Last year, I was lucky to be asked to be a part of the second round Cybils YA judging committee — my responsibilities involved reading 7 titles that the first round judges and picking one book of those to be winner. We looked at tons of criteria of the seven books before finally deciding on one title.
This year, I got to experience the Cybils on the opposite side. Rather than reading 7 titles and picking one winner, I had the opportunity to help read through over 180 titles and winnow down the pool to 7 titles to pass on to second round judges.
Being a part of this panel was some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It was completely exhausting and at times emotionally draining, but after three months of reading wildly, it all came down to a 4.5 hour discussion the day after Christmas. The day we took that gigantic list and picked the best of the best; these are the books we beg everyone who reads kid lit to read.
To help in making decisions during this single discussion (and trust me when I say we talked about these books WELL beyond one single discussion), we were asked to short list titles that stuck out to us as having high literary merit and high teen appeal — titles worth talking about and digging into. At first, our short lists could be as long as we wanted, but as the month of December moved on, we were charged with narrowing and narrowing further, until each of us brought our “fighting five” to the final discussion. Those were the titles we would be passionately making cases for and defending.
When we came to that final discussion, we had a total of 13 titles among us. So how to decide? In short, it’s part art and part science.
Jackie had a brilliant method for further narrowing this list of 13 down to 7. We were each asked to rank the list of 13 titles and add one wildcard title — this could be something we wanted to bring up for consideration again, even if it hadn’t made anyone’s final five short list. She added each of our ranks up and divided them by the number of readers (each of these titles had at least 6 of the 7 of us reading them) before announcing we had three clear front runners, three clear bottom listers, and a bunch in the middle. We chose to keep the top three titles without questioning or discussion since they came out so much higher than other titles. We did the same with the bottom three titles since they came out markedly lower than those titles in the middle.
And then there were seven titles vying for four spots, and that’s when things got
We talked through each of the titles, one by one, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. This wasn’t time to simply state whether we liked it or hated it, but rather to talk specific points like character development, plot holes, and even the nitty gritty things that didn’t work (and yes, we got minute on details — at this point, these things mattered since there were so many good books being considered). Interestingly, titles that I found to be on the weaker scale on initial reads became stronger in my mind after talking about them and vice versa. A book that kept a place on my short list throughout the entirety of the reading and discussion period ended up being my bottom lister at the end (and a title that ultimately did not make the cut).
One thing I decided from the beginning was that I would hold my arguing strength toward just a couple of titles that I would be heartbroken about if they didn’t make the short list. Even though I had my “fighting five,” I really only planned to fight hard on two. And I think of the 13 titles, there was only one I would have spent any time arguing against; while I liked it, I had a number of issues with plotting and pacing and ultimately was one of the early cuts. I made my arguments, supported 100% with rational, logical, well-reasoned support (okay, okay – and some straight up words like LOVE may have entered the discussion) and was very excited my top titles, Split, Some Girls Are, and Stolen, ended up on the short list.
To be honest, a couple of the books we chose were titles I never felt anything for. But thanks to the impassioned pleas of the other panelists, I reread the titles with a bit of a different eye and saw exactly what value they would add to the short list. In fact, I reread all but one title on our final short list, taking into account the arguments and discussions brought up in emails we bounced back and forth throughout. I’m also delighted a couple of titles that were initially ranked lower when we began our discussion ended up making the final cut after lengthy discussion of plot and character points. To say I’m thrilled with the range of titles represented would be an understatement. And there are some books — Sorta Like a Rockstar being one — that I would have never picked up without the pushing of other panel members, and I cannot be happier I listened to them.
As for the wildcard titles, I was fine letting mine go. I was happy a couple other panelists read it, even though they weren’t as wild about it as me (actually, I don’t think any of them were, but it didn’t make me love them any less…mostly). There were a number of completely worthy books that many of us added and removed from our short lists multiple times that ultimately didn’t make the cut. I think I’ve said it once or twelve times already, but narrowing 180+ books down to 7? Not easy. It has been painful to keep this list quiet for almost a week.
I couldn’t have asked for more fun people to read, discuss, and argue with. Each had a wicked sense of humor, as you’ll see in the next week — we have a little fun to share with everyone through our blogs about some of the things we learned while reading. Keep your eyes peeled.
Thanks to Amanda, Ami, Cheryl, Jackie, Justina, and Melissa for a fantastic time. Once again, I was blown away with how reading and discussing books with other people changed my reading mindset and made me look at things a little bit differently. And of course, the endless laughs! Every day delivered a little smile to my inbox, be it about a book or something completely unrelated to books and reading.
