For many librarians, the opportunity to help decide the Newbery and Caldecott Awards—the “Oscars” of children’s literature—would be a dream come true. But how does one get on these prestigious committees? While the process of selecting the winning titles remains top secret, various committee members, past and present, offer their insight on getting tapped for the honor of a lifetime.
Every January is marked by intense anticipation as the top children’s books of the year are announced at the American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter Meeting. Bestowed by ALA and decided by ALSC (the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of ALA), the Newbery Medal honors “the most distinguished American children’s book” and the Caldecott Medal recognizes “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children” of the previous year.
Two committees, one for each award, are charged with determining the winning titles, and are comprised of 15 members—half of which are elected and half are appointed. The ALSC president makes these appointments, with an eye toward diversity, considering geographic location, breadth of experience, age, gender, race, and library type.
Nominations for these committee positions are open and begin rolling in after the Youth Media Awards (YMA) are announced at Midwinter right up to ALA’s Annual Conference in June. The nominating committees verify the eligibility of each contender (membership in ALA and ALSC is required) in July and August and collect consent statements (confirmation that nominees agree to the committee responsibilities) in September. The ALSC president considers appointments in September–October, and petitioning candidates can submit 25 member signatures in support of their candidacy in February. A full year after the process began, ALA members cast their votes in April for the elected positions. The committees are announced in May, with the two-year term commencing at the Midwinter Meeting.
Pay your dues
So you want to help select the Newbery or the Caldecott? First, you must become an active member of the associations. “Committee members don’t actually have to be librarians,” says Amy Koester, children’s librarian at the Corporate Parkway Branch of the St. Charles (MO) City-County Library District and a member of the 2014 Newbery committee—“They can come from other relevant fields, so long as they are active members in the association sponsoring the award. Each award specifies committee member requirements in their award manuals.”
Keeping up on membership dues isn’t enough. Award committee hopefuls must dedicate some time to serving ALSC. Barbara Genco, past ALSC president and currently Library Journal’s manager of special projects, says that she paid her dues for 10 years before receiving her first nomination. “I was on the planning and budget committees for years. You have to show up for ALSC and demonstrate that you’re a confident professional willing to grow your career,” says Genco, who has served on several awards committees.
Interested parties are encouraged to fill out the committee volunteer forms and be willing to serve on more administrative committees before landing sought-after positions on award selection committees. “Even if you apply for your dream committee and don’t get it, there are other fabulous ALSC committees out there, just waiting for someone with your chops and chutzpah,” advises Elizabeth Bird, blogger at “A Fuse #8 Production,” New York Public Library’s youth materials collections specialist, and member of the 2007 Newbery committee.
Travis Jonker, who is currently serving on the 2014 Caldecott committee and blogs at “100 Scope Notes,” also encourages librarians to volunteer in the association. “When you apply to be on a committee, chances are good that you won’t get your first choice. This is a good thing—it allows you to work with another committee toward a common goal,” says Jonker.
Association involvement can be costly, however; many committees require attendance at ALA conferences. But there are virtual opportunities that will enhance your résumé,” says Jonathan Hunt, County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education, and member of the 2006 and 2015 Newbery committees, “I know the administrative [process] committees aren’t very sexy, but you never know whether the people you work with will be the future presidents of ALSC [and thus in a position to appoint you],” adds Hunt, who blogs for SLJ on “Heavy Medal.”
Monica Edinger offers a top 10 list to clear up possible misconceptions about the Newbery. Excerpted from the full post.
Popular! Not. The rules clearly state “…not for didactic content or popularity.” The committee doesn’t take into consideration whether a book is a crowd-pleaser.
What about the children? The question often arises—do those involved adequately consider the intended audience—kids? Rest assured that they do.
Fifteen individuals. Every year, the committee consists of 15 passionate readers with different tastes, experiences, and backgrounds.
Only the one. If a book is a sequel, the committee may only look at that book and no other. Nor can a committee consider an author’s body of work.
All ages. Though middle grade readers seem to be a significant audience for Newbery winners, the award can go to a work for a child up to and including age 14.
Genre challenge. The committee is not only comparing picture books to middle grade titles and even young adult novels, but every genre, too.
Thinking about literature. Each member arrives prepared to discuss just what makes a title the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” and considers theme, presentation of information, development, and more.
Art and design. With more creators integrating text, design, and art into children’s books, the committee has to make sure its decision is based primarily on the text.
The matter of Honors. The number of honor books, or runners-up, varies every year. Rest assured that the committee felt there were many worthy books, whatever the number of honors they decided upon.
The impossibility of perfection. The Newbery was created to honor the best work of American children’s literature and every year it does so…sort of. That is, a group of 15 people decide on one great work. The winner is the “best” title that year’s committee thought of as the best.
Talk the talk
Beyond taking on some organizational grunt work, bone up on your skills, advises SLJ reviews editor Kiera Parrott. Fresh off her stint on the 2013 Caldecott committee, Parrott says, “Even if you haven’t had the chance to do committee-type work, you can still develop your critical evaluation skills that will help you become a stellar ALSC award committee member. Discuss children’s and young adult literature on social media, review professionally, keep a blog, or simply curate lists of hand-selected recommendations for your patrons.”
ALSC president Starr LaTronica agrees. As a new librarian in the San Francisco Bay Area, LaTronica would join in book group discussions with the local library association. “I tried out my evaluation skills and witnessed incredible modeling by my colleagues.” When deciding on possible candidates for award committees, the nomination committee examines applicants’ assessment abilities in professional review journals, she says. “Reviews show that the librarian has taken the initiative to develop his or her skills and that the candidates are committed to this aspect of the profession.”
