Danica Novgorodoff wins Kate Greenaway medal for graphic novel Long Way Down

Danica Novgorodoff’s “innovative” graphic novel adaptation of Jason Reynolds’ novel Long Way Down has won the Yoto Kate Greenaway medal, making it the first graphic novel to win the illustration prize since Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas in 1973.

Meanwhile, Katya Balen has won the Yoto Carnegie medal, which celebrates outstanding achievement in children’s writing. The “expertly written” October, October was inspired by Balen’s father-in-law, who lives off-grid.

Novgorodoff, a writer, graphic designer and horse wrangler from Kentucky, has created a number of graphic novels, but Long Way Down was her first children’s book published in the UK.

The illustrator said that while it deals with the “heavy” subject of gun violence, she hopes her win will mean that more people are able to connect with the book. “I think it’s important to open up the conversation around gun violence and the fact that it’s people of colour who are most impacted by it, and that the US really fails to address a lot of the root causes of the violence that victimises Black and brown people”, she said.

After 20 years of making graphic novels, Novgorodoff added that it was “validating to win this award, and to understand that readers have connected with this book in particular and graphic novels in general”.

Reynolds’ original book, published in 2017, is about Will, who gets in a lift with a gun to exact revenge after his brother is shot in a gang crime. As the lift descends, Will is joined by friends he has lost to shootings, prompting him to ask if he really knows what he’s doing.

The graphic novel version features hundreds of watercolour illustrations by Novgorodoff. The judges said they were “blown away” by the “powerful and immersive illustrations” and said that the “union of brutal reality with the delicacy of watercolours as an artistic device is surprising and breathtaking in its execution”. They thought it was “an incredible book that will stay with the reader long after the final page”.

Novgorodoff said Long Way Down was a book that asked readers “to empathise with a character who is planning to harm another person, and endanger his own life, out of grief and revenge”.

“Through the illustrations, I wanted to show this emotional torment, to make his internal feelings come alive on the page,” she added. “The book doesn’t preach, but it asks readers, what do you feel, and what would you do?”

Novgorodoff described graphic novels as an “extraordinary, complex, versatile medium in themselves, not dumbed down versions of ‘real’ books”, and a “fascinating way to express emotions and ideas that can’t be put into words alone”.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and Danica Novgorodoff.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and Danica Novgorodoff. Photograph: Danica Novgorodoff/Faber

October, October, illustrated by Angela Harding, is Balen’s second novel and is about an 11-year-old called October who must learn to spread her wings after a childhood spent living wild in the woods.

The author said it was “every children’s writer’s dream” to win the Carnegie, and that the award was a sign that the risk of being a writer was worth it. “It feels like I can keep writing,” she said. “It feels like it’s validated the risks that I took, and that my family took in order to support me doing something pretty risky.”

The judges called the book an “evocative exploration of what it means to be truly alive and wholly human”. October, October also won the Shadowers’ Choice award for her category, voted for by young people across the UK.

Balen, who has spent her career working in SEND schools and is the co-director of Mainspring Arts, an organisation that runs creative workshops for neurodivergent people, said she believed sharing stories “to be one of the most important parts of our lives”.

“In my book, October is saved by stories,” Balen said. “She is isolated, unusual, angry, friendless, lost, displaced, wild. But through stories she is able to connect to the world around her, and to the people around her.”

Jennifer Horan, chair of judges, said the winning titles “provide outstanding reading experiences for young people”.

Both books “contain themes which help young readers build empathy, providing them with tools to create a better world,” she added. “They offer hope, comfort and enjoyment, and demonstrate the key role writing and illustration play in children’s development and wellbeing.”

Novgorodoff and Balen each win £500 worth of books to donate to a library of their choice, a specially commissioned golden medal and a £5,000 Colin Mears award.

Novgorodoff’s books will go to the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public library; it opened in 1905 and was the first library in the US to serve and be fully operated by African Americans. Balen’s donation will go to London’s South Norwood library, which was recently threatened with closure.

The winners were announced at a ceremony at the British Library on 16 June. Both books are published by independent imprints: Long Way Down by Faber and October, October by Bloomsbury.

The winners were chosen from a shortlist of eight books for each prize, by an expert team of volunteer judges, including 14 librarians from CILIP’s Youth Libraries Group based across the UK.

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