Way back in August, I did something brave. I applied to be a judge for the 2015 Cybils Awards. (For those who might not know, the Cybils is an annual literary award given by bloggers of children's and young adult literature. I believe this was its tenth year.)
It was brave simply because it was outside my comfort zone. I had to fill out an application and link to a few blog posts that demonstrated why I was "qualified" to judge children's literature. I didn't want to be turned down, but I also worried about the time commitment I was signing up for if I made it onto one of the panels.
I shouldn't have worried. I wasn't rejected, and I had such a wonderful time serving as a Round 2 judge for the easy readers/early chapter books category (along with Emily, Freya, Teri, and Kurt).
I loved being a part of the process. All five judges brought different opinions, preferences, and personal biases to the table, but we were still able to have thoughtful, respectful discussions about each finalist. I always like to say that there is such a variety of books out there because there's such a variety of people reading them. We don't all have to like the same book because there's truly something for everyone. I could see the truth of that in our own little group. We had different favorites and different least favorites, but in the end, we came to a consensus we all felt happy about, and that was pretty thrilling.
Because these books took up a big chunk of my reading time in January (but I couldn't divulge any of my thoughts until after the winners were announced), I thought I'd give a brief summary/recap on each of the finalists before I move onto other things.
First up, the seven easy readers:
Sofia Martinez: Picture Perfect by Jacqueline Jules
I'm not exactly sure how this one made it to the group of finalists. Sofia is a cute girl, and it's nice to see a Latino main character, but the story was bland, and the inclusion of Spanish words felt gimmicky (but maybe just because they were bright pink).
Slither Snake (National Geographic Readers) by Shelby Alinsky
I love all of the National Geographic readers, and I was particularly impressed with this one because it was very simple (it's a pre-reader), but it still managed to share some interesting facts. And of course, the photographs were wowing.
Rosa Parks (National Geographic Readers) by Kitson Jazynka
I was inspired by Rosa Parks' quiet dignity and desire to make a difference in the equal treatment of all people. Although an easy reader, I learned new things about her life (such as that she had a history of not giving up her bus seat, even before that fateful day that everyone remembers). The photographs made it all come to life.
In! Over! and On! (the Farm) by Ethan Long
This one was high on everyone's lists. The text is simple, the story is funny, but it's the pictures that take the cake. I don't think there are many kids who could resist this one (my kids have not been able to). At the same time, it's at the very easy end of the easy reader scale, so most kids will be able to breeze through it in twenty seconds. Still, I love an author who can tell an engaging story with only a few words, and Ethan Long definitely does it here.
Don't Throw it to Mo! by David A. Adler
I think I was the only one on the Round 2 panel who loved this one. But love it I did, and I'm sticking with my original impression. The story shows hard work and success, and there are a lot of really delightful details that help the reader get to know Mo. (One of the Round 2 judges took issue with its happy ending, and I've been giving that a lot of thought and will probably write a longer post about it at some point.) Plus, it won the Geisel Award recently, so at least my liking of it was backed up by good company.
A Pig, a Fox, and a Box by Jonathan Fenske
This was my personal favorite. It was clever, creative, and oh, so funny. I love easy readers that confine the text to speech bubbles because it makes it easy to take turns reading ("you be Fox, I'll be Pig," etc.). Bradley loved reading this one. My only criticism is that it was too short. I felt like it needed one more chapter in the middle.
Ling and Ting: Twice as Silly by Grace Lin
And here it is! The winner of the easy readers! I've been a fan of Ling and Ting ever since I discovered them when Max was first learning to read, and they charmed every single one of us on the Round 2 panel. Each story ends with a little twist or joke, and the final story ties everything together. Ling and Ting approach life with an enthusiasm and energy that is contagious.
And then, here are the seven early chapter books:
My Pet Human by Yasmine Surovec
This was a clever idea (a stray cat finds a human he thinks will do fine as a pet and begins training her), but the execution was rather flat. There were lots of pictures (in some places it read almost like a graphic novel), but they didn't engage me much either. I think this is a book plenty of kids will like, but it wasn't one that could hold up to adult scrutiny.
Ranger in Time: Rescue on the Oregon Trail by Kate Messner
I love historical fiction and had high hopes for this book since there isn't much (of quality) for this age group. Sadly, this is just another one to add to the pile of formulaic, dull books about events in history. It has an interesting premise (a dog goes back in time to help a family on the Oregon trail), but it felt like the author started with a list of disasters, checked off each one, and then called it good.
West Meadows Detectives: The Case of the Snack Snatcher by Liam O'Donnell
As with the two above, I think this book will definitely find readers among its targeted audience, but it didn't feel finalist-worthy to me. Except for Myron and his best friend, Hajrah, every other character seemed stereotyped, and the mystery itself was both predictable and unbelievable (the teachers and parents were conveniently stupid, if you know what I mean). All of this could have been forgiven if the writing had been outstanding, but it wasn't.
Big Bad Detective Agency by Bruce Hale
Overall, I liked this one. Sometimes the humor and puns felt a little overdone and trite, but I enjoyed the fairy tale references throughout the book. Both Aaron and Maxwell read it after I did and enjoyed it.
The Magical Animal Adoption Agency: Clover's Luck by Kallie George
With such a title, I had low expectations but was pleasantly surprised on every point. The writing was tight and well done. The story was interesting and unique. And the ending was spot-on perfect. It's definitely on the upper end of early chapter books but, content-wise, still seems to fit into this category very well.
Lulu and the Hamster in the Night by Hilary McKay
I know a lot of the judges felt about this one like I felt about some of the ones mentioned above. They thought it was boring, but I actually quite liked it. Perhaps it was that I set out with low expectations (I have a low tolerance for pet books, and you may have noticed that the majority of the books on this list are pet books), but I thought it was well done, and I especially loved the characters, who felt very real to me.
Dory and the Real True Friend by Abby Hanlon
Dory was in a category by herself. With the other books, some were mediocre and some were pleasantly enjoyable, but Dory was the only one that made me laugh. (Several weeks later, when it was time to deliberate the final decision, I reread several passages from Dory and laughed all over again.) The imaginary friend theme is not a new one, but it felt fresh in the hands (or rather, the imagination) of Dory. It was an easy choice to select Dory and the Real True Friend as the winner.
I am definitely hooked on the Cybils and plan to apply to be a judge again next year. I loved judging the easy reader/early chapter books category because it introduced me to new books I could pass along to my kids, but I would definitely be up for trying another category as well.
Have you read any of these books? I'd love to hear what you thought about any (or all!) of them.