times can be blunt, but is also endlessly subtle; his touch is marvelously light, yet telling. New Kid manages to be hopeful and often funny, even while acknowledging racism as both systemic feature and stubborn habit.
The story of one school year, New Kid gently critiques the class aspirations of private school parents, the casual racist carelessness of teachers, and the blunders of overcompensatory liberal tone-deafness, all while painting Jordan and his fellow students as canny survivors. The book abounds with sly, knowing recognitions, unexplained but pointed, including many gags that show Jordan trying to deal quietly with racial and class-based awkwardness. A middle-class Black boy in a (to him) new school that defines the very notion of privilege, Jordan is alive to the implications of every social move. Craft’s approach is at once realistic, worldly, amused, jaded even, and yet guardedly optimistic; he is properly impatient with ingrained prejudice, yet fatalistically aware that, well, young people have to get on in this broken world. New Kid humorously acknowledges the ways young people of color are too often seen, or rather mis-recognized, and fences smartly with the usual stereotypes about young urban Blackness.
The school kids mostly come out well here: they see and deal with social inequality and the willed blindness of adults while upholding their sense of humor and camaraderie. Running gags and droll in-jokes are everywhere: a kind of code and coping mechanism among the kids. For example, Jordan and his classmate Drew call each other mistaken names throughout, mimicking the cluelessness of their white teacher who cannot distinguish one Black student from another. The jokes in New Kid are not just funny, but insightful—as are the young people who tell them.
One of the best things in New Kid is a self-reflexive spoof of children’s and young adult publishing that mocks the narrowness of Black depictions in the field. This spread made me laugh out loud (please forgive my crummy scan):
If, as Philip Nel argues in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, the cordoning off of genres marks a de facto line of segregation (Genre Is the New Jim Crow, in Nel’s phrasing), then Craft gets this exactly, and takes the whole publishing field to task. Indeed, the sight of a “gritty” novel for Black teen readers becomes a repeated joke in New Kid, one that stings with its insight but is also downright hilarious. Bravo! This is a supremely wise and charming book that jousts with, and defeats, a thousand cliches.
Graphic novels for children and young adults continue to make inroads. Read on!
This past Monday, Jan. 27, the American Library Association (at its Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia) announced the winners of its Youth Media Awards for 2020. These include the fabled Newbery Medal, the US's oldest literary prize for children's literature (awarded since 1922), the Caldecott Medal, the US's top prize for picture book art (1938-), the Coretta Scott King Book Awards for African American-focused literature (1969-), the Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature (2000-), and numerous other prizes.
This year, for the first time, a comic has won the Newbery: Jerry Craft's graphic novel New Kid (HarperCollins), which also won the Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award (and had already won a 2019 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature). The reception of New Kid, as New York Times reporter Concepción de León puts it, "reflects changing attitudes about the literary merits of graphic novels" (though interestingly, some others, such as NPR's Colin Dwyer, have not even remarked that New Kid is a comic).
Besides New Kid, a number of other comics were recognized with awards or honors this year by the ALA and its affiliate organizations. I've identified them below. Readers, please forgive me for concentrating on just comics and comics-adjacent titles here; I of course urge you to check out the ALA's full list of winners, which is long, rich, revealing, and encouraging!
This year's recipients of the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Jewish-themed children's and young adult literature (awarded since 1968 by the Association of Jewish Libraries) included Middle Grade winner White Bird: A Wonder Story, a graphic novel by R. J. Palacio, with finishes by Kevin Czap (Knopf).
This year's Asian/Pacific American Award for Children's Literature (awarded by the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association since 2001) went to the superb graphic novel Stargazing, by Jen Wang (First Second).
This year's Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature (also awarded by the APALA, of course) went to the graphic history/memoir They Called Us Enemy, written by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott and drawn by Harmony Becker (Top Shelf/IDW).
