In presenting a study of the background of the award, it is probably worthwhile having a very brief look at the background of its organiser too. My name is Paul Register. I’m 41, have a degree in English Studies and a long-standing love of comics, in all their myriad forms. As a young child, my mother fed me a steady diet of classic humour comics like Whizzer & Chips and Plug and British reprints of American superhero comics like Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men, etc. I have been the Learning Resource Centre Manager (I prefer good, old-fashioned ‘Librarian’ as a professional label personally) at Ecclesfield School for the last three years and did a similar job at a school in Rotherham for eight years before that. That was preceded by a couple of years working for the bookstore chain Ottakar’s (before it was gobbled up by the retail giant that is Waterstone’s and slowly assimilated). That’s enough about the award’s organiser and founder though. This project has never been about self-promotion and never will be. The focus always has to be on the reading. The overall success of the award has to be gauged by the amount of reading it facilitates. That is its raison d’etre.
What’s needed now is an explanation of what the Stan Lee Excelsior Award actually is. Put simply, it is this country’s only nationwide book award for school children that focuses exclusively on graphic novels and manga. Obviously there are many, many book awards out there that focus on regular children’s fiction (Red House, Carnegie, Blue Peter, The Guardian, etc.) but nothing that attempts to achieve something similar for comics on a nationwide basis. Eight books are chosen for the shortlist and the project has the full backing and support of the Sheffield Schools Library Service, the School Library Association and the Stan Lee Foundation in the United States.
The primary goal of this scheme is to encourage reading for pleasure amongst teenagers (eleven to sixteen year olds). ‘Reading for pleasure’ has become a sort of rallying cry against the strict confines of the educational curriculum over the years. In a system that rarely studies complete texts and doesn’t overtly place a huge importance on the clear benefits of children reading outside the classroom, comics have become marginalised in schools at a time when their potential for raising literacy standards amongst teenagers has arguably never been greater. The Excelsior Award is an attempt to give children the opportunity to take ownership of their own reading and to feel that reading books that they actually want to read – as opposed to being told to read – is not a waste of time.
The secondary target of the award is to raise the profile of graphic novels and manga amongst both school librarians and teachers. As just discussed, the comics medium has been treated as the poor relation within education for many years. Nevertheless, there is now a sort of nebulous, indefinable desire out there to introduce this storytelling medium into our schools. The Excelsior Award attempts to focus that desire and highlight some of the amazing books that are published every year, graphic novels that would grace any school library. Many school librarians can recognise the potential value of having graphic novels in their libraries but often feel unable to take those first steps forward, usually due a big gap in their basic product knowledge. Yes, they can recognise the popular characters and series – Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Simpsons, Star Wars, etc. – but when faced with the veritable mountain of published material out there, they struggle to make a start buying books that are both suitable for their students (in terms of the usual issues of sex, violence, swearing, etc.) and of a high quality. In many cases, they approach the task nervously (which can lead to making mistakes and buying books that their students will end up not reading) or start backing away altogether. As this award grows, I hope that it will encourage librarians to feel comfortable with the comics medium and give them the confidence to expand their library’s collection. There is no downside to this. Students get more engaged with literacy and libraries broaden their stock and their appeal.
So how did the Award get started? It started with an invitation from the organisers of the long-running Sheffield Children’s Book Awards. Due to requests from the city’s school librarians, they wanted to include a special new category for graphic novels and manga. The awards have been running twenty three years now and they wanted something to run alongside their established categories of Picture Book, Shorter Novel and Longer Novel. As is the case with many of the librarians working in schools today, the organisers (all librarians themselves) felt they didn’t have the knowledge of graphic novels to create a successful book shadowing scheme amongst Sheffield’s secondary schools. As they knew I had an interest and some knowledge in this field (and had already done some work for them in creating a range of graphic novel and manga buying lists for them), they asked me to get involved. To describe this work as a ‘labour of love’ would be putting it mildly. I put hours of my own time into it and thoroughly enjoyed doing so.
The structure of the award was already in place – this new category would simply mimic the other categories. However, there were two big issues that needed addressing before any schools were invited to be involved. One, a shortlist of suitable titles needed to be put together. And two, the award needed a name that would immediately attract kids and make them sit up and take notice. Personally I have always been a believer in aiming high with ventures like this and then making compromises along the way if they are needed. For me, it made sense to name the award after someone heavily involved in the comics industry; someone who would give his permission and support… but not want too much direct control. And what bigger name is there in the comics industry (especially if you’re a teenager) than Stan ‘The Man’ Lee? Whatever your opinions of his body of work or of his overall contribution to and influence on the industry, Stan Lee is a pop-culture icon and a much-loved, worldwide legend amongst comics readers. He is to superhero comics what Tolkien is to fantasy and what Bram Stoker is to horror. His influence cannot be over-stated.
