Bit late to the party with my BEA recap this year, but I had a lot to think about. So just think of this post as the online equivalent of the relieved sigh that came from each seat on the shuttle bus as it was claimed by a footsore, shoulder-sore convention-goer at the end of the day. Ahhhhh....
This annual one-day feast of author panels and publisher pitches was so full of talent and intelligence, and went off with so few hitches, and in such a nice, spacious space that organizer Luann Toth has taken to calling it "Day of Sheer Delight." She deserves to - it was delightful!
I sat right down in the center of the second row with my friend Paula - having a like-minded partner at these things is an unacknowledged must. You really need someone to trade significant glances with when a speaker says something amazing or a publisher pitches a book that sounds... um, not amazing. Or else you find yourself standing on the side leaning against a wall, making reaction faces that apparently EVERYONE can interpret. Not that that's happened to me.
Richard Peck spoke. National Treasure Richard Peck, I should say. Japan has these Living National Treasures and I really think the U.S. should follow suit. Who should it be? Richard Peck, Lois Ehlert, Rita Williams-Garcia, Chris Hemsworth. What? Why not Chris Hemsworth! Shut up.
Ok AMONG the interesting things Richard Peck said: "Most of who we are is determined in those first five years - when schools fail, families fail first." NB: Peck is a former teacher. He quoted Twain, as well he might: "Humor is anger that went to finishing school." He talked about his themes: "My books are always about a boy looking for a role model. The best role models are dead and the worst are a year ahead of you in school."
And he held up a poster for his book and said, "This is my idea of a PowerPoint." Living. National. Treasure.
During the nonfiction picture book panel, Candace Fleming and Eric Rohman, husband and wife creators of Giant Squid, described fitting his art and her words together to form kind of a piecemeal picture of a creature about which little is known. Leafing through the book, it's like how we meet the alien in Alien - we see streaming tentacles, a close-up of an eye, every image like a startling flash photo from a camera trap.
Camera trap photo by George Shiras 3rd, National Geographic Magazine
Great quotes from that panel:
Mara Rockliffe: "I believe in a usable past - I pick stories to tell not just because they happened but stories that can teach us something. I want boys and girls to know there have always been adventurous women."
Candy Fleming: "I'm a storyteller, not a fact-teller. I wanted a picture book that had some musicality, that would work being read aloud."
And I can't remember who said "Nonfiction picture books can never meet nonfiction standards, because we don't have sources for every moment. If Darwin walks down the street and leans against a lamppost - we are never going to have documentation of every step he takes and every lamppost he leans on."
Julia Kuo: "On the other hand, because of this, you can draw everything the author had to edit out."
Eric Rohman: "Picture books are a collaborative artwork - like opera."
Middle grade masters Gidwitz, Holm, Reynolds
The middle grade panel was intriguingly titled, "Truth be told: Big questions in middle grade fiction and what adults keep from children." It's kind of amusing that this panel was nominally about questions, because moderator Betsy Bird got the chance to ask exactly ONE: - her panel of Kelly Barnhill, Adam Gidwitz, Jenni Holm, Jason Reynolds, and Raina Telgemeier picked up that question and RAN RAN RAN. This was a 100% all-star panel - all of these guys write books that are not only popular but, ugh sorry I'm going to have to resort to fancy critic vocabulary - good. Like, DARN good.
Kelly Barnhill: "As far as your book is concerned, memory and imagination are the same."
Raina: "What you feel is always true regardless of whether it's historically accurate."
Kelly: "We've been telling stories since before we could talk. We invented language to tell stories more efficiently. Story seeks to blend the experience of the teller and the listener." Speaking of efficient - that last sentence is the best functional definition of a successful reading experience I've ever seen that was less than book-length.
Jason Reynolds: There will always be a commonality if the writer is authentic - pain, family, etc. You may not be pursued by knights like Adam's characters or live in Brooklyn like mine but a kid is a kid and if your kids react correctly then you can make a connection. (this is a big paraphrase - Jason is an incredible speaker with unerring word choice, and I wasn't writing fast enough to get it right)
Oh and may I just interrupt myself to say - yes of course I read Ghostsright off the bat and yes it is just as good as you hoped it was going to be. Raina stated during the panel discussion that she was a little worried about this foray into out-and-out fiction, but the story is marvelous, the characters are totally real, and the art - the art surpasses everything she has done to this point. With every book you can see Raina drawing a few more landscapes, adding a few more panels with scenic backgrounds and plants in the foreground, and this book, set on the Northern California coast, has some magnificent drawings of the cliffs and the bay, and the kind of semi-kooky bungalows and plant life you find in that part of the country. Plus, it is so much about endings and transitions and making your peace with change and... I have to admit I got kind of emotional there toward the end.
