The highlight of the American Library Association’s Mid-Winter conference are the Youth Media Awards, honoring books and media in a variety of categories. Any mention as an honor or winner guarantees an instant explosion in sales, as well as entry into the timeless pantheon of “good books.” For many smaller publishers and oft-overlooked categories and genres, it’s a rare chance for exposure and acceptance.
This year, graphic novels scored BIG, in both the specialized demographic awards, and the major “best” categories which consider a huge selection of titles published. Long gone are the days of gatekeeping librarians promoting wholesome books while suppressing and ignoring more popular, less serious works. Today’s librarians are accepting of a variety of texts, and many of them value the popularity of graphic novels (and many are outright fans of the medium). These librarians serve on the selection committees (think “jury duty”, but with vibrant debates on which books are the best), and as more amazing titles are published each year, graphic novels are part of those discussions.
The major award in libraries is the John Newbery Medal for “the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year”. This year, Jerry Craft won for his graphic novel New Kid. Other graphic novels had previously received honor citations in this category, but this is the first time a graphic novel has won the medal outright, awarded for the best literary work, as a book, not as a graphic novel or illustrated work. It won because of the story presented, which just happened to be told in words and pictures.
New Kid earlier won the Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award, which recognizes African-American authors and illustrators of outstanding books for children and young adults. A title winning both the Newbery and King award is not unusual… Kwame Alexander won both in 2015 for The Crossover.
So that’s the big news… graphic novels have achieved parity with myriad other titles on library shelves, as a title wins two major awards selected by librarians.
Personally, that was enough to make me verklempt, as I’ve waited decades for something like this to happen. But the bigger news is that numerous graphic novels were lauded by numerous committees this year, in a diverse selection of titles and publishers. In chronological order, here are the winners I noticed. [I’ll update this later after I systematically search every cited title to see which are part of the graphic novel spectrum.]
The Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature lauded two graphic novels:
Stargazing by Jen Wang, published by First Second for Children’s Literature, and They Called Us Enemy, by Geroge Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmoy Becker for Best Young Adult Literature, published by IDW/Top Shelf.
The Sydney Taylor Book Award, presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience, chose R.J. Palacio‘s White Bird: A Wonder Story as the best middle grade book.
YALSA, the young adult librarians, select 10 titles written for adults which appeal to teens. Among those ten this year were two graphic novels:
Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe, published by Oni Press/Lion Forge, and In Waves, by AJ Dungo, published by Nobrow.
The Printz Award is the “Newbery for young adults.” Young Adult librarians were pioneers on the new frontier of graphic novels in libraries, as teens vociferously demanded manga titles to read, Librarians quickly learned what was good and/or popular, and awarded the Printz Award to Gene Luen Yang‘s American Born Chinese in 2007.
This year, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me was lauded as an honor title. Published by Macmillan/First Second, the book was written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. Tamaki previously received an Printz honor for This One Summer in 2015.
Do you consider audiobook adaptations of comics to be a strange beast, as questionable as motion comics or 1980s Marvel movies? Librarians don’t think so! This year, they gave the Odyssey Award for best audiobook to Jarret J. Krozoczka‘s Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction. It’s a full cast adaptation, with narration by the author himself!
Graphic novels are no stranger to the librarians selecting the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for best books for beginning readers; Toon Books won the award in 2010. Beginning reader books bridge the gap between picture books and chapter books, offering engaging text and pictures to encourage literacy and enjoyment. (Sound familiar?) This year, Cece Bell received an honor citation for Chick and Brain: Smell My Foot!
After this, it was the Caldecott Awards for best picture books, but there were no comics this year. Then the Newbery Medal was announced, and librarians cried as graphic novels were no longer the “new kid” in libraries, finally accepted for the diverse stories and points of view they offer, usually to visual learners who struggle with blocks of text, or to young readers who struggle with myriad challenges and can relate to a graphic memoir written by someone who dealt with a similar problem. As librarians, publishers, and creators offer diverse stories to a diverse audience, one can hope that the readers of today will be inspired to create even more diverse stories in the years and decades to come.
Of course, the best thing about all these award winners? They’ll be available in thousands of libraries (and bookstores) across the country! Of course, you might have to wait in line to read them…kids are voracious readers! While you wait, why not browse the shelves…you’ll probably be surprised!