A Year on the Newbery Committee
"And the winner of this year's Newbery Award is..."
Whether you're at the ALA press conference in a crowd of a thousand people or waiting anxiously in front of your computer for the winning titles to load, the announcement of the Newbery and Caldecott Awards is always exciting. Given annually for the most distinguished contribution to American children's literature and for the most distinguished American children's picture book, respectively, the awards are a guarantee that public attention will be focused on these books for years to come.
Serving on the Newbery or Caldecott committee is the dream of every youth services librarian, and I was lucky enough to have my dream come true. In 1985, I was a member of the Newbery Committee that selected Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan as the 1986 Newbery Medal winner. In 2000, I chaired the Newbery Committee that selected A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck as the 2001 Newbery Award winner. Both experiences were as wonderful as I had hoped.
Each year, the membership of the Association for Library Services to Children elects the chair and seven members of each fifteen-member committee. The remaining seven members are appointed by the ALSC president to ensure diversity of experience and background. Any member of ALSC is eligible, but since these committees are the ones everyone wants to serve on, competition is fierce. It helps if your name is known to the membership, whether through reviewing for School Library Journal, posting to listservs such as CCBC-net or Pubyac, or serving on other ALSC committees. (Former Newbery chair Ellen Fader offers lots more insider tips in her August 1, 1999, School Library Journal article, "If You Only Knew.")
When I got the call to run for chair of the 2001 Newbery Committee, I didn't hesitate for a moment. It seemed to me that I would win either way: If I won the election, that would be terrific, and if I didn't, well, all the more time to read what I wanted! But when the results were announced, I was thrilled.
The next step is to find out who's on your committee and get to know each other. We met in San Antonio in January for a get-acquainted meeting, and everyone was friendly, excited, and more than a little nervous. Previous chairs offered practical tips (like how to organize the hundreds of books we'd be getting, and where to shelve them), as well as reminders about how to conduct productive book discussions. We also compared note--taking systems since we would all need a way to record and file notes on every book we read. Then we all went back home and waited for the books to start coming in.
Starting in March, committee members e-mailed me monthly with titles they considered worthy of note, and when we met at ALA that summer, we did a practice book discussion of several of these suggestions. I was impressed by the members' skills in evaluating books and articulating their thoughts, and I knew we had a great committee. On the other hand, everyone had so much to say that we were able to discuss only half the titles we had planned on. How would we get through our much longer list of books at midwinter?
The highlight of ALA that summer was the much-anticipated publication of the fourth Harry Potter book. A few intrepid committee members stayed up till midnight at a nearby Chicago bookstore to be among the first to get their hands on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. One member confessed later that the only non-eligible book she read all year was Harry Potter-"under the covers, with a flashlight," as she put it! Personally, I decided after due deliberation that it was my professional responsibility to keep up with Rowling's books, and that I would be derelict in my duties if I didn't read it. But apart from Harry (oh, yes, and a week at the beach where I cleansed my palate with books for adults), I read nothing but American children's books all year long.
The committee continued reading and suggesting books each month. In October, and again in December, each member formally nominated the three books each person felt were the strongest of the year. For some of us, it was like choosing a favorite child, but we gritted our teeth and made our decisions.
Finally, our midwinter meeting arrived. The locksmith came to the hotel that Friday morning and changed the lock on the door of our meeting room, and I was given the only key. ALSC takes the confidentiality of the proceedings very seriously, and for good reason. If word of a possible winner were to leak out early, publishers and wholesalers could take advantage of the news, and the confidentiality of the process would be compromised. Then we filed in and took our places around the table, and our meetings began.
Because our deliberations are confidential, I can't reveal what anyone said about a book, or whether we had to vote more than once to get our winner. But I can tell you that the level of book discussion was everything we had hoped it would be. There at last were the fourteen other people who had read the same books, with the same concentration and purpose, and everyone was impatient to get started.
Acutely aware of our Sunday deadline, we limited initial discussion to only ten minutes per book-complete with a kitchen timer that members took turns controlling. Though this doesn't sound like much, it allowed everyone time to speak concisely to both strengths and weaknesses. (Since everyone had read the books we could skip plot summaries.) This method allowed us to get through the entire list with time to go back and discuss most of the titles again, which was very reassuring after our summer experience.
