The Newbery Medal is the Oscar of children's literature. Selected by a committee that changes every year, the medal goes to "the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" by the American Library Association. And, like the Oscars, plenty of people second-guess the committee's choice for the medal, as well as books chosen to receive Newbery Honors.
In many years, people have said that one of the Honor books (think of them as the runners-up) was actually better than the one that received the Newbery Medal; famously, E.B. White's Charlotte's Web was awarded a Newbery Honor in 1953, losing out on the Medal to Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark.
Seattle's Child asked Seattle resident Karin Snelson, a member of the committee that this year chose Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, what it's like to serve on the Newbery committee.
Tell us how you ended up on the Newbery Committee.
SNELSON: Most of the people who serve on the Newbery are children's librarians, but occasionally the American Library Association (ALA) will appoint or elect professors of children's literature, or teachers, or – as in my case – professional children's book reviewers.
I've been writing and editing children's books off and on since 1988, but I attended my first ALA conference 13 years ago when I had just started working as the children's books editor at Amazon.com. In 2005 and 2006, I served a two-year term on the ALA Notable Children's Books committee, which was excellent practice for being on the Newbery.
The appointment was not as sky-pluckingly random as it might seem … to be selected for an ALA children's book awards committee you have to be a current member of the ALSC (Association of Library Service to Children) and have filled out a volunteer form.
What do you do as a Newbery Committee member? What does the job entail?
The 15 of us read and reread until our eyes itch – everything from picture books to poetry to early readers to 500-plus-page novels to nonfiction. We fill many binders with notes. And even though most of the publishers send us books, we read trade journals, catalogs and blogs to make sure we're seeing everything eligible. And then we read some more because there's still that pile over there. Maybe I'm not making this sound appealing, but for those of us who love reading, there's joy in it!
We also have four conferences to attend over the course of two years: We had our "getting to know you" meeting in Boston in January 2010, practice discussions in June 2010 in Washington D.C., and our "holy smoke we're actually picking the Newbery" meeting in San Diego in January 2011. The grand finale is the ALA conference (for us, party) in New Orleans this June. I can't wait to meet the winning authors, preferably over gumbo!
What makes a book Newbery worthy? Do you look for certain things, or is it just about what resonates with you when you read it?
Different people will be passionate about different books – what resonates with one may well not resonate with another. That's as it should be, and it's what makes this kind of task so intrinsically daunting … and often so controversial. Parts of the criteria for the Newbery read like the thesaurus listings for the word "excellent": eminent, distinguished … The winner has to stand above the rest. We consider plot, style, theme, characters, presentation, kit, caboodle – just not the illustrations. The Newbery is awarded for the text only.
What's the hardest part of being on the Newbery Committee?
For me it was difficult – no, torture! – to read all year and not be able to talk about the specific books with my fellow committee members, or really anyone else, until we were actually in discussions in San Diego. I felt like an island. If I were a librarian, like many of my colleagues, it would have been a bit different, in that it's part of their daily jobs to talk books with people.
Do committee members disagree much about what books deserve medals and honors? If so, how do you resolve the disagreements?
We threw tomatoes at each other. Soft ones, so no one was hurt. Actually, I wish I could talk to you about how it all went, because it was truly fascinating. But what happened in San Diego stays in San Diego. The procedures are spelled out in the ALA website for all to see, but we're not allowed to say anything about our deliberations. I will say, however, that chocolate was involved.
Was Moon over Manifest your personal favorite?
I loved Moon over Manifest. That said, I had no sense of what would end up on our final ballot when I walked into that room in San Diego. It's interesting to me that in the end we chose four historical fiction novels, including the honor books: Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm, Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus, and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. And a picture book of poetry! Almost unheard of for a Newbery. Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen. I had always imagined that there would be some built-in time at the end when the committee attempts to elegantly shape and balance its final list, for example, preventing a winning cluster of five books featuring penguin protagonists, but nope, it doesn't happen.
What are your 10 favorite books for older readers?
That is too hard! There are dozens. I'll just start. Dominic (William Steig), From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (E. L. Konigsburg), The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett), Heck Superhero (Martine Leavitt), A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl), Where the Red Fern Grows (Wilson Rawls), Mandy (Julie Andrews), The Giant-Slayer (Iain Lawrence), The Star of Kazan (Eva Ibbotson), Kit's Wilderness (David Almond), The Trolls (Polly Horvath), The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman), The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (Phillip M. Hoose). Is that 10?
Anything you'd like to add? Something I didn't ask about but you think is really important?
Yes! Having been on both the Newbery and the ALA Notable Children's Books committees, I keep wishing that the Notables lists were as well known as the Caldecott and Newbery – they are a wonderful and much-used resource for children's librarians and teachers, but I don't think "civilians" are nearly as familiar with them. You can find the new lists posted every January on the American Library Association website (http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/notalists/ncb/index.cfm). Anyway, well worth considering, and divided by age groups, which is handy.
Ruth Schubert is the managing editor of Seattle’s Child and the magazine’s unofficial book editor.