Opened my email this morning to find an unusual year-end list from Kirkus: the Most Overlooked Books of 2015. I like that. That list made me think.
Usually this time of year I have no time for thinking. Even as the holiday BS is winding down, I'm usually busy reading hard and arguing loudly as a judge in the Cybils Awards. The Cybils are publicly nominated, with the finalists and winner agreed upon by a panel of judges. Finalists are announced January 1st, and the winners are announced on Valentine's Day - put it in your calendar. I'm not a judge this year though, so I get to sit back and spectate and read all the lists.
Because in addition to the Cybils, state lists and year-end best lists are proliferating like glitter under a craft table, all leading up to the big announcements of the Newbery/Caldecott/Printz/etc awards at the ALA Midwinter meeting January 11 (8am, in case you want to tune in for the live feed). The Nerdy Book Club awards have just been announced, and I love the Nerdies. Rather than a WINNER and a list of runners-up, the Nerdies publish lists of 10-30 books. Books are nominated via the website, a committee decides the finalists, and then the finalists are publicly voted upon. I love the thoughtful ways that the Nerdies, the Cybils, and some state lists (including the Maryland Black Eyed Susan, which I am on this year) try to ensure balance between the opinions of professional and general readers.
To be perfectly frank, however, I do not like awards. Too much of a democrat, I guess. I do not feel that books compete against each other, and I firmly believe that almost every book has its audience, even deeply flawed books. HOWEVER, it is impossible not to be conscious of the fact that, of all the consequences of a book getting an award, the largest one by far is the award's effect on the book's sales - general sales for sure, but school library sales in particular.
Purchasing for a school library is hard. I loved doing it when I did it, but I do not miss all the blood that ended up on the floor when I had to pare my lists down. And I am fortunate that I never had to justify my purchase decisions like so many librarians do. Awards, stars, and reviews in major publications are in some systems a requirement in order for a school librarian to purchase a title for his or her kids. And to that may I just say UGH.
Because, hard as award committees all work to consider all books, some great books, especially slightly off-kilter books - still manage to fly under the radar. Fun fact: not one of Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales has won a major Youth Media Award or Honor. And let me tell you - Nate's books are far from off-kilter. Every one of Nate's informative and entertaining nonfiction graphic novels should be in every school library in the nation.
So, I were still buying for a school library, I'd start with the Cybils finalists and the Nerdy winners - not only are those lists longer than the National Book Award finalists and the ALA Award Honorees, but I find them to be more focused on kid appeal. Then I'd compare my working list to this spreadsheet compiled by EarlyWord, which aggregates the Year's Best lists published by Amazon, Booklist, Entertainment Weekly (which is - perhaps surprisingly - a reliable source of good critical reviews), Hornbook, HuffPo, WaPo, NYT, SLJ, WSJ (eff you Megan Cox Gurdon), Library Reads, Publishers Weekly, the National Book Awards, and TIME magazine, who should either get better staff on this or just quit it.
But I would still be missing some great stuff, and that's where this Kirkus Overlooked Books list comes in. It's not long enough though, covering as it does titles for all ages (including Scarlett Undercover, a debut novel that I started but put down for some reason, and am picking up again on their recommendation). So I've taken a nostalgic scroll through my 2015 Goodreads shelves and here for you are my own picks for Best Overlooked Books of 2015:
The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman is a challenging book to read. Clocking in at almost 600 pages, with characters who speak a variety of original postcalamitous patois (patoises? patoix? what's the plural of patois?), it is hard to figure out what this book is at first. Here's what I thought while I was reading it:
"Obsessed with this book right now. Listening to it in the car and reading it on the couch - partly I need both channels in order to discern maximum meaning from the dense patois, and partly because said patois is so damn poetic. Like most postapocalypse narratives, there is an enormous amount of commentary on our contemporary world. Colonialization, exploitation of children for war, religious fundamentalism, and the vulnerability of the peaceable - all are amplified in this unstable environment, like weeds taking advantage of the disturbed soil of a roadcut. This book be vally bone."
Archivist Wasp: a novel by Nicole Kornher-Stace. Kirkus and I agree on this fierce novel, also concerning a teenage girl's journey through a post-apocalyptic world. But while Ice Cream is the stalwart, nervy leader of her tiny tribe of Sengles, Wasp is despised and feared by her little village. This book has the wind whistling through it and a tough, tough, bitterly lonely main character whose job it is to capture ghosts. She's like a sadder, even more defiant Rey (allegedly) Skywalker. Archivist Wasp was published by Big Mouth House, the children's imprint of Small Beer Press, which is the house run by Gavin Grant and Kelly Link. I'll pretty much take a chance on anything either of those two have had their hands on.
While we're on the tough teen girl ghostbuster tack, let me recommend Vermilion by Molly Tanzer. Here's what I wrote earlier in the year:
"Lou Merriwether, at 19, is a competent if hotheaded professional ghostbuster. She lives in a fabulous Weird West version of 19th century San Francisco, coping with and disposing of not only the geung si ghosts that she learned about during her youth in Chinatown, but also European-style vampires and spirits. I am a sucker for the steampunk trappings and anachronisms in Vermilion, and I love the clever worldbuilding, especially the active social and political roles that animals play. I especially like the way that the undead come in different cultural varieties. Diversity is kind of a theme in Vermilion, in fact. Lou presents as a man, mostly to make her life easier but also because that's how she feels most comfortable, and she has a crush on her childhood friend, Bo, who turns out to be in love with his business partner. There's room for all cultures and all kinds in Lou's wild, weird world."