Serious evaluation chops are critical when it comes to the real deal—the actual award selection process. “It’s a whole other level,” says Judy Freeman, who’s on the current Caldecott committee and was a member of the 2000 Newbery committee. “The people who are elected or appointed to a book committee need to have read thousands of books. You also need to have read and written many reviews and involved yourself in book discussion groups with children and your peers. You don’t have to be old and gray—but you do need to have strong, well-reasoned opinions about literature and art that you can articulate to others.”
Wendy Lukehart, who has participated in three Caldecott committees, recommends K. T. Horning’s From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books (HarperCollins, 1997) for its overview of approaching different types of children’s literature. Lukehart suggests, “Hone your own skills in justifying opinions, especially in light of the award’s criteria.”
Participation in local, regional, or even virtual book awards also prepped aspiring librarians for “the Big Show.” Koester credits her involvement with Missouri’s Mark Twain Readers Award and the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards in her eventual appointment to the Newbery committee. “Carolyn Brodie, then the vice-president/president-elect of ALSC, and I ended up chatting at the 2012 ALSC National Institute in Indianapolis. She asked me about my awards experience. I thought it was just a nice conversation—so kind of her to take interest in me, a library newbie! When I returned to work after the Institute, I had an email telling me of my appointment.”
ALSC offers a biennial invitational seminar to sharpen librarians’ critical reading abilities. Considered to be a feeder program for stocking the popular award committees, The Bill Morris Seminar: Book Evaluation Training is led by past committee members, with participants engaging in full-day discussions on books and awards criteria.
The Seminar was devised to bring people with little evaluation experience up to the next level, says Luann Toth, SLJ reviews managing editor, who helped organize the program this year, named for HarperCollins executive Bill Morris and longtime ALSC member. “It has become increasingly competitive, with at least 100 applicants for only 30 spots.”
An advisory group of ALSC leaders and former committee chairs review the applications and select the Seminar participants. Once chosen, the program is free of charge to attendees, with all materials, meals, and a $200 stipend provided by the Morris Endowment. A special perk? Participants get to rub elbows with ALSC leadership who are always searching for possible appointment candidates.
Does anybody know your name?
Whether gunning for the elusive appointment or campaigning for the coveted elected spot, committee hopefuls have to make sure their names are visible and recognizable.
Monica Edinger, a fourth-grade teacher at New York City’s Dalton School, was encouraged to become a member of ALA and ALSC because of her writing on children’s literature, including her popular blog, “educating alice.” Although not a librarian, Edinger was elected to serve on the 2008 Newbery committee. “People have to recognize your name or know your reputation as a ‘book evaluator.’ I was known for my outspokenness on various listservs (child_lit and ccbc-net). So my route [to the committee] was through online recognition,” she says.
Extending yourself enables new librarians to expand their networks and make their mark in the library world. Parrott advises, “Never pass up a chance to talk to fellow librarians about what you’re reading. That woman you’re standing next to in line for the bathroom at ALA may be a committee chair or someone charged with helping select new committee members. Network. Make friends. Talk books.”
Social media, too, presents a prime opportunity for networking. Whether through Twitter or Tumblr, use these platforms to share opinions on the latest publishing trends or possible award contenders. “Don’t be a shrinking violet! Get out there!” advises Bird. Start a blog or participate on listservs such as PUB-YAC. Contribute to the regular children’s literature discussions online. Follow #kidlitchat on Twitter, held every Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST, or #mglitchat (for middle grade literature) on Thursdays at 9 p.m. EST.
Be a team player
The winning titles are decided by committee—something easier said than done. Members must be willing to compromise and engage the opinions of others. Caroline Ward, past ALSC president and recipient of the 2007 ALSC Distinguished Service Award, stresses this lesson to her MLIS graduate students at New York’s Pratt Institute. “I teach my students not only about how to discuss books, but also about how to talk books in a group setting. For the Newbery and the Caldecott, the group has to come to a unified decision. You may walk out of that room and the winner isn’t your favorite book, but you have to be satisfied that there was discussion and compromise. You have to be willing to change your view.” Middle school librarian Roxanne Feldman, also from the Dalton School, had served on several ALSC task force groups on technology and on the organization’s Notable Children’s Books committee prior to serving on the Newbery in 2002 and then again in 2013. Building her reputation as a hardworking and well-rounded association member has served her well. “I proved that I was team player,” Feldman says. “And I learned from a past Chair, ‘silence is golden’ when it comes to meeting discussions.” You have to strategize and choose wisely when proffering your opinion.
A big time suck, but worth it
Children’s books and publishing have changed at warp speed since these prestigious awards were first established in the 20th century. Perhaps the biggest impact is the number of books being published and the variety of formats now available. Feldman warns future members, “You have to be aware that it is a super difficult year due to all of the reading you have to do.” Genco adds, “The year that you serve on a committee just might not be the best year to have a baby or make a big life commitment. It’s also incredibly satisfying–one of the most exhilarating experiences of your life.”
Ward admits that she has an immediate Newbery connection when she sees people she’s served alongside at conferences—especially lifelong friend Trev Jones, SLJ’s former book review editor. A longtime children’s librarian at the Ferguson Library in Connecticut, Ward also feels a special bond to the winning titles her committees have chosen. “Every time I lead a book discussion on Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars—which was selected by the committee I chaired—I still feel so proud of the work that we did.”