But first, a Short Essay Regarding the Importance of the Independent Bookstore

From the Cluttered Desk of Philip Stead (with Erin sitting close by):

The twenty-first century has had a rocky start for lovers of bookstores and real, paper books. The advent of e-bookery coupled with Wall Street’s unfortunate shenanigans has created an environment in which many stores have had to close their doors. Here in Ann Arbor we lost Shaman Drum, our downtown indie store that had peddled books to students and townies alike for more than three decades. Next was Borders, an Ann Arbor institution that began as a small indie shop on State Street. Long before her career as a bookmaker Erin worked at the downtown Borders. She tended the children’s section. It’s strange now to walk by its empty shell.

Throughout all this I’ve believed (or, more accurately, wanted to believe) that there’s a defense against this trend—that is, to make good books. It seems simple, but putting talk of technology and economics aside, it seems more important than ever to make really good books, books that people want to own and hold in their hands. Real books. I don’t believe we’re witnessing the end of paper in a sweeping digital revolution. In fact, at least in the realm of picture books, I believe we’re smack dab in the middle of a new Golden Age of print. There have been an overwhelming and encouraging number of quality picture books published in recent years, and exactly zero of them would have been better if (only) made available in pixels. There will be a place for e-books, sure, but that’s all, a place. Real books will survive the same way that movie theaters, vinyl records, and even oil painting has survived (See: television, CD/MP3/cassette/8-track, and photography—respectively the supposed downfalls of the aforementioned media). Books are an experience that cannot be imitated or replaced to any degree of satisfaction. They are what they are and will continue to be. Amen!

Which brings me back to bookstores. Bookstores too are an experience that cannot be imitated or replaced.  I’ve heard people say that bookstores add to a community. True, yes, but I think the word “add” drastically undersells their importance. Bookstores ARE a community. Allow me to explain. Every book is a reflection of its maker. We bookmakers are keenly aware of how our books display not only our strengths but also our weaknesses. Step into a bookstore and you’re surrounded by a lot of good…and a lot of bad. And that’s what a community ought to be, a hodgepodge, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes infuriating. If you’re anything like me you could browse the internet for hours and never once bump into someone like, say, Ayn Rand. But walk into a bookstore and Ayn’ll be happy to pull you aside and talk your ear off (good luck getting a word in edgewise). New media narrows our focus. With its endless loops of “You May Also Like” algorithms you’re far less likely to suffer that awkward stop-and-chat with Ayn, or Newt, or Strom, or whomever else on your way to the cash register. And that, surprisingly, is a bad thing. At least think it is.

Bookstores took their hit this decade, but the future looks bright. Here in Ann Arbor we took our lumps, but looking back I realize how lucky we are. In the last year I bought at least one book from each of these nine local stores:

Common Language Bookstore

Motte & Bailey Bookshop

Kaleidoscope Books

Dawn Treader Books

Aunt Agatha’s

Crazy Wisdom

West Side Bookshop

Vault of Midnight

Nicola’s Books

I love all of these stores. I love that Common Language, a store serving the LGBT community, is also a great place to pick up Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before hopping in the car and heading to Lake Michigan. Motte & Bailey is probably the most comfortable and inviting used bookstore I know. Kaleidoscope is, quite frankly, a national treasure of children’s literature (albeit a dusty one). A few weeks ago we walked into Nicola’s and waiting for us behind the counter was a Christmas present. In all the years I’ve shopped online the internet has never once had a present waiting for me behind the counter. This is what we got from Nicola:


Did I mention that Quentin Blake was my favorite illustrator when I was a kid? (He’s still one of my favorites, if you’re wondering.) And did I mention that this book was signed by Quentin Blake?


I don’t own any other books signed by Quentin Blake. What a great present! And what an embarrassment of riches we have in this town.


But there’s more! There’s news this year of a new general interest bookstore opening in downtown Ann Arbor. Literati Bookstore will open its doors sometime this spring and begin to fill the void left behind by Shaman Drum and BordersLiterati will thrive, and grow, and encourage all who shop there to treasure the important things that are most difficult to replace. Hey, you know what? That sentence felt really good to write, so here it is a second time: Literati will thrive, and grow, and encourage all who shop there to treasure the important things that are most difficult to replace. Bookstores are important and difficult to replace. Of one thing I’m sure: Literati won’t just add to our community, it will be a community itself. Ayn will be there (and, yes, she’ll annoy me). But Kurt will be there too, and Maurice, and Shel, and other old friends. Everyone is invited.


