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Evaluating Graphic Novels for the Newbery: A conversation with Shannon Hale

Last year, the Heavy Medal team chose Real Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham, as one of the finalists and it stirred up quite a host of comments, trying to parse out how to evaluate a book where text/panels/illustrations are so seamlessly entwined and yet not penned and illustrated by the same creator. This has long been a hotly debated topic and author Shannon Hale has thoughts from the authorial end about what she would like the award committees to consider when evaluating a graphic novel. Heavy Medal caught up with Shannon during her busy book tour time and we really appreciate all she has to say to us and Heavy Medal readers.

Heavy Medal: Congratulations on the publication of Best Friends.  Many young readers have already read it and others have requested the book from school and public libraries all around the country. How long ago was the manuscript finished? And what do you wish young readers take away from this follow-up title?  

Shannon Hale: Thanks, Heavy Medal! I had to check the dates on my files to remember… looks like I turned in a final draft in May 2018. And then after seeing the finished art, I always make text changes so everything works together perfectly (mostly deleting text – I think a graphic novel especially shouldn’t use one more word than is absolutely necessary). That all took us into spring 2019. But of course since it’s a memoir, it all really started in 1985… 

I really wasn’t sure I wanted to write a second one. (I really, really wasn’t sure I wanted to write a first! Memoir is so HARD!) As I looked through my notes and journals, what stood out to me was how unique 6th grade is in kids’ development. 11/12 is the year everything starts to change (or, change AGAIN). I find transitional ages fascinating as an observer/writer and confusing/alarming as the person living through them. I thought it was worth another book to just focus on that one age and be as honest as I could about how it felt. I find that kids are so relieved to see their own feelings mirrored back to them, both to know that they’re not alone and also to gain some perspective. It’s easier to understand when we watch someone from a distance feeling a thing than when we’re drowning in the middle of it ourselves. Also, I wanted to spend more time addressing anxiety, which was such a big part of my childhood.

HM: Do you think they have to read the two in sequence?

SH: No, I don’t believe the books need to be read in sequence. I always aim to write standalone books, even those that are part of a series.

HM: Could you talk a little bit about your collaboration with LeUyen? 

HM: I started writing Real Friends on my own, not really sure where it was going. I’d been telling stories about my experiences in elementary school for years and I often thought of using them as a basis for a fiction story. It wasn’t until it occurred to me to do it as a graphic memoir that it all clicked. But memoirs are such BEASTS to write, I was feeling very unsure of myself. After my husband Dean, LeUyen was the very first person to see my script. I just sent it to her as a friend asking for help! I wanted her feedback as an illustrator before I sent it to my agent and eventually found a publisher. Uyen says she immediately connected with the script and asked to “throw my hat into the ring as illustrator” which was an amazing offer and one I didn’t expect (graphic novels are such BEASTS to illustrate!). After I sold it to First Second (and after dozens more revisions) my editor, Connie Hsu, agreed with me that we’d be lucky to work with Uyen on this book. 

The whole process was very collaborative. I made sure the script was completely ready to go before she started sketching, of course, but we communicated throughout. I tend to make minimal art notes. I’d be crazy not to trust an illustrator like Uyen. Plus everything she did was brilliant. I felt like she’d climbed into my head and drawn my memories. Sometimes I purposefully left out details so it wouldn’t be too obvious to those involved who the real people and places in the story were, but then she’d draw it exactly right anyway! It was uncanny. We joke that we share a brain. 

The process was pretty much the same for Best Friends. It seems like sequels should be easier, but every story is tricky to tell in its own way.

HM: Many readers find difficult to evaluate Graphic Novels that are not penned and illustrated by the same creator and some might think that the authors are simply creating the captions & dialogs whereas the artists are responsible for setting the scenes/backgrounds and facial expressions, transitions, etc.   Could you address this?

