Cathy Camper “gets” kids. She’s an author, illustrator, and librarian with a pulse on children’s literature.
Above all, she’s an avid yet discerning reader.
Cathy, what’s right about childrens literature?
Graphic novels! When the concept of graphic novels emerged in the 1980s and 90s, childrens publishers raced to jump on the bandwagon. There was much confusion about how graphic novels and comics differed, (there still is!), and lots of children’s publishers slapped together horrible comics compilations, or cartoon stories that read like B-grade Classics Illustrated comics, just to get something out there they could call a graphic novel. Shrewder children’s publishers, who had a deeper understanding of how illustrated stories worked, bankrolled their futures by hiring talented illustrators and writers in both the adult and children’s comics field to create full-length children’s works. They also scoped out books that were successful in Europe and Asia for translation and reissue in the U.S.
But good art takes time, sometimes decades, especially when an artist is committed to several projects at once. Now, twenty to thirty years later, this investment has paid off. Many of the graphic novels published today are amazing. Publishers like First Second are releasing original works and translations of high quality. Francoise Mouly’s Toon Books have come up with one of the freshest innovations in easy readers in decades —comics with a limited vocabulary. Mouly also imported from comics another innovation to the world of kids’ books. She encourages writer/illustrator partners to create together, recognizing this kind of creative collaboration is often richer and more fruitful than an editor-assigned partnership. Innovative authors and illustrators are also exploring the variety of just what a graphic novel can be. Books like Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, The Arrival by Shaun Tan and Mo Willems We Are in a Book all stretch the meaning of what a book is, and enhance literacy skills by demanding readers read the book’s images as well as the text.
And finally, young creators, who grew up reading graphic novels, can now major in the creation of these same books in art school. Its an exciting time to be creating, reading, and watching the graphic novel as it finds its place in American literature.
2. What can be done to make that good better?
While women and people of color are breaking down barriers and finding a voice in a field that was formerly limited to mainly white males, there is a sad lack of graphic novels for kids of color, especially graphic novels starring kids of non-white backgrounds.
For example, this is glaringly true when trying to find graphic novels for young black readers. Three recent titles, all of them good, make my point. Yummy; The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by Greg Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke, fascinates middle-schoolers with its true tale of an eleven-year-old murderer but, in doing so, it also reiterates many of the stereotypes about black males perpetuated on the nightly news. African American Classics edited by Tom Pomplun pairs classic African-American writers with comics illustrators, but its historical content (including the use of dialect) place it more in the realm of a school book than a pleasure read. Best Shot in the West; the Adventures of Nat Love by Pat McKissack, illustrated by Randy DuBurke seems like it should be a winner, telling the tale of the famous African American cowboy also known as Deadwood Dick. Sadly, DuBurke’s illustrations lack the immediacy of the work he did for Yummy. Readers rarely make eye-contact with Love’s face, (even on the cover of the book), distancing them emotionally from their subject, as if reading about historical ghosts, not flesh and blood cowboys. The technique might work for an adult book, but young readers need a more visceral connect.
While all three individually are high-quality books, without graphic novels showing regular kids of color doing regular things, they create their own stereotypes, limiting the role people of color play to either troublemakers or remote historical role models.
I think of kids of color I see choosing graphic novels at the library, for example, the middle school Somali girls voraciously reading their way through manga series like Fruits Basket. And I ask myself when will we see Diary of a Wimpy Kid starring someone wearing a hijab? No, really! My hope is, when these kids grow up, maybe a few of them will create a brilliant new form of Somali-manga, an exciting merging of comics and non-white experience that could only happen in America. I, for one, can’t wait to read it.
Cathy Camper wrote Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives, a nonfiction book that opens big possibilities for readers. She is a person with many hats: musician, robot artist, author, librarian, award-winning seed artist, reviewer, and reader. Learn more at www.cathycamper.com.
Before someone predicts the end of YA literature, realize that doom has to battle Terri Evans.
