The Newbery Award is the gold standard for children’s books; it’s awarded to one book each year (along with a handful of Honor books) and signifies the level of excellence that such past winners as A Wrinkle in Time, Sarah, Plain and Tall and The Graveyard Book imply.
But could a graphic novel win this award? Librarian Elizabeth Moreau says No, because the rules for the award call for it to be based on words alone, without the impact of illustrations:
“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.”
That is fairly damning. You can’t consider illustrations unless they detract from the text. I imagine that is why The Invention of Hugo Cabret didn’t win its year.
Moreau goes on to read some YA graphic novels, and agrees that they don’t pass the test—not because the writing is subpar, but because the art is such an integral part of a great graphic novel.
Cartoonist/educator Chris Schweitzer shows up in the comments with an alternate view:
The Newbery is, and will likely continue to be, the most prestigious children’s literature award out there. I find it disheartening that great works of children’s literature might never be eligible because they employ a written language that is considered by many librarians to be illustration. Again, I contend that it is not. That this language is malleable and visually representational does not strip it of its function, which is to convey information as efficiently and elegantly as possible.
Not discussed: could a Graphic Novel win the Caldecott Award, which is presented for the best illustrations in a children’s book? Hugo Cabret won the Caldecott for Brian Selznick, and such comics-y types as Patrick McDonnell, Jon. J. Muth, and Lynd Ward have all been honor books. Here, I think the answer could well be, Yes.