Once the Oscars are in the books, awards season is officially over. In the children’s book world, the ALA Youth Media Awards, which include the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, were recently bestowed to a slate of very worthy winners and honor books, which you can check out in print here at the library, or in e-book and e-audio formats on our digital platforms, Overdrive and Hoopla.
Each year I feel sorry for those books which fall just short of the major awards, often due to the very uniqueness which makes them so wonderful. And I’ve always dreamed of giving out a ridiculous award with a goofy name. So without further ado, I give you the winners of the 2019 Elpies (from LPL, get it?).
Best Book Better Read to Another Adult
I Need a New Butt, by Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Ross Kinnaird.
“I need a new butt, mine’s got a crack,” begins this international bestseller from New Zealand. Their version uses the word “bum” in the title, but it doesn't sound much better, or improve the actual story. It was so popular with Americans that a sequel, I Broke My Butt, which chronicles the narrator’s clumsy attempts to remedy that crisis with glue, was rushed to market later in the year.
Runner up: Who Wet My Pants? by Bob Shea, illustrated by Zachariah Ohora
The title says it all in this exploration of the strange logic of children abdicating responsibility. Reminds me of the time my son, told to ignore the provocations of his little sister, pleaded, “Can’t you ignore her for me?”
Best Book that Asks What Clouds Taste Like (and All Those Other Questions)
I Wonder by K.A. Holt and Kenard Pak.
You know the questions. They make your head hurt, and the answers aren’t on your phone. Long after your kids forget they even asked, you’re still pondering. In this book, artist Kenard Pak renders in all their surreal glory a list of doozies posed by the author’s own kids.
Runner up: Just Because, by Mac Barnett and Isabel Arsenault
A similarly structured book, Just Because takes the further step of answering the unanswerable, when a dad offers preposterous responses to his daughter’s bedtime third degree.
Best Book Based on Ridiculous Science
Cats Are a Liquid, by Rebecca Donnelly, illustrated by Mina Saburi
Speaking of difficult questions, a French physicist wrote an entire article to answer this one: “Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?” It won the 2017 Ig Nobel Prize, a dubious honor given out each year at Harvard for “improbable research,” and now it's a picture book chock full of cute cats behaving like fluids.
Runner up: There is no runner up in this category. However, a perfect opportunity for a sequel presented itself recently, when scientists determined that dogs tend to poop in alignment with the north and south poles. Scoff all you like, just remember the guy who discovered penicillin was studying the mold from his messy lab.
Best Book that Makes You Wish You Were Canadian
Small in the City by Sydney Smith
Let’s face it, when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle abandoned Buckingham Palace last year, they were living out everyone’s secret dream to leave it all behind and move to Canada. This book is a good example of why. Nova Scotian author-illustrator Sydney Smith’s quietly moving tale of a child seeking his lost cat in an unnamed northern city creates a nesting doll of empathy: the narrator sees the city through the eyes of his lost pet, while the boy’s mom aches for what her child must be feeling.
Runner up: My Winter City, by James Gladstone, illustrated by Gary Clement
Another snowy story set in a northern town. Toronontians Gladstone and Clement follow a boy and his dad on a journey from their apartment to the neighborhood sledding hill, and back. It’s wondrous, exciting, and fun, but no one shouts about it, and the narrator concludes with an assumption that readers’ own locations are just as beautiful in winter, if we look.
Best Book that Took Awhile to Become My Favorite of the Year
Birdsong, by Julie Flett
O Canada, you make great books! And Julie Flett's are among the greatest. Birdsong is not action-packed or laugh-out-loud funny, but my kids and I loved it, and somehow its quiet power has me thinking about it more than ever, months after I returned it to the library. A young girl moves from the city to the country with her mom, but doesn’t feel right until she befriends an aging neighbor, who lives just across a snowdrop-covered field, and the two bond over their love of creating things. The girl draws, her neighbor sculpts with clay, and the girl teaches the older woman Cree words for the seasons as they change. When the elder’s health begins to fail, the girl brings nature indoors to her by hanging her pictures of birds on the woman’s walls.
Julie Flett's starkly beautiful illustrations inspirit another recent favorite, David Alexander Robertson’s When We Were Alone, a heartbreaking remembrance of a Cree grandmother who wears bright colors, speaks her native language, and spends time with her brother in celebration of what was forbidden to her as a child at a First Nations residential school in Manitoba. The book is the best I know for teaching children about a dark chapter in our own history, when like minded federal policies of assimilation were implemented at Haskell and various Indian missions in Kansas during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Best Book about a Chicken Circumnavigating the Globe
Chicken of the Sea, by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Ellison Nguyen, illustrated by Thi Bui and Hien Bui-Stafford.
Surprisingly, this is the only repeat category from the 2018 Elpies. There simply aren’t enough books about seafaring chickens, nor do we have many created by parents and children working together. Chicken of the Sea is the rare creation of not one, but two parent-child teams. The story was written by Ellison Nguyen and his father, Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose riveting adult novel of divided loyalties in Vietnam, The Sympathizer, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. The Nguyens’ tale of swashbuckling pirate chickens, dog knights, and treasure was illustrated by 13-year old Hien Bui-Stafford, son of Thi Bui, whose illustrated memoir of her family’s experience as Vietnamese refugees in America, The Best We Could Do, was a 2018 ALA Notable Book.
That’s a wrap on the 2019 Elpies. Instead of statues this year we’re giving out profound little moments, like I imagine Canadians give to each other on birthdays instead of store bought presents: a catprint in the snow, the moon between two seagulls, an open field dotted with tiny white flowers, a boy running past with a serving tray super glued to his bum.
Wait a minute. New Zealand! That's the last time you're getting an award from me.
—Dan Coleman is a Collection Development Librarian at Lawrence Public Library.