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I was asked to “participate” in the ALA Tribunal on Populism and Popular Materials again. Young librarians may not have been exposed to the particular enthusiasms of the tribunals. Yet. I should perhaps stop writing before I earn a repeat appearance. Suffice it to say that the tribunals are a lot like the ALA Roundtables, except your seat, in this case, is usually in the center of the table.
“Promoting first novels again,” accused the Head Tribunalist, adjusting her mirrored sunglasses to maximize reflection. (I’m just guessing that it was a she. The Tribunalists favor gender-neutral haircuts with their colored robes.) “We wonder if you appreciate the tension that places on giving the happy, shiny library people what they want. Debut authors aren’t already beloved and are thus incapable of ‘Popular’ materials. Your position chafes uncomfortably against the Seven Secret Theses of Readers’ Advisory.”
Sure, there are duds among the ranks of first novels, too, but that’s a reason we need librarians, to help readers find the best of these wonderful new books.
At moments like these, one is tempted to pass blame. I considered pointing out that Bill Ott promotes first novels publicly in this annual Booklist spotlight, but I’m not one to name names. Besides, Bill skates past the tribunals by plying them with potent drinks, secret handshakes, and threats to publish awkward quotes from the Tribunalists’ youthful book reviews. I decided to risk a defense.
“Oh Appropriately and Consistently Equal Ones,” I began (they prefer carefully qualified honorifics), “my appreciation for first novels walks along the Glossy Path of Popularity. Authors have to find readership. If none ever did so, the line of popularity would die out.” (I conveniently avoided James Patterson, who came to be, as we know, when Zeus took the form of Barney the dinosaur and mated with the Librarian of Congress on a photocopier, thus guaranteeing his prolific immortality.) “I invoke the Way of the Recommending Finger, superseding the Secret Theses.” (I’ll explain this someday when my demerits are lower, and I don’t face the Hell of Eternal Cataloging.) Their forms began to flicker. I knew my argument was making headway.
“Besides,” I continued, “the historical record etched in the Golden Tablets of the Starred Reviews demonstrates that many authors do their best work in early novels. What they lack in writing experience is compensated for by a full reservoir of ideas. They haven’t begun to repeat themselves. Some of these books are great, a breath of fresh air. Sure, there are duds among the ranks of first novels, too, but that’s a reason we need librarians, to help readers find the best of these wonderful new books.”
The Head Tribunalist’s sunglasses began to glow red. I thought I might be cast down. “Popular before all,” she began to repeat, quivering faster with each repetition of the mantra. Dewey numbers flickered across the sunglasses, then sparks; then, with a noise like a bar code hitting a scanner, a puff of black smoke wafted up that somehow looked like all of Danielle Steel’s cover pictures at once. Lesser Tribunalists began wailing and gnashing their teeth. Their large, shiny teeth gnash especially well. One has to admire their dental work.
While they speak in metadata and roll their carts in circles, I’ve stolen a laptop to highlight some of my favorite recent first novels. Either eat this page or, if you’re caught passing it along, seek the protection of Bill Ott.
John Freeman Gill’s The Gargoyle Hunters can be read as a story about fathers, sons, and coming-of-age; as a time capsule of 1970s New York; as a cult novel for architecture enthusiasts; or as a morality tale about the danger of chasing obsessions. However it is read, it has characters with heart, fine pacing, and a spot-on sense of time, place, and passion.
Ginny Moon’s title narrator is the female answer to Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Ginny is literal to a fault that is both pleasurable and poignant. She’s governed by rules, routines, and passions that make her entirely and authentically herself, but she’s caught between birth family, foster parents, and teachers who mean well but can’t quite follow her impeccable but unusual logic. Benjamin Ludwig’s experiences with his autistic daughter shine through in a book that is a delight to get caught up in.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes, by M. H. Boroson, is like a great kung-fu movie by way of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Deadwood. Heroine Li-lin is the daughter of a powerful exorcist, a young widow who gets caught up in the attacks of a rival tong. She can see a spirit world full of creepy but very funny creatures. With help from an eyeball spirit with a smart mouth (if eyeballs have mouths), she must battle gangsters, save her demanding father, and stop an ancient evil. This is Weird West meets Far East in 1890s San Francisco.
Oh my, the Tribunalists are organizing into evenly distributed rows. I don’t have much time! Let me mention a great war debut, Spoils, by Brian Van Reet. The Tribunalists’ garbled metadata is resolving into a steady chant, “Bal-dac-ci, Bal-dac-ci.” Try mysteries by Margaret Mizushima! The robe of one of their number is resolving into the dark gold of a new Head Tribunalist! There’s Chad Dundas’ historical, Champion of the World; oh, and History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund! Don’t forget Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose, and . . .
Yes, oh Equally Motivated. Popular before all. Popular before all.
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