Trashed by Derf Backderf features a teenager (technically a post-teenager, but not by much) doing a different kind of disposal - he's a garbage man. This is a funny, funny book - as you can imagine, the life of a trash collector is packed with physical comedy potential (diaper bombs! garbage juice! falling off the truck!) - but it threw me for a loop every time I saw one of my middle school boys cackling over it... because Derf Backderf's earlier graphic novel was a biography of his high school classmate... JEFFERY DAHMER. Derf's drawing style is very distinctive, and the covers are kind of similar, but Trashed is a verrrrrry much merrier book, easy to recommend to middle and high school kids.
MARTians by Blythe Woolston. Bless Blythe for writing great, crazy books that touch the raw nerves of modern life and can be read in a day or two. I am not being glib. Big fat novels of ideas are all very well for people who are in the habit of reading, but people who are not regular readers ought to get a crack at these thoughts too. Especially, it could be argued, the ideas in MARTians. MARTians is about - ugh, I hate summarizing - MARTians is about a girl, Zoe, who is on her own after her mom takes off. Her high school shuts down, so her class is abruptly processed through Commencement: some kids are sent directly to jail while others are awarded entry-level positions at big box stores. Interesting, yes?
The store is this fantastic, huge, nonsensical factory of commerce - the setting echoes Brazil as much as it does The Martian Chronicles, but I think young readers will find the kids in MARTians as inspiring and fascinating as I did. I keep wanting to use the word "anthemic" to describe this short masterpiece full of empty vistas and bonfires both literal and metaphorical - while I read, I kept hearing the MGMT song "Kids," with its marching rhythm, sprightly tune and somewhat melancholy tone. The book is like an epic enacted in a vacant lot, like freedom scraped from the places people have stopped seeing.
Wow. Ok. Don't watch that video. But I love that song.
Calvin by Martine Leavitt. You know what is the next big thing in YA? Mental illness. There are already a lot of new YA novels with characters suffering with OCD or coping with a parent's bipolar disorder, but holy mackerel, a quick scan through the spring catalogs yields a LOT of titles that sound like "Before We Were Broken" and "You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Angry" (OMG Gwenda Bond you should totally write the Teen Hulk story! See below RE: Fallout)
So I was not predisposed to sign right onto Martine Leavitt's story of a teen and his brand-new schizophrenia diagnosis. My gosh though - it is so good. Your heart breaks for Calvin, who so desperately wants to not be sick that he embarks on a ridiculous and dangerous mission that may or may not be in his own head. I'm not going to wreck any of this brilliantly-written novel for you, except to say that if you liked Libba Bray's Going Bovine, you'll like this book.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. Speaking of characters with mental illness, here's Mike. Mike and his friends are ordinary kids dealing with homework, love, neuroses, good parents and bad parents... and the fallout from periodic calamitous events centered upon the "indie kids," - the Buffys, the Teen Wolves, the Claire Bears - the superpowered kids who are always having to close cross-dimensional rifts and find powerful amulets.
"Is that Finn?" one of Mikey's friends asks. "Aren't they all named Finn?" is the response. It's a propulsive yet grounded story, with realistic characters whose daily small battles - with OCD, anorexia, unrequited love - are as epic in their way as any zombie apocalpyse.
It is a frickin CRIME that The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl doesn't show up on every Best list that considers graphic novels worth attention. Maybe because it showed up late in the year? Maybe because it hasn't been reviewed by Booklist or School Library Journal yet? I DUNNO. Because every scrap and kernel of Squirrel Girl is funny, smart, empowered... everything you'd like to see in a comic for kids - diverse characters, empathy, body positivity, kick-butt girls - it's all in there.
At one point Squirrel Girl interrupts Galactus to correct his gender pronoun usage: "He who wields the power cosmic --" "-- or she." "What?" "He OR SHE who wields the power cosmic..." and then Galactus whines about why doesn't English have a commonly accepted gender-neutral pronoun and I mean... that's just... if you can wangle this little discussion-starter into a panel of your comic book? Well then all I can say is MAKE MINE MARVEL. Nice.
Or... Make Mine DC! Fallout (Lois Lane) by Gwenda Bond follows the teenaged Lois Lane as she tries to fit in and fly right at a new school. Unfortunately, a secret supersoldier project that recruits high school gamers needs someone to take it down, and none of the locals seem ready to step up. It's totally Veronica Mars meets... well it's pretty much just Veronica Mars. Nothing wrong with that!
Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith and The Jumbies by Tracy Baptiste. How come neither of these smart spooky middle grade novels with a strong sense of place are on anyone's Best of 2015 lists? I'm going to bet that certain books - scary books, or funny books like Geoff Rodkey's The Tapper Twins books, tend to get overlooked as being "merely" entertaining. Well anyway, I'd buy these three for any school library.
Now, Mark Tougias's The Finest Hours: The True Story of a Heroic Sea Rescue didn't make any year-end Best lists, but I'm sure that guy isn't crying - the movie looks like it's going to be GREAT. Get your kids to read the book first - it's gripping and breakneck and astonishingly true, true, true.
It's going to be a good year, folks - and there will be lots of good stuff to read!