Cheap shot? Maybe. But it's hard to resist a good cheap shot. Here's the story:
I was in the auditorium for the live announcement of the American Library Association Youth Media Awards this Monday morning. A huge crowd - HUGE - had assembled to hear the big news in person, to hug each other when our favorites win or to engage in wild speculative gossip about WHAT that committee could POSSIBLY have been thinking when they chose THAT book. It's so fun. My favorite part is when the number of honor titles for an award is announced, and you hear a ripple of excited murmurs roll through the room - and then an immediate collective giggle at what geeks we all are.
This year, the Geisel Award for "the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished American book for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year" was awarded to David Adler and Sam Ricks for their book Don't Throw It to Mo!. There is a (slightly erroneous) perception that this beginning reader award has more or less belonged to Mo Willems ever since he started writing his Elephant & Piggie books - so when this title was announced, I leaned over to Andria Amaral sitting next to me and whispered, "That's so funny! They didn't throw the Geisel to Mo!" As I straightened up, we could hear the whole auditorium making the same connection - pockets of muted laughter stirring through the audience. God I love librarians.
I ran into Jon Scieszka a little later. He said he couldn't wait to tease Mo about it. "And he'll pretend he has no idea what I'm talking about."
Cheap shot or no, "Don't throw it to Mo" works pretty well to sum up a slate of awards that went to some unexpected choices. For example, as Todd Krueger pointed out, Don't Throw It To Mo is a series book, and not the first in a series, which is unusual for Geisel choices. Many award committees did great work surveying the whole field, and not just the frontrunners. Let's have a look at some highlights, in order by how they were announced on Monday:
The Alex is a list of ten books published for adults that have appeal and relevance to teen readers. I nominated Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts for Alex - the list of nominations makes for a great to-read list if you like coming of age stories, tight plots, great dialogue, or all of the above.
The nominees were very heavy on horror this year - Bird Box, which people keep reading upon my recommendation and for that I'd like to apologize because it scared the bejeebers out of every last one of em, Annihilation, The Fever, The Lesser Dead. I think that this is because teen horror readers are among the first (along with teen sci fi fans) to step up to the adult section. Horror written for teens just isn't horrific enough for kids who routinely watch the Paranormal Activity movies with their eyes open.
Camille DeAngelis's very good Bones & All (reviewed by me on Something Wicked This Way Comes of Age) made the final list, as well as Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong, which I really enjoyed reading, but am surprised to see on this list. I wouldn't have thought it was... bildungsroman-y enough for the committee. Nice to see such a purely entertaining read (albeit one in which a teenage girl faces her fears and gets her grr on) get this kind of attention.
The auditorium buzzed with surprise and pleasure when Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me was announced, and I say DAMN STRAIGHT teens should read this book. That's a Don't Throw it to Mo choice for sure. Thanks to the Alex Awards, I added Sacred Heart, a graphic novel by Liz Suburbia, to my to-read list, as well as All Involved, set during the 1992 L.A. riots, which I have picked up and put back down any number of times this year.
This award honors a title that reflects the disability experience. I could not be more thrilled about the 0-10 winner, Laurie Thompson's Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, illustrated by Sean Qualls. Nonfiction picture book about a kid in Africa, written by a woman and illustrated by an African American artist. YEP.
But what I thought was interesting about Schneider this year was that every book honored in this category - Fish in a Tree, The War that Saved My Life, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, as well as Laurie's book - was easily a frontrunner in their respective Newbery/Caldecott/Printz categories. It's lovely to realize that "the disability experience" has been pretty much integrated into what we now consider "experience."
Funny thing happened at work one day. Lady approached my friend Amanda with Sex is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and YOU by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth (which received a Stonewall Honor) in her hand.
"This was on the shelf over there in the children's section," she said.
"Yes," replied Amanda. "It's a children's book."
"Well, I just thought you should know," the lady said.
"Would you like to speak to someone about that book?" asked Amanda. "I can put you in touch with our book selectors if you have an objection to it, they'll be happy to discuss it with you..."
"Oh no," the lady said. "I just thought you should know."
"Ok, well, just so YOU know, I'm going to put it back on the shelf now, ok?" Amanda told her. "Are you sure you don't want to talk to someone about it?"
Yeah, she didn't. She just thought Amanda should know, which is code for "I am uncomfortable, please make this go away." Sorry lady, we don't speak code in the library.
But sex IS a funny word, and this is a funny book. In my opinion, it ranks right up there with the John Oliver Sex Ed monologue as one of the most informative and effective teaching tools you can find on the subject - and believe me, I have an article on sex and puberty books coming out in I think March, so I've been reading a LOT about private parts and what they can do. It's a Don't Throw it to Mo choice though for sure - a nonfiction title from a TINY press, written for really quite young readers, and while it is marvelously inclusive of GLBTQ content (and all orientations and genders now known and yet to be discovered), that is not its primary focus.
