I neglected to post my SLJ Battle of the Kids' Books judging results when it went live on the BOB site a couple of days ago. After Anita Silvey chose Tales from Outer Suburbia over Sweethearts of Rythmn and Julius Lester chose Storm in the Barn over When You Reach me, I had two graphic novels to choose from. Well, one is a highly illustrated collection of short stories. What a task! Here's what I wrote:
First up: Matt Phelan’s graphic novel Storm in the Barn. I loved the feel of this book. It’s 200 pages, and they flow effortlessly. The washed out blues, grays, and browns evoke the famine-striken land, a town in Kansas waiting years for rain in 1937. His style is so accessible, and he communicates action and emotion with simple lines and shading and minimal color. A flashback section and a story-within- the-story apply richer color, bringing the context of the setting into sharp definition.
The story itself is highly readable. Jack is one casualty of the drought. At age 10 or 11, he should be a farm hand, but there’s no farm to work unless rain returns. Other stories intertwine with Jack’s — Dorothy in Oz, Jack of fairy tale fame — adding meaning and texture.
The boy’s story bends from historical fiction to fairy tale when he sees flashes in an abandoned barn and believes a rain monster is hiding inside. Text is minimal, and the illustrations tell what needs to be told. A wonderful medium for this story, and a wonderful story. Well done, Matt Phelan!
The second contender is Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. He wowed me with The Arrival, and I was excited to lay my hands on this lavishly illustrated collection of short stories. What a treasure.
All of Tan’s stories can be read for what they are–speculative fiction set in a real world. Or perhaps realistic fiction in a world of magical realism. Or somewhere in between. But of course the beauty of this genre is that readers can create their own metaphors for these tales. “Stick Figures” echoed for me colonized Australia, and the lingering guilt and sadness that the land once belong to others who were driven away. Silent ghosts, voiceless reminders. The same could be read for American Indians or other slaughtered and displaced peoples. Or it could be the land itself protesting–the trees that have been cut away springing back up.
Or dozens of other metaphors.
The last line of “Undertow” gave me chills each time I read it. Such unexpected hope! Such grace! Here, Tan reminds me of Raymond Carver at his best. His stories also evoke other great writers of short speculative fiction, like Kelly Link and Gabriel Garcia Marquez–what a dazzling feat for an illustrator! But after reading this, I have to consider Shaun Tan, master of the great wordless graphic novel, as a terrific writer as well. I’m not sure what the effect of these stories would be without the illustrations, but it doesn’t matter. The stories are vivid, the illustrations gorgeous, and the whole package is delectable.
My one quibble is with the cover. I don’t think this is the best illustration to define the collection. Let me just throw that out there in case others agree and the publisher rethinks that for paperback. But I love the bumpiness and raised font! I love tactile covers. And in all ways, the book is packaged beautifully.
Between the two, my heart goes to Tales from Outer Suburbia. They’re both obviously terrific books, but that one just stuck to me longer. I’m sure another judge could easily rule the other way. They aren’t written for the same audience. I’d say Storm in the Barn is for 8-12, while Outer Suburbia is 12-adult, but I wasn’t asked to consider age range or anything else. My job is simply to read two books and pick one.
And so I get an intimate glance into the capriciousness of judging books for awards! Nevertheless, I’m proud to send this book along to Walter Dean Myers. Well done, Shaun Tan!
It was interesting for me to read Walter Dean Myers' results this morning. Wow, how differently he read Shaun Tan's book than I did. He wrote, "A different approach to a story? Absolutely! An interesting approach? Mildly. Compelling? No. After The Arrival I expected great things from Shaun Tan. I still do." His reading of "Stick Figures" was quite different than mine, and he didn't take the same sense of wonder from the stories that I did. This sort of exercise is most enlightening for me in terms of reader response. I was an ideal reader of Tan's book, and Myers was not. That doesn't mean that Tan's book is no good and I was wrong, or that is book is brilliant and Myers is wrong. There were plenty of smart, well-read, open-minded people who agreed with one or the other of us. So much of reading is what the reader brings to the text.
I found it also interesting that as a judge, I was looking for weakness in a book as much as strength. I was looking for a reason to dismiss one and so make the choice easier. If you're a Newbery committee member, you must feel the same way. There are hundreds of books! Please give me a reason to dismiss you so I can check it off my list and read another. Editors must feel the same. So many submissions! A strong weakness can be a godsend when you've got a huge pile of agent submissions on your desk. That's a rough reality, but true, I think. All the more reason to make sure that book is the absolutely strongest it can be before sending it out. Don't give them a reason to stop reading. But of course it all depends on what that editor (or judge, or reader) brings to the text, how they read your story, if they feel you and are willing to go along for the ride. God bless kindred spirit readers!
SLJ BOB goes on through next week. Tomorrow the zombie book is revealed--the book that gets resurrected from the dead to go to the final round, where it will join Marching for Freedom and The Lost Conspiracy in the hands of Katherine Paterson. Such suspense!
EDIT: No more April Fool's Day jokes for me! They seem to backfire. One lovely college-age reader was so upset by last year's, her mother wrote me asking me to apologize publicly. I'm reformed and starchly serious now...until I think of a joke that is backfire-proof.