Before we begin I’d like to remind you (or introduce you) to why we do this. I tried typing out a few thoughtful words, but looking back I realized I really couldn’t say it better than I did last year. Apparently I was more intelligent and thoughtful a year ago. Oh well, so it goes—peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys. So through the magical power of Copy and Paste I bring you the thoughts of Phil of a Year Prior:

Every year for the last (four) years Erin and I have compiled a list of our favorite books of the year. The internet is overflowing with best-of lists and worst-of lists and everything in between. We don’t claim that the books on our list are the absolute “best-ofs” of 2012. To be honest I’m not sure if it’s possible, or even productive, to limit books in that way. Books mean different things to different people. One book can mean drastically different things to the same person across the span of a lifetime. This does not diminish the power of books. It adds to their mystery. In assembling our list we’re merely trying to share the books that meant something special to us at this point in our lives. These are books that challenged us to be better writers and illustrators. There are hundreds of fantastic books that are released every year, many of which go unnoticed (including by us). That is the fault of chance or of Erin and I directly, not of the books themselves. Some books we failed to see. Some books we were not ready to see.

That pretty much sums it. We feel incredibly grateful to the authors and illustrators who worked to give us the books you see below. And with that said, here we go. (Cue drum roll.)

The 4th Annual Phildecott Award goes to….

Aw, heck. Who can choose? We make the rules here, so let’s just give the award to all eleven books equally! We’ll go in alphabetical order.


Bear Despairby Gaëtan Dorémus

This wonderful wordless book, cheerfully handmade, shows the lengths Bear will go to in order to retrieve his lost teddy.

beetle book image

The Beetle Bookby Steve Jenkins

Steve Jenkins is a master craftsman. His collage work is a marvel. Here he straddles the line between science and art beautifully as he shares the fascinating miscellany of beetle-kind.


Chloe and the Lionby Mac Barnett, illustrated by Adam Rex

This book is just a home run. Mac Barnett has distinguished himself as a modern master of picture book writing. And Adam Rex, geez, the guy is a monster talent. And he seems to have so much fun doing what he does. Please check out his post on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. It describes his process, and as a bonus it has the best single image from the entire year of picture book making—a bowl of disembodied Mac Barnett heads.


Check out more at: http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=2467


Extra Yarnby Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Here we have another story by Mac, this time paired with another humungous talent, Jon Klassen. Jon has a great sense of design and color. His work in Extra Yarn, paired with a perfectly paced, no-word-out-of-place text from Mac makes this book likely to last a long, long time. Decades from now people will still be reading this book.


Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills,by Renée Watson, illustrated by Christian Robinson

We love Christian Robinson’s work. He reminds us of many of the illustrators-of-yesteryear that we most admire—Leo Lionni and Bruno Munari to name a few. His art is charming and fun, extremely sophisticated without an ounce of pretension. The more work he gives us the luckier we are as a book-loving public.


hello! hello!by Matthew Cordell

Remember when I said Quentin Blake was a childhood favorite of mine? Well Matt here works very much in the tradition of Mr. Blake. It’s a style that’s incredibly difficult, and yet when done well looks as though it must’ve been the easiest thing in the world. Thinking on it now I’m reminded of my favorite quote from Maurice Sendak:

A picture book is not only what most people think it is—an easy thing, with a lot of pictures in it, to read to small children. For me, it is a damned difficult thing to do, like working in a complicated and challenging poetic form. It demands so much that you have to be on top of the situation all the time, finally to acheive something so simple and so put together—so seamless—that it looks as if you knocked it off in no time. One stitch showing and you’ve lost the game.

Matt’s book is simple, seamless, and put together. It looks like he knocked it off in no time. But of course he didn’t. If you buy only one book from this list, hello! hello! should be the one.


Islandby Jason Chin

You know what? Ignore my last comment and just go buy ALL the books on this list. Or at least check them out from your local library (and remember to say “thank you” to your local bookseller or librarian while you’re at it). Hmmmm…..and maybe also let them know it was the Steads who sent you. There’s no shame in a little self-promotion. Anyway, back to the awards. Jason Chin has defined himself as a master of truly engaging non-fiction picture book making. He’s carved out his niche with such specificity that it won’t be long before his name starts getting used as an adjective—Chinlike, Chinian, or something like that. In the past he’s taken on the redwoods and coral reefs as subject matter. Island is a beautifully rendered step-by-step look at the millions-of-years-long process necessary to make (and unmake) a Galapagos Island. On a side note, Erin and Jason worked together long, long ago at the hallowed Books of Wonder Children’s Bookstore in Manhattan. She can confirm that on top of being a great artist Jason is, in fact, a real swell guy.


