Inside the Newbery Award Committee
By Dianne L. Monson

So many qualified people want to be on the Newbery Award jury that members can serve for only one year. What is it like to be a Newbery judge? Read the inside story written by a past judge to find out.

Have you ever looked at the Newbery Award books on the library shelf and wondered how they became winners of the prestigious children's literature award? I used to wonder, too – until I was invited to appear on the ballot for election to the Newbery Award Committee. When the election results were announced, there was my name among the seven elected members! With the elected chairperson and seven members appointed by the chair, we made up the 15-person committee – all members of the Association for Library Service to Children (a division of the American Library Association, or ALA).

Each week for more than a year I enjoyed the excitement of opening new boxes - until I'd received more than 300 books

Our committee met several times as we prepared to elect the Newbery Medal and Honor books. These meetings helped familiarize us with selection procedures, including rules of eligibility for the award. The rules are clear. The book must have been published during the preceding year. Wonder why J. K. Rowling hasn't won the Newbery Medal? The award can go only to books first published in the U.S. and only to American citizens or residents.

During the early sessions, we critiqued and discussed the books we'd received so far that had been nominated by ALA members or by publishers. (Publishers can nominate books they think have the best chances to win.)

As we sat around a table, discussing the nominees, the committee chair acted as moderator. That was time well spent. As we debated, we learned to be specific in citing positive and negative qualities of books, to listen carefully, and to respect each other's opinions.

Hard questions

Each week for more than a year I enjoyed the excitement of opening new boxes - until I'd received more than 300 books. As I read and critiqued each book, I made careful notes.

  • Was the theme important to a young audience?
  • Were the characters memorable?
  • Did the plot capture my attention and make me want to continue reading?
  • Did the writing style reflect the tone of the story?

I was searching for the book that showed excellence in most, if not all, of these qualities. In the case of nonfiction books, I tried to judge factors that influenced each book's power to capture its subject and to communicate information clearly and accurately.

By late fall, we had all read most of the submitted books. (Some books had arrived in manuscript form and would require more editorial work before final publication!) At that time, each committee member filled out two preliminary ballots, nominating three books each time. These were the books we judged to be the very best. When we tallied the ballots, about 50 books remained. These were the ones that had survived our critiques - the ones that we'd consider in the final discussion and balloting.

And the winner is ...

At last it was time for the January ALA Midwinter Convention and our final meeting. All 50 of the eligible books arrived at our meeting room in a trunk. We unpacked them onto our large conference table and discussed one at a time. At the end of each discussion, committee members voted whether or not to keep the book on the table and in the running. If we voted a book out, it went back into the trunk. After hours of discussion, we began the final balloting. Only the eligible books remained on the table. On the first ballot, each committee member listed first-, second-, and third-choice books. In the tally, three points went to each first choice, two to each second choice, and one to each third-choice book. As we waited for the final count, we were nervous and excited. We wondered if one book would stand above the rest. And one did. It was obvious on the first ballot that Lois Lowry's The Giver was the clear winner!

What I learned

What were my impressions from an insider's point of view? At first, the number of books to read seemed almost overwhelming, but I soon developed a procedure for judging. Among the fine books nominated, some were obviously superior. When my initial opinion held up after second and third readings, that book went onto my highly recommended list. Furthermore, I found that comments from other committee members helped me to be more critical of my own reading. In our final discussions, we functioned well as a team of reviewers. Do I still think about the books we considered and wonder whether we made good decisions? Yes; I sometimes reflect on the process and the outcome. But I feel we honored outstanding books with fresh treatment of themes and unique styles. And I think the Newbery Awards continue to honor lasting, outstanding contributions to children's literature.

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