Me and Laini Taylor. I used to have that hair. Remember when I had that hair?
Laini Taylor was the after-lunch keynote speaker, and if Richard Peck is a hero author we all had grown up with, Laini is like our carpool/coffee shop/Twitter sisterwife. In discussing her new book Strange the Dreamer, she spoke about genres and how much she loves them and how she likes it when two of her favorites get together and have mutant babies.
She quoted herself from the New York Times Book Review (girl, there is no shame in that - if I ever get published in the New York Times Book Review, I am going to quote that shit every chance I get): something about how plot conventions and the uses of genre are so popular because they satisfy "cravings that have been satisfied by myth since the dawn of time - cravings like heroism, true love, villainy." She said, "This accounts for the passion of genre readers - their reading becomes part of their identity." And she made up a word that we all immediately took to heart: "readers find things in [genre fiction] - the satisfaction of the desire to be special. We have a myth-hole that wants to be filled."
"Myth-hole," she giggled. "That sounds so wrong." SO WRONG IT'S RIGHT, ya pink-haired Fluevog-wearing intergalactic fairy warrior mom! Laini Taylor is just the best.
How am I doing? Still on the first day, I see. Sigh. Every year I think I'm going to recap BEA in one post, but then I get going and...
Panel III was a bunch of YA fantasy authors - all women, as it turned out. They were asked if they'd ever felt any pressure or expectations in the way that female characters were portrayed, and the answers were very nuanced. I've asked this question - notably of male authors - and gotten kind of a harrumph answer: 'I don't let market demand push me around;' 'I must stay true to the character;' all that stuff. Which, sure, that's true. But it's also true what Roshani Chokshi said: "Female readers can be extraordinarily critical of female characters - because we identify and care about them so strongly." They all talked about how they're sick of the word "strong," saying, "We don't all have to be Katniss."
I think I'm kind of in love with Roshani Chokshi - when asked about explicit romantic behavior in their books, she said, "I wanted to write more kissing scenes, but I was living at home with my parents. My dad would walk in the room where I was working and be like, 'What are you writing?' and I'd be like 'DAAAAD!'"
And then there was the last panel, which was so chock full of talent I literally was unable to take notes. Kate Beaton was on it, y'all. Kate Beaton has written a book about how babies do not GAF, and she described some of her observations of babies. "You'll be in this coffee shop and there's all this stuff going on, people are having conversations and what not, and the baby is just oblivious. The baby is just trying to get its foot in its mouth." She talked about her sister's baby's first Christmas, "My mom is like, 'do you think he has any idea about the birth of Our Lord?' and I'm like, 'Mom I think he's just discovered his toes.'"
There were other people on the panel. Lots of them. Like, Erin Stead. Jerry Pinkney - Living National Treasure Jerry Pinkney and you can look that up, he won two lifetime achievement awards this year alone. But I have to be honest. KATE BEATON.
Kate Beaton drew a tiny Vagrant-y cartoon in my autograph book!
After a final round of applause, it was into the signing room! TWENTY-FOUR artists and authors were seated behind tables signing free copies of their newest books to attendees. WHY is Day of Dialog worth the price of admission? IN ADDITION to getting to hear some of the top brains in the business talk about their work? It's because you get to meet the creators face to face and walk away with - literally - as many books as you can carry. Cue ecstatic sigh.
Lauren Castillo found a cute place to sign my book.
Lauren Castillo is herself pretty darn cute.
Erin Stead looked for a long time for the perfect spot.
Michelle Cuevas admires Scott Campbell's autograph in my old book.
Kelly Barnhill knew just what to say, cementing the impression I had gotten of her from the panel she was on.
KATE BEATON KATE BEATON OMG
I had every intention of turning this right over to my friend John, but then I started reading it. Mmm... you guys, this right here is quite a thing. You're going to want to read it. No idea about the slippers thing though.
I am on a significant roll with my YA and adult reading lately. When's the last time you could say that? When's the last time every book you picked up knocked you on your butt and made you holler on Facebook or DM the author or, in once case because I don't have any access to the author - yell at the author's agent about how good the book was? I mean, who knows agents?
