Sunday evening, June 28th, was a highly anticipated night for those involved in Children’s literature: the Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder banquet at the American Library Association’s annual conference where honor authors and illustrators were recognized and received their official citations from the Association of Library Services to Children (ALSC) and the three winners gave their acceptance speeches.
The speeches have always been the highlight of the evening — they are often enlightening, finely crafted, and always genuine. This year was no different. We heard how Kwame Alexander wooed his wife with sensual poetry, how Dan Santat turned down a cushy job at Google to continue his passion as a children’s book illustrator, and how Donald Crews collaborated with and still misses his late wife, the brilliant Ann Jonas.
And of course, they thanked many people. Their agents, editors, publishers, loved ones, and the librarians who bring books to young people. The usual. And they thanked the Committees for their collective work. But this time, as I sat in the room, listening with rapt attention to Dan Santat: his Google story, his conquering of the relentless self-doubt, his Asian identity (Dan is Thai,) I also noted the way he thanked several bloggers and twitterers (is this even a word?) who publicly supported his work through the years, personally acknowledging those individuals by name. In contrast, his appreciation of the Caldecott Committee, although heart-felt, seemed formal and definitely not personal. Later on, I was reminded by a friend that in 2013, “my own” Newbery winner, Katherine Applegate, also specifically and heartily thanked the same group of social media children’s book promoters by name in her acceptance speech. (I myself had no recollection of this and had to read the speech in the Horn Book to confirm.)
I have been pondering this in light of the author/reader relationship (especially via social media) ever since.
It is simply natural for the authors or illustrators to want to thank people whom they consider champions of their books, and with whom they have formed close bonds via social media and real life interactions. However, I do hope that naming book champions (and sometimes it feels like they are also “author champions”) does not eclipse the fact that public opinions or support from certain individuals or blog sites have absolutely no influence over the Award Committees or Committee Members in selecting winners and honor books. I also hope that all who listened to or read the speeches realize that just because most librarians or teachers do not promote specific titles on public forums such as blogs or twitter feeds or interact with authors directly on social media, it does not mean that the front-line librarians are not also champions of the winning titles, before or after the award announcement. (Librarians are usually also thanked collectively in the formal and generic “you’re good people who bring books to children, yay” way.)
I am probably one of those who straddle a bit of both worlds: when I I LOVE love love a book (which I do, a lot!) I might write a really positive review of the book and tag “highly recommended” here on this blog. And then, I go into my real life, school librarian mode and “push” the book like mad. The beloved book goes on my summer reading lists, it is purchased for a bunch of teachers who attend my monthly faculty children’s book club, and gets recommended whenever I book talk or conduct one on one reader’s advisory. It might even make its way to become a finalist of SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books.
The difference? I simply do not record all these enthusiastic actions in details on my blog or twitter feed. I also rarely become close friends (online or in RL) with children’s book creators, even when I absolutely admire all their work with all my heart. Partly because I’d like to maintain my objectivity when reading and writing about their next books. Thus, I know that I will probably never be thanked by name as a champion for a particular book or book creator in an award acceptance speech.
My name will especially not be cited individually if I have served on that year’s Newbery or Caldecott Committee. Why? Because serving on these major children’s literature award committees means to go into a sort of review hiatus and anonymity. According to ALSC regulation, during the year of service, Committee members can not publish personal opinions on eligible books (as blog posts, tweets, or in published reviews with bylines.) There are multiple reasons for this regulation. One is to avoid public perceptions of inappropriate lobbying of any specific title.
After serving on two wonderful Newbery Committees with great Chairs, I came to truly value the process. I value that we collectively examined hundreds of books in a wide range of genres, themes, age brackets, styles, and forms, from large and small publishers (and self-published work.) I value that we always adhered to the criteria and discussed the literary merits and drawbacks of each and every nominated title with care. I value that we all understood that the discussion would change our original thoughts on many books and that not one single book was a shoo-in, ever. I especially value that we all went into the discussion without knowing much (if any) of each other’s opinions on the group of books we had to discuss, so we could really listen without preconceived biases. This is why I came to value ALSC’s tough rule against reviews, online or in print, by Award Committee Members. Since social media have greatly enabled instant, and continuous, connection between readers and book creators, it is much easier for an author or illustrator to note what has been the reception of his or her book and who is or isn’t supportive of that title. It does not help the process (or the perception of the process) if some of the Committee members appear to have close ties with certain authors or have shared strong opinions on eligible titles in the public arena.
Newbery or Caldecott award committee members must come to terms with the fact that in the winners’ minds (and in the acceptance speeches) we are just that: a collective whole. In 2012-2013, I served, along with 14 other dedicated, thoughtful, passionate book champions, on the Newbery Committee. We voted and decided that the Newbery Medal would go to Katherine Applegate for The One and Only Ivan. I could not have interacted with Applegate when Ivan was published (early in 2012) or when it gained wide appreciation through the year in the blogsphere. I could not have told her how I might have thought her skill in getting inside Ivan’s mind stunning. Or how much attention I might have paid to the rhythm of the sentences. Or how I might have felt that everyone, regardless of age, should read this book because it is important and because it possesses layers of meanings. And I could not have shared with her how lovingly my students might have reacted to Ivan.
So, it was only natural that Katherine thanked the Committee as a whole and thanked individually a few bloggers who were free to gush publicly and to tell of their acts of admiration for her to witness and appreciate.
No one can dictate whom the authors or illustrators feel compelled to thank in their speeches. In the formal speeches, the Committee as a whole often comes across as a collective, impersonal, cool headed group who sit in judgment of books. I simply wish to emphasize that Award Committee members are just the opposite of cool or impersonal: they are as warm and passionate and would incessantly push books wherever they go (much like the individually thanked bloggers and twitterers) even if they do not publish blog posts, tweet, or form close individual relationships with the award winners.