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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Thoughts on the Debut Author/Illustrator

Last week Jackie Woodson won The National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  It was a win so deserved that I had difficulty processing it.  Under normal circumstances National Book Awards for children’s books come out of left field and are so blooming unpredictable that they almost always serve my perpetual amusement.  The fact that a deserving book (one might call it “the” deserving book of the year) won was enormously satisfying.  Of course, Ms. Woodson’s not exactly the new kid on the block.  She’s been writing for decades, her style growing sharper, her focus more concentrated.  When she wins awards it’s often for personal stories (her family story Show Way was the last picture book to win a Newbery Honor, for example).  Now Brown Girl Dreaming is poised to do the rare double win of National Book Award and Newbery Award, a move that hasn’t happened since Holes back in 1999.

It feels right that a familiar author who has honed her craft should accrue more and more awards as time goes on.  It seems logical.  Yet once in a while a wrench is thrown in the works and a debut author will pop onto the scene and win scores of awards.  It’s not a bad thing.  It just sometimes happens that such authors and illustrators get more immediate attention as a result than their longstanding hardworking fellows.

On a recent(ish) episode of the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour the topic was debuts.  The show discussed musical debuts, acting debuts, and authorial ones as well.  At one point I think it was Glen Weldon who pointed out that if you look at a typical high schooler’s summer reading list, it’s just debut title after debut title.  To Kill a Mockingbird, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, The Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man, Catch-22, The Bell Jar, White Teeth, The Kite Runner, and on and on it goes.

Naturally, after thinking about this I wondered if this equated on the children’s side of things.  So I took a gander at those old Top 100 Picture Books and Top 100 Children’s Novels polls I did of yore to see if the debuts were the majority of the titles there.  Here are the top 20 in each category (correct me if I’m wrong about any of these):

Picture Books:

#1 Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963) – No
#2 The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (1979) – No
#3 Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems (2003) – Yes
#4 Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd (1947) – No
#5 The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962) – No
#6 Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1941) – No
#7 Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems (2004) – No
#8 Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz (1972) – No
#9 Bark, George by Jules Feiffer (1999) – No
#10 The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone, illustrated by Mike Smollin (1971) – No
#11 Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes (1996) – No
#12 Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (1960) – No
#13 Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (1982) – No
#14 Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina (1947) – No
#15 Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel (1970) – No
#16 Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955) – Yes (in that it was the first he wrote and illustrated himself, I believe)
#17 The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson (1936) – No
#18 A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead (2010) – Yes
#19 The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (1902) – Yes
#20 Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin, illustrated by James Dean (2010) – Yes

Children’s Novels

#1 Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (1952) – No
#2 A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962) – No
#3 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997) – Yes
#4 The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993) – No
#5 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950) – Yes (for kids anyway)
#6 Holes by Louis Sachar (1998) – No
#7 From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (1967) – Yes (sorta – this was the weird case where her first two novels were published in the same year and BOTH received Newberys of one sort or another)
#8 Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908) – Yes (?)
#9 The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978) – No
#10 Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (1977) – No
#11 When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009) – No
#12 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999) – No
#13 The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (1997) – Yes (if a previously published short story doesn’t count)
#14 The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1938) – Yes (for kids, though I’m not sure when he did that Santa Claus letters book)
#15 The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) – No
#16 Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (1975) – No
#17 Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964) – Yes
#18 The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (1964) – No
#19 Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932) – Yes
#20 Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (2000) – Yes

I was admittedly surprised by how many “Yes”es there were here.  To my mind stunning debuts happen from time to time but are relatively rare.  This seemed to hold true for the picture books, but on the novel side of things the classics are continually peppered with debut works.

Then there’s the difference between an authorial debut and that of an illustrator.  I wasn’t able to tell if Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was Ray Cruz’s debut or if he’d been working in the field for years.  What about Mike Smollin and The Monster at the End of This Book?

Then there comes the question of how debut authors and illustrators are celebrated.  Recently the periodical Booklist revealed an issue called “Spotlight on First Novels“.  The cover showed primarily adult and YA titles, though there was an inclusion of Wonder by R.J. Palacio.  Inside the regular feature “The Carte Blanche” by Michael Cart concentrated on what could potentially have won the William C. Morris YA Debut Award if it had originated in 1967.  The Morris award, for folks who might not be familiar with it, “honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.”  Cart’s list is good and worth reading, though it include the baffling inclusion of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (a book that never could have won since it’s so clearly a children’s title).  Children’s books too often get the short end of the stick when folks discuss debuts.  For example, later in the issue a list of the “Top 10 First Novels for Youth for 2014” mentions only the entirely worthy (and rather charming) The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham as the sole children’s inclusion.

Here then is a listing of some of my favorite children’s book debuts of 2014.  I’m sure I’m getting folks here wrong when I say they haven’t published before, so if you see a mistaken entry do be so good as to let me know and I’ll amend accordingly.

Picture Books

  • Anna Carries Water by Olive Senior, ill. Laura James – For Laura James.  I believe Ms. Senior has written several books before.
  • Anna & Solomon by Elaine Snyder, ill. Harry Bliss – Elaine’s debut, that is.
  • Henny by Elizabeth Rose Stanton
  • Sparky! by Jenny Offill, ill. Chris Appelhans – He’s contributed to the Flight series, but I hardly think that counts.  Jenny is a known entity and not a debut.

Middle Grade Fiction

  • Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier by Ying Chang Compestine & Vinson Compestine – Vinson anyway.  His mother has certainly written many of her own books over the years.

