Our theme for the month of February is “color.”
Last month, for the ninety-eighth time, the American Library Association announced the winner of the Newbery Medal, to “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” A different award, the Caldecott Medal, honors illustration and visual excellence, and so usually honors picture books. The Newbery Medal honors writing and literary excellence, and so usually highlights novels. The book receives a gold sticker on its cover for the rest of its published life. A glittering, powerful gold sticker.
“New Kid,” came the announcement from a grey-haired librarian. Then came the flood of cheers. But this book was not like the dozens of medalists before it: New Kid is a graphic novel, the first graphic novel to ever win the Newbery Medal.
Even as a seven- or eight-year-old reader, I knew a gold or silver sticker meant something important. So many of the books I read in class had one on their cover: Maniac Magee. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. The Giver. And at the library, I’d rifle through the shelves, spot something metallic on a cover, and tuck the book into my already-overflowing bag. If it had a sticker, I felt I should read it.
Today I work in children’s publishing, and I understand much more what a Newbery means for a book. It means every librarian in the country just searched your book and added it to the collection; it means more and more teachers will consider adding your book to their curriculum, and even five or ten or fifty years from now, kids might still pick up your book.
At ten or eleven, I would stand in front of Newbery posters in the library and check titles off like a bucket list. The names started with 1922 and The Story of Mankind, and meandered up to whatever year the library had last re-ordered the poster. Sarah, Plain and Tall: check. The Tale of Despereaux: check. Kira-Kira: check.
Are awards guarantees of quality? Certainly not, and not every award winner is to everyone’s taste. (If Fido’s close to your heart, tread cautiously.) Not every Newbery medalist becomes a runaway bestseller, and not every Newbery book remains beloved beyond its time. And even without awards, books will find ways to find their readers. Plenty do just fine without a grandiose gold sticker, as the Magic Tree Houses and Diary of a Wimpy Kids of the world remind us. And I could spiral for thousands of words debating what, exactly, makes a good children’s book.
Still, no matter what you think about awards, they matter. Never judge a book by its cover, goes the adage, but anyone who’s ever picked up a book will laugh. However iffy the morals, we do judge books by their covers, and plenty of people judge by a sticker on that cover.
The summer after my first year of college, I worked at a public library, helping with the reading program. Since the city pool was across the street, kids would wander inside in flip flops and swimsuits, still smelling slightly of chlorine and sunscreen. Then they’d bound up to the desk and tell me how many hours they’d read since last time. I’d stamp their sheets and send them, clutching a prize or a new author’s name, off to the shelves.
I remember the loud, rambunctious races—flip, flop, flip, flop—towards the graphic novel shelf. I remember the crowd of kids hunting for Babymouse or Lunch Lady or Smile. In the children’s section, neat shelves are unused shelves. And the graphic novel shelves were always, always messy.
New Kid might be the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Medal, but it is far, far from the first graphic novel to receive this sort of acclaim. El Deafo received a Newbery Honor back in 2015; American Born Chinese received the 2007 Printz Award; Maus received a Pulitzer Prize almost thirty years ago, in 1992. Acclaimed graphic novels are not a new phenomenon; New Kid’s success is just one more barrier toppled at last.
I remember kids’ delight in the graphic novel section, the way they stacked book after book in their arms. But I also remember parents’ reactions when their kids reached that shelf. I remember the sigh. I remember the stiffened posture. I remember the disappointed turn of the head. Another stupid comic.
I sometimes sympathized: look at all these lovely books in the Juvenile Fiction section! You’d find something great there, too! But I also knew that many of the kids stacking graphic novels in their arms were the same kids whose reading hours were hard-won, the trophies of a fight against syntax and vocabulary. Some of those books were light, silly stories, and others posed hard, difficult questions and told unusual, thoughtful stories. Graphic novels are often excellent places to discuss embodied experiences, like racism or disability, since the visual becomes inescapable.
When I think of New Kid’s Newbery win, I think of that skeptical parent, teacher, adult wondering what in the world their child just picked up. And I think of the struggling readers counting down the minutes till reading time ends. I think of the late-night readers checklisting Newbery winners. And all us grown-ups, living in a visual world and still in need of a good story.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.