Canada Reads wrap-up: Essex County wins the people’s choice. Final thoughts.

Yesterday the Canada Reads jury decided on the best book in Canada over the last decade: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis. Sadly, it wasn’t The Collected Essex County by Jeff Lemire, as it was the first of the top 5 voted off the list.

However, the folks at CBC decided to run an online poll that closed this morning, asking the public to vote for their favourite book — and the winner, by a majority vote of 53.15% — is The Collected Essex County by Jeff Lemire. For perspective, the runner up was The Birth House by Ami McKay with 16.27%. That’s impressive.

Now that Canada Reads is over, here are my thoughts (positive and negative) on the experience.

* It was a huge boost for sales. A lot of people bought and read the Collected Essex County. Over at Amazon.ca it’s been in their top 100 selling books for the last 18 days. This morning it is #13 on that list and rising. Over at Chapters/Indigo it is #10 in their top 50 books for today.

* A number of people who probably would never have consciously chosen to buy a graphic novel went and got this book to see how and why it reached the Final Five. Because of the nature of the competition, people seem to want to read as many of the books as they can so they can follow along. Many of the other judges commented in the first debate how they were ready to write it off, but found they had really enjoyed the book — and then they wrote it off, but with a little reluctance. The comments on the CBC site seem to indicate that a lot of people read it and loved it.

* Some people felt that the Collected Essex County didn’t legitimately make the list – that once it had made the initial list of 40 books the selection was pushed by exterior, primarily American, forces campaigning for an online vote open to everyone, everywhere. There was a critical article on Canada Reads and what it means published in the March 2011 issue of Quill and Quire magazine. It intimates early in the article that people manipulated the process when campaigning, and specific attention was paid to Top Shelf publisher Chris Starros’ campaign on behalf of the book, something that we were happy to support (as well as for Skim by the Tamaki cousins, which was also in the top 40). I’ve mixed feelings about this perspective. While it is a valid criticism of the system in place for Canada Reads – that people need to campaign for great books to get selected is a weakness of the process, but who decides is a common issue with any awards process — and unfortunately online voting leaves the process open for manipulation (we scrapped online voting for these awards for that very reason). However, I can’t help but feel it’s a bit of an insult to the book itself to say that the only reason it was there was because a bunch of Americans twittered and blogged about it and got people to vote for it. To say that it would never have qualified if not for this outside, American influence, ignores the fact that the book is very, very good. Given that so many are buying it and liking – if not loving – it does verify, at least to this author, that it’s inclusion was well merited in the long run and the positives of that for our particular form in terms of exposure is a great boon to our Canadian creators.

* The debates showed that there is still a bias to overcome with older readers. Four out of five members of the debate used the format against the book when voting it out. Older readers still have a tendency to view graphic novels and comics as a juvenile medium instead of well-rounded one with entries accessible to the various reading levels. Canada Reads final five choices are rarely children’s story books, nor would one expect to see young adult fiction there either, so the benefit of a book like Essex County being read by people with an existing bias against the form is that it shows that the format is not just about superhero power fantasies, but can be used to relay great emotional depth and mature themes. Most young people already know this, librarians and teachers know this, as well as the so-called urban hipsters that were mentioned somewhere in the CR process.

* If this does create interest in the Graphic Novel, and I think it is definitely doing just that, then it is time for us as a community of interested and motivated individuals, whether as bloggers, columnists, retailers, publishers and creators to really start pushing the better books that are out there in a “if you liked that, you’ll like this” format. Retailers, in particular, should be ready to recommend books that a person who has just finished Essex County and wants more should check out. Sweet Tooth and The Nobody are easy picks, I suppose.

* Canadians create great graphic novels and comics. That’s obviously a truism that led us to create these awards in the first place. We’re glad the Canadian public is starting to see that.

Let’s not drop the ball, we need to continue to get that message out there.

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