As I get ready for the Oakland Mock Newbery this coming Sunday, I’m thinking of the members of the many actual award committees, also doing some final re-reading and considering before they head to Boston to huddle in. They meet for two full days, as many hours as they can squeeze in, and deliver their decisions and draft press releases (still by hand?) to the press office Sunday, for final preparation for the awards press conference Monday morning January 11th, just two weeks away. If you’d like a close look at what’s in store for the committee, start on page 34 of the Newbery Manual.
I think that each person approaches this point of the deliberations differently. While of course I play in my head with different arrangements of my 1st, 2nd, and 3rd ballot choices, I resist it…I don’t like the idea of being to firm with my favorites until I have to be. (Yes, I can take forever to chose ice cream, though when it’s really time to move along, because I’ve teased out all the options, I can just go with my gut.) Instead, I like to turn to each title and review all its strengths and weaknesses, make a mental map, then move to the next. I’ll do this over and over in the same rotation, or mixing the order to hold different ones next to each other… I’m comparing, but not deciding. I want to have a well-developed and easy-to-mind analysis of each title, so that through the discussion, as the group collectively shapes its assessment of what makes “distinguished,” I can see clearly which books in my mind fit the description best.
What does make distinguished? The Newbery criteria give us handles, though what makes a “distinguished contribution” in “Delineation of a setting; Appropriateness of style; etc” is ultimately each committee’s decision. I think that what excites me most about these discussions is learning from colleagues what they feel about this. I’ve always brought with me a strong appreciation for sentence-level writing and narrative structure in novels of the kind that rivals the best in adult fiction. I have a personal penchant for the quirky and dark. I’ve learned from colleagues, over the years, how to read and appreciate nonfiction, humor, and the wonderful straightforward contemporary novels that were never my own thing. So now, what I “know” about what makes distinguished writing for kids is based on my own reading reactions, this learned reaction (which I have to practice, constantly, as I read outside my own tastes), and as much as possible what I can glean from kids themselves.
So what do we know about what kids think about what they read? As much as we press them to tell us in a multitude of ways, sometimes I feel like it’s a black box, since kids responses so often are conditioned by the context in which they are asked, and their expectations for needing to please, or give the right answer. Good teachers I think probably get the closest to it, for individual students. Public librarians, for a “crowd-sourced” sense of a larger community. Scholastic’s biannual Kids & Family Reading Report tries to tell us, and while I find the form of the questions to be a little leading, the fact that 91% of kids agree with the statement “My favorite books are the ones that I have picked out myself” assures me that what I see in libraries is true. Kids are looking for the book that speaks to them, whether or not they know what it is yet. If we can use the awards to provoke a wide variety of truly excellent work (whether the award winners themselves, or just the publishing output that reaches for the awards), then I think we are on the right track.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at email@example.com
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