Tomorrow morning, the American Library Association will announce the Youth Media Awards honorees. These awards include the Caldecott medal, the Coretta Scott King Book awards, and the John Newbery Medal. The Newbery medal is awarded each January to the book judged to be the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" from the previous year, and for those of us who work with young readers, it launches a yearlong journey to find the winner. Each year, as the notable and buzzy titles begin to surface, there is usually one that stands above the others, and each subsequent title is compared to it as the standard. Many times a latecomer knocks off a long-standing preference, but sometimes, there is one that endures and remains a fervent favorite. That title, for me, is New Kid by Jerry Craft.
A little context: New Kid is a graphic novel. A graphic novel, while easily the most popular genre among young readers, has never won the Newbery medal, though Cece Bell's El Deafo and Victoria Jamieson's Rollergirl received honor designations in 2015 and 2016, respectively. There are adults who dislike the format, perhaps because of its association with comic books. Most adults in the kidlit world, however, see its merit and celebrate the way it meets so many young readers right where they are. So why not the medal?
It's complicated. Though the criteria speak to "presentation" and "style," award committees have traditionally considered the text alone. Accompanying images, page design, or other stylistic decisions would not be factored in. In a graphic novel, however, the presentation and style are uniquely tied to the visual experience on the page. To be considered, therefore, the text of a graphic novel must demonstrate "conspicuous excellence," AND it must provide a coherent and engaging visual experience. Jerry Craft has done exactly that.
The New Kid here is seventh-grader Jordan Banks, starting at a swanky new private school instead of the art school he'd been hoping for. His parents want him to give it a try, even though they are not blind to the challenges he will likely face. And face them he does. But not at all in the tired ways you might be imagining. Yes, there are issues of race and class, and Craft has mastered the art of handling a difficult subject with just the right weight. Not too light, but not so heavy as to feel unreal. Most kids experience difficult things, and most kids also laugh and draw and play video games with friends and crack terrible jokes. Both are true. And the hits are real. Nobody gets a pass. The publishing industry, librarians, teachers, parents, even the book fair! For the most part, however, the dings are delivered in such a way that you can feel corrected without feeling attacked.
The real significance of the book is in the content. But the visuals - they take the story to another level. Each chapter's heading is a literary or pop culture allusion plus some word play plus a movie poster, and each one is perfect. Like the best animated movies that parents can love as much as their kids, New Kid shows off some significant intelligence and wit without ever feeling inaccessible to the intended audience. Rereading uncovered even more gems, like the boy with the headphones that keeps showing up in the background, each time talking to a different girl. We all know that kid. And the way I can't stop thinking about how Andy's tie is often flying over his shoulder a la Dilbert. The panels where Jordan describes codeswitching via the bus. And the way Drew both teaches us a lesson and breaks our hearts when he says, "I'm starting not to care what Ms. Rawle thinks. She's never going to like me anyway. So I might as well give her what she wants, right?" Powerful.
It's a very fine book. It is a book of considerable distinction, and it gets my vote for the Newbery Medal. Now, let's just see if the committee agrees.
Despite Aesop's best efforts, the story of "The Tortoise and the Hare" does little to glamorize the steadiness it aims to celebrate. Sure, the Tortoise wins the race, but everyone knows he's dull, and the only reason he comes in first is because the Hare is pompous and foolhardy. We do not wish to identify with Tortoise; we wish to be the smarter, more focused version of Hare.
Similarly, nature provides us numerous examples of impact over time - the way a stream of water can cut wide swaths into rock or the way the steady accretion of drops can create dripstone formations that boggle the senses. Still, who among us wants to watch a stalagmite form?
Forgive then this inadequate effort to celebrate the quiet accumulation of Ann Patchett novels among my collection. Patchett is a writer of greatness, reliable and steady and persistently good. If I regularly forget how much I appreciate her skill, the fault is entirely mine. (Some consolation, perhaps, that Eudora Welty has suffered the same fate in my meager recollection?) The Dutch House, however, may have changed that forgetfulness for good.
The Dutch House is about family, about siblings, about the countless ways in which we inflict pain upon each other and ourselves, in which we save each other and (possibly) ourselves. And oh, yes, it's about a house.
But is it really? The house is important, certainly. It reminds us of what happens when we give someone a gift that answers the desires of our own heart more than those of the supposed recipient. And it is an excellent symbol for the endurance of inherited things whether they be oil paintings or heart disease, hall tables or hair color.
The Dutch House introduces us first to young Danny Conroy and his older sister Maeve. We learn of their difficult childhood, their indifferent father, their absent mother, their calculating step-mother. Many have noted the similarities here to a classic fairy tale, but fairy tales do not afford their characters depth of experience, and Patchett certainly does. Perhaps the real magic is the way Patchett draws a rich and convincing character like Maeve while withholding so much critical information about her. Because we see her through her brother's adoring eyes, we know the image must be partial in both senses of the word, but we admire her all the same. We don't understand her, but we - like Danny - rely upon her.
Maeve is the story-teller, the truth-revealer. In the middle of the book, Maeve finally tells Danny the whole story of their father bringing Maeve and their mother to The Dutch House for the first time. This short section is brilliant, especially in its depiction of the class tensions present within the upwardly mobile. The whole scene is finely drawn and terribly uncomfortable, and then Maeve closes the story with an amazing line: "Our father was a man who had never met his own wife." And we are left to turn the page, still wanting to know more.
Like the person on the street who can see through the large glass panels into The Dutch House, we know our understanding of these characters is incomplete. But we look all the same, each time hoping to learn a bit more. The details - like the novels of Patchett themselves - accumulate slowly, and this accumulation is a thing to be celebrated.
The Dutch House is one of 16 longlisted titles being considered for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction. For the full list, click here. The shortlist of 6 will be announced on April 22. The prize is announced on June 3. For other reviewed titles on the longlist, see below:
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson