Amherst, MA—The graphic novel is arguably the single most exciting new development in illustrated literature for children and teens in a generation. As pioneers of a rapidly-evolving art form, graphic novelists explore the vast middle ground between the picture book and text-only narrative. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art debuts its first exhibition on the topic, Out of the Box: The Graphic Novel Comes of Age, on February 10. It will remain on view through May 26, 2019. Curated by children's book historian Leonard S. Marcus, the exhibition examines the graphic novel genre through a close look at ten poignant coming-of-age stories by Vera Brosgol, Catia Chien, Geoffrey Hayes, Hope Larson, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Matt Phelan, David Small, Raina Telgemeier, Sara Varon, and Gene Luen Yang.
"The coming-of-age story has long been fertile ground for the literature of preteens and teens," says Marcus. "It was only natural then that the graphic novel for young readers would often concern itself with a theme already so firmly embedded in young people's lives." The ten graphic novels featured in Out of the Box explore the often confusing and painful journey from childhood to adulthood. "Novel" is somewhat of a misnomer as graphic novels frequently address real-life events. Two haunting examples are Jarrett J. Krosoczka's Hey Kiddo (2018) and David Small's Stitches: A Memoir (2009). Krosoczka lays bare his adolescence with an incarcerated mother, an absent father, and two strong-willed grandparents. In stark monochrome, Small gives an unsparing account of a dysfunctional family and a devastating cancer diagnosis. Raina Telgemeier's Smile (2010) and Vera Brosgol's Be Prepared (2018) are also autobiographical stories from the artists' childhoods, told with empathy and humor for younger audiences. Telgemeier reaches deep into the emotional well of her own coming-of-age years to tell a tale of physical transformation, social distress, and self-discovery, while Brosgol recalls a pivotal summer spent at a sleep-away camp for Russian-American children. In all four books, the young protagonists' proclivity for art provides safe refuge from chaotic familial and social situations.
Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese (2006) follows Jin Wang, the only Chinese American student in his middle school, as he grapples with his identity and heritage. Yang caricatures--in order to disarm--hateful stereotypes in this ingeniously layered story. Hope Larson's 2012 adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's classic science fiction novel A Wrinkle in Time gives potent visual form to Meg Murry and her quest to find her father and save her brother. In Bluffton: My Summer with Buster (2017), Matt Phelan presents a wistful account from the early life of silent film star Buster Keaton. In contrast to most artists in the exhibition, Phelan rejects digital imagery in favor of traditional watercolor applied with a painterly lyricism. Sara Varon's New Shoes (2018) is a heartwarming graphic novel for young readers. Set in Guyana, New Shoes is an idiosyncratic animal fable about friendship, devotion to craft, and the courage it takes to venture into wild, unknown terrain alone for the first time.
The Carle is proud to present two never-before-seen stories in the exhibition. Lovo and the Firewolf was to be Geoffrey Hayes's long anticipated breakout book: his headlong leap into long-form comics and darker imaginative territory. At his untimely death in 2018, he had completed a pencil version and had inked, colored, and lettered the first chapter. The opening sequence on view represents the first public showing of the work that is sure to be judged as Hayes's masterpiece. Catia Chien created the vibrant, mixed-media art for Animals expressly for Out of the Box. It represents the first chapter of a work in progress, a graphic novel with text by her husband, the poet Michael Belcher, titled This Tenderness in the Attending. The story concerns a young person's deepening awareness of death and its role in the natural order.
Out of the Box is an exhibition The Carle has long contemplated. "As stewards of a museum dedicated to picture books," says executive director Alexandra Kennedy, "The Carle's staff has cheered on the creation of comics for young readers and pre-readers. When Leonard S. Marcus, a trustee at The Carle, began researching his book Comics Confidential: Thirteen Graphic Novelists Talk Story, Craft, and Life Outside the Box (2016), we knew we had the right curator."
In addition to curating the exhibition, Marcus also wrote the catalog essay, in which he succinctly traces the history of the graphic novel and its rise in popular culture. Marcus states, "The graphic novel-comic is a hardy hybrid, a global phenomenon, and an art for our time. It is a narrative format whose roots reach back centuries and span continents, a teller of tales that have generated huge fan bases and at times spirals of controversy."
Out of the Box features a reading area with more than 100 graphic novels for guests to peruse. A timeline traces the evolution of graphic novels with examples of groundbreaking books, comics, zines, and manga. A gallery activity titled The Story Board invites guests to create a short graphic novel or contribute drawings to a community-generated tale.
Marcus notes that graphic novel artists have pushed the boundaries of the form over the last 25 years: "Beyond the accolades, the value of the books can be measured in many ways and can hardly be overstated. The genre's cross-generational appeal has shown that as readers we do not (as was long supposed) outgrow the need--or love--for stories told in words and pictures."
Out of the Box: The Graphic Novel Comes of Age is made possible with generous support from Macmillan Children's Publishing Group and Scholastic, Inc.
Image: Geoffrey Hayes, Illustration for Lovo and the Firewolf (unfinished). © 2017 Geoffrey Hayes. Used by permission of Edite Kroll Literary Agency Inc.