Passing Notes

The Cybils Awards

by Sarah Bean Thompson on February 25, 2013

Awards season is approaching and I have to admit that book awards are my favorite time of year. I love making predictions with my fellow librarians and then waiting for announcement day to see if our guesses were correct. In addition to the American Library Association (ALA) Youth Media Awards, winter is also the time for the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards (a.k.a. the Cybils Awards). Every January 1st a shortlist of titles is announced with categories ranging from picture books to young adult (YA). From the shortlist, a group of judges chooses the winner, which is announced in February.

I think the Cybils can be a great addition to libraries looking to expand their collections and use for readers’ advisory. Sure, there are lots of book awards out there, but what makes the Cybils unique is that they focus not only on literary merit but also on reader appeal. I had the chance to talk to Anne Levy, who founded the Cybils in 2006, and Jackie Parker, who is chairing the young-adult fiction category this year, about what makes the Cybils unique and why librarians should take notice.

Public Libraries: How did the Cybils start and how has it changed over the years since it began?

Anne Levy: The Cybils began as a comment on a blog post in 2006. There was some grumbling from children’s book bloggers that online awards were little more than popularity contests, while the ALA awards had grown so elitist that some librarians and teachers were out of their comfort zones recommending the winners to kids. I left what I thought was a one-off comment about starting our own awards that aimed for the middle: we could pick our favorite books that kids and grownups both loved.

I signed off, made dinner for my family, tucked the kids into bed and got back online for a last-second email check. The blogger who’d posted the original rant said, “I’m in.” I went back to her blog to find more than fifty comments from people wanting to sign up. We had a name, a blog, a Yahoo group and eighty volunteers within a few days, and we just took off from there.

In the past six years, the awards have grown from the initial eight genres to eleven—last year we added a book apps category that’s still being defined and broadened to reflect the amazing changes in how and what kids read. We now boast 110+volunteers and we’ve grown in recognition and – I hope – prestige. Otherwise, we’ve kept to our initial credo of singling out books with both popular appeal and literary merit.

PL: What is the process for the Cybils? How are books nominated, judged, and awarded?

AL: Nominations open to the public on October 1st and close two weeks later, at 11:59 pm on October 15th. Any title published in the United States or Canada during the previous contest year is eligible. We accept bilingual books too! This year, we’re also giving publishers a chance to pick a few of their titles that didn’t make the nominations list. Sometimes good books get overlooked because of limited marketing dollars, so we’re giving editors and marketers a second chance, so long as they’re not just dumping their backlist on us.

Then the awards go through two rounds of judging. The first round involves about sixty judges and they plow through the stack to find up to seven titles for the final round. The finalists are announced on January 1st, and then a second round of judges starts up. They pick a single winner, announced on February 14th as our big valentine to authors and illustrators.

The award is a fountain pen in an engraved box, but the 2011 winners haven’t gotten theirs yet. Some fundraising woes and organizational headaches have gotten in the way, but winners will get their prizes eventually.

PL: What makes the Cybils different from other book awards?

AL: We are transparent and accessible. We allow the public to nominate books so we can assure ourselves we’re really getting a good look at a broad swath of the titles. We guarantee all books get at least some consideration—our young adult and YA fantasy/science fiction judges are encouraged to read to at least the fiftieth page before dropping a nominee.

Jackie Parker: We encourage our participants to blog their personal thoughts about the titles they are reading for their Cybils obligations. The group deliberations are still completely confidential, but the public acknowledgement of judges actually reading, discussing, and contemplating the nominations is an added layer of transparency unusual in book awards. We aren’t quite so cloak and dagger.

AL: Hype doesn’t enter into the picture. Indie publishers get an equal shot at a berth on our short lists. Last year, we had our first self-published title make the finals.

JP: The only criteria to participate are to have a blog and use it to talk about subjects related to children’s and young adult literature. This creates a diversity of perspective because participants aren’t all librarians or teachers or booksellers or authors, as you usually find with most book awards. All four professions are well represented, but we also include parents and enthusiasts. Some day jobs are as far from children’s literature as you can get, but they may volunteer at their local library, or may have rediscovered their own love of children’s lit through the frame of reading to their kids. Whatever has led our volunteers to writing a blog about children’s literature, in doing so they’ve added to the general discussion and bring their own perspective to the task. Pulling from so many different experiences, the dialogue is approached from a different direction, and assumptions of “what kids like” and “what is good” can be challenged. For the Cybils the focus on appeal to the intended demographic carries just as much weight as literary criteria. That isn’t something that I’ve seen in other book awards.