So I decided to try and contact him. Obviously Stan isn’t the sort of guy who has his e-mail address just hanging around on the Internet! I eventually found an ally in Stan’s personal assistant at POW! Entertainment, who was happy to pass my e-mail requests on. To my utter amazement, this PA contacted me a week later to tell me that Stan was happy for his name to be used in conjunction with this award! This was a major achievement! I was thrilled and so were the organisers.
So anyway, skipping ahead a few months, the manga title Vampire Knight won the category and at the ceremony I had loads of librarians and kids tell me how much they had enjoyed doing the reading (or ‘shadowing’, if you prefer) of this new ‘Stan Lee Award’. Obviously I was very happy with such positive feedback and had already started planning in my head how to improve the system and the format for the following year.
After the dust had settled, I contacted the organisers and expressed my gratitude for their allowing me to get involved in such a meaningful way. I said “I can’t wait to do it again next year. I think, with some extra planning and a better shortlist we can really make a big success of this!” However, they didn’t see this new category for graphic novels and manga as anything other than a one-off. A ‘guest’ category, if you will. That was fair enough. It’s their award and ultimately their call to make. I always realised that I was just ‘assisting’.
I could sense the seeds of something larger with this ‘Stan Lee Award’ though. At the awards ceremony, there was a palpable enthusiasm for titles like Vampire Knight and Bryan Talbot’s Grandville (which finished second). I also thought “I didn’t get Stan Lee’s permission to use his name for a project that we were going to ditch after one year!” and there was definitely a desire amongst the schools of Sheffield to see it continue.
So I decided to see if I could do this alone. I work at a school that is classed as a Specialist in Visual and Performing Arts so I went to see my Headteacher and I explained my proposed new project to him and how much funding I would need to run it across the secondary schools of Sheffield. He agreed that it was just the sort of wider community project that we should be undertaking as part of our specialism and gave me a sizeable budget to work with. I was able to buy a complete set of the shortlisted books for every secondary school in Sheffield. Further good news was to follow when the Schools Library Service offered to match my funding so those schools actually got two copies of each book!
I identified five significant changes that needed to be made to the basic structure of the new award before we got as far as choosing a shortlist. Firstly, it was important to stress to the participating schools that the plan was for this to become annual, not another one-off event. Enthusiasm and momentum needs to be harnessed not allowed to fade away. Secondly, the name of the award was changed to the Stan Lee Excelsior Award. This was an attempt to give this new award its own identity by accessing one of Stan’s famous catchphrases – and one that has clear leanings towards the philosophies of education – in conjunction with his good name. Thirdly, it was made clear that although the reading and the books themselves were the most important feature of the whole project, it would also culminate in a special awards ceremony at my school. This was something that Sheffield’s students and librarians had become accustomed to through their participation in the Sheffield Children’s Book Awards and was a tradition that seemed sensible to carry on. Fourthly, the number of books on the shortlist was increased from six to eight and the budget ceiling for a set of shortlisted books was raised from £50 to £75 (using Amazon prices). This was to enhance the variety of the shortlist and make the experience even broader for the reader.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the students no longer simply voted for their favourite book after reading the full set (as had been the case previously) but rated each and every one straight after finishing it. All books were rated from one to five for Story, Artwork, Characters and Dialogue (see here for an example of the Rating Form). This was a deliberate attempt to ‘level the playing field’ and make sure that each book was judged on its merits and not on the popularity of its main character. The Rating Form itself is also a perfect example of another one of the award’s philosophies – to keep everything clear and simple with as little work for the librarians as possible.
Remember, at this stage, the Excelsior Award was only intended to be a city-wide award, certainly in its first year. Nevertheless, as word of this unique new book award spread across the Internet and the online school librarian community, other schools from outside Sheffield contacted me directly and asked if they could get involved. I explained to them that I just didn’t have the funding to cover any schools from outside the city – and they were absolutely fine with that. They never expected any funding or any giveaways. They just saw the same potential I did and wanted to get involved. They were prepared to buy their own books and took part in the ‘Reading & Rating’ process in exactly the same way as all the Sheffield schools. In the end, I had 17 schools from across the UK involved! All that was required now was a shortlist worthy of the interest!