Although I can't disclose our discussion, I can give a good report on what we ate! It's a tradition for committee members to bring foods from their home states to fuel the meetings. In our case, we had soft pretzels from Philadelphia, sunflower cookies from Kansas, and peanuts from Virginia, among other goodies. Over the next three days, we might have gained a pound or two, but it was all for a good cause.
When the committee had whittled down the list to a manageable number, we filled out our ballots, with weighted votes for first, second, and third places. Two members tallied ballots while the rest of us left the room, trying to look nonchalant and carefree as we loitered nervously in the hallway waiting for the results. When we heard that we had a winner, we were elated but somehow not surprised. Although the field seemed wide open when we began our discussion, the selection of A Year Down Yonder felt inevitable and right.
Our next task was to inform the ALSC president and executive director, as well as the two volunteer webmasters standing by to code the Web page for the following day's announcement. Now we just had to wait until 9 a.m. Monday morning, when the press conference would begin.
Early the next morning, the executive director called the winning publishers at their hotels to get home phone numbers for our winners. (I always picture the editors waiting by the phone in their nighties, hoping it will ring!) Starting at 8 a.m., I made the calls, with the committee crowded around the speakerphone to hear every word. Richard Peck seemed taken aback when I said, "Hello, this is Caroline Parr, chair of the Newbery Committee, and I'm calling to tell you that we've chosen your book, A Year Down Yonder, as this year's Newbery winner." "Would you repeat that?" he asked. Dutifully, I took a breath and started in again, "This is Caroline Parr-" "Oh, I got THAT part," he said. Once the news had sunk in, he seemed very pleased and somewhat overwhelmed (just as the committee felt, for that matter). We were able to reach each of the four Honor Book winners, who were equally pleased and surprised. Then it was time for the press conference.
Back in 1986, the Newbery Committee crowded into a small meeting room to announce our winner to the ALSC Executive Board. All I remember is being squashed up against my fellow committee members and seeing stars after our pictures were taken. What a difference, only fifteen years later! ALA now takes advantage of the prestige of the awards to garner as much publicity as possible for the books, the awards, and the library community. The press conference is held in a space that can hold up to 1,000 people. Big screen TV's broadcast the announcement so that everyone in the audience can see. C-SPAN is there taping the event. Reporters from major newspapers are present, too.
The Newbery award is the last of the youth awards to be announced, after the Printz Award, the Caldecott Award, and any other prizes being awarded that year. The president of ALSC first announces the names of the Honor Books, then at last the Newbery winner itself. The committee, beaming and proud, waits to hear the public reaction. Although the Newbery is not an award for popularity, you certainly hope that others share your high opinion of the book. We were glad to hear the shouts of joy and loud applause that greeted the announcement.
The rest of the morning was a blur of picture taking and interviews. I was excited to learn that I was to be interviewed by NPR-only a bit dashed to learn that the interview would run on their brand-new digital radio station, received by only a handful of listeners. Newspaper interviews and congratulations from friends and colleagues rounded out the morning.
Six months later, the awards were presented at the Newbery-Caldecott banquet in San Francisco, and we could not have had a more beautiful setting. It was great fun to meet Richard Peck and the other authors at last, to be wined and dined by the publishers, and to enjoy our moment in the spotlight. Peck's speech was pithy and heartfelt; the committee was delighted to be together again, and all in all it was an evening none of us will ever forget.
I have many fond memories of both Newbery committees, especially of the wonderful people I got to know. But one of my favorite moments came on that Monday afternoon in January, after all the commotion was over. A fellow committee member and I walked over to the Corcoran Gallery, where an exhibit of Amish and -African--American quilts had just opened. It was a gray day, and we had spent a year with our noses in book after book. Entering the galleries, we were flooded with color and pattern, and we saturated our weary eyes with designs. Best of all, we didn't have to take notes or analyze a single thing!
At left is the 2001 Newbery Committee with the winner, Richard Peck, for his book A Year Down Yonder (Dial Books for Young Readers).
Peck with David Small, winner of the Caldecott Award.