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Archive for the ‘awards’ Category

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Though I hope this isn’t the first you’ve heard of it, the Cybils Awards were announced today. I am writing this post in advance so I don’t know all of what won in any category except one – Graphic Novels – and I only know that because I was on the judging panel. Yes, again. What can I say, I like graphic novels and have long been a supporter of them as a “legitimate” reading experience for kids.

But instead of talking about the specific finalists and winners I want to talk a little about a different kind of decision being made with regards to graphic novels in the world of children’s publishing, a question of what gets published and why.

I’ve worked in bookstores the better part of the last decade and I’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of books for all age kids that liberally get lumped together in the category of “graphic novels.” One of the reigning deans in the field, Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus, defines the graphic novel as “a long comic book that needs a bookmark and wants to be reread.” On the surface, this is a fairly inclusive definition and I suspect Spiegelman prefers that inclusion over taut ideological divisions that would perhaps attempt to separate (and forever brand) “good” from “bad.” But there is a sharp divide over the general quality of what is out there and surprisingly a large number of adults who read for children tend to let their guard down because they do not feel qualified to judge graphic novels. I’ve even heard one person suggest that the only person who could judge a good graphic novel from a bad one was another graphic novelist.

Hogwash, I say.

Since we’re talking primarily about books aimed at a young audience here I would counter that it’s just as easy to judge the quality of a graphic novel just as you would a middle grade or young adult novel… or a movie or a TV show or any other storytelling medium. For some, the inclusion of pictures as part of the storytelling seems to stir up some long-buried anxieties over whether or not a drawing style is “good,” whether one can judge based on the idea of artists as somehow more gifted than mere mortals. In truth, wither the book is in a comic panel format (graphic novel), an illustrated story format (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), or a words and picture format (picture books), the same criteria can be employed.

Does the main character have a goal or desire?
Do they face struggled that need to be overcome?
Have they been changed in some way in the process?
Does the reader gain understanding and insight from the narrative, even if the main character doesn’t?

These questions can be answered easily without the aid of a degree in fine art, but far too often I hear of people responding positively to a graphic novel based almost entirely on an emotional response: it was funny, humorous, well-illustrated, beautifully presented. It’s almost like the nervous laughter of literary criticism – if you don’t know how to analyze the story, talk about the pictures!

In the last couple of years I have talked with people about graphic novels showered with praise that I felt would have fallen flat had they been told in a more traditional novel format. In fact, I suspect that editors would have passed on these stories had they not been illustrated as comics. This idea that comics are somehow a leveler of quality, that pictures can make up for weaknesses in narrative, is what I find most troubling. I mean, here we are looking at a great opportunity to bring more young people into the reading fold through graphic novels but we do them a disservice by giving them substandard stories.

Why does this happen? I suspect it’s an editorial situation. If there is a consistency in the division between better and lesser graphic novels that divide is easily (though not universally) a question of publisher. Publishers who specialize in comics and graphic novels are overall much better than those for whom graphic novels are a sideline. First Second, Kitchen Sink, TOON, Oni Press, among others, these publishers tend to get it right, their editorial decisions on what to publish are clearly defined by a house style, a house perspective, and a level of quality that is visible from title to title. Publishers who have, in recent years, jumped on the bandwagon put out novel-length cartoon books that feel like the house is simply out to make a buck. The one exception I’ll note here is Scholastic and their Graphix imprint who seem to have a knack for catching lightning in a bottle.

I am not suggesting that graphic novels be deathly dull or pedantic, or that they take a more literary perspective, but I am asking for fewer of these books I call “cartoons” and more books with actual stories to them. These cartoon books could just as easily be storyboards for shows on the Cartoon Network. They have stock, near stereotypical characters, tired situations straight from old sitcoms, and their resolution either comes in the form a punchline or a tacked-on moral. The narrative arc of these stories is as two-dimensional as the characters who get pushed around inside them, and yet these books have glowing testimonials splashed on their covers from other writers.

So on this holiday dedicated to love, I propose we pause and enjoy books – all books – for what they can give us, and especially to what they can give younger readers. Let’s celebrate the winners of all Awards recently doled out and speak glowingly of the book and its future in all its forms.