PL: Why do you think it’s important to include reader appeal in the award criteria? Has it been hard to find books that combine literary merit and reader appeal?

AL: I don’t subscribe to the broccoli theory of literature: that to be any good, it must feel like forcing a kid to eat her veggies. I recently became a teacher and had to proctor a reading comprehension test to incoming seventh graders. They were told to bring a book to read if they finished early. It struck me that their choices were more engaging, better written and, yes, more literary than the boring, officious prose on the assessment test.

We can’t keep turning reading into a chore. My sixth graders are accustomed to earning points for the number of books and pages and words read. They’re proud of those numbers but couldn’t tell you three things about any particular title. They can barely name three titles. I tell them they’re going to read only four books for our class this year but they’re expected to learn literary analysis, including MLA-style, in-text citations. They freak. And then they think about it and most of them realize I’m right about the importance of reading deeply, and it’s going to be a great year.

So I don’t think it’s difficult to find titles that are both fun and smart. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book won a Cybils Award the same year he earned a Newbery Award, and we picked The Hunger Games before it became a household title. Both titles are working their way into middle school language arts classes, a sign there’s stuff worth teaching in them. We’re making it okay to talk about popular, well-written books in a way that doesn’t patronize readers or belittle their choices.

JP: I always wonder how successful a book truly is if the intended demographic doesn’t want anything to do with it. Is it really a book for youth if the only people who appreciate it are adults?

PL: How are the Cybils Awards promoted?

AL: Oh dear, you’ve hit my Achilles’ heel. I am dreadful at promotion—I can’t even convince publishers to buy our stickers. I have to plead for enough donations to buy pens and bookmarks. I know there must be some wonderful ways to promote the Cybils, but they remain a mystery to me. It’s holding the awards back from the national recognition it deserves, which pains me.

JP: We rely primarily on word of mouth. Anne’s tough on herself, but the Printz Award has been around for more than ten years and I still run into librarians who don’t know what it is. The Cybils Award is incredibly popular in the circles that pay attention to both children’s lit and the Internet. Could we up that profile? Sure, but most of the ways of reaching a new audience would require a funding source we simply don’t have.

PL: Have you found publishers and authors accepting of a new book award?

AL: Authors love us! It’s like a big smooch when they find themselves nominated. It’s often an unexpected pleasure for them, and we’ve gotten some love on their own blogs. I love to read posts from the morning after authors wake up to discover they’ve been shortlisted. We also aggregate
reviews that have appeared on our judges’ blogs, so it’s a smidgen of extra publicity for many, even if they don’t make the list of finalists.

Publishers also seem to like us, but they are wary of how many advance reader copies (ARCs) we seem to gobble up. We have a lot of volunteers, and more than a thousand books get nominated, so for the bigger publishers, those numbers add up. We’re forever working on ways to share ARCs or plead with libraries for copies so we can keep the awards running smoothly without costing the publishers a fortune.

JP: It’s a really awesome feeling to pick up the paperback copy of a Cybils Award winner and see that laurel printed right on the book itself. It’s happening more and more frequently.

PL: What has been your favorite moment working on the Cybils?

AL: I love comments from the winning authors and that remains the highlight of the awards for me.

JP: In participating as a panelist, my favorite part is discovering the book you hadn’t even heard of is amazing. I also love how it pushes me to read books I might not normally gravitate toward. Some of my most successful booktalks have come from books found via Cybils participation. As a readers’ advisor, as a leader, and organizationally, I think it’s made me a better professional.

PL: Why should librarians pay attention to the Cybils Awards and how can they use them in their library?

AL: We have so many librarians judging at Cybils and they’ve come up with so many useful suggestions for using the lists. In years when we’ve done bookmarks listing the winners, many will keep a few bookmarks by their checkout desks so parents and teens can have them as a resource.
Others have suggested books off our shortlists to their most avid readers.

I’ve heard of Cybils book groups and also library selection committees that use our shortlists when considering purchases. The Cybils gives librarians a useful list of titles that please both parents and kids.

JP: It’s a fantastic collection development and booktalking source—especially the shortlists. Librarians can have their students submit nominations and use that as an opportunity to talk about genre, age, and publication date. Librarians can create Mock Cybils Awards and stress reading for the fun of it—if students don’t like the book, they don’t have to finish it. They can come up with their own winners based on the nominations and see how close they come. Since the nominations are public, and judges blog many of their personal thoughts, it adds a whole level of accessible information and springboard for discussion.


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