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ALA 2013: Alex Award Presentation

Alex-AWARDSWinner_lowresOne of my favorite things about attending ALA’s Annual Conference is all the fantastic author events that are available, and 2013 in Chicago did not disappoint. I went straight from YALSA’s YA Author Coffee Klatch (awesome) to the 2013 Alex Awards Presentation. This was the first time I had attended this particular program, and it was a great way to hear directly from some of the winning authors about their books and the experience of winning the award.

First up was comic artist Derf Backderf (whom we interviewed back in March), whose chilling memoir, My Friend Dahmer, chronicles his high school friendship with a classmate who would later become one of America’s worst serial killers. Backderf shared a number of images from high school that seemed freakishly prescient; one of his drawings showed Dahmer stuffed into a grocery bag, an image that meant nothing at the time but in retrospect was just, in his own words, “incredibly creepy.” Yearbook photos from which Dahmer was also blacked out of yearbook photos after a prank to sneak him into group photos was discovered — which all too clearly paralleled the neglected teen and his feelings of isolation as he became increasingly marginalized during his senior year. It was a very powerful presentation, and there were many questions from the audience, including a woman who asked Backderf’s opinion about a forthcoming YA title seen in the exhibit hall in which a teen named Jeff Jacobson realizes he has been cloned from Jeffrey Dahmer’s DNA (you can’t make this stuff up, folks).

Next to speak was Juliana Baggott (check out our interview with her), who won for her incredible post-apocalyptic survival tale, Pure. Baggott discussed very eloquently the appeal and popularity of dystopian and post-apocalypic fiction among teens as something that so closely mirrored their own experience as they break away from everything that is known and enter the greater world, a time she described as a “rupture” in their lives.

Robin Sloan signing the first of many copies of "Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore."
Robin Sloan signing the first of many copies of “Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore.”

The third and final speaker of the morning was Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore. Sloan talked quite a bit about how books and technology are frequently pitted against each other, but they are just two sides of the same coin. We all know that the development of the printing press changed the course of human history, but Sloan had a great example that shows just how closely personal those changes can be: during a tour of the exclusive Grolier Club in New York, he happened to see a pocket-size volume of Aristotle’s work.  While this might not seem noteworthy to any 21st century reader, he went on to explain that, for the first time ever, someone in the 1500’s could “curl up with a book” in the privacy of their own home; a very modern idea that has apparently been around for much longer than most people realize.

Julianna Baggott signing copies of her new book, "Fuse," with 2014 Alex Awards Committee Chair, Danielle Dreger-Babbitt (left) and 2013 Chair Rachel McDonald (right).
A vision in yellow and pink: Julianna Baggott signing copies of her new book, “Fuse,” with Alex Awards Committee Chairs Danielle Dreger-Babbitt (2014, left), and Rachel McDonald (2013, right).

What was most fascinating for me was to hear the differences in how these books had been published and marketed.  When asked if he ever thought his book would appeal to teens, Backderf said he never really thought about it and was just glad to have had it published after being rejected by nearly every publishing house in the country.   Baggott, on the other hand, knew her book would be popular but wasn’t sure what the best audience would be and let the decision fall to the publisher who purchased the book. While she acknowledged that making it an adult title knocked the book out of Printz consideration, it did mean it would receive a stronger marketing push upon release than if it had been published as YA.

After the program, the publishers (Abrams, Grand Central, and Farrar Straus & Giroux) generously donated copies for the authors to sign and give away to lucky audience members. The lines were long, and I heard Baggot’s publicist went back to the exhibit hall twice for more copies of Fuse, the second book in the Pure trilogy!

— Summer Hayes, currently reading The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

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