Which is harder, having to pick out your favorite dessert from all the desserts in the world or having to pick your favorite among a selection of five? On the one hand you can take everything into consideration but you could also find it hard to choose among favorites; on the other hand having a narrower selection can help you focus your decision but you might end up wishing you had another choice.
Does this have anything to do with being a judge on the graphics novel panel for the Cybils this year? Yes and no. I think the parallel is there when it comes to trying to narrow down the selection of possibilities — graphic novels in this case — but as for working off a shortlist I think the analogy breaks down when you consider it was five people trying to agree on a choice. So then I guess it’s like being at a restaurant with a bunch of people trying to decide on which dessert they’re going to split. It might not be your favorite dessert, but why are you complaining? You get to eat dessert!
I’m going to break this down by category, and I’m only going to be discussing my personal thoughts in the matter. I will not name names (you can go to the Cybils site for that), I’m not going to comment directly about anyone’s choices, and I’m not going to reveal the secret handshake of the gn panel. There will be a peak into the process but only to illustrate my involvement. If you’re looking for dirt, sorry.
Middle Grade & Elementary — The Shortlist
Robot Dreams written and illustrated by Sara Varon
The Courageous Princess written and illustrated by Rod Espinosa
Yotsuba&! #4 written and illustrated by Kiyohiko Azuma
Artemis Fowl written by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin; illustrated by Giovanni Rigano and Paolo Lamanna
Babymouse #6: Camp Babymouse written and illustrated by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
What was I thinking?
Looking at the list my first thought was that the category seemed awfully broad, which also made it seem unfair. You would have different expectations for a second grade early readers and a middle grade fiction meant for sixth graders, but in this category you’ve got a cute widdle baby mouse up against a heartless pre-pubescent evil genius. Still, there are those books where the quality would trump the reading level, so looking for the best qualities should yield the correct winner no matter what.
Here’s my first problem: the book I feel belongs here, and would want to win, isn’t here. It’s shortlisted, but in the teen/YA category. Its The Arrival. There was a bit of back-and-forth about this from my fellow judges once I brought up that while I felt it could be appreciated by an older audience I found it more appropriate for the middle grade set. The issues it covers — immigration, stranger-in-a-strange-land, government oppression — these are heavy topics but not outside the scope of the tween audience. Not everything in the book would be readily accessible, but I found its picture book formatting and its limited narrative more in keeping with a middle grade book: indeed, if you were to write the story’s narrative as it’s presented you would find it necessary to explain much of what it only hinted at between the panels.
While this does not make it bad, it makes it bad for a teen reader who is going to blow through the illustrations, glean the basic story, back-fill the missing parts with what they’ve already learned in elementary social studies, and not fully appreciate it at all. This is one of those books (like the picture books of Adam Rex, btw) which I almost feel are more for adults than kids. My total opinion, of course, and it doesn’t change the fact that it wasn’t nominated for this category. So why am I even talking about it again? Oh yeah, that’s right. It would have been my first choice.
My pick was Robot Dreams. I believe I was the only one who wanted this as the winner. Another wordless tale like The Arrival, I felt there was actually a really good character arc and one that was totally age appropriate. There’s friendship and embarrassment and loneliness and abandonment and a whole lot of really great issues that middle grade readers would totally get and not feel preached to. I found its extended storyline to be the most complete and contained and the resolution satisfying without being predictable. Yea, Robot Dreams!
Last on my list? Artemis Fowl, an unimaginative comic book adaptation that, at times, bored me silly with its pacing and often slipped into the thing I hate the most about superhero comics — narratives over action panels explaining what a character is thinking or doing. It’s like voice-overs in movies, there’s good voice-over and there’s bad voice-over and then there’s voice-over that ruins everything else. This one is somewhere between bad and worse. In general I find adaptations troubling — whether book to movie, movie to book, book to graphic novel, comic to movie — because there’s always that problem of the two not syncing up. You can say ‘try not to think about the elephant in the room’ but you’ll find yourself thinking about the elephant in the room: in this case, the elephant is the original book, which I also didn’t think that much of.
