The ALA Youth Media Awards were just announced about an hour ago. These honors are awarded by committees of librarians who read, evaluate, and discuss approximately a femto-jillion books in a year and decide which book in a given category is THE BEST of the year and which few are THE RUNNERS UP.
I generally don't comment on these awards on this blog because, like any other award, calling any given anything THE BEST in a year is ridiculous. YOU ARE THE BEST TOMATO. WORLD'S BEST JOKE 2014 IS WHAT EDDIE IZZARD SAID ON TWITTER NOVEMBER 13th. THE AWARD FOR BEST LEFT BOOB OF 2015 GOES TO KATY PERRY'S LEFT BOOB.
I also have found these awards to be kind of stuck in the mud. Historical fiction or relationship drama tends to get recognized while funny books are disregarded. Lotta "girl books" have gotten the Newbery, while the Caldecott has gone to a disproportionate number of men. Creators of color are under-represented, as they are in all of children's publishing, except in the awards that are specifically given to African American or Latino authors and illustrators, which often go to the same squad of (very talented and totally deserving) people every year.
Put it this way - when an illustrated prose novel (The Invention of Hugo Cabret) won the Caldecott Medal one year everyone went, "WHOA!!" And when a nonfiction book (Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village) won the Newbery people all gasped. This is what has passed for bold in previous years.
This year's awards are something else, though.
A graphic novel won a Newbery Honor. El Deafo, Cece Bell's gently extraordinary memoir of growing up and making friends while deaf, is the first comic to have busted into the Newbery winner's circle. If I had to guess, I would say that the enduring popularity and undeniable honesty of Raina Telgemeier's Smile had something to do with the committee giving serious consideration to a g/n this year.
There has been a lot of discussion about what ALA should do about graphic novels - make them their own award, call them illustrated works, etc., and, while it meant many wonderful works did not get awards during the years the committees didn't know what to do with them, I think not creating a separate award for g/n's was the right way to go. As winners of the Coretta Scott King Award are all too keenly aware - qualifying for an award specific to one aspect of your work can take some of the oomph out of your chances at Newbery.
... which is something 4-time Newbery Honoree Jackie Woodson is far too classy to say out loud. Interestingly, the other Newbery Honor ALSO went to a work of nonfiction. Jacqueline Woodson's verse memoir Brown Girl Dreaming - which was EVERYONE's pick for the Medal. I paired El Deafo with Brown Girl Dreaming as must-reads for people of all ages, not least because they are both nonfiction - so it's kind of mind-boggling to see them paired again like this. It's possible that Brown Girl Dreaming and El Deafo split the vote, leaving the Award to go to...
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. Also in verse, also by an author of color. Something of a dark horse, but a book that built buzz slowly over the year as more and more people read it. That's the kind of book that you just love to see get recognition.
SIX Honor books. Six is a lot, FYI. But this was a good, good, very good year for picture books. I think I've read every picture book that this committee might have considered and here are my thoughts.
Look at all the ladies! I know I keep pounding this nail, but I've done a fair amount of research and come to the conclusion: female illustrators just don't get celebrated (or marketed) to the extent that their male counterparts do. In addition, picture books illustrated and/or written by women are not as likely to be produced using premium production options (oversize trim size, premium paper, printed endpapers, fancy dust jacket).
This varies by publishing house. Chronicle and Enchanted Lion are gender-blind when it comes to pumping expensive options into a picture book, while Candlewick and Disney Hyperion exhibit a clear pattern of producing better-looking books for their male creators. Other variables certainly come into play - the agent, for sure. Sales track record. But it can be argued that sales are affected by the beauty of the book, so it's a little chicken-and-egg there.
But of the six Honor books this year, there are only two Y chromosomes among the creators: Mac and Jon, who wrote and illustrated the brilliantly metaphysical Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. There's pretty much nobody else out there right now who is willing to fuck with a first grader's head like both Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen do, so I guess we just keep throwing awards at them so they'll keep doing it. I'm on board with that.
Yuyi Morales. I am ALSO on board with busting Yuyi Morales out of the Pura Belpre gang and inducting her into the Caldecott Club! There have been a lot of biographies of Frida Kahlo for children, I assume because her story is so dramatic and her art so colorful, representational, and prone to including monkeys. Viva Frida is so much my favorite.
