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Find more Navigating Newbery
A picture book winning the Newbery is a rarity. In its 100 years, only two picture books have been awarded the prize: in 1982, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, by Nancy Willard and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen; and in 2016, Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Though historically the wider expectation is that the award honors a novel, there’s nothing in the Newbery eligibility criteria that explicitly bars picture books from winning—the medal recognizes “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” and later specifies, “‘The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text.” While picture books might not be the norm, they do, by and large, have text. But how could that text be considered “primarily” in a format notable for its artwork? That picture books don’t often win the Newbery is not, I’d argue, a reflection of the word’s overall superiority to a picture; rather, it’s a reflection of a shift in how our culture reads and absorbs information on the whole, moving from an idea of literature that favors words to one with a more fluid understanding of what constitutes text.
A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, the first picture book winner, illustrates an older conception of the role of artwork in a book for children. The Provensens’ paintings—antique-looking spreads with period clothes, copious animals, and cutaway views of the eponymous building—serve a more decorative function. Willard’s lilting and odd poems (which are notably quite long) echo the rhythms of William Blake’s romantic poetry, and the strange and imaginative circumstances described in the verses are just the ticket for daydreamy, creative children—and, importantly, they have a singular charm that doesn’t need the artwork to come across. Undoubtedly, the Provensens’ contributions elevate the whimsy of the book as a whole, but they’re not necessary for grasping the poems themselves. Grasping those poems is, of course, only part of the experience of reading the book, but given that the award foremost honors text, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, which in many ways feels more like an illustrated book of poems than a picture book, is in keeping with prior decades of Newbery Medal winners.
Even in Last Stop on Market Street, recognizably a picture book by today’s standards, it’s possible to tease apart Robinson’s cheerful collage illustrations from the words. The evocative, concise lines vividly describe the events of the story, which mostly doesn’t need the artwork to communicate what’s happening. There’s really only one moment when the illustrations must fill in a gap in the words: at one point, CJ enviously watches as some older boys share a pair of earbuds—“I wish I had one of those,” he says—and readers will need Robinson’s artwork to understand what “one of those” means.
And yet, even though we could make a case for the text standing away from the artwork, should we? Even de la Peña himself acknowledges how important the artwork is to the book as a whole: in his Newbery acceptance speech, he said, “it wasn’t until I saw the words transposed over Christian Robinson’s soulful and whimsical art that I first wondered—secretly, of course—if we might’ve made something special.” Robinson’s artwork does a lot of heavy lifting in Last Stop; it almost exclusively depicts the setting, mostly a bus through a diverse neighborhood, which speaks volumes about the community where CJ and his grandmother live, and the bright colors and gentle faces of the figures go a long way in establishing an open and guileless tone to the book. It’s difficult to imagine this existing without Robinson’s now iconic artwork, and if a different illustrator took on the task, it could potentially alter the emotional tenor of de la Peña’s lines. What counts as “the text,” then, if changing one component could so deeply affect the story’s ultimate meaning?
This is a complicated question for a picture book, but a later nontraditional Newbery winner—Jerry Craft’s New Kid (2019), the first graphic novel to win the medal—can illuminate some of the ways a wider understanding of what constitutes text has changed over the past century. In the case of a graphic novel, it’s much easier to argue that the art is the text. Fundamental to a graphic novel’s format is the artwork communicating the narrative. Even in the presence of written dialogue and voice-overs in speech or thought balloons, a graphic novel’s artwork is inextricable from the storytelling: facial expressions, body language, page layouts, negative space, font choices, color palettes, and so on firmly establish tone and characterization as well as plot. Indeed, the criteria by which Newbery committee members are expected to evaluate eligible titles include “development of a plot,” “delineation of characters,” and “delineation of setting,” all of which are conveyed primarily by the artwork in graphic novels’ visual lexicon.
It’s true that a picture book is not a graphic novel (or, at the very least, the line separating them is extremely fuzzy), but illustration in a picture book can accomplish much of what artwork does in a graphic novel. In Last Stop, an argument could be made that Robinson’s collages are what more firmly establish the tone and setting than the words, but more crucially, they present another avenue through which to read and absorb the story. From the perspective of the book’s target audience—that is, children who either can’t or are only just beginning to independently read written words—the artwork in Last Stop is another component to read in its own way. Robinson’s artwork in particular, with its simplified forms and facial expressions composed of dots and lines, relies on an understanding of abstract visual markers to signal meaning. These marks, like letters and words, require a level of literacy and communicate important story components to the audience, and for preliterate children engaging with a picture book, decoding those images for meaning can be just as satisfying as sounding out and understanding a word. And, it should be said, such marks require just as much careful craft as an artfully composed sentence.
It’s important to note that reading pictures in this way isn’t some stepping stone toward “higher” literacy; reading words, as well as the interplay between words and images, just adds another layer of understanding to visual literacy. In our visually oriented culture, in which images, infographics, diagrams, and symbols are embedded into what we read and absorb every day, communicating ideas and concepts rarely happens only in words, even for adult readers; is it any surprise that the children’s books we recognize as “a distinguished contribution to American literature” would reflect that reality?
Newbery-winning books like Last Stop and New Kid might not align with the expectations about older winners, but that’s well and good. The Newbery has had 100 years to grow and change, and to the extent that winning titles are reflective of the periods in which they were selected, contemporary picks like these demonstrate the power of words and pictures working in concert as a singular text, a text representative of our contemporary, multifaceted understanding of how we read and learn.
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