Then tomorrow, lets all hunker down to the hard work of asking for publishers, editors, and storytellers alike to make better decisions about the quality of storytelling they produce.

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So I’ve been blogging kidlit book reviews for well over five years now over at the excelsior file. I started out wanting to sort of self-educate, er, myself about the world of children’s literature in preparation for becoming a writer of books for children and young adults. I decided I would review anything that caught my fancy, from picture books to young adult, and with a few excursions into general industry news, I’ve hewed fairly close to being reviews-only.

Sometimes I get a little ranty, sometimes my big ol’ brain gets in the way. Once I had a graduate student who wanted me to essentially grant permission to let them use one particular post as their own graduate thesis. Another time I got a little cranky and really laid into a book that stirred the ire of a certain subset of the kidlit community; I still occasionally get defensive emails sent directly to me from that community, people who clearly should understand the difference between an opinion and a fact. Nonetheless.

As the years progressed I’ve found myself discovering older, out-of-print titles that have stood the test of time. I have reveled the childhood joys of gross humor despite with many a wary librarian might want to hear. And I’ve defended graphic novels as “legitimate” reading though reviews of both good and bad reviews. In fact, one of the things that I came to realize was that by writing both good and bad reviews I’ve walked into a minefield that has divided the kidlit community, but I stand my ground. Without knowing the full range of what I think how can you tell whether or not I have any discernible taste, how can you tell if I’m being fair or even-handed?

Occasionally I make a bad call on a book. As I like to say, I could be wrong. I believe that when it comes to reviews people should read everything and judge for themselves.

While I accept review copies from publishers and their publicists, and occasionally from authors themselves, I am not paid for all this blogging and don’t feel beholden to any outside interest.

So is it so wrong that after five-plus years that I might want a little external recognition?

I want to go to BEA.

I want to win the Independent Book Blogger Award, or IBBY, contest currently being hosted on Goodreads. The winner in each of the four categories will get to go to NYC and attend this year’s Book Expo America

I want your vote.

I want the vote of everyone you can convince to vote for me.

Unless you happen to be in the contest, in which case I’m sorry for bothering you.

So here’s the deal. You go to the Goodreads page where they’re holding the contest and you get four votes, one for each category. I guess that means you have to sign in, which means I guess you also have to have a Goodreads account (pretty crafty of them), but if you do and are so inclined and would be so kind…

I’m the excelsior file, in the Young Adult and Children’s category. Unless the order comes up randomly each time you check in, I’m toward the bottom of the page.

Feel free to tell your friends. Feel free to alert your followers on the facebook and the Twitter, I won’t mind. If I win, and there’s some way I can verify that any one person’s effort helped put me in the finalists category I’d be more than happy to bring back some swag from BEA for them. I haven’t the slightest clue how to do that, so I think I’d take the best, most sincere claim around.

I’m not on my knees, I swear. But if you would be so kind…

Thank you.

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In case you’ve forgotten your middle grade math, the headline translates to Valentine’s Day plus Graphic Novels equals True Love Always. Admittedly a little silly, but this was the year the graphic novel panel essentially agreed on the winners out the gate. That can either be viewed as a unified affirmation of what was good or, more cynically, that there was only one clear choice in each category surrounded by fluff that made the decision inevitable. The truth is probably located somewhere in between.

But first, a little business. If you haven’t done so already, got check out the winners of this year’s Cybils Awards.

Now, there’s plenty I can say about some of the choices in the other categories, most of it surprise about the number of books that weren’t on my radar, but I was on the Graphic Novel panel this year and will contain my comments, briefly, to our selections.

In the elaborate (not) process I use to determine my rankings, I actually had a tie between Anya’s Ghost and Level Up. I would have been happy to have either book as the winner, but here’s the thing about Anya’s Ghost that gives it the edge for me: I had a hard time articulating what it was about it that made me like it so damn much. I understand the mechanics of storytelling, sequential narrative, illustration, and the sort of stories that I like but in the end I was at a loss to articulate it. I felt bad for the publisher, First Second, who sent me an advance copy of the book practically a year ago because I felt like I owed them a review on my blog. I still do, as far as I’m concerned, and maybe I can finally do that. Not today, not here, but soon.