When the graphic novels for the shortlist were being chosen, there were several criteria that needed fulfilling. Obviously the books had to be of a high quality. They also had to be popular amongst teenagers, and that’s where my years of relevant experience and accumulated knowledge in education and in comics came in. The list also had to represent a variety of genre and artistic styles. The goal was to appeal to all types of students across gender, race, reading ability and social class. The other practical criteria for their inclusion on the shortlist was that the titles should be suitable for eleven to sixteen year olds and must have been published in the previous calendar year. The books that made it onto that first shortlist can be viewed here.
The ‘Reading & Rating’ period took place over an approximately 10 week period. This timeframe was decided upon to give the participating students plenty of time to ‘read and rate’ all the shortlisted books, at a rough rate of one a week. By the end of this period I had received an amazing 842 of these Rating Forms and began the slow – but fascinating – process of collating all that data and discovering which titles would comprise the top three.
I would like to briefly touch upon the actual awards ceremony now. Local comic book store Sheffield Space Centre provided a book stall with all the shortlisted titles (and other relevant ones). The first person I booked for the event was Beano artist and comedian Kev F. Sutherland. Having seen him talk at a librarians conference the previous year, I knew he would be the perfect choice as my keynote speaker. He’s very funny, very knowledgeable and pitches his delivery perfectly for the eleven to sixteen age group. I extended an invitation to any and all creators who had a book on the shortlist and was delighted that both Ben Haggarty (author of Mezolith) and the legendary Bryan Talbot (writer/artist of Grandville: Mon Amour) were excited enough about the award to make an appearance. They were certainly popular with the two hundred and fifty kids who attended the ceremony, from ten different schools! The biggest surprise though was the attendance of Mr. Theodore Adams III, chairman of the Stan Lee Foundation. ‘Ted’ flew in from Washington especially for the event. I had built up a good working relationship with him via e-mail over the months prior to the awards ceremony and couldn’t quite believe it when he told me a fortnight before that he was definitely coming to Sheffield! What an endorsement that was!
The day went off extremely well with all present having a memorable day. The visitors were amazed at the sheer excitement levels and passion of the students present. Their enthusiasm (I know I’ve used that word too much in this article but I can’t think of a more apt one!) for the comics medium manifested itself in a binge of book-buying and autograph hunting! See the website for feedback from those present and the wonderful video and photos from the day.
So what does the future hold for the Stan Lee Excelsior Award in 2012? The eight titles that made this year’s shortlist were announced at the beginning of December last year to widespread interest and eyebrow-raising. The phrase “eclectic mix” was used more than once! At last count, eighty one school and public libraries had registered their interest in taking part in the award and were in the process of buying in at least one complete set of the shortlisted books. The ‘Reading & Rating’ process will officially begin on 30th January (although schools may start earlier than this if they have everything organised). The deadline for the return of all completed Rating Forms to me is 27th April. Everything librarians need to successfully run the award is either sent to them by e-mail or is available to download directly from the website. It is all designed to be very straightforward and simple. The moment you start making this a complicated process is the moment busy librarians who don’t have an inherent passion for graphic novels and/or manga start drifting away. You have to make it appealing to the organisers as well as the students. Two other ways the Stan Lee Excelsior Award attempts to do this are the True Believers Award (given to the school which returns the most Rating Forms) and the ‘Judge A Book By Its Cover’ Award (a slightly ironic award where librarians vote for which book cover they think has the highest aesthetic value). The last thing to mention is that the only cost involved is the £75 they pay to provide themselves with the shortlisted books, which are obviously theirs to keep and add to their library stock anyway. The Excelsior Award makes no charges and has no fees. All participating schools will be invited to the awards ceremony on 6th July as a matter of courtesy. The school’s Lady Mabel Hall has excellent facilities for just such an event and can seat up to 450 people. Every effort will be made to accommodate all schools that wish to bring a group of students along on the day, especially those from outside Sheffield. I am currently in the process of finding a keynote speaker, special guests and a variety of stalls – all to give the day that special ‘comic con’ feel that the vast majority of attendees won’t have experienced before. If anybody reading this article would like to attend, you’d be very welcome. Please contact me via the website.
This has been a hugely rewarding project for me personally and I believe an extremely worthwhile one for the schools that take part and put so much into it. As a school librarian, there is no greater feeling than when a student returns a book they’ve borrowed and tells you how great it was and how much they’ve enjoyed it. The Stan Lee Excelsior Award gives me that same feeling multiplied by a factor of hundreds!
Thank you for reading.
Paul Register is the founder and organiser of the Stan Lee Excelsior Award. He is the Learning Resource Centre Manager at Ecclesfield School in Sheffield.