It’s awards season, in case you hadn’t noticed. We’ve already had the Golden Globes and the Grammys, the Printz, the Caldecott, and the Newbery (those last three are the American Library Association’s awards for, respectively, young adult literature, illustration, and children’s literature). The National Book Award is history; the Oscars are coming up. And the Cybils were just announced.
The Cybils, you ask? The Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards have now gone through two cycles, with the 2nd annual awards just given out on Valentine’s Day. An inclusive award for children’s and young adult literature, the Cybils celebrate the best children’s/young adult books in seven categories, accepting nominations from anyone with an email address. The awards recognize both high literary merit and “kid appeal” — acknowledging that to ignore the first is to condescend, while to ignore the second is to doom the awards to irrelevance. This year I had the privilege of serving as a Cybils judge in the fantasy/science fiction category. We gave awards for both young adult and elementary/middle-grade novels, and I enlisted Nick’s help in the latter category: he read all the novels (finishing them before I did), and I drew on his expertise in determining, especially, their “kid-appeal.”
His favorite book won the award for best fantasy/science fiction title for middle-grade readers: The True Meaning of Smek-Day, by Adam Rex, is a hilarious quest fantasy. The novel has a terrific premise: it presents itself as a series of essays written for a time-capsule contest on, yes, “the true meaning of Smek-Day.” Entrants are invited to include pictures and photographs, and Adam Rex’s illustrations accompany his text — he even includes a brief section narrated as a comic book. Nick had actually received this book as a Christmas present before the Cybils finalists were even announced, so I had had a sneak preview of it: he’d already let me know he loved it. And so did I. We may have loved different things about it — he’s a big fan of gross-out humor, while I focused on the immediately engaging narrative voice — but we were both entirely satisfied with its win.
The True Meaning of Smek-Day introduces us to Gratuity Tucci, the heroine/essayist/narrator of the novel, who tells the story of how the Boov invaded earth and renamed it Smekland — and why they didn’t stay. Teaming up with a rebellious Boov named J.Lo (the Boov have learned English from watching television), Gratuity and her cat Pig embark on a journey to find her missing mother. Like all good quest fantasies, this one involves unlikely allies (J.Lo and Pig), several twists in the quest itself, and a surprising but utterly appropriate finish. Unlike most quest fantasies I’ve read, however, it’s set in a not-too-distant future, with alien invaders, hovercars, and relocation camps. That’s right: the aliens have decided that the humans already living on Earth will be happier in relocation camps, leaving the vast majority of the planet to be resettled by the Boov. While there’s a clear connection here between “real” earth history and the imagined history of the novel, it’s not a heavy-handed one: no one really, not even a ten-year-old, should need reminding that forced relocation and colonization are, in general, pretty bad things. The novel deals with the serious issue with humor: from a kid’s-eye view, the Boov are both dangerous and slightly ridiculous. As J. Lo explains, “Before we came, Captain Smek and the HighBoovs telled us that the humans needed us. That the humans were just like the animals, and that we could make them better. Teach to them. We were told the humans were nasty and backwards. It . . . it is what we thought” (149-50). Like all invaders, they don’t speak the language, and yet they insist they are superior; their eating habits disgust the “natives”; and their technological “superiority” masks significant gaps in their understanding. J.Lo can make Gratuity’s car hover and clone gasoline, but he can’t read — and reading turns out to be just as useful a skill. The novel spends as much time on the Boov’s odd eating habits (J.Lo finds the deodorant cakes in urinals particularly appealing — ick!) as on the clear political message, achieving a terrific balance of amusement and instruction.
Smek-Day illustrates a welcome trend in fantasy for middle-grade children. In this novel and in several of the other finalists, such as Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant, Laura Ruby’s The Chaos King, and Sarah Beth Durst’s Into the Wild, we have a female protagonist who is every bit as active, smart, and self-starting as any hero. Smek-Day‘s Gratuity is also biracial, which makes for an intriguing plot point when officials searching for her mother don’t think to look for a white woman. Gratuity seems, then, to represent a hopeful outcome of the clash of cultures: just as she blends races within herself, she is able to make a friend of one of the invaders and achieve some kind of harmony. There’s a clear echo, in fact, of Huck Finn in Gratuity: like Huck, she befriends an “other” and chooses personal loyalty over some imagined racial solidarity: “I did not think, All right then, I’ll go to Hell, pardon my language, I just decided to stick by a friend” (150).
Of the group I just mentioned, only Into the Wild might seem to be a “girl book”: it stars Rapunzel’s daughter and a host of other fairy tale characters, mostly female — not to mention a pink cover. But the story is as action-packed and adventurous as the others, all of which feature plot twist after plot twist, fascinating superpowers (invisibility and flight are the best), and intriguing ways of engaging with technology — hovercars, a super-reinforced Mercedes, cellphones, convenience stores. These are not, that is, “sword-and-sorcery” fantasy novels, but books fully engaged with modern life and imagining how magic or the supernatural might interact with our technologically-enhanced world. The one quasi-sword-and-sorcery book in the bunch, Nancy Farmer’s Land of the Silver Apples, brings the Middle Ages to life vividly, imagining the place of the supernatural in a much older technological world. These books bring relationships and things together — as I suggested in my last column — and do so in ways that should appeal to a wide audience of young readers. Nick certainly laughed out loud several times as he made his way through them. (Yes, he read the line about the deodorant cakes out loud to me.)
Awards are funny things, implying a competition where, in many cases, there is none. Who are we to say one book, one movie, one song, is better than another — or is the “best” of the year? Yet, while comparisons are odious (as double Newbery-winner Madeleine L’Engle repeatedly reminds us in her books), we make them all the time. What I do know is that, along with the other Cybils judges, I read these books carefully, I considered them at length, and I’m happy to have been part of the awards. It’s up to you and your kids to judge for yourselves.