In short, Anya’s Ghost felt like the most complete graphic novel, most satisfying in terms of narrative arc, balance of humor and seriousness, light and dark, and was the most novel-like of the entries.

In the middle grade category things were a little more interesting. For me, mind you. Two of the books I felt sort of disqualified themselves because they didn’t belong in the graphic novel category at all – Wonderstruck is very clearly a middle grade book and should not have even made it to the first round judges, similarly Nursery Rhyme Comics was an anthology and a picture book for older readers, but not a middle grade graphic novel. These personal disqualifications should not be taken as a knock against their quality – indeed, I would have loved to see Nursery Rhyme Comics considered in the picture book category as a finalist – but it did not belong, thus narrowing the field.

A third book, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, wasn’t even mentioned as a possible finalist in the category by any of the other panelists. I can’t speak for the others, but I found elements of this book troubling at the content level. Throughout the process I have deliberately kept myself from seeking out other reviews so as not to pollute my opinions, but I hope to work this all out in a review and then see what others have said.

With three titles eliminated all that was left was to decide between was Zita the Spacegirl and Sidekicks. The short answer here is that Zita had a lot more going for it in terms of humor and adventure, and by comparison Sidekicks felt slight. The best I can articulate, it was a little like putting any generic comic book adaptation of a Cartoon Network show up against Jeff Smith’s Bone books. With that in mind it wasn’t hard to decide that my first pick was…

Nursery Rhyme Comics.

Huh?

Yes, despite the fact that I don’t think anthology comic collections should be considered graphic novels (any more than a short story anthology should be considered a novel) it was, by far, a much better quality product. But in the end I had no desire to defend or attempt to justify a variance in my own personal criteria when I was going to vote strongly against Wonderstruck if necessary. And as an aside, even if I did consider Wonderstruck a graphic novel I don’t think it had a solid enough word-image connection, as emotionally compelling, or a strong enough sequential narrative to put it above Anya’s Ghost. I know people think Selznick has invented this great hybrid of storytelling but, really, those of us who have studied film know a storyboard when we see one.

And there you have it, my brief explanation of how the Cybils Graphic Novel Awards shook out from my personal perspective. I don’t know if any of my fellow judges have any plans to discuss their view of the process but if so I’ll happily update this post with links to their examinations. I will say, this was the most unanimous, least contentious judging panel I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.

Andrea, John, Sarah, Emily, (and fearless leader Liz) it was a pleasure and an honor working (briefly) with you all!

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Oh, I’m so going to get in trouble for this post title, but here’s the thing: why doesn’t the ALA provide shortlists for the Caldecott, Newbery, and all the other awards they dish out at their annual midwinter conference?

Obviously, I’m writing about this because the awards were announced this morning, but not because I had any particular dog in this race. Do I have friends who are writers, people whose book I feel deserve some recognition? Sure, but I’m not writing because they didn’t get a mention either as Winner or as Honor books, I’m writing because the question came up in Twitter buzz about this being a “strong” year with fewer than “expected” Honors given. Then I shot my mouth off about a particular book  not getting attention, calling the award committee “chicken” for not wanting to take a stand on deciding who the books true author was, and the next thing I know I’m back in the mire of my problem with the ALA awards.

Unlike other awards, like the National Book Awards, or the Carnegie or Greenway medals, the American Library Association’s awards for children’s books are announced without a prior shortlist being made public. When the ALA awards are announced (as they were this morning) the public first learns of the Honor books in the category and then the winner of the award in question. The number of Honor books varies as each award committee selects and awards books in secret up until the awarding of the titles (with the exception of the authors who are called early in the morning before their names are announced). This means that until the books titles are named there is no way of knowing which of the 24,000 children’s books published annually will be mentioned during the award ceremony.

Watching the announcements via a live webcast, each of the titles mentioned get cheers and applauds from the ALA members in attendance at the conference, but what goes on with the public (as witnessed on a live Twitter feed) is a collection of individual responses varying from cheers to confusion. Everyone has personal favorites they’re rooting for, and when little-known titles pop up the initial confusion is “Huh, I wonder if that title is truly better than the ones I’ve read.” So the public (or at least the public concerned with children’s books) collectively look at the honor book, then the winner, and they think From this pool of great books a winner was chosen.