There is an awesome balance to the list, quite by accident rather than purposefully planned, and we have three books featuring strong male voices (one of the things that makes my librarian heart grow large). I think if there were one word to describe what made each of these stand out for me, it would be voice. Voice even outweighed issues in plot for a couple books — I think the thing I learned most while being on this panel was that voice is my *key* component for a good book.
I’d love to tell you why you should read and promote each and every one of them, but because our panel wrote some excellent rationales for our decisions, I think I’ll let those do the talking. If you haven’t read any of these, get to it. You will not be sorry.
Without further ado, here is our short list, in alphabetical order:
Dirt Road Home by Watt Key
Fast paced, gripping, and heartfelt, Dirt Road Home was the book that we just couldn’t put down. The story follows Hal, who is looking for a clean slate inside the Hellenweiler Boys Home, a juvenile detention facility. What he finds is a jungle where the only rule is for inmates to pick a side in the brewing gang war. When Hal refuses, he becomes a target, which sets off a string of events that makes Hal’s goal of staying on the straight and narrow hard to keep. His earnest voice and straightforward point of view are world weary while still being fresh, and Watt Key has masterfully crafted a book that is not only about second chances, but about staying true to yourself even when you aren’t sure who you are.
Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly
One of the issues du jour seems to be main characters on the autism spectrum or those struggling with Asperger’s syndrome. What the panel loved about this book is that Drea is very much a girl any teen can relate to. Yes, she has Asperger’s, but that is not the sum total of her existence. She is also a teenager, a musician, a girl who has moved a lot and has a crotchety old grandmother to live with. All of these things contribute to a personality readers can easily connect with, and Drea’s straightforward way of looking at life is refreshingly honest.
I Now Pronounce You Someone Else by Erin McCahan
Using wit and a whole lot of charm, author Erin McCahan has created a unique coming-of-age story centering on Bronwen, an strong-minded 18-year-old in search of a place to belong. Never having felt connected to her own family, Bronwen finds herself on the verge of getting married, hopeful that a life with Jared will give her the family she’s been looking for her entire life. The complex nature of what marriage means, as well as what ultimately makes a family is addressed in a refreshing and, at times hilarious, way. The humor woven amidst a plot with a very serious topic is what ultimately led the panel to fall in love with Bronwen (a.k.a Phoebe Lilywhite) and her quest to find herself, a real family, and true love.
Scrawl by Mark Shulman
An instantly engaging voice is the first clue that there’s more to this school bully than stealing lunch money. Shulman’s expert structure maintained a delicate balance of tension and humor, while his subtle character development creates entire back stories for secondary characters in a single, artful sentence. Shulman takes a familiar technique with journaling and manages to make it fresh and unique all the way to the brilliant last page. Readers can’t help but cheer for the self-described loser, Tod Munn, as he navigates through expectations, loyalties, and aspirations.
Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers
You haven’t seen mean until you’ve seen the girls in Courtney Summers’s Some Girls Are. Picked for its strong, sparse writing, tight pacing, and gut-wrenching grit, the cast of flawed characters in this noir story will leave you gasping — and maybe hoping for mercy — through each new blow. This one begs the question: can high school kill?
Split by Swati Avasthi
Sixteen-year-old Jace hasn’t seen or spoken to his older brother Christian in five years, ever since Christian broke off all contact with their abusive father and disappeared to another state. Now Jace is the one fleeing home, bruised in both mind and body, seeking refuge with the brother who left him behind. The two scarred brothers–one emotionally closed-off and one barely able to contain the rage that churns within him–struggle to trust each other in an onslaught of painful memories and tense interactions. Jace’s voice is raw and wry and honest, drawing the reader into his pain and his fear: fear for his mother’s safety and for the person he’s afraid of becoming. Like Jace’s father, this powerful novel pulls no punches. Our panel was collectively wowed by its candor, its nuanced characters, its gut-twisting emotional impact, and its strong, authentic narrative voice.
Stolen by Lucy Christopher
Stolen is a haunting novel that explores the fine line between love, lust, and obsession and a book that generated intense, impassioned debate among the panelists. Sixteen year-old Gemma is kidnapped from the airport by Ty, a man who has been fixated on her for years. Written as a letter to her captor, Gemma begins to uncover her true feelings about what happened — feelings she hasn’t even wanted to admit to herself and feelings even the reader will question. What really happened between Ty and Gemma in the desert? Psychologically thrilling and twisted, Stolen is a breathtaking masterpiece.