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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

For All That’s Real and Fair(e): Two Outstanding MG GNs

realfriendsAs  the Newbery Committee manual dictates, the “committee is to make its decision primarily on the text” and “[o]ther components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.” In other words, good designs and fabulous illustrations that enhance the overall reading experience, theoretically, should not be discussed at all.  So, what about Graphic Novels?  One might argue that the images are not mere illustrations and the panel, font, and other graphic design elements are integral t0 the narrative structure.  Indeed, I would argue that if one is to nominate and analyze a graphic novel for the Newbery, one cannot skirt around illustrations and over all design.

Just three short years ago, when Nina Lindsay discussed El Deafo on this same blog, she definitely tried to isolate the text in order to justify the book’s Newbery award worthiness even when she started challenging the status quo and broadened textual definition to include what could be achieved by the sequential art form: setting, pacing, character development, conflicts, tension, etc.  El Deafo received a Newbery Honor in 2015.  When Nina supported Roller Girl in the subsequent Heavy Medal year, she stated that the text alone wouldn’t have made the book Newbery worthy for her without all the other elements and how all the illustrations and designs make Roller Girl a shining example “of a story presented in exactly the right format.” Roller Girl won a Newbery silver in 2016.

Will 2018 be another year in which this seemingly new but already well established genre garner accolades again?  I’d say that there is quite the chance, given some strong 2017 Graphic Novel titles such as Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham and All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson (creator of Roller Girl.)

allsfaireBoth titles deal with the turbulent years of middle grade to middle school: although one is a memoir and the other fiction.  Both main characters are girls with distinct personalities but also much self-doubt, eager to fit in while couldn’t quit escape from their  own uniqueness.

I love the setting in All’s Faire: it offers the framework of a quest, the rising and falling actions of a piece of theater, and the juxtaposition of what’s “real/normal” vs what’s “ideal/unusual.”  When Imogene breaks down and accuses her parents of “not even having real jobs,” she is really accusing them of not having a “normal,” year-round job.  In a way, as readers, we all are a bit envious of that almost dream-like existence of Faire Life and finding ourselves question what IS real and who’s to say what makes something “normal.”

Real Friends, on the other hand, is set solidly in the every day life of a young girl whose rich inner life got in the way, sometimes, of her fitting in and who would grow up to make up fantasy tales featuring fierce young heroines.  The strength of Real Friends is its totally open and often painful honesty.  I am floored by the authors’ abilities to capture the difficult family dynamics and troubling friendships with candor and tenderness in words and images.

Stylistically, Real Friends is darker, more unsettling: with tilted panels (pages 46/47) and the frequent images of a huge, looming wild bear, representing the internal turmoils of Shannon’s older sister (pages 78-81 and 175, 178, etc.,) while All’s Faire in Middle School is lighter with orderly panel sequences, projecting a sense of security, even when things are really rough going for Imogene.

Emotionally, I would say that Real Friends is definitely a lot more painful, more realistic, and the final reward of her reconciliation with her sister is higher — because readers could see how things might just not turn out well for Shannon.  (And things never did work out with Jenny.)  All’s Faire also does not shy away from some realistic consequences of Imogene’s choices, but readers never quite worry about her the same way as we worry about Shannon.  We expect that Imogene’s parents and brother would come around and embrace her and we couldn’t quite care about whether things work out with Mika — because she’s there as a device, a catalyst, not a real person.

If I must choose one of the two to nominate as a Newbery contender, I will go by how a good super-hero comic is measured: based on whether there is an effective “villain/antagonist” that allows for deeper understanding of all that’s fair/unfair in human relationships.

To me, Mika and her group of popular girls are never quite three dimensional in All’s Faire.  Even though their “defeat” in the end feels satisfying, it also seems a bit easy and without much depth. Once it’s done, we move on.  I never stop to think to myself: I wonder what’s going on with Mika after her birthday party?? Whereas Shannon’s adversaries are real challenges – her older sister’s rage and depression and her “friends” Jen’s and Jenny’s mercurial and puzzling behaviors, make for gut-punching episodes.  After putting down the book, I keep wondering about all that transpired and continue to gain insights when reconsidering these complicated and not quite resolved relationships.

I would not hesitate to put forth Real Friends as one of my 7 Newbery Nominations for 2018. Heavy Medal readers: what is your verdict?