Graphic Novels


  • Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine Roy (she did the illustrations for books like The Expeditioners but this is her formal writing debut)
  • Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus; ill. Evan Turk – For Turk, naturally, though you could probably count Arun as well.

Then there’s the question of what you count as a debut when a picture book author writes their first middle grade or a YA author writes an easy book series.  I leave that to the publishers.

Is there any debut author or artist with whom you were particularly taken this year?


About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Great list! I would add to the list of 2014 Middle Grade novels these two: A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd; and The Only Thing Worse than Witches by Lauren Magaziner.

  2. Great to see so many of my favorite MG debuts of the year here! Also loved ALL FOUR STARS by Tara Dairman.

  3. Didn’t E.B. White’s Stuart Little come before Charlotte’s Web?

  4. So grateful to have made this list, so thank you very much. But also I have to raise a flag for Megan Jean Sovern’s “The Meaning of Maggie.” Such a great book, amazing voice, beautifully told story. (I don’t know Megan, am not related to her, and am not a shareholder in Chronicle Books stock! I just LOVE this book!) She’s one to watch.

  5. Bethany Hegedus has published several middle grade novels but Grandfather Gandhi is her debut picture book- so a fabulous debut by all involved.

  6. Sheila Welch says:

    An author who has a first book published that gets labeled a “debut novel” has often been writing for many years and has finally broken in. I think it’s to their credit that their work gets lots of attention and deserved awards, etc. It would be extremely rare to find a “debut author” whose first book is truly his or her very first completed attempt at writing a book. Not that it matters. Or it shouldn’t matter. Each book should stand on its own, regardless of the author’s writing or publishing background.

    On the other hand, from my perspective as someone who’s been involved with children’s literature as a teacher, parent, grandparent, and published author, I sometimes feel that this fascination with the “new” pushes aside possibly more deserving work by authors who’ve been consistently creating excellent material for years. I just read an interview with an agent who mentioned that 90% of her authors are unpublished when she signs them on as clients. I guess this is a long way to say, “I am glad Jacqueline Woodson’s book won!”

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Yup. That’s why I began with her. We’re all so fascinating with shiny and new. And debut authors fulfill a kind of need in ourselves to believe in prodigies and instant genius. As you say, most have been toiling for years and years, honing their craft.

  7. Varian Johnson is not a debut author. He wrote “My Life as a Rhombus.” before.

    One thing that puts more debuts on the list is that people think of the first in the series for recognition.

    Anne of Green Gables was LM Montgomery’s first published novel. When it was so popular, they later published Kilmeny of the Orchard, which she’d written before Anne. It’s not nearly as good. I was a little relieved that LMM was human, too!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Durn. I was really hoping it was his first just so I could mention him again. Well spotted. Off he goes, alas.

      And that is positively fascinating about Ms. Montgomery. Great news to hear on the day I found out that multiple editions of Emily of New Moon will be coming out in 2015. Woohoo!

  8. So delighted you loved HOOK’S REVENGE enough to include it on this list! (I love it too, but I’m somewhat biased.) One tiny request: The author’s name is actually Heidi Schulz, not Shulz. Any chance you could update the post to reflect this?

  9. Deborah Kovacs says:

    Betsy–Michael Smollin was a reknowned advertising artist and art director who did several SESAME STREET books before he illustrated the timeless THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I wondered about the timing, indeed I did. I read my Street Gang religiously but couldn’t remember whether the book was the first or one in a series.

  10. Betsy – “‘ the Wild Things Are’ was Sendak’s authorial (writing) debut.True, it wasn’t his debut as a PB illustrator, but it was his debut as a PB writer – Ursula Nordstrom (Blessed Be Her Name) convinced Sendak to write it. He struggled with the book; originally titled ‘Where the Wild Horses Are,’ Sendak had to scrap the concept when Nordstrom and him realized he couldn’t draw horses. Instead, he based the Wild Things on his foreign relatives who survived the Holocaust. (Check out transcript from AWESOME Sendak-Bill Moyers interview:

    Sendak wasn’t new to kid’s publishing, but he was to developing and creating a story completely on his own: no Ruth Krauss or Else Holmelund Minarik. Did you know this? Would Where the Wild Things’ still not be a debut?)

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Well now I wondered that myself but then I looked at the timeline. As an author Sendak had already written and illustrated Kenny’s Window (1956), Very Far Away (1957), The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960), and all four books in The Nutshell Library (1962) (Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup with Rice, One Was Johnny, Pierre) before the 1963 publication of Where the Wild Things Are. So it wasn’t his authorial debut. That honor went to Kenny’s Window way way back in 1956.

  11. Also putting my hands together for “The Meaning of Maggie”–the voice is unique and the characters achingly, hilariously real.

  12. I am honored to have HOOK’S REVENGE included, and in such fine company. Thank you!
    I’d add Lauren Magaziner’s THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN WITCHES and Robin Herrera’s HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL. Such great books—I can’t wait to see what these authors do next!

  13. Here’s some info on the publication date of Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters that I copied and pasted (forgive me!) from Wikipedia:

    The Father Christmas Letters, also known as Letters from Father Christmas, are a collection of letters written and illustrated by J. R. R. Tolkien between 1920 and 1942 for his children, from Father Christmas. They were released posthumously by the Tolkien estate on 2 September 1976, the 3rd anniversary of Tolkien’s death. They were edited by Baillie Tolkien, second wife of his youngest son, Christopher. The book was warmly received by critics, and it has been suggested that elements of the stories inspired parts of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.