Apparently, I do.
Each and every one of these books deserves a thoughtful in-depth review. And I expect we will see those reviews in the New York Times or Kirkus or the Guardian or somewhere else that hasn't yet employed me to write book reviews. From me, you're just gonna get a list and a couple paragraphs. Pollen. Makes me stupid. So here you go (in ascending order by audience):
I know it's hard to write a picture book manuscript. Some of my favorite people do it, and it seems like a labor of love, with the emphasis on the labor. The very economy of the form means that every phrase, sometimes every word will be examined and held up to the light and chipped at like a tiny gem. Page breaks are a factor. Pace. There's space in a picture book - literally - page real estate, that lets you insert beats and pauses. It's probably more like writing music than it is like writing a book.
But I gotta admit, it's the art that wins me over. I'm so shallow. I think that working on a picture book is probably a uniquely satisfying experience for an artist, especially an artist who specializes in illustration. It's really the only context I can think of in which an illustrator gets to run their own narrative. Their images can reinforce the text or, by opposing it, add perspective or reveal the narrator's blind spots.
When you've got, say Patrick McDonnell interpreting a Sherri Duskey Rinker script, as in Silly Wonderful You, you'll get deadpan sight gags to accompany the already amusing text. Yuyi Morales might take some of Sherman Alexie's narrator's dialog in Thunder Boy Jr. and put it in speech bubbles coming from other characters, making the story seem to be told by the whole family. (That's a really cool choice for that book BTW, gives it kind of a mythic oral-history feel.) An article in Publishers Weekly tells the story of that book's creation, and weirdly, the two creators pretty much say exactly what I wrote in the first two paragraphs of this post.
I love pencil lines like the beautiful clean gestural ones of Viviane Schwarz and Ross Collins and Julia Sarcone-Roach. I love goofy energy and tiny dots for eyes that are somehow magically expressive!
In short, I just love picture book art. Here are some recent standouts.
You hear a lot, in some circles, about how difficult it is to teach children about values in the face of persuasive and abundant media depictions of violence, licentiousness and other bad crap, including sexual violence and predatory behavior toward women that is often dressed up as romance. I'm looking at you, Edward the vampire. What was that character's last name? Crap, now I have to go check.
Aaaand I fell down a Renesmee rabbit hole. BOY is that character a mess. Talk about a plot Band-Aid, jeez. Need to tie something up? Get Renesmee to do that thought-projection thing and everybody's all up to speed.
The Twilight books and movies are indeed remarkable in the number and variety of bad relationship behaviors that they romanticize. Endangering oneself to get attention? Bella. Stalking? Edward. Treating a potential romantic partner as an attainment? Heyyyy werewolf and vampire, I see you guys dick-jousting over there.
I use this image to illustrate some of the less-popular traits of adolescence in our Something Wicked This Way Comes of Age presentation. In that talk, we discuss how the popularity of horror fiction among teens makes perfect sense given the evolutionary imperatives that drive their neurological and emotional development. The whole MUST MATE thing, mostly.
Must mate - and confused as hell about it. Which is why it's so frustrating when movies and TV aimed at them furnish so very many examples of What Not To Do With, To, or Around the Object of Your Affection; How Not To Refer to Your Guy or Lady; What Not to Ask Them To Do; etc and obviously I could go on all day. But good moments in media exist too. I was inspired to run a few of them down because... well because we took the kids to see Deadpool this weekend. We're bad, we know.
In her author's note, E. K. Johnston admits straight out that she wrote this book while very, very angry. I bet she did. This is a fucking great novel.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear is about a teenage rape survivor. Hermione, a popular athlete - co-captain of her cheerleading team - is drugged, raped, and left half-submerged in a lake. She cannot remember the crime or identify her attacker. She is angry, hurt, and sad, but she and her team and her family tackle each step of her recovery process with courage, love, and determination.
And there you have the bare bones of your standard-issue Problem Novel, during the course of which we will watch our heroine struggle bravely to regain her confidence, conquer her self-doubt, and perhaps find love. Excuse me while I never ever read a book like that again. Maybe, because Emily Johnston has written this book, I never have to.