Or: A winner was chosen from this pool?

But this year there were only two Honor books for the Newbery Award, which caught a number of people off guard. Normally there are three or four honor books, rounding out the general pool of consensus about which books were considered “the best,” which is what the award looks to celebrate. The problem with only two Honor book is the suggestion that, along with the winner, there were only three books considered good enough for the award. I think everyone in the kidlit community could draft a shortlist of TEN books that would be honor-worthy, and to see only two books honored feel like something is wrong.

What’s wrong is that the process really only looks to award ONE book and Honor books are a bi-product of the committee’s process, not a true designation of all that could be considered contenders for “the best” in that category. Or, as one author suggested, when there is more consensus on the award winner and less dissention within the committee, there are fewer honors. Which if true suggests that if the entire committee agreed on the winner there could be NO Honor Awards that year, not unless they manufactured a list of also-rans.

This is the problem I have with the secrecy of the selection process, it just isn’t transparent.

But should it be?

It’s the ALA awards and they can run the show any way they like. The way they run it now, each award category has its own committee and those committees select and vote on titles in seclusion from the rest of the ALA until the midwinter conference. I have heard tales of books being put forth to the rest of the committee at the conference itself, forcing the members to read and evaluate this last-minute nominee and depriving them of sleep (and consensus) in the process. One could argue that this suggests an openness to be as inclusive as possible in the efforts to find and put forth the best books possible… or that the nature of the process is flawed that the committees are not forced to agree on a shortlist in advance of the award.

Here’s why I think not having and announcing a shortlist in advance is a mistake: it removes the discussion of books from the public, which fails to engage a wider audience to actually care about the awards.

Once an award has been delivered, it’s a done deal. When you announce awards without any lead-up (like the public discussion that proceeds almost every other award) you fail to build an audience who cares. A year ago when the TODAY show decided to bump a segment on the ALA awards in favor of a visit by Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi to promote her new book the only people who cared were people in the kidlit community. The general public? Eh. They weren’t following the awards prior to the announcement, so they probably didn’t even know the winners were announced. They certainly hadn’t had a chance to review a shortlist of possible winner to factually know whether or not Snooki’s book might have merited more attention than the Printz or Newbery winners – it didn’t, but who knew? And that’s the point. You can’t care about an award you don’t know about, and you can’t build excitement or anticipation over an award whose judging criterium is a mystery beyond simply a group-think definition of “the best.”

While working on my MFA in creative writing our instructors (many Caldecott and Newbery Award winners in the bunch) warned us that you cannot write with the intention of winning awards, that you have to write the book that wants to come out. This is true of any art, really. But what was unsaid was that there was no way in hell you could possibly write toward winning a children’s book award from the ALA because the reality is that the criterium are a mystery. The selection committee changes from year to year, and the decision-making process and awarding of winners and honors is subject to a secrecy elevate to the art of whim.

Given how these award winners are held aloft and foisted onto kids by parents and teachers you’d think the awards were etched in stone from an omniscient god whose decisions are unerring. Instead, we get a tin-can-and-string announcement from a cargo cult committee of self-appointed elders.

And, damn it, I still hope to win one of these awards some day.

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I was nine years old when I first watched the Academy Awards, the first time I really understood what they were and rooted for a movie to win.  It was April 15th, 1971 and I remember being allowed to stay up late to see whether or not my favorite movie that year — Airport — would win. It’s a fuzzy memory, watered down by time and the similarity of multiple memories of ceremonies past, but I do remember noting a certain look on my mother’s face whenever I expressed my hopes for a Best Picture win.  It’s a knowing look a parent gives when they want to be encouraging in the face of a child’s lack of understanding.  Of course I hadn’t seen any of the other nominees — why should that matter?

By most accounts, 1970 was a good year for movies. Nominees for Best Picture that year were Airport, Five Easy Pieces, Love Story, M*A*S*H, and the winner, Patton. The Best Documentary winner that year was Woodstock, and the Beatles walked away with a Best Song Score for their cinematic epitaph Let It Be. If I had to pick a winner from that group today, having since seen them, I would have had a hard time choosing between Five Easy Pieces and M*A*S*H. Neither Love Story nor Airport have held up as well over time, but that’s always the gamble when picking the “best” of anything in a given year.