And the Stonewall Award books are marvelous - I've been saying all year that George is this year's Wonder (basically just to piss off conservatives), and I haven't read The Porcupine of Truth, but the auditorium responded lovingly when it was announced, which means either that the book is quite wonderful or the author is everybody's best friend.
CORETTA SCOTT KING
I may have been the loudest one cheering for the CSK/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award, because it went to Baltimore's own RONALD SMITH, author of the ABsolutely terrific Hoodoo (Karen Yingling's review appears on the Something Wicked Tumblr here). We had Ron on a horror for kids panel at KidLitCon and he was so smart and so generous. The plot and setting of Hoodoo read like a folktale from half a century ago, but the characters and dialogue are observed with an updated intimacy. Look for more from Ron.
Barely caught my breath before I had to start cheering for Ekua Holmes, who won the CSK/JS New Talent Illustrator Award for her sunny, heartfelt art in Carole Boston Weatherford's Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. This book also picked up a Sibert Honor (nonfiction) and a Caldecott Honor. For her first illustrated book! Wow! Carole Boston Weatherford is another Baltimore native, and I interviewed her for a Baltimore Sun column when she came for the Baltimore Book Festival.
What else was notable in the Coretta Scott King categories? Well, it was notable that Jason Reynolds got TWO Honors, one for All American Boys, which he co-authored with Brendan Kiely, and one for The Boy in the Black Suit, which I really liked, and which was notable for contributing to the Teen Books Set in Funeral Homes But Not Haunted Ones mini-trend.
Trombone Shorty won Bryan Collier the CSK Illustrator award, and it couldn't have gone to a nicer, more talented man; with Illustrator Honors going to Christian Robinson (about which more anon) and Gregory Christie; and of course the CSK Author Award went to Rita Williams Garcia who as far as I'm concerned is welcome to just hold on to that sucker until she feels like handing it off to someone else. Because she's great, and so are her books.
Let me pause to ask you something: do you see a trend in the illustrators honored by CSK?
Like a similarity in palette, with lots of muted tones, oranges and yellows with a lot of brown in them? or a habit of using as much of the picture plane as they can, with backgrounds filled in? Is there a similar painterly quality, or the combination of texture-y painted elements with collage or collage-like shapes (although they might all be imitating Collier, who's been doing that for always)? Just something to look at and think about.
I better step things up here, I'm not even halfway through the awards. Let me hit all these together. Because mostly they can be summed up in two words: JERRY PINKNEY. Winner of the 2010 Caldecott (and prior to that seriously FIVE Caldecott Honors), Jerry was this year awarded the CSK Lifetime Achievement AND the Wilder. Which means that National Treasure Jerry Pinkney gets two lifetimes. It's only fair.
The Margaret A. Edwards Committee was this year loaded with members who know what from what, and they gave David Levithan the award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults. I don't always leap up and read David Levithan's books, I freely confess - but I give them out with wild abandon. I already know what I think about myself and who I love and how I relate to people who are not exactly like me... but David Levithan's books have helped scores, scads, legions of young people come to grips with these things, and for this reason alone he deserves this honor.
My son Milo is reading Every Day right this second, basically because his girlfriend told him to, and he is going to come out the other end of that book understanding more about love than he did going in. #don'tthrowittomo moment: David Levithan is a relatively young man to be getting a Lifetime Achievement of any kind. Good job, committee.
NONFICTION - CHILDREN
I was devastated to realize, at a fairly late date, that my pal Laurel Snyder's acclaimed picture book biography of Anna Pavlova, Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, was not eligible for this or any ALA Youth Media Award because the illustrator, Julie Morstad, is Canadian. The rules for the entire suite of some of these awards specifically state that all the creators of a book must be United States citizens (actually, as Susan Kusel elucidates in this Awards Q&A, it's quite a bit more complicated than that). Which is just bullcrap. For Pete's sake.
HOWEVER, the winners in this category are about 50/50 expected and unexpected:
The honors went to Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, written and illustrated by Don Brown, which is a graphic novel that reads kind of like a Frontline documentary. It pulls no punches in describing the fear, hunger, filth, and neglect suffered by the citizens of New Orleans, and - yes - even depicts bodies in the water. But the book also highlights the dedication of ordinary citizens who piloted their own boats to rescue stranded people and pets in the aftermath of the storm. THIS is a Don't Throw it to Mo choice, and a book that belongs in every middle school and high school in the country.
I have great success getting kids to read The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip Hoose, also a Sibert Honor this year. Young teens in occupied Denmark, incensed by their country's capitulation to the Nazi invaders, embark on a campaign of vandalism that gets them captured and imprisoned, but which also galvanizes their countrymen to take action against the Germans. Stirring stuff, told in part by Pedersen himself, whom Phil Hoose interviewed at length before his death.
Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March, written by Lynda Blackmon Lowery as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley, illustrated by PJ Loughran also takes advantage of first-person narrative. It's easy for kids to put themselves in Lowery's shoes as she and her friends participate in nonviolent demonstrations and bear witness to one of the most important social changes in U.S. history.
And the award went to a wonderful book: Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. I haven't used the word "diversity" yet in talking about these award winners, but lordy lord lord, this was a good year for creators of color. Tonatiuh is Mexican-American ("Tonatiuh" is an Aztec name, so you could probably also call him an author of First Nations descent as well), and his art is significantly informed by Mixtec style, all curly ears and heavy-lidded eyes.
But COME ON - what does Nathan Hale have to do to get recognized in this category? His nonfiction graphic novels are like the Schoolhouse Rock of American history, making American history hilarious and relevant and... and... AAAAGH give the man a sticker and put his books in every school library in this country, for crap's sake.
NONFICTION - YOUNG ADULT
Ok the YALSA Nonfiction award got thrown to Mo, as it were: Steve Sheinkin, a perennial frontrunner in this category, received it for his book Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War, which Andria and her Teen Lounge kids call "that book with David Duchovny on the cover." You can't begrudge though - there's a reason Sheinkin is always in the running for this award, and that's because he is always crazy passionate about the subject he is writing about, in this case the Vietnam War. His research is original and new, and his fast-paced writing makes every subject sing. He does get unfortunate covers, though. That guy really does look like Mulder.
Four other books were finalists for the award: Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir, written by Margarita Engle; First Flight Around the World: The Adventures of the American Fliers Who Won the Race, written by Tim Grove, which I showcased in an article for the Sun; Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, written by M.T. Anderson, which my husband read and found notable for its odd lack of a point of view; and This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon, written by Nancy Plain.
This last one I haven't even seen, which is a bit strange, since I have spent a fair amount of time with Audubon by virtue of my time working in the American Museum of Natural History Library. Turns out it's published by University of Nebraska Press - so I'm calling this a Don't Throw it to Mo Honor... it takes perseverance to dig out even the books published by academic presses for committee consideration.
Much love to my homies on this committee - but this was the award about which I heard the most discontented chatter. Only two Honors were conferred along with the Award (Laura Ruby's Bone Gap, which everyone was quite pleased about): Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Pérez, and The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick. Nobody had boo to say about the acclaimed Out of Darkness, a work of historical fiction that addresses social and racial tension in 1930's East Texas - but the Sedgwick book really seemed to have dropped out of the sky, especially in a year that saw such outstanding books as The Bunker Diary, Shadowshaper, Everything, Everything, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and my faves MARTians, I Crawl Through It, and Archivist Wasp.
Suffice to say this is a good year to keep an eye on the longer lists selected by other YALSA committes, like Top Ten for Young Adults and Best Fiction for Young Adults. You were going to buy more than three books for your high school library anyway, right?
Oh by the way Bone Gap features a main character named Finn, which is an inside joke in Patrick Ness's The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Cracked me up.
So, Margarita Engle has had books in how many categories so far? Just one? Well hold onto your hats, because this year the Cuban-American author, who was the first ever Latino to be awarded a Newbery Honor, in 2009 for some book of poetry I am never going to read, was ON FIRE. Her memoir Enchanted Air won the Author Award and her picture book Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl's Courage Changed Music picked up the Illustrator Award for Rafael Lopez.
Meg Medina, who gained a place in my heart for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, also ruled the Pura Belpré. Her book Mango, Abuela, and Me picked up an Illustrator Honor for Angela Dominguez and an Author Honor for Medina.
The Belpré Committee scoured the ground this year and came up with a couple of #don'tthrowittomo choices: The Smoking Mirror, the first in an Aztec-themed fantasy series written by David Bowles and published by WHO? (IFWG Publishing?) and My Tata's Remedies / Los remedios de mi Tata, published by Cinco Puntos Press, whose offerings impress me more every time I come across them.
I have a friend on this committee this year (or actually next year's committee I think) and she told me they're looking at changing the eligibility for this award, which goes to the best children's video of the year. "What? Are they just going to tell Weston Woods they can keep it?" I asked. Weston Woods is this media company that makes darling little videos of picture books, and they seem to win it every year.
And in the most amusing example of an award getting thrown to Mo - a double dose, in fact - this year Weston Woods won it AGAIN, for That Is Not a Good Idea!, a video adaptation of a very cute picture book written by Mo Willems, who also did a verrrry convincing villain voice in the video.
AND NOW THE BIGGIES
Except to be really happy that a graphic novel that everybody's going to want to read is on the list - yay Roller Girl!
And then Caldecott. One award and four honors - full of women illustrators and creators of color, characters of color, and look at all the nonfiction! Sophie Blackall won it, for Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear. Much deserved.
Read 'em all! Make up your own mind!