This year's Alex Awards for the ten best adult books "that have special appeal to young adults" (awarded since 1998 by the Young Adult Library Services Association) included both Maia Kobabe's graphic memoir Gender Queer (Lion Forge/Oni Press) and AJ Dungo's graphic memoir/history In Waves (Nobrow).
Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell's graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (First Second) won a Michael L. Printz Honor.
Cece (El Deafo) Bell won a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor for her graphic early reader Chick and Brain: Smell My Foot! (Candlewick Press). (The ALA established the Geisel Award for outstanding American book for beginning readers in 2004.)
The American Indian Youth Literature Award (awarded by the American Indian Library Association since 2006) this year recognized as a Young Adult Honor book the graphic novel Surviving the City, Vol. One (Highwater Press), written by Tasha Spillett (Nehiyaw-Trinidadian) and drawn by Natasha Donovan (Métis Nation British Columbia).
I also want to single out a title Honored by the American Indian Youth Literature Award in the Picture Book category, At the Mountain’s Base (Kokila/Penguin), written by Traci Sorell (Cherokee) and illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva/Scots-Gaelic). This book does remarkable things to the design of page and opening, using drawn threads to separate some spreads into sequences of panels. It's a captivating picture book:
I've always thought of picture books as part of this blog's focus. Let me briefly mention some comics-adjacent picture books honored this year:
Artist Duncan Tonatiuh has created a number of graphic books in a distinctive style inspired and informed by Mixtec codices, among them the accordion-fold Undocumented: A Worker's Fight (Abrams, 2018). Without presuming to claim Tonatiuh's work for "comics," I'd say that his books fascinate me as (distinct from yet undeniably) related to the young reader's graphic novel. The Pura Belpré Medal for outstanding Latinx work for young readers (awarded since 1996 by the Association for Library Service to Children and by REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking) has often honored his work. This year Tonatiuh earned Honors for Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War (Abrams).
Also recognized as a Belpré Honor Book this year was ¡Vamos! Let's Go to the Market, a picture book by artist Raúl The Third, known for his comics work, particularly the Lowriders graphic novel series (with writer Cathy Camper).
I see many connections among this year's honorees. ¡Vamos! is part of the Versify imprint at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt curated by poet Kwame Alexander, author of The Crossover and related verse novels, which have had a terrific impact. Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson's picture book The Undefeated, also part of Versify, joins New Kids as one of the most celebrated books of this year's ALA awards, winning the Caldecott Medal as well as the Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award and a Newbery Honor. Alexander seems to have an infinity for comics, by the way: The Crossover has been adapted into a graphic novel with artist Dawud Anyabwile, who also provided comics sequences for Alexander's Rebound (Anyabwile is known for Brotherman and the comics adaptation of Walter Dean Myers's Monster, among other projects). Graphic novels, viewed within children's and YA publishing, are part of a larger trend of formal experimentation that also includes, for example, verse novels and verse memoirs, a movement that of course includes Alexander and continues with this year's honorees Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (Balzer + Bray), a Newbery Honor Book, and Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir by Nikki Grimes (Wordsong), which received Honors from both the Printz and the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award (given by the Association for Library Service to Children since 2001).
My CSUN colleague Dr. Krystal Howard, expert in the verse novel, Künstlerroman, and comics, is the person I need to talk to about all this!
On the matter of formal innovation and multimodal storytelling, I have to mention artist Ashley Bryan's multimedia visual memoir Infinite Hope (Atheneum), which earned a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. Collaging together photography, painting, drawing, and historical artifacts, Infinite Hope is a transporting, visually rich evocation of the artist's life and times. (This would be another great book to discuss with Krystal!)