You may not catch her with a mask and cape. However, Terri hasn’t given up. The teacher-turned-media specialist fights the good fight for books…and readers. That makes her a superhero in my book.
Terri, what’s right right now about children’s literature?
I spent twenty-five plus years teaching high school English. At the time, I was a believer in the “classics” and a vocal advocate for their value in the classroom and in the culture. I was raised on them after all, and To Kill a Mocking bird was my very favorite book! Then I went back to school at the same time that the Young Adult book world was beginning to burgeon. I soon began my career as a Library Media Specialist in a large, diverse, suburban high school. I was immediately concerned about the small number of teens who were reading. I realized right off that my own reading and marketing of books was going to be critical if I was going to get them reading. In the past seven years, my feelings about the “classics” have changed as a result of reading and marketing young adult books. We have new “classics” and a new cultural literacy thanks to the myriad of great Young Adult writers publishing today. As a result, our circulation has doubled from where we began six years earlier.
Don’t let anyone tell you that teens aren’t reading. Give them a good book, and they will come! And good books there are – in abundance. J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins—all authors of “popular” literature series—are partly to thank. They hooked kids (and adults) on series books that they could talk about together, then sold the movie rights, and made readers hungry for more. Who in our culture hasn’t at least heard of Harry Potter, Twilight, and now The Hunger Games? Once they were hooked, readers came back for more fantasy, vampire fiction, and dystopian fiction – and for the classics. For example, I had several students ask for Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte because Edward and Bella read it in Twilight. In many ways, the likes of Rowling, Meyer, and Collins revolutionized the Young Adult literature world.
Other really fine young adult writers are also to thank. Authors like Sherman Alexie, John Green, Patrick Ness, Marcus Zusak, Jennifer Donnelly, and M.T. Anderson write smart, compelling books. They believe in the tenacity and intelligence of teens, and they write about things contemporary teens can relate to. The old “classics” were often written by white males about white adults and their lives. We are fortunate to have new “classic” writers who write quality literature with diverse teen protagonists who are attempting to navigate the world.
Graphic novelists are also to thank. Manga flies out of our library like there is no tomorrow, and manga then leads kids on to other things like the works of Gene Luen Yang and Brian Selznick. And this leads them to more traditional novels. My favorite example is the student who came to us in the fall of 2010 from Africa, speaking very little English. I only heard him whisper “thank-you” all year long. Despite this, he read every manga book in our library—he was our number one reader his freshman year! When he came back this past fall and came up to me and said, “How are you Mrs. Evans? Did you have a nice summer? I went home to Africa this summer,” I looked at him with my mouth agape. In that one interaction, he had spoken more words to me than he had the entire year before! This year he has ripped through the likes of Rick Riordan and Laurence Yep. He even joined our student book club! His reading and oral language have improved, as has his self-confidence. That smile, as he walks through the halls with a full-blown novel, is worth a million bucks!
Great librarians, libraries, and teachers should also be thanked. There is a plethora of outstanding literature programming and resources available to teens thanks to their tireless efforts!
The “classics”? There is certainly a place for them—but what is more important is that teens read. Period. The concept of “windows and mirrors” put forth by Peggy McIntosh is apt here. Every child deserves literature in which he or she sees himself or herself reflected. Current young adult authors do this magnificently, even for those teens who lead messy, less than ideal lives. Teens also deserve literature that allows them to look through the window into the lives of others. These experiences help them become well-rounded human beings. Many young adult writers produce work that does this admirably. Get teens reading first. The “classics” can come later.
What’s right in young adult literature? In my mind, just about everything.
What would make the “good” better?
For a start, I wish that adults would stop choosing to reward books that they feel are of “literary merit” and that kids should read because it will be good for them – books that adults end up reading and kids don’t. Those awards seem more about economics than anything, not about the intended audience. How about an award given by teens themselves, as they do in England with the Red House Children’s Book Award? The tendency to look down our noses at “popular” literature doesn’t serve us, or teens, well. I have seen the miracles that “popular” literature can wield. And I am a believer!