SH: Perhaps the confusion comes from examination of other illustrated works. E.g., when we write Princess in Black manuscripts, we include zero art notes. The text that’s on the page is all there is. Like in picture books, it’s up to the artist (along with the editor, art director, etc.) to come up with images to enhance the story. But graphic novels are completely different animals. The majority of the writing I do doesn’t show up on the finished page. Like most graphic novelists, I write panel-by-panel. For each panel, I describe the visuals that the artist will draw in that box: the characters, setting, action (I have to pick the best freeze-frame moment of action), emotions/facial expressions, even weather and lighting if necessary, as well as including any dialog, captions, text, sound effects, etc. A wordless page of a graphic novel was written. It’s most similar to a screenplay, but in my experience graphic novel scripts are even more challenging because you can’t rely on motion or sound. You have to find a way to communicate everything in a series of still images. A writer who isn’t the illustrator will likely have more detailed scripts than the writer who is also the illustrator. LeUyen tells me I write more detailed scripts than others she’s seen, but every writer and every illustrator are different. There’s no set format.

HM: Could you share with us an example of your manuscript?

Sure, here are the first few panels for Real Friends. [Each panel description is inside brackets and text for that panel follows.]

The manuscript:

[Salt Lake City, Utah, 1979. Summer. Five-year-old SHANNON at home on the couch with MOM. Shannon has straight red hair and bangs, very skinny, freckles, usually wears older sisters’ hand-me-downs and so is perpetually out of style. Mom has short feathered hair, dark auburn with “frosted tips.” Mom is on the phone taking notes about something on a notepad on the side table. Shannon crawls onto Mom’s lap. Mom is 8 months pregnant.]

CAP: When I was little, I didn’t worry about friends. 
MOM (on phone): Okay, what time on Wednesday? 

[Mom is forced to readjust, trying to write and talk, while Shannon tries to nestle into her lap, which doesn’t have much room due to huge pregnant belly. Little sister CYNTHIA, a one-year-old redhead, is standing at Mom’s knee, wailing. Her big sisters sit on the carpet playing cards: WENDY, 10-year-old with buck teeth and dirty blonde straight hair, glares at Shannon; LAURA, 8-year-old with frizzy red hair, rolls her eyes. Arrows labeled with their names point to the three sisters. Another arrow points to Mom’s pregnant belly labeled “Joseph.”]

CAP: After all, I had Mom.
WENDY: Don’t be so clingy, Shannon.
LAURA: Yeah, you’re not a baby anymore.
[Shannon curls up tighter on Mom’s lap.]

CAP: I just wanted her all to myself…
[Shannon closes her eyes]
[Imagination image: Shannon is inside Mom’s tummy, wearing little baby clothes, cozy and utterly content]

SH: That’s not to say that the artist isn’t free to adapt from the script. There are panels in Real Friends that are different from what I scripted. For example, LeUyen might think it’d be better to start a particular scene with an establishing shot instead of the close panel I scripted. When she sketches it, either I say “yes you’re right that’s so much better,” or “can we go back to how it was scripted because I think it has more emotional impact and will mirror a later moment” etc. It’s very collaborative. With a picture book, an artist and illustrator might never speak or even meet, but Uyen and I were talking, emailing, texting all the time. It’d be hard to do a graphic memoir any other way.

HM: How would you like award committee members to examine graphic novels?

SH: I’m a complete outsider to this process, so I hesitate to chime in, but I have thought a lot about this. And graphic novels and illustrated books are only going to become more and more common, so it feels like a good time to have these conversations. I respect so much these awards and the work that they do. By honoring children’s literature, awards encourage book creators and publishers to push themselves and make really great books. The goal is always: great books for kids. Of all kinds. So that kids can both see themselves reflected and gain empathy for others. Develop solid literacy skills that will help them succeed in school, work, and life. Be challenged with ideas and perspectives that spark them to think and analyze. Feel seen, find joy, laugh, take a break, learn and expand and just enjoy stories.

Given that goal (always: great books for kids) I have a hard time understanding the purpose of separating art from text when evaluating books. Kids don’t do that when they read. They’re taking in the story as a whole. I think it can do a disservice to books and readers to try to chop up a book into bits like that. After all, we all work really hard to create a unified story! Every book (illustrated or not) is a team effort. Additionally, I’m confused by the requirement of trying to figure out who came up with which ideas. That’s really unfair to those who evaluate books. How can they possibly know? E.g. in a prose novel, some of the great ideas were likely suggested by the writer’s editor or writer friends or spouse. Does that diminish the value of the book or disqualify the author from receiving an award? We don’t (and shouldn’t) disregard a picture book illustrator’s contributions when their images are illustrating ideas the writer came up with. I don’t think that graphic novels should be evaluated by their scripts. Not present in this script, for example, are all the conversations and emails that Uyen and I had about look, feeling, tone, character. Plus the goal is the end product, the unified book, the story that the readers see.If we focused more on the book as a whole (as the readers do) and less on who-did-what, I think it’d be more in keeping with that goal: great books for kids. 