I note one other (by me) unexpected comics connection among this year's awards: the Odyssey Award for best audiobook for young people went to the audio adaptation of Jarrett Krosoczka's graphic memoir Hey, Kiddo (2018). And I see that there are also audio adaptations of Palacio's White Bird and Craft's New Kid. In all cases, these are audio performances by a full cast, not just a narrator. This is a trend I need to look into! Here's a sample of Hey, Kiddo in audio:
All in all, the ALA Youth Media Awards for 2020 affirm how embedded graphic novels are in the children's and young adult publishing world, and how dramatically they have engaged the challenge of boosting inclusivity, diversity, and meaningful representation in that world. This continues to be a dizzying, promise-filled time for young readers' comics!
One last note: comics-related or not, there are a few other honorees this year whom I must mention:
KinderComics, alas, has been away for too long. This spring and summer, I have had to channel my energies elsewhere. I hate to admit it, but my academic-year workload does not make room for frequent blogging, and when the summer or intersession comes around, well, then I end up having to advance or complete other long-simmering projects. Lately I’ve had to cut back, refocus, and make a point of not driving myself nuts! Still, I am going to push for several reviews this summer; I want to keep KinderComics alive. The field of children’s comics is too important, and my interest in it too intense, to let go.
I’ll have a review of 5 Worlds: The Red Maze up later this week, and then a few (probably short) ones between now and Labor Day, in order to keep the engine humming. Thank you, readers, for checking out or revisiting KinderComics. I’ll keep pushing.
There has been a great deal of news on the children's comics front during my four-month absence. Would that I could go into all these stories in detail:
Besides all that news, awards have been given out:
My gosh, what a busy and exciting field. Keeping up is a challenge! I hope to do a better job going forward.
A sad postscript
When it comes to public-facing scholarship and comics criticism, one of the most inspiring figures to my mind was the late Derek Parker Royal, co-creator, producer, and editor of The Comics Alternative podcast. Derek, a major critic of Philip Roth, Jewish American literature and culture, and graphic narrative, passed away recently, leaving a grievous sense of loss in the hearts of many. He was a scholar, innovator, and facilitator of a rare kind, generous, engaged, and prolific, and will be greatly missed in the comics studies community. He brought many people into that community; for example, at the Comics Studies Society conference in Toronto last weekend, his longtime collaborator Andy Kunka spoke movingly of how Derek encouraged him to enter the field. I will think of Derek whenever I post here, and the soaring example that he set.
RIP Derek. Thank you for your scholarship, your advocacy, and your spirit.
Sadly, this blog has been temporarily waylaid by academic duties (insert drawn-out Schulzian sigh here). However, I can poke my head out of the ostrich hole long enough to report, albeit belatedly, that the graphic novel Archival Quality (Oni Press, 2018), by Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz, recently worn the 5th Annual Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics given out at the Long Beach Comics Expo. Geoff Boucher had the news, at Deadline Hollywood, back on Feb. 15. I'm sorry I didn't catch this fast enough! I reviewed Archival Quality last March.
This year's other nominees for the McDuffie Award for Diversity were: Papa Cherry by Saxton Moore and Phillip Johnson (Pixel Pirate Studio), Exit, Stage Left!: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan (DC), Destroyer by Victor LaValle and Dietrich Smith (BOOM!), and The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya by Reimena Yee (self-published, about which, more here).
The EGL Awards statuette, the Saga, as designed by artists Colin Poole and Kristine Poole. Graphic adapted from denvercomiccon.com.
The first-ever Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards were awarded about a week ago, on Saturday night, June 16, at the Denver Comic Con. Here are the winners:
This is a strong slate of books. I’m particularly pleased to see Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do win the Mosaic Award. I confess, though, that my choices for Adult Book and Book of the Year would have been emphatically different. When the EGL Awards first announced their short list, I expressed some reservations about the list, in particular the Book of the Year category, and I continue to feel that way.
In some ways the EGL Awards have gotten off to strong start. They are tied to Denver Comic Con and its sponsoring nonprofit, the Pop Culture Classroom, whose new Director of Education, Dr. Katie Monnin, is a sharp and tireless advocate for comics as children’s reading. Katie and I were Eisner Award judges together in 2013, and her knowledge of and enthusiasm for comics left a vivid impression. Moreover, the EGL Awards appeal specially to K-12 educators and librarians, which, as Heidi MacDonald’s Publishers Weekly article of May 25 reminds us, have become some of the most important constituencies in US comics culture (and reportedly there’s a good deal of comics activity happening right this moment at the ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans).
