The John Newbery Medal is a literary award given by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association (ALA). This annual award is given to the author of "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." The Newbery and Caldecott Medals are considered to be the most prestigious awards for children's literature in the United States.
The medal is decided by a committee elected by their peers and for the past year, Baltimore County Public Library’s Collection Development Coordinator Jamie Watson has been a member of this committee working hard to determine this year’s medal winner and honor books. Jamie sat down with me to share insight into the committee. Her passion for this committee work and children’s literature are evident! The Newbery Medal, along with the other ALA awards will be announced on Monday, January 23 in Atlanta.
Between the Covers: Please give us a brief overview of the process of committee member selection process for the Newbery Medal.
Jamie Watson: There are 15 people on the committee. Eight of them are elected during the American Library Association elections held in the spring. I was elected! You are nominated by your peers. Then, six more members and the committee chair are chosen by the president of the Association for Library Service to Children.
It was bittersweet being elected because one of my friends missed joining me on the committee by a mere three votes!
For librarians who might want to be on the committee, this has really been a long process of serving on other committees for the last 17 years, getting to know people, practicing book discussion skills and networking. It was something I knew I always wanted to do and I’m so pleased and honored to be doing it.
BTC: Is the committee given any criteria to choose its winners or does it come up with its on their own?
JW: There are very specific criteria, and I’ve probably read them 100 times or more over the last year! Here they are, direct from the manual:
Committee members need to consider the following:
• 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
Note: Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.
This gets challenging because you might be comparing so many different types of books. How can you compare a picture book with a biography for middle grade readers with a book of poetry with a novel for 8-year-olds? Ultimately, you apply these criteria to each and every book, and see how well they stand up to it.
BTC: How does the committee decide which books to read? How many did you read this year?
JW: Publishers will send you books all throughout the year. You will read reviews. You will hear other people talking and speculating. However, it’s up to each individual committee member to decide which books to read. Also throughout the year, the members communicate by sending “suggestions” to the chair, who then compiles them and sends them to the entire committee. So you can see what things other committee members are reading and liking. But not which person, or why they liked them. It’s just a list that says “You might want to check these out.” I tried to balance reading well-reviewed things, reading suggested things and reading things I didn’t know much about just to see what might be getting overlooked. Everyone on the committee has their own approach.
I likely read in the vicinity of 200 books from cover to cover. I likely skimmed 200 more, or read just a bit of them. Some books that are on the list of nominations I’ve read twice, and a few even three times. I’ll be continuing to re-read right up to the deadline just to see what else I might have missed.
This is why serving on committees has made me a much kinder “second guesser” of awards committees. Even the most avid readers have likely not read this intensely and with this volume for a year. We are really looking HARD at these books, because we really want to make a great decision.
BTC: How is it all kept secret? How do you communicate with one another? What is the approximate timeline for the year? Do you have in-person meetings? How does the voting work?
JW: As of now, none of us have talked about the books to each other at all. We don’t know who nominated what, who likes what — nothing. We start fresh on January 20. There is NO DISCUSSION of the books AT ALL until we are behind that closed door on January 20. The chair communicated with us throughout the year, letting us know what people were suggesting and checking in with logistics, but our communications with each other were completely limited.
Keeping it secret is hard for a big talker like me, but I respect that the surprise adds such an extra layer to the announcement on Monday, January 23. I had to quit doing Goodreads for the year, which I really missed. I couldn’t say on Facebook “OMG I JUST READ THE BEST BOOK” because everyone would assume that meant it was on the fast track to the Newbery.
My time on the committee was from January, 2016 until June 2017. After we make the announcement, the hard work is done. But the final payoff is at the ALA Annual Conference in the summer, when the award is presented at the Newbery/Caldecott banquet. Here, committee members usually get to meet the author, often having dinner with him/her, and just enjoy the fruits of their labor. The author will give a speech, which has nearly moved me to tears even in years when I was not on the committee!
So, at conference in January, we will begin to discuss the books. We have two full days of discussion, and then we vote. You only get to vote for THREE books. If a clear winner isn’t determined after the first ballot, all books that received votes get rediscussed. And then you revote. You can’t leave the room on Saturday, January 21 until you have a winner. I’ve heard stories of tears and anger, (nothing specific, as it’s all secret forever, but rumors!) so I hope our voting process goes swimmingly!
BTC: How has being on the Newbery Committee impacted your job as a librarian?
JW: The hardest part really has been my inability to recommend titles that I’m reading to keep secrecy at its utmost. I really miss being able to enthuse as I go along! The other impact has been not being able to do everything I might normally. While I hope I kept up on my day-to-day job OK, there were extras that came my way that I couldn’t do this year. There’s only so much brain power you have!
BTC: What do you personally take away from being on the Newbery Committee?
JW: This is just such a huge honor. Seeing that seal on a book and knowing that I played a part in getting recognition for a book and an author that should be recognized is a great honor and responsibility. It also reminds me what got me into librarianship to begin with — a love of reading and books and story and literature. The passion for our duty is going to be overwhelming in that room in Atlanta, and I’ll carry it with me forever!
BTC: What was your favorite book as a child? Do you have a favorite Newbery winner?
JW: As a kid, without question my favorite Newbery book, and still one of my favorite books of all time, is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.
Most of the time in recent years, because I read a lot of children’s books, I have read the Newbery before it was announced. The one that made me the happiest was Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. I’m also a big fan of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.
But that’s another difference between OBSERVING and picking a winner. “Which book did you like best” is NOT a criteria. You can angle it and say “The plot was developed so well” or etc., but it really doesn’t matter if you LIKE it. You have to be impartial and unemotional and just say “DID THIS WORK?”
I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.