From the terms and criteria—
“Original work” means that the text was created by this writer and no one else. It may include original retellings of traditional literature, provided the words are the author’s own.
And the expanded definitions in the Newbery manual–
A committee may consider books that are traditional in origin, if the book is the result of original research and the retelling and interpretation are the writer’s own.
Example: On this point, Donna Jo Napoli’s books The Prince of the Pond, Otherwise Known as De Fawg Pin, based on the folk tale “The Frog Prince,” and Zel, based on the folk tale “Rapunzel,” would be eligible, as would Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter, based on the folk tale “Sleeping Beauty.”
Traditional literature is not often recognized by the committee. The most recent examples are IN THE BEGINNING by Virginia Hamilton (1989) and WHEN SHLEMIEL WENT TO WARSAW by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1969). More recently, WHITTINGTON (2006) and WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON (2010) incorporate traditional literature into a novelistic framework.
Thus, a graphic novel retelling of a Greek myth does not have the odds in its favor, but I actually think the fact that this is a retelling helps us appreciate just how distinguished and individually distinct it really is.
A MODERN, FEMINIST INTERPRETATION
This is a retelling that resists the objectification of women and children implied in the original Greek myth by (a) re-imagining the relationship between Persephone and Demeter as that of a modern teenager trying to break free of an overbearing, overprotective parent, and by (b) giving Persephone a measure of agency regarding her own destiny. It’s a perfect example of how a retelling honors the legacy of the original story, but puts a fresh, relevant spin on modern life. For me, this is not only distinguished interpretation of theme, but in the realm of most distinguished interpretation of theme.
PRESENTATION OF INFORMATION
Retelling the story of Persephone, however, is only one focus of this graphic novel. The other is to collect from various Greek myths all that we know about Hades–the people, the places, the landscape–and synthesize it into a smooth, coherent narrative. Notice how effortlessly O’Connor does this in the opening ten pages. Here are the first two.
This is what happens to you when you die.
Know this first: You are dead. You no longer have a body.
But still you will open your eyes. The first thing you see is Hermes Psychopompos. It is his job to guide you to what comes next.
You reach out and take his hand.
In Hermes’s grasp, you will move so fast it will seem as if you haven’t moved at all.
He will leave you at the banks of the River Styx.
It’s already very crowded with the recently dead, and more and more arrive by the moment.
There are many people in the world, and they keep Hermes very busy.
Not only does O’Connor convey lots of information about the setting in these few pages, but he does so with a unique second person narration (one that works well on its own, but even better in tandem with the illustrations) that elevates this to one of the best prose stylizations that I have read in a Greek myth–especially when he circles back to this journey again at the conclusion of the story. I find the prose style of the text boxes also approaches the realm of most distinguished.
DIALOGUE: THE ACHILLES’ HEEL?
Then we come to our first scene with Persephone, Apollo, and Demeter. The dialogue drives the story, it provides context and specificity, but as with a movie or play the visual part of the story–the scenery, the juxtaposition of camera angles, the gestures and the facial expressions–these are all things that are as important, if not more important, to the story. These are the things that push this part of the narrative into the realm of most distinguished, so unless O’Connor is a master of dialogue it’s really hard to see the evidence of it in the words alone.
Persephone: Mother, hello! Apollo was just about to share his newest song with me.
Apollo: Greetings to you, fair Demeter.
Demeter: Apollo. Step away from my daughter.
Apollo: I begin to sing of rich-haired Demeter, awe-inspiring goddess, of her and her daughter, lovely–
Demeter: Not so fast! Just a snippet of song from you and all the pretty girls’ hearts melt, don’t they Apollo? Your crushes have a nasty tendency to end very badly for the objects of your affection, and I won’t have you hurting my daughter!
Demeter: Back to the fields with you! Go practice your singing on some sheep!
The dialogue advances the plot and develops character and does so with sufficient distinction–at least for a graphic novel text–but the prose here is hardly inspiring. And since the prose is the only sliver we are considering from this highly visual medium of storytelling, it feels severely underwhelming.
But, pulling a couple of novels from a nearby stack, I find the dialgoue similarly lackluster–not bad, mind you, but not making me want to bestow Newbery recognition on the basis of it alone.
THREE TIMES LUCKY
Mo: Wake up.
Dale: Go ‘way.
Mo: Dale! Wake up! It’s Mo.
Mo: It ain’t demons, it’s me. I stopped by to tell you: The Colonel’s come home and he aint up to cooking.
Dale: You woke me up for that?
Mo: I’m sorry, Dale. I got to open the cafe today.
SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS
Agnes: Wake up, Miss Clara.
Clara: Good morning, Miss Agnes.
Agnes: Good morning, miss.
Clara: Agnes, I’m twelve years old today.
Agnes: Many happy returns, miss. Now get up none of this lying around in bed.
Clara: Is it fine today, Agnes?
Agnes: Fine enough to have your party. Your Mr. What’s-his-name’ll come with the puppets.
I don’t find that the dialogue in HADES suffers in comparison to that in THREE TIMES LUCKY and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, so if the dialogue of HADES is not distinguished, then I must question if the dialogue in these other two books is not also undistinguished, and if the dialogue is undistinguished in these two books, then why, pray tell, do we still esteem them so highly? I think we could probably say the same for any novel, however.
Note that research is an important part of distinguished traditional literature and O’Connor provides a bibliography, a suggested reading list, an author’s note, panel notes, and a cast of characters. O’Connor’s humor, which frequently comes through in his text, really shines in the back matter. All in all, it’s a model of what we would like to see for all books of traditional literature.
PRESENTATION FOR A CHILD AUDIENCE
In the last post, I lamented the options for transitional chapter book readers this year, but this book (and LITTLE WHITE DUCK) can fulfill that role for precocious students in 2nd and 3rd grade–the text/illustration dynamic provides just as much support as an easy reader or the spot illustrations in a transitional chapter book and the word count places it between FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER and 26 FAIRMOUNT AVENUE. Yet the entire package is also very appealing to middle grade students in fourth to eighth grades, making it one of the children’s books this year with the most broad appeal.
Well, it was always a hard sell to begin with. Have I convinced you? Have I convinced myself? Personally, I find the text distinguished in all elements pertinent to it, but especially the interpretation of theme, the appropriateness of style (especially for the expository passages written in second person), and the thorough back matter. Still, this book does not crack my top three. Nevertheless, it’s one of about a dozen books that I might nominate and see how it fares in discussion. If the book picked up support in that process, I could definitely see myself voting for this in the right circumstance. So, yes, it’s an unlikely choice, but I don’t think it would be an unwelcome choice. Must the obligatory WTF Newbery book always be a second-rate novel? Must it? Why can’t it be a graphic novel, or an easy reader, or a picture book, or nonfiction? Why?