Last year, I wrote about my experience on the Cybils YA Fiction panel at the very end of reading season. This year, I thought I’d mix things up and talk about what things are shaking now, at the little-more-than-midway point for round one.
As a round one panelist, the job is pretty simple at first: read. Read a lot. Each book needs at least two readers, and we had 196 nominations in our category. That breaks down to about 60-odd books per person over the course of the two and a half month period. Of course, it’s not perfect math, but it’s roughly a book per day. So far, I’ve knocked out 150 titles. NOT in the last month and a half, mind you, but over the course of the last year. I know I still have a few I’m going to go back and revisit, simply because it has been a year or more since reading some of the titles.
We’re lucky as usual to have a 50-page rule. If a book isn’t working, we get the chance to stop and move on to the next thing. Last year, I felt wary about using this because I never knew whether it was me or the book at page 50 that wasn’t working; this year, though, I’ve made fine use of it. If a book isn’t working by page 50, the reasons are both on me and on the book, and that’s a valid reason to stop. Since the Cybils take literary merit AND appeal into account, that 50 pages are crucial; they can set the tone for both. Plus, because books are read by two panelists, someone else can budge in after their read and tell me why I was wrong. Along the way, books we find worth considering we mark onto personal short lists. The lists can be as long or short as we want through the initial reading process.
Jackie, panel organizer, then drops the bombs on us. Last year, she didn’t give a heads up on it, but this year, she was kind enough to give us dates. The bomb? We start getting short list limits. A couple weeks ago, we had to have no more and no fewer than 15 books each. And tomorrow, we have to have no more and no fewer than 10. But it only gets harder because not only do we have to whittle our lists to 10, we have to read every book on everyone else’s short list at this point all the way through. The 50 page rule is out for any book on a short list.
Knocking my short list to 10 hasn’t been as hard this year as it was last year, and not because I think the books this year are any different than last year in quality. Rather, it feels like in having read so many of them, the ones that are strong contenders for me are the ones I’m still remembering or thinking about this far in. Am I sad cutting some out I really liked? Absolutely. But I know when we have to plead a case for what should make final cuts, I’m only going to be able to rally behind a couple of them. So in thinking that way, it’s not as painful.
In reading all these books, I’ve found some really interesting trends in this year’s young adult nominees. There’s been a lot of cross over when it comes to topics, including a wealth of books about grief (and loss ranging from parents to siblings to friends and even whole families), a handful of books that incorporated some sort of scavenger hunt (or some set of instructions that leads the story forward), music (either performance by or listening to by the main character), characters who are photography whizzes or are surrounded by photography in some way, and more. In fact, some of the coincidences are so strange, I made a bingo card of them. I’ll share that later, though.
Because the Cybils takes nominations from anyone, I think the pool of books let me read a lot of books I’d otherwise never choose (and not to mention, I read a lot so far I hadn’t even heard of before I had to read them). In doing that, themes I otherwise didn’t think about as much emerged. I thought I’d share a few of them for anyone looking to expand their reading, build a display or book list, or fill in potential collection holes.
All of these books take place either partially or entirely in Africa. This was probably the most surprising trend I found. Two take place in Zimbabwe and feature war as a central force in the story.
All three of these stories feature a Latina girl at the center of the story, as she works through what it means to have that heritage while pursuing the American dream. Bonus: all three take place in Texas.
I’m really loving this trend. These books come in so many different flavors and explore the idea of sexuality through many lenses. Some are contemporary and some are historical, but what I think I’ve appreciated most is in this field, we’ve moved from the coming out stories — the ones where sexuality is THE THING of the story — and we’ve come to accept that it’s just a part of the story, instead of the whole story itself.
Maybe the biggest trend this year has been sports, and it’s a surprising trend because it doesn’t feel like I’ve read many sports books. But I have. Sports range from football to basketball to running, ballet, biking, and even drag racing. It’s an impressive range of talent. I know this list is going to leave some of the titles from our nominations out since there ARE so many.
I’m filing this one under a trend that bothers me a little bit. Books set in the 1980s are tricky. They’re far enough in the past that the experiences of the characters don’t really resonate with today’s teens, and it feels inauthentic to label them historical fiction if they’re not centered around some historical event. It’s still recent history for adults but it’s not for teens. A couple of these books are actually historical fiction (the Moss and Wallace titles) but the others are only set in the 80s, and the setting can, at times, be very subtle.
This is just a sample of some of the interesting coincidences in the nominees so far. I’ve got a few other themes pop up in my reading, but I want to read through some more titles before building those lists, too. I’ll share them when the new year rolls around.
If you’re interested in reading panelist reviews of nominated titles, you’re in luck. If you go here to the list of nominees, reviews are linked beneath.