22 April 2008

What “Agonized ‘Arts & Ideas’ Articles”?

Earlier this month Dan Kois gave New York magazine a catch-up review of two novels for kids that have already been on the bestseller and awards lists for months: Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid volumes.

Kois linked those books to yet a third set of successful kids' books with lots of art: manga, and comics-style books in general. And then he tried to expand the whole thing into Significance by calling all this "the incursion of comics into 'respectable' children’s fiction."

Kois is quite right that "for typical young-teen readers, graphic storytelling [i.e., comics] is now as familiar a language as traditional chapter books." But I think only the manga fit the comics form. I've already made my case that the graphic elements of Hugo Cabret work differently from the graphic elements of comics, more like the images of cinema.

As for the art in the Wimpy Kid volumes, there's a lot more of it than in a typical middle-grade novel, but it functions in a traditional way. Kinney's drawings usually comment and supplement his text but don't replace it. The pictures have more in common with single-panel gag cartoons than with "sequential art." In number and style, the Wimpy Kid illustrations don't fit the usual model of an illustrated children's novel, but they're a lot closer than Kois's other examples.

I appreciate the scarequotes that Kois put into his phrase "'respectable' children's fiction." At the same time, I think he wildly overstated the walls around that respectability when he concluded that:

Cabret and Wimpy Kid [are] books whose success might ten years ago have provoked agonized “Arts & Ideas” articles about the debasement of children’s literature.
Yes, given its style of art and humor, Wimpy Kid would probably be seen as "product" in nearly any era (including, perhaps, ours)--not that it debases anything. But I find it hard to imagine that Hugo Cabret would have raised eyebrows very high, much less "agonized" folks in the field of children's literature, ten or even twenty or thirty years ago.

Hugo Cabret is, after all, historical fiction. It comments on Art. It ends with a sense of hope (more hope than poor Greg Heffley enjoys). It's the sort of story for children that has always won admiring reviews and awards, and the fact that it contains pretty pictures that can also be analyzed as Art only increases its "respectability."

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