But I'll tell you what I think happened here. Last year, Yuyi Morales put out a bangin' little picture book, Niño Wrestles the World, that did not get the attention that I think it deserved from award committees. I was on one, and I had one hell of a time convincing non-Spanish-speakers that a picture book so infused with Mexican culture was relevant to non-Latino families. Intentionally or no, and not to diminish the fabulous 3-D art in Viva Frida, but I think this committee took their opportunity to reward a body of work that deserves wide purchase.
Tween graphic novel. Because books that make this list become automatic purchases for libraries and schools. AU-TO-MATIC. So guess what else is going to make its way into more schools that it might have previously? This One Summer, by the Cousins Tamaki, Mariko and Jillian. It's a graphic novel about two girls who are friends every summer, when their families rent cabins on the same lake. This summer, they are (crap I can't remember! 11? 12?) anyway they're just turning that corner - they are more perceptive of the dramas going on in the lives of older teens, they are more sensitive to their own feelings, but they do not yet have much agency. This One Summer goes with Chiggers, Sisters, and the forthcoming Lumberjanes Vol. 1 - graphic novels that mirror this developmental stage with precision and respect.
Nonfiction. Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet picked up an Honor for The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus. These women have teamed up before, and always to wonderful effect. They were awarded a Caldecott Honor in 2008 for A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams. (Um technically that Honor went to Sweet alone, as the Caldecott is an illustrator award. But I think that's dumb, so I ignore it.) Jen loves researching the lives of her subjects, and Melissa combines painting with collage made from mixed media that she selects based on her exporations of the material world of the book's subject. The results are fanciful and factual and if you don't believe me, check out how entertaining this book about the guy who wrote one of our standard reference books is. I mean seriously - Roget?! But it totally works.
More nonfiction. I read Barb Rosenstock's picture book biography The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art and I thought, "Well these illustrations are extraordinary, but abstract art can be a tough sell." Apparently the committee was as blown away by Mary GrandPré's work as I was.
And Lauren Castillo. Nana in the City is the most picture book-y book on this list of Honor books. It's a little boy who goes to visit his Nana and is overwhelmed by the bustle and noise of her urban surroundings. Simple. Timeless. I adore the art. Belongs on any "new classics" list. I actually was torn which of her two qualifying books I was rooting for this year - if you like Nana, be sure to find The Troublemaker.
Beekle gets the Medal. Man, I called this one. Yes this is me bragging, but I am telling you, I opened Dan Santat's The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend and from the endpapers forward, I knew this was his Caldecott book. As the announcements of all those Honor books rolled on, I realized, "It's Beekle! It's going to be Beekle, of course!"
There is so much love in this book. Beekle is about the individual journey of every child to overcome fears and explore the world and risk it all. The writing is lovely and simple, and the art has an epic feel - wide views are drawn from a low angle, putting modest Beekle into perspective as a heroic figure. To me, this communicates the almost painful combination of feelings we have for our children. We yearn to protect them from all harm, but we have to teach them how to take risks, and then we have to let them do it. If you've ever seen a small child walk into an unfamiliar classroom you know the bravery they are capable of, and you know why Dan Santat sent his unimaginary friend across the sea.
AND - Beekle is not the first digitally-created picture book to be honored by a Caldecott Committee, but it may well be the first Medalist. So there's that, too.
Here are the books that seemed to be in the running but did not make this short list, and I am not going to speculate why, but just for comparison: Sparky!, Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems, Gaston, The Girl and the Bicycle, Three Bears in a Boat, Have You Seen My Dragon?.
Wow is that bitchy. "Other awards." But truthfully I only have a few words about a few of these awards, the first one being...
We should all pay more attention to Geisel. The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award goes to Beginning Readers that excel despite the strict textual limitations of the form. There are vocab limits, lines per page limits, even font size limits for books that we give to little kids to practice reading skills. So when a book manages to charm despite all that - well let's just say it's why we all put up with Mo Willems.
This year, a major underdog won Geisel. Anna Kang's You Are (Not) Small is a delightful romp through comparative words and opposites. BUT IT IS ALSO a no-shit existential exploration. I am me, and I am the right size, which makes you big. Ya freak! But from my perspective, I am the right size, which makes you something of a pipsqueak. Who was the comedian who said that anyone who drove slower than he did was an idiot, but anyone who drove faster than he does is a maniac - oh of course it was Carlin. You Are (Not) Small can be a fun and trippy exercise in perspective for a little kid, a lot like how listening to George Carlin blew your tiny mind when you were about 19.
