I used to think that the job of a book awards committee was to pick the best books of the year. After six years of serving on the Cybils Awards panel choosing the shortlist for science fiction & fantasy, I know differently. The truth is that there are any number of books in any given year good enough to be award winners, and no matter what criteria or metrics a committee works with, in the end, there is a subjective factor that plays a role. Any two different panels of judges will choose two different slates of books. Sure, there may be some overlap, but probably less than you think.
It’s often a heartbreaking experience. You read and read and read some more, and you come to the table with your perfect, beautiful choices. These are the best books of the year, you’re sure of it. Then, the real work begins. Because your fellow judges will have their perfect, beautiful choices that may or may not be the same as yours. Some of your choices will elicit a “meh” reaction from your fellow judges, and a few may even meet with outright opposition. You argue and you compromise, and you come up with a list that everyone can be satisfied with, but it’s almost guaranteed that no one will love all the books on the list.
As painful as the process is, I really believe that we end up with a shortlist that is stronger, more diverse, and overall better than a list created by any one of us would be. Every year there are at least a couple of books on the shortlist that I wouldn’t have picked, but taken together I’ve been very happy with the list for every panel I’ve served on.
The other painful part of the process is that there are inevitably books that have to be sacrificed to the gods of compromise. Every judge had books that they loved with burning passion, but had to give up because there wasn’t enough support from the other panelists. We like to say that after the final discussion, we can all go in a corner and cry for the ones we lost.
Here are my favorite books of the year that didn’t make the shortlist:
This book was a lot different than I expected. Although the plot revolves around an online videogame, it’s more of a mystery and a compelling, suspenseful psychological thriller.
This was initially placed in the fantasy/sci-fi category, but after reading it we realized that it was more historical fiction, so moved it to the YA Fiction category. Anyone who loves Terry Pratchett’s distinctive humor and keen observation of human nature will enjoy this rollicking story of a young man named Dodger who meets everyone from Charlie Dickens and Sweeney Todd to the Queen herself as he seeks to protect a young lady from sinister forces.
I felt that this third book in the Graceling series was the best one yet. Read my review of Bitterblue.
Sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns, this was another sequel that I thought surpassed its predecessor. As much as I loved The Girl of Fire and Thorns, I thought this second book was even better. I thought that Elisa’s character arc had reached a nice resolution by the end of the first book, and I wasn’t sure what else Carson could do with her, but Carson surprised me by how much more Elisa’s character developed in this book and how much more the plot advanced from the first book. At one point I was ready to give up in disgust when it looked like the book was going to take the easy and obvious way out of a situation, and then Carson surprised me yet again.
Doctorow’s books tend to defy the rules about what makes a “good” book — too much exposition, too political — and yet they are compelling books with loads of teen appeal. Pirate Cinema is no exception. Doctorow really “gets” the things that are important to teens, and writes about them with respect. Pirate Cinema will appeal to anyone of any gender growing up in the Internet age.
I loved this heartbreakingly beautiful story of a victim of emotional abuse finding herself through her interactions with a shape-changing young man, but sadly I couldn’t convince my fellow judges. This is one that sticks with you and keeps you thinking long after you finish reading it.
Shadowfell is a strong, character-driven fantasy about a girl who can see the Fey in a world where any hint of interaction with them is punishable by death — or worse. The worldbuilding is lush and the Good Folk are real characters, and interesting ones at that. Neryn is a strong character to begin with — traveling with a gambling addict father, she’s the one who has to try to keep them alive — but as someone who has had to hide her secrets carefully, her character arc is more about learning who, and when, to trust.