November 16, 2017

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The NCTE Book Awards: Opportunities for Collaboration

An illustration from the original Orbis Senualium Pictus by John Amos Comenius

Ever heard of John Amos Comenius or Charlotte Huck? Maybe not. Comenius was a 17th-century Moravian minister and educator living in what is now the Czech Republic. Huck, a mid-20th century educator, held the first chair in children’s literature in the United States. Each influenced what and how children read in school. To honor them, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) created two national book awards, the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K–8) and the Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction (K–8).

As classroom teachers turned teacher educators, we have long relied on the American Library Association’s annual book awards to help us select books for our classroom libraries and curriculum units. Now, as chairs of Huck and Orbis Pictus book award committees, we wanted to help the school library community better understand the value of the NCTE book awards for teacher-librarian collaborations.

NCTE established the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction in 1989, in homage to Comenius’s groundbreaking 1658 text Orbis Sensualium Pictus, or, “the world in pictures” in Latin. It was the first children’s nonfiction book in the Western literary tradition to use both words and illustrations to convey information. Woodblock prints at the top of each page provided readers with pictorial clues that help them read the accompanying Latin and vernacular text below and understand the illustrated concept. Each year, the NCTE committee selects a winner, up to five honor books, and recommended titles. Before the Orbis Pictus, there were few awards for children’s and young adult nonfiction. Now, teachers and librarians have a “nonfiction canon” of sorts: 27 years of outstanding titles ideal for classroom use from kindergarten through grade eight.

But what exactly makes a book eligible for the Orbis Pictus? First and foremost, the information must be accurate. Books must balance points of view, avoid stereotypes, and provide evidence of research—evidence that appears in author’s and illustrator’s notes, bibliographies, and the consultation of content experts. The award also honors books that are organized in ways that highlight patterns, chronology, cause and effect, or interrelationships. Format and book design are important as well: How does the book design shape meaning?  How do the illustrations support and challenge readers’ understanding of a topic?

Finally, we examine the writing style. Is it engaging? How does the language prompt inquiry and wonder? Does it provide background knowledge without slowing down the pace? Perhaps what sets the Orbis Pictus Award apart from other awards is that the criteria also considers the roles that each text can have in the school setting, demanding that each book “should be useful in classroom teaching grades K–8, should encourage thinking and more reading, model exemplary expository writing and research skills, share interesting and timely subject matter, and appeal to a wide range of ages.” Great nonfiction can be lively, thought-provoking, and emotionally satisfying, and can serve many roles in language arts and content-area classrooms beyond genre study.

The Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction was established more recently; the inaugural award listing features books published in 2014. Established to “promote and recognize excellence in the writing of fiction for children,” the award honors Dr. Charlotte Huck, a professor at Ohio State University who devoted her career to promoting the role of children’s books in young people’s academic, social, and emotional development. A pioneer in her field, Huck established a master’s and doctoral programs in children’s literature and authored a seminal textbook, Children’s Literature in the Elementary School. She believed that well-written children’s books were powerful tools both in learning to read and learning more about the human condition. The award in her name “recognizes fiction that has the potential to transform children’s lives by inviting compassion, imagination, and wonder.”

Each year, the Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction committee selects a winner, up to five honor books, and recommended titles. As they review the picture books, novels, graphic novels, and narrative poetry that are submitted for consideration, the committee keeps young readers at the forefront of their evaluations. This award focuses on books appropriate for ages three through 12. Committee members seek titles that stretch children’s “thinking, feelings, and imagination.” These criteria are all the more powerful in our current turbulent social and political contexts. We know that we are preaching to the choir when we assert that books that facilitate perspective-taking, empathy, and compassion fill a critical need in our schools.

Later this month, our two committees will gather at the annual NCTE Convention in St. Louis, MO,  to deliberate. The awards will be announced at the Books for Children Luncheon on Saturday, November 18, 2017. Watch the announcement  live on NCTE’s website, and then head to the library shelves to bring those books into your library or classroom.

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