Because Hermione does NOT struggle with self-doubt. She is quite clear that the only person to blame here is the guy who attacked her, and if she even momentarily loses her clarity on that score, her best friend Polly is burning with fury at her side, ready to remind her. Nor does Hermione have to deal with parental shellshock or smothering. Hermione's team rallies around her - even the boys try to act normal, with mostly pathetic results (ehh, boys). When she slaps her ex-boyfriend, whose stance is that "she'd have been safe if she'd been dancing with me," her therapist is eager to hear how hard. And when Hermione stops in to see the pastor to ask him to stop reminding the congregation to remember her in their prayers - she does not WANT to be Hermione the Rape Victim and who can blame her - the pastor looks her in the eye with compassion but not pity.
Everyone holds their breath when she has to endure examinations, pregnancy tests, and a termination procedure, but they never once utter the word "options" - which Hermione notices with gratitude.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a freaking casebook of How to Think and Do when dealing with a victim of sexual assault.
And in the hands of a lesser writer, this might result in tedium or sanctimony. It might at least be distracting. I think we've all seen movies like that - cancer movies especially perhaps. Debra Winger spewing love and forgiveness from her hospital bed in Terms of Endearment, Susan Sarandon nobly handing over the reins to Julia Roberts in Stepmom.
But bless her, E.K. Johnston (author of The Story of Owen, which is my sons' hands-down favorite book of all time right now, and in my own top ten) is NOT a lesser writer. I read this book in three hours, propelled onward by characters I loved and who loved each other. It is marketed as a cross between Veronica Mars and A Winter's Tale, but honestly I saw more Jessica Jones in it than Mars - Hermione faces her trauma with some of Jessica's belligerence (but none of her bourbon), and the friendship between Hermione and Polly is just as rock-solid as Jessica's relationship with Trish. Remember, at the end of the series, the big climax is Jessica telling her best friend that she loves her? Same thing here. "I love you." "I know."
I imagine that Emily Johnston wrote this book after seeing yet another young rape victim publicly blamed for the crime perpetrated against her. I imagine that she sat down, all gritted teeth and flared nostrils and hair on fire, and wrote this book for all those girls, to show them that SOMEBODY knows the right way to treat them, to talk to them and about them. And if that's what we need, if we, as parents, faculty, friends, cops, teammates need a template for how to respond in a situation we hope no woman ever has to endure, well, now we have it. Lucky for us it's a compulsive, easy read, because I'm hoping it gets assigned in about a million advisories, homerooms, and health classes.
Look for this stellar work of realistic fiction in March, 2016.
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:
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 Clubawards 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.
Cece Bell, Jackie Woodson, Dan Santat and Yuyi Morales at the ALA Annual Conference, June 2015. It was a very good year for the ALA Youth Media Awards.
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:
I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed... -- Lloyd Dobler, Say Anything
It's not just me, is it? Faced with the task of buying one or more THINGS per family member or dear friend - determining what that THING shall be, finding it, pricing it, procuring, storing, sometimes hiding it, then processing it via gift wrap and tags - doesn't everyone get a little Doblery? After all, he gives her his heart - something he had to neither shop for nor wrap. She gave him a pen.
But, for better or for worse, we're giving gifts. And you know what will make you feel a little better about participating in this annual collective shuffling of goods bought sold and processed? If those goods are actually, you know, GOOD. Like books.
Say you've got a 14-year-old reader. A boy who is has started to welcome a sliver of romance into his postapocalyptic action novels, a girl who is beginning to find the Wings of Fire novels a little simplistic. Maybe you've got a formerly enthusiastic reader who is suddenly uncommunicative, a good student who is newly plagued by self-doubt, a pair of lovebirds who spend half their homework time texting each other emojis. I am trying - unsuccessfully - not to say 'ugh' to that last one. I mean, there's no harm in texting adorable tongue-stuck-out poofy pandabear hearts to your dear one, but GOD. On behalf of your future self, can I just ask you to knock that shit off? to exhibit some self-respect..?
Maybe just take a break and read a book instead? You might learn something about the way you're acting. Some kids like realistic fiction at this stage - they want examples of how other kids have tried to be cool in the face of first love, they are looking for language they can pilfer when talking back to their parents. That's helpful stuff. But there are also books that examine the darker urges of adolescence, that blow them up and play them out to pitiless extremes.
Jack Gantos's The Trouble in Me is an account of some bad decisions the author made during junior high school in Florida. And When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord is a sort of magic-realist novel about adolescence in a small town. Both books treat coming of age as a sacred and terrifying process, marked by blood and fire, perilous but inevitable.