21 December 2009

What We Learned from Pedro and Me

In a look back at the last decade of children’s publishing at Fuse #8, Betsy Bird wrote of graphic novels as one major trend, stating at the outset:

I’m not saying there weren’t graphic novels in libraries in 1999. What I’m saying is that there weren’t half as many as you might find now. The reason for the change? I’m still trying to figure that out.
Here’s a hypothesis to test.

The breakthrough “graphic novel” in libraries’ teen collections was Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss and What I Learned, by Judd Winick, published in 2000. Of course, it wasn’t a novel. It was, like many other top examples of the form, a memoir. And at that moment in publishing it was unstoppable.

To start with, because Pedro and Me had its roots in MTV’s The Real World series, it came with a mass audience. Though that season of the show had first aired six years earlier, the network had rerun the episodes, and millions of people remembered Pedro Zamora. Probably young librarians remembered Pedro Zamora. Many teens wanted to read his story.

More important, traditional objections to literature in comics form didn’t apply to Pedro and Me. It wasn’t escapist fantasy, the form that has dominated mass-market American comics. (Winick hadn’t yet started writing for DC Comics, where among other things he’s brought the third Robin back to life.)

In fact, the story of Pedro and Me was all too real. It carried serious and important messages of tolerance, safer sex (without being sexually explicit), and dealing with death. As Publishers Weekly reported in 2000, the book is “both a heartfelt account of Winick’s friendship with Zamora and also a source of frank and accurate AIDS awareness information.” How could any librarian or educator stand between that book and teens simply because it was in comics form?

Pedro and Me came through editor Marc Aronson, already respected as a champion and practitioner of good nonfiction for young people. It was published by an old and established press, Henry Holt, rather than part of the strange, separate comics industry. Aronson was candid about the struggle to figure out how to edit and publish the book, as in this article in Publishers Weekly:
Aronson cited Pedro and Me by Judd Winick, a graphic-novel/memoir released last month that discusses AIDS, as an example of a YA title that is crossing the typical genre boundaries. . . . “Right down to sales conference our sales force could not decide where to sell Judd’s book, in the adult catalogue or the children’s,” he said. “We felt strongly that it should be marketed as an older YA title,” as it was.
That helped position Pedro and Me as an exceptional book in comics form—the one “graphic novel” a collection needed to have, the one comic that serious people had to pay attention to even though it was full of pictures.

Pedro and Me came out with starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and School Library Journal. It started racking up listings, nominations, and awards:
  • Publishers Weekly Best Book
  • Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Best in Children’s Literature
  • Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Honor Award (the winner that year was Aronson himself for Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado)
  • Notable Children’s Book Selection, American Library Association
  • YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers
  • Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon Award
I’m leaving out the “special interest” awards for books in comics form, books on Latino subjects, and books on gay subjects not because they aren’t important but because this is all about how Pedro and Me became a necessary choice for the mainstream.

And once the field recognized Winick’s Pedro and Me as a powerful, important book that spoke to readers in a new way, people were eager to look at other books in the comics form.

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