HM: Thank you so much, Shannon, for sharing your process and insights with us.

Do Heavy Medal readers have questions or musings after reading this post? Please share with us. This is also an invitation to discuss Best Friends, which I find painful to read (just like Real Friends) but incredibly effective and resonant.

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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 roxannefeldman@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. We have talked here before about whether the ALA needs a “total package” type award and I think Shannon Hale made a good case for why it is challenging to separate the pictures and the text. I wonder what changes will be made in the future, whether it is adding another award or rethinking the current system to allow more diverse formats to be more consistently rewarded.

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      I think the Sibert Award is the “total package” since it goes to the author and illustrator and takes design elements into account (alas, the designer is still left out). Of course, it is for an informational book, not fiction. It also is an endowed award, which likely made it easier to establish. I think there is some reluctance to establish any new book awards within ALA, particularly at the youth end. While the Newbery and Caldecott certainly give ALSC prominence and generate some income with award seal sales, the books awards take a lot of resources to administer. The world, at large, is interested in them, too. So, the association has to field a lot of calls and requests for information from outside the library and education worlds. It is an association for library service, not just book awards.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    It was great to have this post. Thanks.

    While I recognize the difficulty graphic novels pose for the Newbery, I would be wary of a total package approach that allowed unrestricted consideration of visual elements. I would hate to get into a situation where something like El Deafo is handicapped because it doesn’t look like Gareth Hinds. In the past, I’d always advocated an interpretation of the Criteria like: you must consider these Critera, but that doesn’t mean you must only consider these Criteria. But if we allowed visual elements, I think I would favor the stricter interpretation of “only consider these Criteria” so that you could look at how the visuals present information, develop plot, delineate character, etc. But you could not, for example, consider “excellence of execution” the way the Caldecott does.

    Also, I think even with a total package approach, you have to eliminate consideration of elements that could change across editions. For example, someone suggested this summer, RONAN BOYLE AND THE BRIDGE OF RIDDLES, and I agree it’s pretty awesome. It has a number of illustrations which I would argue should not be considered, even under a “total package” approach. Why? Ronan Boyle is a Harry Potter-like book, and I think of all the editions of Harry Potter with different degrees of different illustrations. Even books with illustrations that are closely identified with them should not have the visuals considered. Alice has gone through many visual interpretations despite the strong association with Tenniel. Or consider Mouse and his Child or Many Moons. Before I’d be comfortable with considering visuals in a Newbery, I’d need to be almost certain the visuals are untouchable. I do think with graphic novels, the visuals are close to untouchable, but who knows? Star Wars was visually “enhanced” decades later (and arguably that version is less distinguished). Who is to say what will happen with classic graphic novels 20 years from now?

  3. After Shannon’s responses here and reading both Kari & Leonard’s comments, it actually strengthened my own conviction that the Newbery manual does not have to change for the Newbery Committee members to be able to evaluate graphic novels written and illustrated by two different creators. I agree with Leonard that “you could look at how the visuals present information, develop plot, delineate character, etc.” as part of the “text” — as I commented on last fall when citing Scott McCloud how we can “read” the panels, layouts, images, etc. as part of the text. Leonard, I still have to think about this, “But you could not, for example, consider “excellence of execution” the way the Caldecott does.”

    Another point made in Shannon’s response to my questions is how not a single book that received Newbery Award was created truly by a single person, in a locked room with no outside communication! Every book published has seen loads of revisions (I’ve seen the demonstrations by Linda Sue Park, Adam Gidwitz, and others, of how many times they revised their work based on editorial comments) with a lot of help and collaboration behind the scene. And we still award the author alone.

    All committee members have to do is to understand that the author of graphic novels is behind many of the choices for setting, character development, theme delineation, all that the critieria document calls to be examined and evaluate the book as a whole based on those elements without constantly wringing their hands over “uncertainty” of who did what. We don’t wring our hands over a truly impactful ending by thinking, “Wait, what if this was not the original ending by the author but a 2nd or 5th revised ending upon the editor’s suggestions?” (Which happens quite often in the publishing world!)

