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Observations from Serving on a Children’s Book Award Committee

by on August 4, 2015

I’ve been a children’s librarian for almost seventeen years, but 2014 was the first time I participated in a book award committee for the Nutmeg Book Award. While the award might not be as well-known as the Newbery–publishers were not inclined to print our potential choices in paperback just because we were going to select them as nominees- our committee nevertheless had a daunting task. We were charged with selecting ten fictional books for children in grades 4-6; students would then vote on their favorites. For years I’ve watched how this award has grown and how school and public librarians have encouraged their students and patrons to participate in creative ways. I’m sure every book award is different, but if you’re thinking of volunteering, here are some observations. (I took an informal poll of a few committee members that I served with—I’ll call them A, B, C, & D).

Expectations:
I bought a cute little pink notebook to write down summaries of all the books so I would remember my thoughts. One of the women who had been on the committee before (yes, they were all women) laughed and said I wouldn’t need it. She was right. By the end, I was reading during every free moment–no time for note-taking. Said A, “I think that I didn’t realize just how much reading we would be doing though, and how disciplined I’d have to be!”

Reading Time:
We read approximately 105 books over about 9 months’ time. (We were supposed to read more but a few of us who work throughout the year whined enough over the lengthy summer list!)

I’m the person who always has a book in their car in case of emergencies, but this got a little ridiculous. I was reading everywhere, all the time. A said she was even reading while blow-drying her hair. One big help for many committee members was audiobooks in the car–and while cleaning, cooking, and… It did take up a lot of time, but B said that the benefits to reader’s advisory alone were worth it. She mentioned that she spends so much time selecting great picture books to read in storytime, but rarely has the chance to get as in-depth with older readers. A had a great tip and said she put all the titles into her Goodreads account so she could go back when making a recommendation to a patron.

Junior Readers:
We had two student readers on our committee–one boy and one girl. Everyone I talked to agreed that their input was valuable, though our students were on the quiet side. A suggested adding two more students, while B said, “I think that a lot of them feel intimidated being on the committee with a bunch of librarians.  Therefore, they tend not to speak up and speak their minds as much as they should (which I can totally understand).”

Our student members definitely helped to sway us when the group as a whole was on the fence about a title. I found that the students were better at telling us why they liked a title, as opposed to why they didn’t.

The Debate:
C said it best – “I enjoy every part of the process—the rich discussions, passionate debates, and the opportunity to ask the committee to reconsider a title (& the thrill when I have successfully swayed votes in a desired direction!).” There were many great debates over a few titles, though luckily no fist fights ensued. What I found to hold true was the old adage “the cream rises to the top.” Those special titles that are really good usually find a way onto everyone’s top lists. But then there are those that speak to each of us individually, and maybe not to everyone.

Said C, “I am not going to lie—it is nothing short of disheartening when a book I have placed in my “emphatically, yes!” column is casually tossed out by the group! (Or the opposite happens!) It has been a humbling reminder to respect my students’—and friends—differing opinions regarding genre, authors, & titles, and to fully support everyone’s right to not finish a book.” D said there were times when she looked at a book in a whole new way after hearing someone’s comments about it.

The Notes:
While my pink notebook was repurposed, I did write notes in the margins on my reading lists to bring to the meetings. Here are some of my favorite ones:

“Apocalyptic”

“Seems like it was created for the illustrator”

“He (author) has done better”

“Cover may limit readership”

“STRANGE”

“Don’t like cover, don’t like concept!”

The Controversies:
One title we all really enjoyed ended up with a split vote, simply because some of us thought it would do better on the Teen List. And in fact, the Teen committee did vote it through so that was a win-win situation! An issue I still have trouble deciding on has to do with books that are extremely popular before we choose them— maybe even a Newbery winner or honor book. I feel like that book is going to get enough readers on its own and that one of the ten slots should go to a less publicized book. But then someone makes the case that not everyone has read it, and if it’s that good, doesn’t it have as much right to be on the list? The jury is still out on that one.

Another issue arose when we really liked a title that was a sequel to another book. The first book was too old to be on the list, but we weren’t sure we should choose the sequel if the kids hadn’t read the first one. Ultimately the book was selected, because a few committee members who hadn’t read the first one said it could stand on its own.

The Vote & the Aftermath:
Our committee had to borrow five titles from our alternate list because some of our top choices were not available in paperback, which is one of the criteria. The titles we couldn’t end up including might be able to make it on the next year’s list depending on their publication date. Ultimately, six of my ‘Top 10’ titles made it to the official Top 10. Two more made it to the ‘Alternate 10’ list, and the last two were not voted through. Of course I made sure my library owns all the titles I liked, and am still taking every opportunity to push them on my young patrons!

When the final list came out, I had a friend who is a school librarian comment that there weren’t any sports books on the list. Like I told my friend, we really didn’t read many from the lists, and of the ones we did, we chose one book about a female soccer player. In the end, that book was cut because it wasn’t available in paperback. This forced me to look back at the list through a different lens, and I still stand by it. It may not have the requisite ‘sports book for boys’ but there are boys as the main or co-main character in at least half of the titles, and in the others, at least two have animal main characters.

So I say, if you have the chance to serve on a book award committee, do it. You will be infinitely glad in the end that you have read so many wonderful titles that you can recommend. Said A, “Library work can be very insular sometimes, and I wanted to join the committee to get to know how other libraries operate, and meet colleagues.”

And then there’s the happy dance you do when the list is announced and you get to tell your patrons that YOU helped choose that book.

Cover Image Credit: ProjectManhattan (CC BY-SA 3.0)

 


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