February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Thoughts on Alex: Quick Picks

Our astute reviewer Amy Cheney noticed on Facebook that two of the ten Alex Award titles this year were also on the Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, and said:

This might be the first year EVER that two books made both the Alex Awards and Quick Picks. Ross’ book [Juvenile in Justice] and Backderf’s book My Friend Dahmer are on both top ten lists!

I was curious about whether Amy’s intuition was true, so I dug through the lists of Top Ten Quick Picks, and didn’t find any overlap with the Alex Awards. Now my curiosity was really piqued, so I decided to see if an Alex title had Juvenile in justice cover 246x300 Thoughts on Alex: Quick Picksever been on the extended list of Quick Picks, which seem to fall in the range of 60-120 titles, depending on the year.  It was annoyingly difficult to find an easy way of comparing the two lists, but eventually I just copied all of the Quick Picks into a Word file and did a “find” function for all 160 Alex Award winners.  So granted that I could have made a mistake (and please tell me if I did!), I found a grand total of one title overlapping the two lists: Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa to Slavery and Emancipation, by Velma Maia Thomas, from 1998, the very first year of the Alex Awards.

So we had one Alex winner on the full Quick Picks list in 1998, and now all of a dahmerx inset community 194x300 Thoughts on Alex: Quick Pickssudden two Alex Awardees on the Top Ten list.  Is this a complete fluke, or is there anything we can make of this?  Well, first we need to look at the charges of the two committees.  “The Alex Awards are given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults”.  As we’ve discussed before, “special appeal to young adults” can be a tricky subject, and the Policies and Procedures are not terribly helpful.  But it seems clear, from observation of the titles the Alex committee has chosen that they tend to agree with this blog’s practice of trying to balance the literary excellence of adult books with some definition of teen appeal.

The Quick Picks committee, on the other hand, is charged with “identif[ying] titles aimed at encouraging reading among teens who dislike to read for whatever reason”, and it has a lengthy and admirably precise set of selection criteria, which include several aspects of the physical appearance of the book, and items such as having a “high interest ‘hook’”, lots of plot, “clear writing,” and much more. In other words: all teen appeal, all the time.  Certainly the inclusion of such topics as characterization, plot, and style give plenty of room for discussion of a book’s literary quality, but the mission of the committee is to name titles that teens (and specifically teens who have a demonstrated dislike for reading) will read without much pressure.

lest we forget 300x299 Thoughts on Alex: Quick PicksSo, back to our question: does this year’s exceptional overlap between these two committees mean anything?  I’m sorry to disappoint, but the answer is a resounding, “I don’t know.”  Certainly, I noted in my thoughts on My Friend Dahmer, that the committee seemed to have chosen the graphic novel with the most teen appeal out there, and one possible interpretation of this coincidence is that this year’s Alex committee was more focused on the “special appeal to young adults” aspect of their charge than other committees in the past.  But, it’s equally possible that this is simply an artifact of the particular publishing year: two of the better adult books for teens (and we on this blog certainly thought they were among the best), just happened to also have tremendous appeal to reluctant readers.

I’d be more than happy to hear from anyone who has deeper knowledge of the way these two committees work to chime in, but mostly, I’m just excited to see two such excellent books getting so much recognition.

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Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

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