Roxanne Hsu Feldman About Roxanne Hsu Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at


  1. I haven’t yet read All’s Faire (gotta coax it out of the cataloging room…) but I would definitely put in a bid for Real Friends at this point. The fact that it made me cry some rather cathartic tears might have something to do with that… Hale got the relationship/friendship struggles JUST right.

  2. I loved All’s Fair..just got Real Friends and is 3rd in line to read…

  3. I admired REAL FRIENDS tremendously for all the reasons you state. It felt so real, so unvarnished in the painful relationships of one middle schoolers from those at school to those at home. Loved that all were flawed in various very real ways. I took would seriously consider this for a nomination.

    But I also admired ALLS FAIRE and thought it delightful. The sensibility was different, but I’m not sure that makes it lesser. That Mika et al were less developed as characters doesn’t seem a weakness to me given them medium. Just a lighter take on a similar theme to REAL FRIENDS. One thing I really appreciated about ALLS FAIRE was the brother giving her the cold shoulder for days and days. That felt very real for a family of home school kids. And some interesting class issues — the painful attempt to make her shoes like the popular girl ones, for instance.

    Seems to me these both belong on the Newbery table for serious consideration.

  4. steven engelfried says:

    I’m still struggling with evaluating graphic novels in terms of Newbery criteria. I’m worried that it’s a blind spot that I just haven’t been able to get past and hope to learn how to do it better.

    I agree that both REAL FRIENDS and ALL’S FAIRE are excellent books, but am stuck on how to embrace that “broader textual definition” that Nina mentions. Roxanne noted the scene in REAL FRIENDS where Wendy as the Bear is introduced. Here’s the text from p 77 – 81:

    [Shannon as narrator]: It felt like living in a house…with a wild bear.
    [Shannon]: “Isn’t anyone else worries about that bear?”
    [Laura]: “The bear never bothered me.”
    [Shannon]: “But…the bear?
    [Cynthia]: “Berry- berry shortcake!”
    [Joseph]: “Teddy Bear!”
    [Laura]: “Don’t be so sensitive. You have to let things go.”
    [Shannon]: “Remember that time – – “ [shows scratches on her stomach]
    [Father]: “Okay, we’re going out. Be good.”
    [Shannon]: “No, don’t leave!”
    [Laura]: “Who’s our babysitter?”
    [Mother]: “I think the bear is old enough now…”
    [Shannon]: “But…but…but…”
    [Father]: “I’ll just lengthen her chain a bit…”

    It’s a powerful scene, with a lot going on. It’s where we first learn how very serious Shannon’s problems with Wendy are . And how oblivious the rest of the family is. The things that impress me most are:

    – The hugeness of the Bear at the table, where you notice that she’s chained, but also painting her fingernails.
    – The way Shannon leans as far as she can towards Laura, who’s not bothered at all by the Bear.
    – The contrasting expressions of Shannon and the Bear when Father lengthens the chain.
    – The side-by-side images of the Bear’s face and Wendy’s both looking towards Shannon.

    All of those impressive moments come through the illustrations, though. It’s a very effective use of the sequential art form…but I struggle to find a way to give credit for that to the author, rather than the artist.

    In Nina’s post, she states that: “If, in a series of panels, the character development is solely communicated in the illustrations: fine. We won’t talk about character development there, because it is not pertinent to the text.” I’d place this passage in that category. And a lot of others. In fact, I found that many of the most powerful scenes seem to rely on the illustrations for their impact. There’s often deeper meaning behind the dialog that comes through the pictures. When Shannon says “words will never hurt me,” (99) we can guess that she actually is hurt by the words, but the image Jenny spewing sticks and stones at her is where it really hits home. When Zara and Veronica become friends with Shannon (149-155), again it’s the series of pictures that resonate more than the words. The text that Hale provides in all these cases is just exactly what it should be: concise, restrained, and leaving room for the visual impact…but does that make it distinguished?

    I suspect I just haven’t figured out the right way to look at graphic novels through a Newbery lens. I’d love to hear more about these two books and how we identify the excellence that lies “primarily in the text.”

    • Steven, I’m with you in this struggle. It was one I had when discussing Roller Girl a couple of years ago. It seemed to me that there were a number of moments in that title where the emotional punch was completely in the art. But it got an Honor so now I’ve just let my own confusion go and working to embrace whatever it is others are using to allow this to work with the Newbery criteria. But I’m finding it hard (I guess I’m pretty rigid when reading the critieria:) as these two books, it seems to me, use art as much as text to create atmosphere, emotional power, and plot advances. For me, especially emotion and atmosphere. Your example from Real Friends is an excellent one. I’m thinking of various ones from ALL’S FAIRE where the brother is reacting to his hurt in image-only ways. Or the shoes — seems that is all visual. Anyway, I would love to hear more too.

