1/28/10 update: For the first time, you may also see the list of nominations for this award. Each book on the “nom list” was nominated by a member of the Alex committee, which meant that she (everyone was a “she” this year) believed it to be a “wow” read, worthy of consideration for the Alex award, which meant that all nine members had to read it. We did not know until this week that our nom list would be made public, but hey, stuff happens. I feel shy, but then delighted, knowing that you, too, can see what we discussed most thoroughly this year. Because man, it was hard to keep it a secret!
The Alex is a relatively new award given by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), which is part of the American Library Association (ALA.) It is given to up to 10 well-crafted, readable books published in the previous year for adults but which have potential appeal to teens as well.
This was my third of four years serving on the committee that determines the Alex Award winners. The committee consists of nine voting members from around the United States, plus one non-voting administrative assistant and one non-voting consultant from Booklist (a book review magazine for professional librarians and other readers.)
Every year we look at hundreds of books and discuss them for hundreds of hours via email and in person. Every year, the task of identifying ten “wow” books seems impossible to me, especially since reading is, ultimately, a very personal thing, and the committee members often disagree passionately about whether a book is worthy or not. Yet somehow every year the list comes together. Every year, I feel proud and privileged to have been part of the process.
The Alex Award winners are announced as part of the Youth Media Awards Press Conference that is held during the ALA’s annual Midwinter Meeting. The location is different every year (this year it was in Boston) but the press conference is always held at 7:30 a.m. on Monday morning. More famous awards, such as the Newbery (for best children’s book), Caldecott (for best illustration in a children’s book), and Printz (for best book published for young adults, aka teens), are also announced at this event.
Hundreds of librarians drag themselves out of their hotel beds, line up outside the conference center’s ballroom doors, and pour in when the doors open. The announcements and book covers appear on huge screens at either side of the vast space. Committee members have reserved seats near the front. I save the “Reserved for Alex Committee” sign from my seat to put on my home office bulletin board when I get home.
Thousands of librarians, publishers, authors, and others follow the announcements through web streaming, Twitter, and other online resources from home as well. People leap to their feet to cheer and jump up and down and hug each other if their favorites win. More than one youth services librarian has called this hour-long event “our Super Bowl.” Others call it “our Academy Awards.” We do get pretty excited about it, I agree. And why shouldn’t we?!
But even more enjoyable are the books themselves. Here are this year’s Alex Award winners, in order by title:
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. This nonfiction book is about a boy who grew up in impoverished Malawi, Africa. When he was 13 or 14 years old, William found a way, using books from his tiny local public library (yay!) and a little help from his friends, to build a large windmill from his rubber flip-flops and other stuff he found lying around. Power from that windmill helped first him, and then his family, then his whole village improve their quality of life. Mind you, he doesn’t start talking about the windmills until halfway through the book, but the first half is interesting because of the personal glimpse it gives into Malawi village life, culture, and politics. I love William’s joyful-serious voice.
The Bride’s Farewell, by Meg Rosoff, published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group. This is a short but layered, sweetly feminist novel that feels sort of like a folk tale. It is a Hero’s Journey about a strong but imperfect girl who runs away from home rather than marry the wrong boy, but who does not run away from the people she loves. I love the giving-and-releasing, the driving/resting, patterns in her story.
Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr., published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group. There have been voices in Junior’s head since before he was born, first warning him about the umbilical cord tightening around his neck, and then letting him know that he won’t actually die until a precise date 36 years later, when a comet will destroy the Earth. It’s up to him to decide what to do with the information while he grows up in a dysfunctional family. The chapters in this fast-paced novel count down until “the” day, making for an unusually engaging structure. One friend told me that she stayed up until 3 a.m. because she couldn’t sleep until she found out how it ends. And then she said, “D*mn!”
The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel, published by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Strause and Giroux. This nonfiction book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter about an American battalion on a 14-month tour in Iraq during 2007-2008 is dispassionate and balanced, yet/and therefore it made me weep, once I got into it. I confess that I resisted reading this Alex nomination for a long time because I usually find nonfiction war books dreary. However, I think that no matter where you stand on war books or the war itself – for, against, indifferent – you will agree that this is a powerful, respectful account of one group of soldiers’ experience of it.
The Kids Are All Right: A Memoir, by Diana Welch and Liz Welch with Amanda Welch and Dan Welch, published by Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. I packed this four-voiced memoir in my suitcase and read it at the speed of light the night before the committee’s final vote in Boston, then had to leave it behind to be photographed with the other winners because mine was the only copy available. I enjoyed it, and I am glad it is on the list of winners, but I need to re-read it when it comes back to me before I can write much about it. ‘Sorry. I can tell you that it is about four siblings whose dazzling, larger-than-Hollywood-life parents died, leaving them to grow up as best they could. They go through some ROUGH times but ultimately are able to write a book with this title.
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group. This fantasy is about a boy from a dismal background who discovers he has been admitted to a secret school for wizards. Now, wait! Before you yawn, let me tell you that this is very different from The Boy Who Lived (aka Harry Potter.) It is a dark, snarky, pseudo-coming-of-age novel that is full of insider references to all kinds of famous fantasy series. If you love Harry Potter, you may or may not love this, I’ll admit, but if you love fantasy in general, and if you love angsty, bizarre, boarding school reads, you might want to give this a try. I loved the imaginative details in this book’s plot, settings, and characters.
My Abandonment, by Peter Rock, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This little novel is based on a true story about an anonymous homeless girl and her father(?) who were found living in a nature preserve in Oregon. It is DISTURBING. It messed me up bad. The morning I finished reading it, I went in to my day job and was basically useless to my co-workers and customers all day because my mental and emotional wheels had to just keep spinning for a while about what I had read. It is told from the point of view of the girl, and the author’s delivery of her stunted yet highly intelligent voice is brilliant.
Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel,” by Gail Carriger, published by Orbit, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. This funny, sexy (but not explicit) steampunk supernatural fantasy romance mystery romp resists easy labels. It features a feisty young English woman whose literal absence of soul allows her to neutralize ghosts, werewolves, and other supernatural beings with her touch. She also wields her parasol quite handily as well. I loved her gossipy gay vampire friend and the Scottish alpha werewolf that prefers Alexia over the younger and more fashionable ladies that would like to marry him.
Stitches: A Memoir,” by David Small, published by W. W. Norton & Company. This black-and-white graphic “novel” is the nonfiction (true) story of this award-winning illustrator’s childhood. His parents were abusive and neglectful to the point of ignoring a cancer diagnosis for more than three years before taking him in for treatment. This book sat on the “to read” end of my sofa for months because I just did not want to read it. I would probably never have read it if I hadn’t had to for the Alex committee. However, it was very moving, and ultimately inspiring, so I’m glad I did.
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, by Kevin Wilson, published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins. This collection of delightfully odd, short(ish) stories is an eclectic mix of “wow’s.” There’s a cheerleader who would rather stay home and put together model sports cars. A man who earns his living by figuring out worst case scenarios. A museum of people’s detritus collections. And more. Even if you are not usually drawn to short story collections, this one is so bizarre – and yet so consistently satisfying – that it is worth a look.
A list of all of the ALA’s Youth Media Awards winners that were announced last Monday morning can be found here on the ALA’s website.
And now back to theatre reviews…
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com
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(Photo of stack of Alex winners, above, taken by me with my trusty iPhone in the committee’s hotel meeting room, just moments after we came back from voting and realized we had our list of winners. Yay!)