However, I remained concerned about the makeup of the EGL juries. Though the Awards boast of judges who are “diverse, experienced and informed professionals that span the publishing, library, and education industries,” I see very few comics artists or professional comics critics among them. I do see wisdom in targeting librarians and educators, but I worry about awards that seek to represent the best in comics without reckoning on the larger comics community. Perhaps there cannot be one award that truly represents the fragmented and factious world of comics; I note that Eisner Award results tend to skew toward what is popular in the direct market, i.e. the comic shop culture. The EGLs might be seen as a corrective to that. But I really do believe that the EGLs would benefit from bringing in more creators—not just publishing professionals, but artists and writers—to create a more rounded judging culture.
That said, I look forward to what the EGLs do next year. They are just getting started, and I hope for the best.
OVERDUE NEWS: On May 2, the Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival (A2CAF) and its sponsoring organization, Kids Read Comics (a nonprofit that encourages comics reading and making among young people), announced the shortlist of nominees for the 2018 Dwayne McDuffie Award for Kids' Comics.
This shortlist consists of ten titles chosen from among the more than 100 comics reviewed by this year's judges: librarian and critic Alenka Figa; artist and Green Brain Comics employee Shayauna Glover, and writer and podcaster Ardo Omer. (The full list of 100-plus titles can be found at the A2CAF website.)
The Dwayne McDuffie Award for Kids' Comics began in 2015 and is awarded annually at A2CAF (formerly the Kids Read Comics Celebration). This year's A2CAF will take place on June 16-17, presented, once again, in partnership with the Ann Arbor District Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Note that the McDuffie Award for Kids' Comics is distinct from the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics, also launched in 2015 but not specific to children's or Young Adult titles. That McDuffie Award is given out annually at the Long Beach Comic Expo. Think of the two awards as siblings!
Personal PS. I got to meet and interact with the late Dwayne McDuffie just once, in November 2010, when he and his wife Charlotte (Fullerton) McDuffie visited my senior Honors class, English 492: The Comic Book Superhero. Back in the nineties, I had read quite a few Milestone Comics, a line Dwayne co-created, edited, and substantially guided, and I wanted my students to know about that. I can't remember how it is that I was able to contact Dwayne, but he was happy to come to CSUN and talk about his work. We prepared for his visit by reading the first volume of Milestone's Icon, which Dwayne had done with artist Mark Bright, plus excerpts from Jeffrey Brown's monograph Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans, and by watching Season One of Justice League Unlimited, on which Dwayne had worked as producer and story editor. It was a great visit and impacted me tremendously, even though it was just a single classroom session. I won't forget it.
I found Dwayne to be accessible and generous, wonderful with students, and disarmingly candid about his career, his aspirations and disappointments, and the conditions under which he worked. He was genuine and frank, justly proud of his work in comics and media, aware of its social stakes, but too wise to make overreaching claims. He registered his frustrations openly, honestly, but in a way that was never acrid or dispiriting. His sheer intelligence and enthusiasm held the room, and it was then that I realized that Dwayne was, no exaggeration, a genius, a true prodigy and polymath. My students were thrilled and enlightened, and many took the opportunity to speak to him personally. When Dwayne died suddenly about three months later, several of them contacted me about it; they were stunned. I think we were all a bit crushed.
I fondly remember going to dinner afterward with Dwayne, Charlotte, and my fellow scholar Adilifu Nama (Super Black). The conversation was stellar, and a new world, or new angle onto comics, opened up to me. I think Dwayne McDuffie would be proud to see the awards created in his name, and I can't think of a better name for them.
