This interview by Judi Moreillon was originally published in four parts on the Worlds of Words at the University of Arizona WOW Currents literature blog.
JM: Thank you, Nick Glass, for your willingness to share your 2009 Newbery Committee experience with WOW Currents readers. There has been a great deal of buzz in the children’s literature community since the 2009 Newbery Committee selected Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book as this year’s medal winner. Many of us are looking forward to Gaiman’s upcoming speech at the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder Banquet at ALA in Chicago on July 12th. Before we talk about the book, let’s give WOW Currents readers some background on the Newbery Committee selection process and the process used for selecting the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” How were you selected for the committee? Have you served on a book award committee previously?
NG: I was elected to the 2009 John Newbery Award selection committee by the membership of the American Library Association (ALA) division that administers this award, ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children). This was quite an honor, and a real shock to me. You see, I’m not a librarian. I’m a book lover. I’m a professional in the world of children’s books. But I’m not a librarian – and I always thought that librarians and academics in the field were those who got to serve on these committees.
I have served on many volunteer committees (boards of various educational and civic entities), but I have never helped selected a book award winner. On one side, this volunteer work was quite similar to other committee charges—but on the other, it was extremely different. The similarities for me start with an assembly of people with a common passion and interest—committed to the charge. In this case, it was tremendous professionals who simply love and admire books. We all brought different experiences and professional expertise to the table, yet we shared a core essence for the reason why we were there.
The biggest difference for me from this work and other volunteer work I’ve done is the degree to which it took over my life. I would imagine it took each of us literally one thousand+ hours over the course of a year to keep reading and evaluating the eligible books that were published. This meant that it was often on my mind—coming home to find books in my living room; traveling and feeling the need to go into a bookstore and ask the children’s book experts what they’ve read and liked; feeling that I “should” be reading book X or Y; taking books into the bath, on vacation, and more. Books and thinking about books was always present, which is exciting, but not always the healthiest.
I’m blessed to say that my family was tremendously supportive. When I had to excuse myself from evening activities, or weekend play time, or social events to read and document my thoughts on each book, my sweetie MJ and children understood. We made it as positive an experience as possible, discussing books and the journeys they took us on quite often. Our then 13-year-old daughter read and read and read with me. That was a shared experience that I’ll value and never forget. (I’m taking her and MJ with me to the Newbery Banquet at the ALA Conference this year, as recognition of their contribution to this cause, and as a way to share the culmination of this work with them.)
JM: How many books did you read for your Newbery Committee work?
NG: I’ve been often asked how many books did I read… and I don’t have a specific answer that I believe most questioners hope for. I simply don’t know. I have documentation on 700+ titles, and I examined another few hundred. But I’d say I only completely read 300 or so books from the beginning to end. And within that is batch of a few dozen books I read two to five times each!
What it means to “read” a book? I learned is a very subjective and relative term. My daughter, for example, finishes almost every book she opens. I’d ask her how it is, and even though she’d articulate why she can’t stand this book and how it isn’t for her, she still finishes it. She reads the whole thing. I know I don’t feel this obligation. I was very happy to read the first 25-50 pages, skip around, read the end, and then think to myself, “yeah—let’s go back and read it all. I’m really intrigued by the plot development, and the questions of how the setting and characters changed.” But I didn’t feel obliged to read each book cover to cover.
JM: How did you know what books to complete?
NG: One of the most useful parts of the Newbery Award selection process for me was a “suggestion” list. These were titles that committee members and members of the ALSC division thought were worthy of reading. Each and every one of these books got read in its entirety, and I made sure to carefully document my sentiments about these titles in case my notes were needed for a future discussion.
JM: We know that the titles of actual books under consideration for the award are to be kept secret, but what can you share with us regarding the committee’s book selection process?
NG: The selection process, which is meticulously outlined in the Newbery Award Selection Committee Manual, is two-fold. One major part is learning about the criteria and reading books accordingly. This is done initially independently for each member. The other part begins when we get together to begin deliberating, and it is truly about listening, persuading, and ultimately reaching a consensus.
I’m a process-type person who loves rules and numbers and details. I read the manual a few times, and enjoy these types of documents. But what isn’t, and frankly, I don’t think can be documented, is the wonderful human element, where we build tremendous respect for each other and learn to listen and learn in new ways.
JM: Please elaborate on this “human element”, as you call it.
NG: Prior to the few days of meetings when we ultimately decide the winner, we all spend a tremendous time reading and thinking and even falling in love with our favorite books. Then we come together in January, having not talked as a group at all in about six months, and share our feelings. We discuss why we love our favorite books, and how they specifically support the criteria that the Manual asks us to examine. We all listen, and respectfully craft our reasons if a book didn’t work as well for us as it might have for others.
I imagine that every one of us had a book we so loved get removed from discussion. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the break we had right after the book I had thought was as distinguished and brilliant as any other was removed from consideration. I ended up running around Denver for about ten minutes, getting my head and heart back, ready to openly listen to discussions about the next batch of books.
This was emotional work. But the rules and criteria were clear, and ultimately, the process absolutely works. The most distinguished books of the year were chosen, with a medal winner and four honors.
JM: What are some of the writing criteria that must be considered in determining the Newbery Medal winning title?
NG: The Manual lists six writing components that need to be considered in identifying “Distinguished Writing” in a book for children. They are:
• Interpretation of the theme or concept
• Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
• Development of a plot
• Delineation of characters
• Delineation of a setting
• Appropriateness of style.
I considered these in every book I read and truthfully, I don’t think I can ever read a book again without considering them. Turns out this work was a crash course on book evaluation—one that I’ll be forever thankful for.
One side note here is that through this work I made it a priority to read and learn a great deal about book evaluation. I carefully read books like From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books, by Kathleen T. Horning (HarperCollins, 1997), and numerous chapters and articles in other sources. These were really useful in helping me interpret and understand why a book was or was not successful for me.
Nick Glass is the founder and principal of TeachingBooks.net, an online subscription service that provides children’s and young adult author and illustrator information and resources for students, teachers, and librarians. You can reach Nick at nick@TeachingBooks.net.
Judi Moreillon is an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University. She teaches a variety of courses for preservice school and public librarians, including children’s and young adult literature. You can reach Judi at: firstname.lastname@example.org.