It wasn’t like I would have seen any of the other films that year.  I only went to Airport because my aunt was in town and wanted to do something.  Or maybe it was the teen girl upstairs who occasionally watched us kids while our parents went out.  Whatever the reason, I had seen my first real grown-up movie in a theatre (as opposed to “adult” movies with their triple-x connotations) and as far as I was concerned it was the best movie I’d ever seen.

I don’t know if I’ve missed and Oscar night since, though having seen that many I can’t be sure how many were truly memorable.

I grew up in LA and Hollywood is a company town. I quite literally had MGM movie lots just over the wall in my backyard. MGM took out full-page ads i the back of my high school yearbook. The Oscars were a big deal but only because Hollywood made sure they were a big deal, a tradition that continues to this day across the country. If you know which film had the highest grosses on any given opening weekend — or better still, went to a movie because it was opening weekend — then you have participated in one of the longest running and most successful marketing strategies of the last 50 years. Hollywood might seem perpetually on the brink of collapse, but you’ll ever see a studio in line for a government bail-out.  It’s one factory that just keeps humming along.

But my adult self, looking back and from the perspective as a writer with an interest in younger readers, feels a little sad that we don’t have a similar national excitement over books.  A few years earlier, in 1968, I would have been in a better position to choose a title from the ALA Newbery list: The Black Pearl, The Egypt Game, The Fearsome Inn, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, and the “winner,” From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (a good year for Konigsburg with two titles in the running.  My first choice would have been The Black Pearl, but I would have been fine with The Mixed Up Files.  I would have been 100% behind the 1970 winner, Sounder, a book my teacher read to us in class.  I fact, while most of my serious moviegoing didn’t take place until my late teens, and my knowledge of Oscar nominated films was minimal prior to that, I was well-versed in books — for adults and for kids — and could have been as equally excited by an awards show treated with the panache of the Academy Awards. In adult books, 1970 saw the publication of 84 Charing Cross Road, Hard Times, Deliverance, Ringworld, QB VII, The Paper Chase, Islands in the Stream (posthumously), and Master and Commander.  What fun it would have been to root among those titles!

I know, what bizarro planet am I living on, thinking we would celebrate books and authors the way we elevate and celebrate movies and actors?

For just a moment though, lets imagine that world.  Folks are rushing around getting food and drinks ready for their Book Award party.  Some are even doing themselves up in the costumes of their favorite characters. Celebrity authors are hosting — that is, authors who are celebrities, as opposed to those who are wielding their fame in other areas to get books deals — and there are dramatic readings and reenactments of key passages from this years’ nominees.  This year (finally!) they have a Graphic Novel category, there’s a separate special category for audio poetry, and rumor has it that Apple has bought ad space right in the middle of the broadcast to launch their new, smaller tablet that will make one-handed reading easier than on any other e-reader. The ads on TV and in newspapers have been pretty intense, but no more so that the friendly arguments taking place in people’s homes across the country as everyone chooses their favorite books. Buyers in bookstores have already hedged their bets and pre-ordered some titles they expect to win, but are otherwise glued to their seats tonight with phone in hand ready to place orders for winners. Pre-paid orders for winning titles will turn the day after the ceremony into the second biggest sales day in most stores fiscal year, right after Black Friday in November. Office betting pools will be won, lesser-known authors will gain new-found clout, full-page ads will fete the winners in the newspapers…

Sadly, there really is nothing like Oscar night… for books.

 

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Every time there is an award ceremony someone is always upset their favorite book/movie/president didn’t win and then whines about how it’s unfair, how the real winner was robbed, or how, clearly, the judges wouldn’t know a winner if it bit them in the ass.

This isn’t gonna be like that.

The ALA 2009 Youth Media Awards wew announced this morning at the ALA mid-winter conference in Denver, an event akin to the Academy Awards for the kidlit world, though nowhere near as brash.  In a simple ceremony that lasted under an hour (Motion Picture Academy, are you listening?) the American Library Association doled out its annual awards for the Caldecott Medal, the Newbery, and all the others people may (or may not) have heard of.  As always, there was buzz and speculation leading up to the event where the winning and honorable mentions are announced in breathless anticipation to a room full of librarians and an internet full of interested parites.  And as always there were surprises among the expected.

