JUDGE – Padma Venkatraman
by Brian Selznick
by Noelle Stevenson
An author I admire once mentioned that he often worried he’d be “wrong” about a book. “Wrong?” I asked. He insisted that if he wrote a negative review in the NY Times about a book that was later awarded, let’s say, the Neustadt Prize, his initial criticism was undoubtedly incorrect. Several judges, reviewers and critics have since expressed the idea that there is, in fact, a “right” or “wrong” opinion about a book.
I disagree. My training is in oceanography. I’ve spent decades taking mathematically rigorous courses. I’m aware that even in science, there’s no such thing as 100% objectivity. The field of literature is almost entirely subjective, although this isn’t often acknowledged. Our views aren’t unequivocal truths. I won’t preface every statement below with the personal pronoun, but before I pronounce judgment, I’d like to recognize its subjective nature.
That said, I feel deeply privileged that SLJ values my opinion. Honored enough that I read my books – NIMONA and THE MARVELS – three times over. To my great horror, I discovered that I could be a snarky critic (both have aspects that I don’t love). Luckily, however, I just have to state my preference, so I can concentrate on the positive (and I found a lot to love about both books).
NIMONA features a witty, spunky, female protagonist called Nimona who works with the super-villain, Blackheart, to expose truths that the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics is hiding. Nimona is a strong, smart shape-shifter who doesn’t have a Barbie-like body (thank goodness). She charmed me, immediately, because, like me, she’s pig-headed. Incredibly proud of her independence, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge any weakness in herself, she guards the secret of her unhappy past with ferocity. At times, she’s quite a monster.
NIMONA is not your average fantasy. It’s not just intriguing and action-packed, it’s also filled with laughter. This story is delivered in a graphic novel format; the illustrations pair delightfully with the text, which is peppered with hilarious moments. Yet, despite the satirical humor, it appeals to the heart. I was unexpectedly touched by the ending and by my emotional attachment to Nimona.
THE MARVELS, like NIMONA, is also illustrated. Marvelously illustrated. To me, some images were resonant of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam; others of Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.
If you read an electronic version, for heaven’s sake, get the real book. Opening the beautifully bound, gold-leaved volume and stepping into the black and white world of illustrations within – is an incredible sensuous experience. Immersing myself in this book was reminiscent of childhood. I surely felt the same thrill when I entered Sendak’s classic, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (the first story I found that was told with wordless pictures as well as with illustrated text).
THE MARVELS begins with nearly 400 pages of art that blurs the distinction between looking through a picture book and watching a theatre production unfold. This section introduces the Marvel family. Beginning with a terrifying shipwreck in 1766, this multi-generational family is somehow connected to Joseph Jervis, who, about a century later, runs away from his boarding school to his uncle’s home.
His uncle, Albert, is a secretive, reclusive man, who lives in a beautiful home, filled with mysterious antiques. As Joseph searches for clues to his family’s past and tries to decipher the connection between the home and the strange objects inside it, the reader is invited to journey with him.
The link between the Marvels and Joseph’s own family is finally revealed. But many loose ends are left untied. This intentional ambiguity didn’t leave me dissatisfied; it left me dazzled. Because, once more, the reader is invited to imagine, to invoke words, to complete the story by gazing at and giving meaning to the last set of wordless pictures.
A story about the power of story, THE MARVELS is also about the power of the reader to co-create with the writer-illustrator. It is a testament to the magical bond between storyteller and listener.
So, in the words of Blackheart, I care about you and wish you well, Nimona. I’m your friend, and I hope, as he does, to see you again. But THE MARVELS is my winner.
— Padma Venkatraman
I’m not sure if I can stress how immensely unfair I found this pairing. I believe my first thought was, they’re going to put a hilarious webcomic turned graphic novel up against a close to 700 page mystery? You’ve got to be kidding me. THEY’RE SO DIFFERENT! (And yet so similar…) I loved Nimona so so so so so so much. And I ship Golden-heart (Black-loin?) so hard! But The Marvels, on the other hand, was too good to pass up. The illustrations were beautifully drawn, and the mystery of it–I won’t give anything away, I promise!–kept me turning the pages until the end. So, I’m not going to read the decision, because I loved both books too much to declare one better. (But I voted for Nimona in the Undead Poll, just in case.)
– Kid Commentator NS
Can the judges reveal a bit of the “snarky critics” within them even while praising the books as much as they do? I mean, Venkatraman read each 3 times – she had to have liked them a whole lot, so I think a few critiques would have been welcome. This year in particular, the judges’ comments have been overwhelmingly positive, so I’d appreciate a bit more variety. For this match, though, I have to say Nimona. However lovely Selznick’s work is, we’ve seen similar structures and history-based fiction from him in the past. We have not seen a web comic turned graphic novel that’s both hilarious, touching, and troubling to read. Still, as Venkatraman wisely pointed out at the beginning of her decision, it’s all subjective, unless, for instance, a nonfiction book wildly distorts the facts. One subjectivity question that bears some weight is something like the controversy over The Hired Girl, where a character makes a comment that we recognize today to be racist, prejudiced, and outdated, but, depending, may be appropriate for the character to say. How we tell stories like these is key, but for the most part, we can just sit back and enjoy, speeding through two brilliant illustrated books like The Marvels and Nimona. Also, this might be the first time while I’ve been here, at least, that we’ve had two art-based books battling each other – a pretty exciting prelude to what is sure to be a fantastic final match!
– Kid Commentator RGN
WILL MOVE ON
TO THE FINAL ROUND