Danica Novgorodoff has just been named winner of the 2022 Yoto Kate Greenaway Medal for her illustrated edition of Jason Reynold’s 2019 Carnegie-shortlisted book, Long Way Down. Long Way Down is the first graphic novel to win since Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas in 1973.
Jake Hope interviewed Danica for Books for Keeps.
The studio which Danica Novgorodoff speaks from is adorned with an intriguing array of paintings and photographs, images that Danica is working on, narrative problems she is trying to solve and photographs by Sally Mann and her mentor Lois Conner. ‘My studio is a bit of a mess right now because I have two young kids and they come in and pull things off my shelves.’ Danica apologises as she takes time out to talk about her hugely affecting graphic novel reimagining of Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down, winner of the Yoto Kate Greenaway Medal 2022.
‘A lot of illustrators that I love have been shortlisted or won in the past, so it’s a real honour to be put alongside their work,’ Danica says citing Sydney Smith, Shaun Tan and winner of the Shadowers’ Choice award for 2022 with The Midnight Fair, Mariachiara Di Giorgio as favourites. ‘I love her pictures books so much, they’re so cool! Her books are wordless which is a different and exciting way to tell a story.’
Danica has been fascinated by telling stories through different media for as long as she can remember. ‘I’ve always made art since the age I could hold a crayon and I’ve always told stories even before I could write. My mum would transcribe the stories that I told her. It wasn’t until my late teens that I realised you could put the two together in the format of comics or graphic novels and create a story that way.’ Danica went to Yale where she majored in art and painting. ‘I always made very narrative paintings and wrote visually rich stories so putting them together made sense of my aesthetic.’
‘I self-published several short books, mini-comics and comics before I was published.’ One of these was A Late Freeze which Danica got professionally printed with the support of friends. ‘I was in my twenties in New York and would ride my bike around asking shops ‘will you take this book on consignment’ where you give them a book and if they sell it, you go back and collect the money. It’s a real process and a money-losing prospect, but it’s a lot of fun.’
The origins for the graphic novel edition of Long Way Down were very different. ‘I was approached by the publisher at Simon and Schuster who had published the novel originally. I knew the art director from working on a book cover project. She presented Jason with my art along with several other illustrators work and the pair decided that mine would be a good fit for the book. They approached me and I was immediately thrilled!’ Danica was aware of Jason’s work and had read several of his books but not Long Way Down. ‘They sent me a copy and I loved it.’
‘I read it several times and took notes in the margins, circling things. I wanted to decide which parts of the text to include, and which could be represented by images instead of in text. I didn’t want the illustrations to be redundant to the text. I went through and marked it up. I then wrote this out in script format. Usually when I’m writing for myself it is not a very strict script format. For this project, I went for a very traditional format outlining the text, panel one, panel two and placing the dialogue into text bubbles for the characters. After that I did thumbnail sketches to translate the script into a visual format and figuring out which characters would go where and how the text would be broken up into the space.’
Danica explains her approach to telling a story as a graphic novel. ‘The best graphic novels combine text and images in a way that’s really fascinating. You’re reading two types of media at the same time. You’re getting information from each which makes your mind work in a different way than happens with other types of literature or visual media. There are so many different possibilities around what you can do when combining texts and images.’
When searching for a landscape to set the story in, Danica did not have to look far. ‘The setting is where I lived in Brooklyn. I lived in that neighbourhood for eight years. The building I used as a model for Will’s was my building. It turned out to be a little unnerving when I was depicting a murder scene outside it. The cityscapes were all set in my neighbourhood, so I went outside and took photographs of the area and used them to draw and paint my images. Those were some of my favourite parts of the book to draw because I love showing big skies, shifting light and the landscape even if it’s a cityscape with buildings and sidewalks and playgrounds. It all felt very close to me and close to my heart. I used a lot my neighbours and friends as models. It was really fun, but at times I’d think, “Do I have to draw this person in a violent scene? I don’t feel comfortable with that”. It was an interesting process.’
It was also a long process. It took around two years of work, excluding times when Danica was waiting for feedback. ‘That’s short for me, I’ve spent up to five years on other books! For me the hardest part is the pencil sketches because for this book there were so many faces and portraits over and over with scenes in the elevator. Getting the characters to look the same in every panel is always a challenge. I went for a realistic style which means if you get the shape of the head slightly wrong then it’s all off.’
Working with Jason’s words was enjoyable for Danica. ‘Jason is one of the most incredible writers of YA fiction that there is. I didn’t have to have all those deep doubts and fears about my own writing. I knew it was a good story and I didn’t have to worry about that at all. I didn’t have to question the flow of the story or the words on the page because I knew they were perfect. When I’m working on my own story it’s twice the agony and it takes twice as long.’
Danica feels her win is part of the increased understanding graphic novels receive. ‘I’ve been working with graphic novels for somewhere between fifteen and twenty years now. In that time they have become much more visible and have been getting a lot of respect across different genres.’ Danica hopes to start working on her next project in the summer, a collaboration with environmental journalist Meera Subramanian. ‘She’s written a beautiful script. I want it to be a book that is both inspiring and informative so that it encourages other young activities to become involved.’
Jake Hope is chair of the working party for Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals. He is a children’s book and reading development consultant. His book Seeing sense: visual literacy as a tool for libraries, learning and reader development, is published by Facet Publishing, 9781783304417, £39.95.
Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel by Jason Reynolds, illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff, is published by Faber & Faber, 978-0571366019, £12.99.