    • Hannah Mermelstein says:

      I find this a difficult topic as well, but for what it’s worth, I have not read Real Friends and almost got chills reading the text that Steven posted above, before getting to his description of the illustrations.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Thinking about this, I’ve come to rely on a couple self-reminders/thought exercises that I’ve found helpful.

      The self-reminder is that an author both conceives and executes, and these are both literary acts that should be considered. This was alluded to in an earlier post where Roxanne and I talked about sci-fi/fantasy as genres where attention is often paid to “concept.” As “execution” oriented readers, we suggested at the time that wasn’t enough: you still need craft, good characters, writing, etc. But that was not to say that “concept” gets no credit. It does. In a graphic novel, the author still gets credit (perhaps only partial) for coming up with stuff that, in the end, may only get expressed visually.

      So to get a handle on the author’s conceptual contribution to a book that relies partly on non-textual execution, I try to imagine a couple things:

      1. Imagine it re-illustrated.

      We have many examples of this in the literature already: Many Moons by Thurber is one of the most acute, but you can take Harry Potter or Dahl or any such. What remains of the essence of the book after re-illustration can, I think, be considered part of the book’s literary quality in a Newbery discussion.

      2. Or imagine a screenplay

      This is similar to what Steven already did (and Monica in her argument for El Deafo) except I argue that a summary awareness (which in my imaginary screenplay would come in the form of occasional scene descriptions of setting and action) of what else is “going on” can be considered (but not the specific execution) as the author gets at least partial “concept” credit for this. I think some of the things mentioned by Steven in the scene he quotes: the differing reactions to the bear (and among two differing groups of characters, one fanciful, one remembered), the frightening though superficially bland situation and setting (Shannon being left with her sister as babysitter), the placement of this character-introducing scene in the narrative, etc. I argue all of this is well-done from a Criteria standpoint, and Hale shares credit with Pham for this.

      I am going to give an extreme 2017 example: Kate DiCamillo’s LA LA LA. I could argue that the story of a child seeking connection, her emotional journey as she struggles to find someone to respond to her, her travels across quasi-fantastical lands and portals, and the conclusion in which Creation itself calls back to her, the idea of presenting this story as a near wordless book consisting of a single repeated song syllable, that all of this can be credited to the author Kate DiCamillo and could be thought of by someone as the year’s most distinguished contribution to American children, without considering illustration, that in fact it could be illustrated and re-illustrated many ways without changing DiCamillo’s “authorial” contribution. Now I don’t actually think it should win the Newbery, but that’s a literary assessment. I would still allow this argument.

      • Safranit Molly says:

        Thank you, Leonard. Your discussion really helped me think more deeply about how graphic novels can be a literary experience that relies on authorial contribution. I, too, have long struggled with embracing graphic novels as Newbery contenders. Your post really helped me rethink my biases and open my mind to the literary merits of graphic contenders. Thanks.

    • Sara Coffman says:

      I, too, struggle with how best to evaluate these texts in comparison with “traditional” format contenders. It’s really difficult to see these as examples of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” when that contribution must be located only in “the text of the book.” Like you, Steven, I think this is a blind spot of mine rather than a flaw in the system, but I still struggle. FWIW: I found REAL FRIENDS to be a much more exemplary reading experience than ALL’S FAIRE, probably for the resonating realism others have already mentioned. It moved me considerably whereas ALL’S FAIRE left me somewhat meh. Remind me when the committee has to submit their 7? I am beginning to worry I wouldn’t have 7…

      • I was just looking that up – They nominate 3 in October, 2 in November, and 2 in December. Your own nominations must all be different from one another, but in November and December, you can nominate books that others have already nominated to show support.

  5. It is fascinating to see how differently Nina evaluated El Deafo and Roller Girl. For El Deafo, she typed up text and ignored the imagery altogether but for Roller Girl, she acknowledged that the graphic novel has to be taken as a whole because the art IS integral to the narrative structure.

    A graphic novel writer often dictates the visual elements of the final product, writing copious panel and page directions for the artist. So, yes, I think here the broader textual discussion will have to include the design of the size and condition of the bear. Real Friend has both Hale and Pham on the cover as co-creators — but on the title page, it does separate the writer from the artist. For a graphic novel, I would like to see both creators acknowledged if Real Friends receives an award citation.

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