    • While I definitely think the multiple author thing is tricky and worthy of discussion, I still come back to the language in the criteria that seems to imply written words were “text” and that’s what the decisions need to primarily be based on. We can have these discussions about “what is text” and “reading” illustrated panels but they are beside the point I think. Because the way the criteria was written, and the time period in which it was written, it’s pretty clear to me that it was referring to written words. It even goes so far as to refer to “illustrations” as “other aspects.”

      That’s been my hang up. Not that someone couldn’t argue around the table, certain elements found in the text and illustrations successfully. It could be done. I just think it’s tricky because of that language.

      This was a fascinating post, btw! Not sure it’s done much to change my perspective though, one way or another.

      • I think this is where I land – I enjoy the argument that the pictures are read as text but I can never be quite convinced of it matching the criteria.

    • I understand the unwillingness to give up text as purely words one sees on the page, and still could continue arguing that there are many factors, especially pacing and emotional impact, created with the words but not something that is actually “within” the lines. When we read between-the-lines and find excellence in style, tone, theme delineation, etc. we are not merely examining the words alone. We are examining what the words have created for the reading experience. Could we consider such creation by the combination of words and all other elements we see in a graphic novel? It is a total leap, of faith, or, away from traditional definitions.

      That said — could we appreciate the text, alone, in Best Friends? I think we actually can. And what a feat to be both brutally honest and gently reassuring of life-experiences for the target audience: tween readers!

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        Roxanne asks if we can “appreciate the text, alone, in Best Friends,” and I think we can (assuming we’re talking about text as words for now, not the broader definition of text). But it’s so different from the prose in LINE TENDER or THE LOST GIRL. Character Shannon’s is always so much the voice of that 6th grade girl, with no trace of a reflecting adult’s insights. It places the reader completely into her shoes…we’re as confused about things as she is, and try to figure it out with her. The action seems natural and real, but at the same time it’s carefully structured, with nuance and tension and themes that build.

        Like the sequence from p100-111: She learns that valentines are babyish (“They’re voting to not get candy? What’s the matter with them?”); she gets inspired to learn about Christa McAuliffe; then tries to puzzle out the significance of “going together” (“I kinda thought that maybe, probably, I wasn’t the kind of girl that boys like”); words and pictures present the constant advice she gets about “how a girl was supposed to be,” followed by her logical conclusions about the importance of being beautiful and liked by boys. A few pages later there’s the chilling scene where she goes from “Boys were confusing” to “Sometimes boys were scary” as older guys in a car back up and start to follow her as she walks (110). The language isn’t eloquent or sophisticated, and illustrations do provide some of the content (the car scene, plus a funny/sad wordless sequence with Seventeen Magazine and a mirror). But the dialogue and narration are just packed with insights and emotions that are woven in throughout the book. In so many books the themes either not clearly expressed in a way that young readers will fully grasp them….or that they’re so obviously hammered home that the impact is lessened. In this case I think the themes are right at the level to strongly resonate with the intended audience.

      • Steven, this is a great explanation on how a skilled writer presents her character, by allowing the reader to experience the world through them instead of being told how they should feel, as seemed to happen a lot in some of the books I read this year, COYOTE SUNRISE.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    I had alluded to this before, but how would you evaluate the substantial portions of BEST FRIENDS that are taken from Hale’s actual 6th-grade writing? I understand the purpose of their inclusion, but the actual text / words are, completely understandably, not as “distinguished” as the rest. I am almost tempted to treat these sections the way I would treat extended quotations in a non-fiction biography — I might judge the appropriateness and effectiveness of the author’s selections, but not the actual words since they are not the author’s. (Obviously, duh, they are the author’s in a sense, but 6th-grade Shannon is not the author whose book we are evaluating.) But I’m uncertain whether this makes sense and would like to know how others “read” those sections.

    • I would pretty much treat these segments as one would treat documents/photographs in a nonfiction — just whether they are effective to illustrate the particular character’s traits. I think the placement of the content that reflects the mood of Shannon is just right and demonstrates her talent as a budding writer and writing fantasy as a way to escape the confusion of real life extremely well. Would that solve the problem?

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