On the Sunday morning of ALA, I attended the 2013 Alex Awards program. Three of the ten winning authors spoke –
Derf Backderf, My Friend Dahmer
Julianna Baggott, Pure
Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Each author spoke for 10 minutes, followed by Q&A with the audience and a signing, with the books donated by the publishers. (Thank you, Abrams, FSG and Grand Central!) I thought our readers might enjoy an inside peak.
Derf Backderf was up first. In case you haven’t read My Friend Dahmer yet, it is a graphic novel about Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school years. Backderf and Dahmer were classmates. The author explained his research process for what he called a “journalistically enhanced memoir,” including interviews with people who knew Dahmer and reading police reports. He also showed us photos from their yearbook and pages from his high school journal – which not only included words, but also many sketches and drawings.
Basically this is the “story before the story that everyone else tells.” It ends two weeks after graduation when (we now know) Dahmer committed his first murder. Later, during the Q&A, Backderf explained that he made a conscious choice not to include the violence in his telling.
Julianna Baggott has written books for different age groups under different names. She believes that the best writing today is happening in the space where genre meets literary. She enjoys that Pure was chosen for the Alex Award partly because it is not a genre award. She talked briefly about why post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels work so well for teens – because they leave the purity of childhood behind and feel that “rupture.” “The teen years feel post-apocalyptic.”
For her, writing in that genre is about resilience and hope, and deciding what will survive. Faith? Love? Art? Family?
Later, during the Q&A, Baggott answered a question about how the decision was made to publish her book as an adult title. She made a conscious decision to “let the market decide.” It came down to finding the right editor for the book, and that person worked for an adult imprint. They actually sat and thought about which awards the book might win. They knew it would be considered for Alex if they published adult, but not for Printz. They also talked about the fact that if they published for adult the book would get a strong initial push, but if they published for YA it would have a better chance of a longer life.
Baggott is in the middle of revisions of the third book in the Pure trilogy, titled Burn and set for publication in early 2014.
Robin Sloan, a propos of the themes in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, spoke about the book as technology. He shared his experience of visiting the Grolier Club in NY City, where he was shown a few books produced by Aldus Manutius (if you’ve read the book, you know how cool this is!). They didn’t look old-fashioned or antique. They were beautiful. And a few were tiny – pocket-sized. In his mind he could see people curling up with Aristotle for the very first time, after centuries of reading tomes chained to desks. He likes to picture lines of people waiting outside Manutius’s print shop to purchase the first editions in italics, one of his innovations. They were the iPhone of the 1500s!
Books have always been a technology. Whenever people ask him about new technologies as they affect the book, he likes to make it clear that it is not about books OR technology. It’s about books AND technology. (You can read more about Sloan’s visit to the Grolier Club in an article published in the NY Times last October.)
Sloan has written a short prequel to his novel, which will be available as a digital short story in the fall. It’s about how Mr. Penumbra came to San Francisco in 1969.
As I sat enjoying this program on Sunday, I was thinking how nice it is that this celebration is free to YALSA members. After all, the Printz and Edwards celebrations are not. The Odyssey program, traditionally held on Monday afternoon, is the other free YALSA award program at ALA Annual. The Morris/Nonfiction program is also free, but held during Midwinter.
Finally, one more huge shout-out to the 2013 Alex Awards committee, who read so much and worked so hard, and gave us a group of books that teens will love. Librarians, too!