What About All That Buzz?: Newbery Committee Inside Insights
Here’s another post where we share some behind-the-scenes information about what it’s like to be on the Newbery Committee. Earlier we wrote about the challenges of managing several hundred books; another post looked at issues of confidentiality and conflict of interest. Today it’s all about buzz: how things like rave reviews, publicity campaigns, word of mouth, and even mock Newbery blogs might (or might not) play roles in the year-long efforts of committee members.
STEVEN: In my years I tried to pretty much avoid buzz until I had read a book. I wouldn’t read a review, or even a book jacket, first. But I do think things like starred reviews and word of mouth would sometimes lead me to pick up a book that might have been lower down on my pile. Emily, how much did you track what others were saying about the hottest titles?
EMILY: I was all about the buzz because I was terrified of missing something. So I looked at all the lists and blogs (my Newbery year is when I got introduced to Heavy Medal wadddup) . I tried not to read the OPINIONS too much but definitely wanted to NOT MISS ANYTHING.
STEVEN: Agree: every tool you can find to expand your net is useful. Although I have to admit, I enjoyed finding a book that wasn’t getting much attention and deciding to champion it. Usually (maybe always?) unsuccessfully though.
EMILY: I’d argue that reading opinions (after you read the book) could help you make sure you haven’t missed anything (pros or cons about the book). Thanks for that Heavy Medal! I also thought it was important to read credible blogs from POC to make sure I wasn’t missing anything from their represented groups.
STEVEN: Good point. At least during my years (2010, 2013) I know ALSC was working hard to bring more diversity into award committee membership, but still had a long way to go. And having more people weigh in can increase our knowledge beyond diversity: sharing relevant information about science, history, etc., that you hope will be covered by the 15 committee members, but they can’t cover everything.
EMILY: I liked looking at authors’ interviews and blogs to see if they could give me any more insight into a title. Not sure if that was the best idea in retrospect?
STEVEN: I can see some value in that one, but decided against it for myself. Early in my first year I went to a talk at a bookstore and the author read from an eligible title, which I had read and decided not to nominate. Sitting there and hearing the author’s just-right reading of the text, I thought: “What was I thinking, this is brilliant!” Kind of caught up in the moment. But actually, when I later went back to the book and my notes, I realized that my concerns were still valid, even though I now heard that author’s voice in my head as I read. After that, though my rule was: book = yes; author = no.
EMILY: I also wanted to pick good titles for my 3rd to 6th grade book club to read. I wanted to hear opinions from the kids to see what real children thought about it. I got a lot of good insight from the kids and was able to bring that into discussions.
STEVEN: I had Mock Newbery groups at a couple of schools during one of my years and also found it helpful. Not so much for evaluating individual books, because the group only read six or seven I think. But talking to kids directly about specific books really gets you focused on what the Newbery Criteria describe as “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” It’s easy to get lost in adult-to-adult conversations about “what kids will like.”
STEVEN: The two winners from my years weren’t huge surprises. WHEN YOU REACH ME (2010) was just a second novel, but it had pretty strong buzz. And many people have told me they were rooting for THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN (2013) all year long. But Emily, I believe your medal book was more unexpected?
EMILY: My winner MERCI SUAREZ CHANGES GEARS (2019) didn’t even make the Heavy Medal booklist! However it was the practice discussion title and I definitely read that to sew pros and cons. Whenever people say something like, “I was surprised Merci won,” or “Did Merci have it all?” I remember what a wise former chair (sorry not Steven) told me to say: “reread it again with the Newbery in mind.”
STEVEN: Great answer. It can also work for the “Why didn’t this book win instead?” question. Although as a committee member, you can’t really share the specific concerns your group might have identified.
EMILY: I remember being at an event the year Matthew Cordell won the Caldecott. I heard he was convinced Dan Santat would beat him out. The Caldecott chair just smiled to herself. That helped me realize, no matter the buzz, no matter what people think- the committee is really giving such a thorough and deep analysis that matters more than anything else.
STEVEN: That’s really the key. No one’s reading books and thinking about them in the same way as those 15 committee members. Input from outside the reader and the committee can be important…but only to the extent that it makes its way into the reader’s understanding of a book and the committee discussion and ballot.
EMILY: If anything I would say all this talk about buzz is the first time I really want to spill Newbery secrets. Is my 50 years up yet? LOL. Please ask me some questions I can actually answer in the comments!
Filed under: Newbery Experience
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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