Meet the Panelists: Graphic Novels Roundtable

Having been part of the Graphic Novels category myself in previous years, I can attest that it's always an adventure discussing what makes a quality nominee, and sometimes, what makes a graphic novel a graphic novel! Thanks to GN category organizer Snow Wildsmith of Good Comics for Kids, we're getting a sneak peek into what the nominating and judging panelists really think–read on to find out who prefers Bone, who likes American Born Chinese, and who wishes they had the superpower to turn invisible!

What do you think makes a great graphic novel for kids and teens? Is it the art, the story, both? What are some examples of great kids and teen graphic novels?

Gina MarySol Ruiz (Cuentecitos, AmoXcalli): What makes a graphic novel great for kids and teens?  The same thing
that makes them great for adults.  Story, story, story.  It's fine to
have beautiful art, and some of it out there is astounding but if it
doesn't help tell the story, then it's just pretty pictures.  A great
graphic novel tells a compelling tale, using illustration and words to
complement each other, but words aren't always necessary.  The
illustrations alone can be evocative enough to let the reader know
exactly what is going on. 

The sequence is important as well.  Does
that novel seem disjointed?  Then it's probably not so good.  I say
probably because I've seen graphic novels that deliberately mess with
sequence to get their story across.  In the end, it boils down to
telling a darned good story. A few examples of what I think are great kids and teens graphic
novels:  The Arrival, Korgi, Amelia Rules, and American Born Chinese.

Paula Willey (Pink Me): The best graphic novels feel like movies–you are watching and listening (reading) at the same time, without feeling a) talked at or b) lost in a confused swirl of images. I think it takes an unbelievable amount of skill to write a script for a graphic novel. Pace is important, and movement, and setting–more so in graphic novels than in all-text novels.

I look at it like this: if I am recalling a scene in a graphic novel, and I can't remember whether the narrative was spelled out explicitly in the text, or acted out in the art… that is a successful graphic novel. 

David Elzey (The Excelsior File): For kids, the thing that makes a graphic novel great is that it opens up the language of the comics medium; it builds on the story-picture interaction that begins with picture books, and adds a new layer to the experience. Sara Varon's Robot Dreams does this well, inviting the reader to fill in the emotional dialog between the dog, the robot, and their desire for friendship. Then, of course, one cannot dismiss Tintin for the rollicking adventure of it all.

For teens, I'm looking at story first, then art, because if the story's not there then it's often nothing more than a prop for illustrations. The Cultural Trinity–Spiegelman's Maus, Satrapi's Persepolis, and Yang's American Born Chinese–are probably required reading by now for teens, but I think Tezuka's eight-volume Buddha is brilliant.

Gail Gauthier (Original Content): My impression of graphic novels that I really liked (American Born Chinese and the first volume of Buddha, both of which David mentioned) is that the images take the place of the narrative. They truly are showing us the setting and the action. So that's how I've been defining a good graphic novel, myself. I'm looking for that to happen and not for the images to act as illustrations that don't carry a lot of the weight of the story. 

Liz Jones (Liz Jones Books): From my perspective, an excellent story, regardless of age or genre, has two things–a thought-provoking tale to tell and an engaging style that sucks the reader in and doesn't let go. I want to still be thinking about the characters and events a week after I've read the book–that's what tells me I've read something really good.

In graphic novels, the writer/illustrator has more options for presentation than someone writing a straight YA or midgrade novel would. The thing I love most about graphic novels is this flexibility in story presentation. From Babymouse to Bone to Persepolis, there's a graphic style for almost any topic and age of reader.

Betsy Bird (A Fuse #8 Production): When I look at a graphic novel I like to examine how well the story works within the comic format. Does the artist use a lot of different shifts in perspective? How are their storytelling skills? Do they rely on pretty art to make up for mediocre writing, or is the writing equal with the visual elements? A great GN is a mix of both the literary and the artistic, creating a whole new product.

A great example of this might be The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Now there's a book that couldn't be anything OTHER than a graphic novel. Give it even one line of dialogue and it falls apart like confetti.

Stacy Dillon (Booktopia): For the younger folks, accessibility is key, and I think that the artwork is the first hook for them. Babymouse is wildly popular with the younger kids at my school. The bright colors and cute factor of the Magic Trixie books have them flying off the shelf as well. There are many younger readers who only read the pictures in the GNs, even though they are capable of reading the text.

My favorite for the older of the younger is the Amelia Rules series. The storytelling is smart, and the artwork is truly funny. For YAs, the story is essential. Books like Blankets, American Born Chinese, Shutterbug Follies wouldn't be half as good without amazing storytelling.

Sam Musher (Parenthetical): One thing I want to add is that comics can be akin to television, in the best possible way. Since the story depends so much on images, comics feel more cinematic than novels. And because of the shorter length and publishing schedule of serial comics, they can have the same episodic feel as a great TV show like Buffy, in which stories can be enjoyed individually, but plot and characters build and deepen over time. Jeff Smith's Bone and Brian K. Vaughan's Runaways are excellent examples of this. Serial dramas are so popular with teens (and adults!), and good comics can tap into that same appeal.

In the spirit of superhero comics, if you could have any superpower what would it be?

Liz: My favorite has always been Buckaroo Banzai. He got to do everything he wanted to–the physicist, the physician, the musician, the pilot, the adventurer. I want to be him when I grow up.

Betsy: I'd like a weird one. The power to speak to people with the voice that they hear when they're reading a book. You know how when you read a book the words read in your head in a voice other than your own? That would be my power.

Sam: I want to be able to talk to public transportation. "Hey, train! Wait up!" "Is there a bus coming soon, or should I walk?" Sure, that's kind of a lame superpower, but it would improve my life significantly. And more importantly, it avoids the whole saving-the-world-from-supervillains angst of your more traditional superheroes. I mean, who would my arch-nemesis be? Hummer Man?

Stacy: The ability to be invisible! I am a bit of a nosy person, and being able to gather information on the sly is very appealing!

David: I'm not big on heroes or hero worship–I sort of think the concept is detrimental to a society's well-being–so I guess in that spirit I would ask for the power to inflict Patience and Open-Mindedness on self-righteous evildoers. Don't imagine that I wouldn't have to stand in the mirror every now and then and give myself a dose of my own medicine. As a superhero, I mean.

Paula: As for superpowers–see, nobody realizes what a burden superpowers are until they have some. I try to keep mine a secret, but if I had one more, I would like to be able to emit that sonic thing that makes mosquitos and rodents flee the locality. Rats in the compost–eeeurghh.

Gina: If I had a superpower it would be a toss-up between the power to magically
make needed books appear in childrens' homes, libraries and schools and
the power to inspire everyone to love reading.

I know we can all agree with that. Many thanks to Snow and the Graphic Novels nominating and judging panelists for educating us as well as letting us in on their secret superpower wishes!

–Sarah Stevenson, Deputy Editor