But I was determined to take the
comic graphic novel on its own and it still lost me. It took me a while to figure it out but it comes down to the character of Artemis himself. Here, with his big head (Manga inspired?) and his emotionless face he reminded me of nothing less than a pre-teen Ernst Stavro Blofeld. That’s right, the bald baddy from Bond movies. In those films Blofeld serves as the foil against which Bond reacts. Blofeld has no backstory, none that’s relevant at least, he merely wants to blow up the world, steal the gold, kill Bond, whatever the plot needs to keep Bond moving forward. He’s a 2-dimensional cutout and that’s all we need because he isn’t the star of the film. And that’s the problem, I don’t buy Artemis Fowl as anything more that a 2-d character and I don’t find the story compelling as a result. I don’t care if the faeries get him or kill him, I don’t care about his missing father or his demented mother, I don’t care… and that’s the point where you lose me.
But I was outvoted. C’est la Guerre.
Teen/YA — The Shortlist
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Flight #4 edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Laika written and illustrated by Nick Abadzis
The Professor’s Daughter by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert
The Plain Janes by written by Cecil Castellucci; illustrated by Jim Rugg
The Professor’s Daughter
What was I thinking?
I work the other direction on this one, what I was thinking was yes! Actually, I had two first picks and would have been happy with either winning, The Professor’s Daughter and The Plain Janes. As different as they are to one another I felt they both had merit and would give them both the award if I could. When the majority went for The Professor’s Daughter I was happy to let it go at that.
Push-to-shove, The Plain Janes does have some clunky transitions at times, and I think it traffics in some visual stereotypes that could have (and should have) been avoided. The frumpy drama girl? Really? Please. The cop from casting central? I hear your donut calling. I’m also a little unsure of the transition from big city to small town but I forgive it these problems because it deals in teens dealing with teen problems in a graphic novel. I understand there’s a second Plain Janes book due out soon and I’m looking forward to it.
There are some I have spoken to outside the gn panel who didn’t “get” The Professor’s Daughter. I think I can pinpoint the problem in a single word: European. There are many who do not get certain picture books for the same reason, that there is a very different sensibility for the picture book in Europe, just as there is in graphic novels and sequential storytelling. Compare Tintin with any of his American contemporaries from the 1950s, say Will Eisner’s The Spirit. That’s the difference, and The Professor’s Daughter gets its strange rhythms from that tradition. And I liked that it as coming from a different place, a place almost more in keeping with a horror movie from the 1930s, one with a sense of humor and a strange sense of the fantastic. One thing I will say, I was never really sure where the story was headed… and I mean that in a good way!
So why, if I felt so strongly about The Arrival, didn’t I give it either my top two spots on this list? Simply, it canceled itself out. I didn’t feel it belonged in this category and couldn’t vote for it as a teen/YA winner. There was some brief discussion as to whether we, as judges, could move books between categories as we saw fit (I believe there was a question about the age appropriateness of Robot Dreams belonging in this category) but in the end even if I had voted The Arrival for teen/YA it didn’t have enough support for a win.
I need to make a side note here about Flight. This collection of stories by various artists is the graphic novel equivalent of a short story collection. As with most collections of this kind some stories are going to hit, some will flop, and a room full of people aren’t going to decide on which are better than others. Something I had pointed out to me recently, something I knew but never thought about long enough to articulate, was that generally the only collections that work are single-author collections. Where the stories may vary the connecting thread of a single author’s world view is always present somewhere, if only in the punctuation.
Another problem I had with Flight is that much of what it contained, while suitable for teens, would really only be appreciated by a true young adult, a person in their 20s questioning and considering and exploring their place in the world. The pieces in Flight are more mature and they benefit from a reader with a variety of experience. This is the second year in a row that one of the Flight volumes has been nominated and, like as much as I did, I just can’t see it ever winning.
So that’s that. I hope I don’t need to remind anyone who has gotten this far that these are my opinions and, well, you can take them for what they’re worth. I enjoyed my duties as a judge and hope I get the opportunity to participate in the Cybils in the future.
Y’all can start in with the brickbats now.