WILDER WENT TO DONALD CREWS. This is a long-overdue recognition. I've had some conversations with people who have served on the Wilder Committee, which is a lifetime achievement award, and it is so interesting how widely they throw their mental net. It doesn't have to be an author with current work, it doesn't have to be an author who has won a lot of awards, they just have to kind of talk each other into the person they pick. And Donald Crews is a genius choice. He worked forever, he created work that is so graphically pure that it transcends time, and he made extraordinary books for a market that is frequently underserved - toddlers.
AND EDWARDS WENT TO SHARON DRAPER. This is a post-press-time edit, because I just got off the phone with Jackie Parker Robinson who was on the Edwards Committee and she's like "NO LOVE FOR SHARON DRAPER?!" and I'm like "OMG I WAS WRITING SO FAST!"
This is another richly deserved lifetime achievement honor. Sharon Draper's books are read to tatters in the middle school classrooms I know best. Literally, the books are soft, their corners rubbed round. She speaks to so many kids, somehow letting them be cool and be moved at the same time. And she's won the Coretta Scott King Award FIVE TIMES. You bet your ass she gets a lifetime achievement award.
Jason Reynolds, who won the Coretta Scott King New Talent Award for his book When I Was the Greatest, is legit a new talent. I've read his forthcoming The Boy in the Black Suit, and this is empathetic prose for kids who don't think they want to read about feelings or introspection. Jason Reynolds is carrying Sharon Draper's work forward, you could even say. Big win here.
A funny book won a Printz Honor. A funny sci-fi book. Don't get me wrong, Grasshopper Jungle is not, like, Uncle John's Bathroom Reader, but sometimes it seems that you throw one too many LOLZ in a book, someone on that award committee is going to find it Not Serious Enough. I am glad that this Printz Committee understood that you can be Serious Enough and also Funny As Balls. On Facebook, Andrew Smith posted the news about receiving a Printz Honor for Grasshopper Jungle by saying, "finally I get a sticker that isn't a warning."
I called this one too - I sat up until 2am in a dark hotel lobby to read this book on my iPad this time last year, and once it came out, I said "Not since James Joyce's Ulysses has a book so preoccupied with spooge won so much critical acclaim." In fact, I offered that sentence as the blurb for the movie rights auction. Maybe it worked because let's just say EDGAR WRIGHT OMG AYKM?! QW$LKJGSU!! Yeah.
The Alex Awards go to the TEN best adult books for teens of the year. This is the format all the awards should take. It should absolutely be, "If you buy ten picture books this year..." or "Here are ten audio books that will take you through almost until 2016." As a person who has bought books for school libraries, I'll tell you that I'd love a list like that to choose from. Would I buy all ten books in each category? Probably not. But even the busiest selector can read ten review blurbs and take it from there.
On the subject of the Alex list, I'd like to point out that Milo's favorite book this year - and the first full-on adult novel he's ever read - was picked for it. So I'm going to vouch once again for The Martian: A Novel.
And just one more - the Morris Award and Honors, which recognize debut YA novels, generally go right to the top of my to-read list. This year is no exception: I have already read The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim (congratulations Emily Kate!) and The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos and as usual, debut YA fiction is some of the most raw, weird, witty, tear-it-up YA fiction around. And not for nothing - diverse. Owen lives with his aunt and her wife, and the hero of The Scar Boys has burn scars across his face that challenge every aspect of his life.
Great job across the board, Committees! These award and honor books feel more relevant this year. I don't know what was in the ether - although I suspect enhanced social media interaction had a lot to do with it. I've served on a ton of committees whose members are spread far and wide, and the danger is in too much politeness and formality. That's when you end up with a compromise winner - because nobody is really comfortable enough to go to the mat for a choice that doesn't initially have broad support.
But now that committee members friend each other on Facebook and Goodreads and follow each other on Twitter, they can get to know each other's preferences and sense of humor, and even though - of course - you can't discuss award candidates in any kind of open forum, that atmosphere of candor and trust comes with you into your chats and emails and official discussions.
Well, however it happened, we ended up with some bold, thoughtful choices, books that appeal to readers and books that reflect their experience. Best of luck to next year's committees!