It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Drawby Don Tate, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

R. Gregory Christie is a real artist’s artist. His work always feels honest, fresh, and original. Like Cordell, but with a different result, the work appears as though it flows from him without effort. His work is related in spirit to the art of twentieth century giants like Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shahn, and Romare Bearden—not bad company! Mr. Christie makes art that makes us want to make art ourselves. And that’s a special thing.


Squid and Octopusby Tao Nyeu

If Erin and I were forced to sit down and choose the work of one, and only one illustrator to include on the Phildecott list each year, it’s a safe bet that that artist would be Tao Nyeu every time. She is reliably incredible. Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always was an instant favorite for us this year as Bunny Days and Wonder Bear were in years past. In Squid and Octopus she tries her hand at a Frog-and-Toad-like world—multiple stories documenting the joys and  hiccups in an ordinary friendship. Tao’s silkscreen illustrations are beautiful. But equally beautiful is her writing. It’s evident that Tao loves her characters. She’s alongside them in their joys and in their worries, in their moments of humor and misunderstanding.


Stephen and the Beetleby Jorge Luján, illustrated by Chiara Carrer

This is probably the most challenging of our selections this year. The story is simple but profound. A boy encounters a beetle, decides to kill it, then changes his mind. The beetle is unaware of his rapidly changing fates. The world goes on as if nothing has happened at all. I first saw this book last June at a conference, and in the span of the two minutes it took to turn its pages I was affected. Affecting—that is exactly the word for this book.


A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouseby Frank Viva

Here we have small and simple book, expertly told, with illustrations that charm but never fuss—a real tribute to brevity and clarity (underrated qualities in writing, and a qualities obviously missing in the lengthy sentence you’re reading at this very moment).


And now, before we continue, we take a look back to last year’s awards, and, in the words of one of the all-time great television shows of the 1980’s, strive to put right what once went wrong. I’m talking about Bone Dog, by Eric Rohmann.


We love this book. And we have absolutely no explanation for why we left it off last year’s list. Shame on us. If you’re unfamiliar with this book then please, please do you yourself a kindness and go seek it out. It’s a beautiful book. And we’re sure you’ll love it and return to it again and again just like we do.

Ok, moving on. We’ve reached the part of our program where we reiterate how unofficial and imperfect we are as award-givers. Every year we try to stay abreast of the new long fiction and nonfiction titles. But, I’m ashamed to say, Erin and I are not very good readers. While we struggle to make our own books we tend to collapse at the end of each workday, maybe order a pizza, and sit down to watch three to four episodes of, oh, I don’t, let’s just say Quantum Leap. It’s kind of embarrassing, but such is the creative life. There are only so many brain cells to go around. Still, there are weekends, and long plane rides, and the occasional vacation. During those times we do our best to catch up.

With that disclaimer in mind I’m pleased to announce (again in alphabetical order) the 4th Annual Steadbery Awards. (Cue drum roll.)


Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weaponby Steve Sheinkin

I began reading this book and, wow, I had a hard time putting it down. It is, of course, non-fiction, but it reads with all the energy and suspense of a great spy novel.


Looking at Lincolnby Maira Kalman

It’s been a big year for Lincoln, and everyone from Bill O’Reilly to Daniel Day-Lewis has been in on the action. This book rises above it all in much the same way that Lincoln himself rises above the noise of history. What makes this book so wonderful is how personal it feels. It’s not just look at Lincoln. It’s a look into the mind of the artist as well.


No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Booksellerby Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

This book, told in a series of fictional personal monologues, is an original, exciting take on what a biography can be. Given my thoughts on the current state of independent bookselling (to which you were all subjected to at the start of this post) it’s especially fortuitous that this, one the year’s best books for young people, is a documentary of one of the finest independent bookstores in the history of the United States—The National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem, NYC. Erin would like to interject here to say this: We’ve had the enormous pleasure of meeting Ms. Nelson and hearing her speak. She has the type of voice that makes you want to sit down and listen to a story. One of the best parts about reading this book was being able to hear Vaunda’s voice reading aloud to us in our minds. So thanks, Vaunda!


Starry River of the Skyby Grace Lin

Grace Lin’s previous novel, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, was a book that I got to just a little too late for the Steadbery Awards. I was determined not to make the same mistake twice. Starry River of the Sky is a companion novel to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and is every bit as lovely as its predecessor. Ms. Lin intertwines her original plot with traditional Chinese folklore in a way that makes the sum even greater than the individual parts.


“Who Could That Be At This Hour?” All the Wrong Questionsby Lemony Snicket

The name Snicket is not foreign to anyone who has even a passing interest in children’s literature. He is the master of kidlit noir. This book, the first in his new series, really sets the bar high. This guy can write. He could write before, and he’s only getting better.

Well, everyone, that pretty much does it. As always, thanks for reading. And remember, support your local bookstore (and library too!).


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