I’m not going to recount the winners here, nor is this going to become a political discussion about what did, didn’t, or should have won.  After a trip to my local indie bookstore, some careful consideration, and a shower I have come to see as clear as the morning air how these awards need to be fixed. Fixed implies there’s something broken, and there is.

When the awards are announced there are very few people who know in advance which books are even under consideration.  Publishers may get an inkling that something is up when calls are placed the day before on behalf of the committees asking for the contact information of an author so they can be, uh, contacted.  So outside of the committee members the first notion that a book is about to win trickles through less that 24 hours in advance.  That means that even the most ambitious of publishers isn’t really going to get a head start on priming warehouses for demand and sending books back to press.

This is key, because what happens is that on the day the awards are announced few booksellers have a majority of the winners on the shelves, much less in quantity.  There then comes the mad scramble to secure books from distributors, or calls placed on print runs, and a fickle buying public becomes too impatient to wait for something they want right then.  Interest in books wane, and then a book buying public just assumes to wait until a paperback edition with a little foil emblem appears or their local library finally gets a copy.

But there are solutions.

1.  Announce the shortlist a month in advance

Hollywood doesn’t get a lot right, but they understand how to make Awards work for them.  They announce their shortlist a month in advance of their ceremony, which gives studios time to flood movies back into theatres and wring some more money out of them.  They create interest, and people like to feel as informed as the Academy in these things.  Then, when the winner is announced, they can argue the merits, agree or disagree, and generally feel like they were part of the experience.

If the ALA were to toss out a shortlist of TEN titles for each category six weeks in advance of their mid-winter conference, publishers would have a heads-up AND the opportunity to reposition these books for holiday sales.  What’s key here is that by announcing the titles up front they generate interest in titles for time on both sides of the award, where now they only score that interest after the fact.  Publishers, librarians, distributors, and booksellers would then be able to help guide readers (and buyers) toward titles that have been pre-selected as possibly the best in the field.  This isn’t as easy to do after the fact.

With books in stock up to the day of the announcement, booksellers are then able to best capitalize on the awards and keep customers happy, rather than sending them away feeling like a book that wasn’t available was too obscure to be on hand.  This perception cannot be underscored enough, because if a consumer goes into a store unsure of an unfamiliar title to begin with and they discover it is not available they will be less inclined to seek it out.  Conversely, studies have shown that if a person puts an item in their hand (or has one put there for them by a bookseller) they will be something like 70% more likely to purchase it.  Say what you will about the noble art of reading, books and publishing is also still a business and anything that encourages sales encourages reading and vice versa.

The reason for ten titles is so that the ALA can still award a winner and three or four (or five) honor titles and still maintain some mystery around which book will win.  It also generates controversy about those that don’t, because controversy is still talk, and talk is like advertising, and books could use all the PR they can get.

2. Drag the president into the fray

Why do the winners of the Super Bowl and the World Series get to meet the president and book award winners do not?  Why can’t the president make a public acknowledgment of the shortlist in advance and then meet personally with the winners in a public ceremony with the press as part of his platform on literacy?  I don’t have the pull or the president’s ear, but someone has to, and for a guy who featured families reading to their kids at least three times in his paid political announcement it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibilities for this Obama guy.  Seriously, what’s the cost of something like this?  Nothing?  And what does it do for reading and publishing to have a president give the same amount of face time to writers of children’s books as he will for overpaid sports “heroes?”

3. Oprah

No, I’m not kidding.  I was working in a bookstore when Oprah’s magazine debuted and there was a small, one-paragraph article about a book called The Four Agreements among all the ads and fluff.  That mention in her magazine generated over half a million sales of that book in one week following that mention.  Prior to that the book hadn’t sold fifty-thousand copies in its previous two years.  That kind of power can be scary in the wrong hands but so far the big O has used her powers for good and not evil.

So why not a Oprah Book Club for kids, an O Jr.?  She could give some kidlit authors the same coverage she gives to jokers like James Frey and be promoting literacy at the same time.  Once a month she throws out some quality fiction for middle grade, YA, and picture book readers.  Then in the early part of the new year she does a show (or magazine feature) on the books nominated for the pending awards.  Instant interest, books flying off shelves, and more importantly, young people reading.

