How to Be a Great Book Award Committee Member

Serving on a committee or thinking about it? Consider these eight best practices from a seasoned pro.

Woman reading a book, sitting on floor, in front of stacksWhat makes a valuable, productive committee member? Having been privileged to serve on several youth media award committees, including the Newbery, Caldecott, and Coretta Scott King, I have given a lot of thought to this. The most important requirement is that you are willing to work hard. In addition, here are some guidelines that may be helpful in your committee journey.

Prepare. Whether experienced or not in material evaluation, we can all learn new ways to evaluate materials. Many committee chairs will give you suggestions for background reading. Welcome this information and also seek out others who have served. They may have invaluable advice about how they prepared for the serious work that lies ahead.

Read, read, read. As you are considering what materials to begin with, choose broadly. Expand your horizons. Seek out those genres you might otherwise avoid. Poetry, nonfiction, and graphic materials all deserve your attention. Also, be sure to consider the material in the same format that the award is given. A book in audio format can have a very different appeal than the print version, based on the narration, pacing, music, etc. Those elements can affect how you respond to the book.

Nominate. Many committee members, in search of the “perfect” material, are reluctant to nominate titles that they don’t feel quite make the grade. Most chairs will remind you that there is not a perfect entry, and every year, a different committee of hard-working committee members might make other selections than an alternate group of committee members. By making a thoughtful nomination, you are bringing materials to the attention of others; and from your thoughtful discussions, they and you may see more of your selection’s merits as well as weaknesses.

Respect your committee members. While you may have previously skimmed something that a fellow committee nominates, make sure that you now give it the same careful consideration you give to your own nominations. Look for the insights that you might have missed on a first reading, and pay close attention to the points your fellow committee members made in their nominations. Almost every entry will benefit from a second look or a very careful first examination.

Focus on specifics of the material. Remember, the decision is not about whether you will buy the material for your library. Take careful notes so that in your discussions, you can frame your comments with specific points of commendation or criticism. Page references are particularly helpful, since all members should have the materials on hand. This helps avoid making the discussion personal. Comments such as “I’m not comfortable giving this material an award” do not move the discussion forward and silence other committee members, since if they continue with support, it can appear that they are not supporting you. The discussion should always focus on the elements in the material.

Avoid distractions. Many committees now hold their discussions on Zoom, a platform that can encourage multitasking. While literary people are very good at multitasking, this is not the time to demonstrate those skills. Your committee chair, usually with group input, will let you know when your Zoom meetings will occur. It is your responsibility to set aside those times so that you can give each item your complete attention and respond to the details of others’ concerns, and acclaims, with your own.

Do not lose heart. If a nomination or two that you strongly supported does not receive the recognition you think it deserves, stay positive. There are many ways to promote it still. After the awards are announced, post your review on recommendation sites such as Goodreads. If you have a blog, feature it there; and if you don’t have a blog, think about creating one. If you are working in a library, look for ways to put the books you like on recommended reading lists and displays. Also, talk it up every chance you get! It is fine to express your support once the awards have been announced, as long as you don’t divulge any of the group‘s discussions.

Enjoy! Finally, just enjoy the experience. You will learn much from your hard work, both through the preparation and the discussions. You will probably also make lasting friendships. There’s nothing like outstanding material to bring us together.

Edie Ching has served on the Newbery, Caldecott, and Coretta Scott King committees, served on and chaired ALSC’s Notable Children's Books, and served on ALSC’s Notable Children’s Recordings. She is the former librarian of St. Albans School for Boys in Washington D.C., a member of Capitol Choices, and a member of the Washington Children's Book Guild.

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