Thinking About (and Defending) SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books – Part 1 of 3

As I try to promote and raise awareness of School Library Journal’s 2011 Battle of the Kids’ Books using social network media, I received and followed some facebook negative comments regarding the nature of this “Contest.”  Some reasons why some people think SLJ’s BoB isn’t “good” and why I think actually are some of its strong points.  For the sake of simplicity, we’ll use Newbery (the big award of the year) as a comparing point.

A big disclaimer here: I don’t think Battle of the Kids’ Books is by any means a better way to “judge” books for kids, just a different way.

Selection Process and Criteria

“Book award committees work with terms outline eligibility and criteria, and the selection process starts with a very wide field of… books that committee members read, discuss, and ultimately select from as a group.” – quoted from facebook comment with permission:

BoB starts out our selection process with a wider pool of books to choose from.  Newbery is limited to books published in the U.S. and written by a U.S citizen or resident, while BoB has no such restrictions.  So we can have a book by John Green side by side a book by Jonathan Stroud.  Although on the surface, there are only three people who determine the finalists, we have a host of helpers: we read widely ourselves, we read reviews, we pay attention to online discussions, we look at “best of the year” lists, and we also talk to young readers.

Most award committees have criteria to work off of and BoB is completely wide open for each judge to determine for themselves what constitutes the “winning” aspects of their set of books.  Since I served on the Newbery once and taught graduate school courses addressing the Newbery selection processes and read, re-read, discussed, and re-examined the Newbery Criteria with my fellow committee members and my students, I feel confident to say that, no, there really isn’t a set-in-the-stone group of criteria with which we measure the books against each other.  Each committee has to figure out, based on the group of books in front of them and the fairly subjective views of 15 people at the table, what constitutes the “Most Distinguished” literary contribution of the year.  And, to me, that IS exactly the strength of this flexible, ambiguous, amorphous, and maddeningly unclear set of criteria. It does not PRESCRIBE to authors, editors, and publishers what qualities might “guarantee” them a winner.  Thus, it allows for fluidity and innovation.

BoB merely takes this ambiguity a step further and allows for each judge to make up their own set of criteria.  And, so far, if you read the judgments, it is very clear what each of them looks for and why they make their selections.  And if you have read all 30 judgments from the last two years, it is also clear that we passionate readers are looking for similar things in books for children: whether spelled out in a set of award selection criteria or stored in our own reading minds.

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