Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Thoughts on the Cybils

The list of nonfiction picture finalists has been signed, sealed and delivered to our intrepid organizer. It will be published on January 1st, along with the finalists in the seven other categories. I can't wait to see how the other groups of panelists have whittled down their lists.

Here are some of my initial thoughts about the Cybils in general and more specifically about working through the nonfiction picture book titles this year.
1. Where Does It Belong?
The organizers for all the categories worked behind the scenes as nominations rolled in to determine the eligibility of titles and to ensure proper placement of books. This required a lot of hard work and some intense discussion. In some cases, where a book belongs isn't evident until a panelist sees it first hand. One of our books was moved to fiction picture books because the note in the back of the book explained the book was "based on a true story." The cataloging information just wasn't enough go on when deciding where to place the book.

2. Is It Nonfiction?
During the nomination stage, a few titles were moved to the fiction picture book category. While they were clearly "informational" books, they weren't strictly nonfiction. I tend to think of these books as "faction"--a nice blend of fact and fiction. One example of this was Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation, written by by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Narrated by a guitar-playing hound dog, it's a beautiful, blues-inspired account of the Montgomery bus boycott. Another example can be found in Fartiste, written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Paul Brewer. This biography of Joseph Pujol, a Frenchman who built a stage career using fart effects, reads on the cover, "an explosively funny, mostly true story." It's unfortunate this disclaimer appears so boldly from the outset, as it seems designed only to let readers know that the title relies on fact as well as legend in telling Pujol's life story.

There are always so many titles in the category of fiction picture books that I fear some of these more "information-oriented" books may get lost in milieu of more traditional stories.

3. First Person Narratives?
I was surprised by the number of titles that used first person in the writing. In some cases, the author included extensive notes that lent veracity to their use. However, in other cases there was no such information. How then, is a reader to take this information? Keep Your Eye on the Kid: The Early Years of Buster Keaton, written and illustrated by Catherine Brighton, is a fantastic biography of Keaton's early years, but it is written entirely in the first person. The author's note provides sources for further reading, as well as some Keaton films that are currently available on DVD, but she never explains the first person use.

4. Common Themes
Biographies abounded in the list of nominees this year. At least 25 titles were accounts of important events in the lives of historical figures or works that recounted a large portion of their life stories. Two very different biographies on Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Mathaai were included in this number. In addition to these, one title provided a biographical look at the Statue of Liberty!

Always popular, books about animals made a strong showing. Two of these animal titles were inspired by events following hurricane Katrina. There were also 2 books about bears, 2 about frogs, and 2 about ocean life.

I found it interesting that a number of the nominees contained photographic illustrations. These tended to be books on science (animal) topics.

5. Publisher Participation
Nearly one third of the nominated titles in our category were not sent to the panelists. (One panelist informed us that two titles arrived on her doorstep yesterday!) Fortunately, most of use were able to wrangle books through local libraries or interlibrary loan. In the end, there were only 2 books we never saw. I must say that I'm a bit puzzled by the lack of participation. Members of our panel highlighted nominees on their blogs. The titles got face-time at the Cybils site and even more publicity from the Cybils widget. Based on the strength of many of these titles, I purchased some for my own collection. I also took books into local schools and read them with kids. While there I made recommendations to classroom teachers and school librarians.

The positive press generated by the Cybils should not be underestimated. I'm not sure how we get more publishers to participate, but I would think that this kind of free advertising is worth giving away a book or two.
That's all for now. I still have more book reviews to post, so don't forget to come back and look for them in the new year.


  1. I'm so excited- can't wait to see the finalist list!

    All the best,

  2. Hi Tricia,
    Thanks for posting this great summary. And thanks for doing such a great job on the panel!!

    I tend to really like the stories that are on the edge of fiction and non-fiction. They're often more compelling than pure non-fiction. One thing I find interesting for non-fiction picture books is that the illustrator is often using fiction techniques -- for instance by using friends or family as character models or even totally making up the way characters look, or their clothing, or buildings or scenes -- but this isn't considered fictionalizing as much as something like adding a first person point of view.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to the list of finalists!