Ten years ago if I could have traveled into the future of today I would have slapped myself for saying such a thing, but Oprah cannot be ignored.  She has proven herself to be a champion of books and despite what anyone might think of the person, the advocate for reading that is Oprah cannot be denied.

It doesn’t seem likely that any of these three fixes will be put into place, but any one alone would be almost enough to send a seismic ripple through the publishing world in a good way.  Set aside the question about whether or not books or ebooks are the future of publishing, there will be no future without readers and the place to generate that interest should come from those most passionately concerned about literacy.

For those intersted in the results of today’s announcement you can go to the ALA’s unfriendly site and sort through the individual winners here, or sit through the entire webcast, or just wait a few months until the  books finally arive at your local bookstore with their little foil medallions attached.  If you still care.

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How often is it that you finish a book, put it down, go to the computer to check on news of the world and find that the book you just put down was one that was nominated as a finalist for the National Book Award in young person’s literature?

Weird.

Having not read them all, nor understanding how to handicap this award, I have no idea whether it was a mere coincidence or if somehow I was attuned to the celestial spheres of synchronicity and was reading the winning book.  But it’s an odd feeling, I’ll say that much.  Especially since the book was sent to me for review and I knew nothing abut it when I picked it up.

I’m not quite ready to review the book yet, and out of fairness to the other titles I’m not going to mention it by name here (email me if you really want to know which book it is), but I must say that I’m a little confused about how titles are chosen for this award.  Normally you don’t find a middle grade book with animals in the world up against a YA title about an unrepentant alcoholic up against a Revolutionary War slave narrative. I’m not saying these titles aren’t deserving, only that I find the selection odd.

And what a crazy panel of judges!  Daniel Handler (chair), Holly Black, Angela Johnson, Carolyn Mackler, Cynthia Voigt. I have to admit, I’m now sort of interested in reading them all before the awards are announced on November 19th.

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That time of year again, when folks from all over the blogosphere begin tossing their favorite hats into the ring for consideration of the Third Annual Cybils Awards!

For those unfamiliar, the Cybils are the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers literary awards.  The great thing about the Cybils: anyone can nominate a title (one title per person, per category) and that makes for some pretty long lists by the time nominations close, which is on October 15th.  More details here.

Yours truly is once again hanging out with the graphic novels crew and am looking forward to seeing what crops up this time.  Once the nominations close I’ll post my collected nominees in each category and we’ll see if all my taste is in my mouth (where my foot often ends up).

Folks, honestly, if you haven’t checked it out, please, do so.

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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

The Winner
Artemis Fowl

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 Winner
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.

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Cybil-ized

How can you not love an award for children’s literature that sounds like it was named after a person with multiple personality disorder?

Yes, it’s Cybils season and the second round of finalists were posted this morning. This is the one yours truly has been waiting for because it includes the nominees for the graphic novel category, of which I am a judge.

When heard that the graphic novel announcement wouldn’t come until today I was a bit worried, what with the ending residency at school and all. Turns out my fears were baseless as I have read (and in some cases reviewed elsewhere) all but three titles with only one title a total mystery to me. Like God in a Far Side cartoon making snakes out of clay, this should be a cinch.

Or will it? With so many great titles on the list I suddenly realize that I’m going to have to pit them against each other in no-holds-barred cage matches to determine which truly deserves favor over the other. I may even have to get out my graph paper and comparison charts (again, borrowed liberally from What Color Is Your Parachute) in order to figure out the winners by points.

Of course I alone will not make this decision, I am merely one of a panel of judges. How will the collective see things? Will we go toe-to-toe over our personal convictions or will we bend gently in each others breezes until a consensus is borne? Will we fight doggedly against the obvious or will we, like an ALA panel, allow for the rise of mediocrity in compromise (anyone feeling Lucky?)?

We shall see. In the meantime if you haven’t checked out all the Cybils stuff, or are curious to know what the heck I’m talking about, check it out. Winners for all categories will be announced on Valentine’s Day, a blogger’s heart and a box of virtual chocolates for the writers and illustrators we honor.

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