I also have concerns about the changes that technology is wielding on the Young Adult book world as well. It seems that teens have fewer and fewer opportunities for focused, deep reading that leads to critical thinking and opportunities for contemplation. Yes, reading on the Internet is reading, but it is shallow reading, and the technology provides teens with endless distractions that discourage sustained, complex reading. I am not in any way anti-technology, but we best at least be as aware of the consequences of technology and Internet use as we are of the benefits.
Terri Evans is a former high school English, speech, and theater teacher. Currently, she is a Young Adult Library Media Specialist. In addition, she reads voraciously, is the member of several book clubs, and is involved in many reading and library organizations including the Children’s Literature Network. Terri is also an active Goodreads contributor. A relatively new aspect of her career is writing reading guides for books by “children’s” authors such as Anita Silvey, Patrick Ness, Nina LaCour, Katherine Applegate, and Gene Luen Yang. You can learn more about Terri.
However, I think you can judge some artists by their covers.
In this case, I’m thinking Maira Kalman and her New Yorker covers.
Likewise, I was captivated by Maira’s illustrations for the new edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. Grown-up material? Why? Because Maira’s artwork is ageless. She is fun for all ages.
Of course, Maira’s illustrations in the YA gem, the Printz Award-winning Why We Broke Up, or her new picture book Looking At Lincoln (which she wrote, too) are comparable delights.
Yes, fun for all ages.
Maira, what’s right right now about children’s literature?
This is a very fresh time for children’s writing/illustrating. Unusual ideas, funny ideas, interesting illustration, artful funny illustration. Good design.
Lightness and laughter.
From your perspective, what would make that “good” better?
Allowing people with eccentric visions to realize them. But I think that is happening. Making a children’s book is a very interesting proposition.
The writing has to be sharp. The paintings meaningful. Not easy. But a good thing to think about.
Maira Kalman was born in sunny, sandy Tel Aviv, where cafés and bookstores abound. She moved to New York City and drank her first Coca-Cola. She has written and illustrated over a dozen children’s books and also creates work for the New Yorker and The New York Times. Her work is based on her life and her walks and the odd and endearing things she sees along the way. Why We Broke Up, her recent collaboration with Daniel Handler, just won the Printz Honor award.
Learn more at www.mairakalman.com
Whether as a teacher or author, Phil Bildner knows how to engage and entertain young people. Most of all, his baseball titles (both fiction and nonfiction) reflect the passion of a real fan.
Phil, what’s good about children’s literature right now?
The number of passionate and talented authors and illustrators keeps growing and growing, and the quality of work being produced keeps getting better and better. The definition of what is children’s literature is expanding as well. Graphic novels and educational apps are now as much a part of the conversation as picture books and chapter books. The opportunities for learning are boundless. We now have so many more ways to reach young readers.
What can be done to make that “good” better?
We now have so many more ways to reach young readers, but we’re not reaching all of them. Too many assume that everyone has access to technology (ebooks, smartphones, etc.) and the internet, but that’s not the case. There is still a huge digital divide in this country. There needs to be a greater awareness of this crisis. And it is a crisis. For many kids, their only access to the internet is at the local library or school. But we’re cutting library funding and making school about tests, not learning. We need to support and respect librarians and teachers. They’re on the frontlines fighting the good fight every day, making sure that everyone has the access they deserve.
Phil Bildner taught middle school history and language arts for eleven years in the New York City Public schools. He’s written numerous picture books including Shoeless Joe & Black Betsy, The Shot Heard ‘Round the World, Twenty-One Elephants, Turkey Bowl, The Hallelujah Flight, and The Unforgettable Season. He is the co-creator with Loren Long of The New York Times Bestselling middle grade chapter book serial, Sluggers. Phil visits dozens of elementary and middle schools around the country each year. To learn more about Phil, check out his website.