Readers, please consider donating to The Dwayne McDuffie Fund to help establish a nonprofit to award academic scholarships to diverse students and to keep McDuffie's legacy going.
NEWS! This morning, the organizers of the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards announced their nominees for the first-ever slate of EGLs, to be awarded at the Denver Comic Con on June 16. The livestream of the announcement, hosted by KidLit TV, can be (re)viewed here. Also, PR Newswire has a press release including the full list of nominees. It's an interesting list, with books I love, books I admire, and books I'd like to get to know.
The EGL Awards, as I posted this morning, aim to strengthen the link between comics publishing and the field of children's and Young Adult librarianship. School librarians, public librarians, and K-12 educators are well represented in the judging panels and advisory board, and indeed seem to be the Awards' center of gravity. The awards include eight categories organized by age range, as well as one diversity-themed prize, the Mosaic Award, and an overall Book of the Year prize with contenders drawn from the other categories. The age-based categories are divided into Fiction and Nonfiction for Children (Grade 5 and under), Middle Grades (Grades 6-8), Young Adults (Grades 9-12), and Adults. (You can find out more about the EGL categories at the Pop Culture Classroom, here.)
It seems to me that the EGLs have been rolled out in, for comics, unusually coordinated and deliberate fashion. I expressed reservations about the seeming outlook of the Awards when I first learned of them (see the comments thread here), and continue to wonder at the Awards' judging culture and, perhaps, selective filter—all based on my guesswork, I hasten to add. It does seem likely to me that the EGLs will filter out significant parts of comics culture and book-length comics publishing. However, this is also true of other industry awards that seek to cover the whole span of book-length comics, such as the Eisners; all have blind spots, and all speak to the interests of particular communities within the comics world. That said, this first EGL slate strikes me as solid and promising, with an encouraging diversity in aesthetic, genre, and tradition. I also like the range of publishers represented (though First Second Books is clearly the favorite, with five out of the eight nominees for Book of the Year).
I confess, I do see a few frank headscratchers among the nominees (what award process is without those, though?). The nonfiction choices for Children and Middle Grades are quite thin, and in general I feel more confident of the YA and Adult categories. Also, the Best of Year finalists make for, um, an odd set: apples and oranges and then some. Further, I'm not sure that all the nominees quite match the high literary aspirations implied by the Awards' name, suggesting that the "L" in EGL may be an awkward fit for some comics, even very good ones (but, um, the politics of respectability is perhaps too big a problem for one award to solve?). Here is the full list of finalists, as reported today:
MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS
YOUNG ADULT BOOKS
MOSAIC AWARD FINALISTS
BOOK OF THE YEAR FINALISTS
Quite a list. I'm excited to see, for example, Liniers, Melanie Gillman, Tillie Walden, Katie Green, Thi Bui, Emil Ferris, Guy Delisle, and the team of Stacey Robinson and John Jennings. I'm also excited to see promising books from creators I don't know.
The division of Awards by age range, and the list of publishers represented, perhaps indicate the Awards' intended focus and community more clearly than anything I could say. Let's see what happens.
PS. It was a pleasure to see among the EGL jurors and advisors in this morning's video announcement my friends and colleagues Dr. Katie Monnin of the University of North Florida (we judged Eisners together in 2013) and Carr D'Angelo and Susan Avallone of Earth-2 Comics, my LCS!
NEWS! The first-ever set of nominations for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards is fixing to go live, in about an hour, thanks to KidLit TV.
The EGL Awards are sponsored and organized by the nonprofit Pop Culture Classroom, and represent an effort to tie a major comics award more directly into the worlds of children's and YA graphic novel librarianship. The Comics Journal's Alex Dueben interviewed two of the people behind the EGL Awards, John Shableski and Illya Kowalchuk, back in January (and I tentatively raised some concerns about the Awards in the comments thread).
It'll be interesting to see this first slate of nominees! You can access the livestream of the nominations (10:00 am PCT, today, Thursday, March 15) at KidLit TV, here.