Interview with a Two-Time Newbery Committee Member!
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Your Spellbinders are very excited to give you an interview with two-time Newbery Committee Member, Vaunda Nelson, a youth services librarian in New Mexico and the author of many acclaimed books such as:
Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal WINNER OF THE CORETTA SCOTT KING AWARD FOR 2010!!!
Almost to Freedom, (a Coretta Scott King Illustrated Honor Book)
1. Vaunda, please give us a brief overview of the process of committee member selection for the Newbery and Caldecott Award Medal.
The structure has changed over the years since the first Newbery Medal was awarded in 1922 and the first Caldecott in 1938, but here is the current structure: To serve on either committee, you must be a member of ALSC-the Association for Library Service to Children (a division of the American Library Association). You must be able to attend all required meetings. There are 15 members on each committee, including the committee chair. Eight are elected by members of ALSC. These members are contacted by the ALSC nominating committee and asked if they would be willing to put their names on the ALA ballot of at least 16 candidates. The committee chair and the six remaining members are appointed by the ALSC president. Those who serve on Newbery, Caldecott, Sibert or Wilder award committees must wait at least four years to serve again on any of these committees to give others an opportunity.
My experience working with committee members was very positive. Members came from various parts of the country. They were knowledgeable, enthusiastic, passionate and kind, even when in disagreement. As I listened to and participated in discussions, I experienced a mutual respect that made me proud to be part of such an extraordinary endeavor.
2. Is the committee given any specific criteria to choose their winners or do they come up with it on their own? (For instance, the National Book Award gives no criteria for their judges.)
There are specific criteria for all ALSC awards. The very short versions for Newbery and Caldecott awards are:
The Newbery Medal "shall be awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year. There are not limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work."
The Caldecott Medal "shall be awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published in the United States in English during the preceding year. There are not limitations as to the character of the picture book considered except that the illustrations be original work."
Award recipients of either medal must be citizens or residents of the United States.
The guidelines also include definitions of terms such as "distinguished", "original", "contribution to American Literature", "picture book for children", etc. which committee members must consider as they evaluate books. Details can be found in the October 2009 Newbery Manual online at www.ala.org. Type "Newbery Committee Manual" into the search box at the site.
3. How is it decided which books the committee will read, and what is the approximate number you personally read during the year?
Committee members are expected to try to read everything published within the year that is eligible. Publishers send many titles, but some don't. It is the responsibility of committee members to seek out what doesn't come through the mail. I don't know exactly how many books I read, but it was hundreds.
4. How is it all kept secret? How do you communicate with one another? What is the approximate timeline for the year and do you personally meet to discuss before the ALA midwinter announcements?
There is much I cannot tell you about my experience on the Newbery Committee. The secrecy is both necessary and part of the fun. I cannot tell you what went on behind the closed doors during the many hours of sequestered meetings. (Committee members need to feel free to speak frankly, knowing that their comments will not be repeated outside.) I cannot tell you what books were or were not discussed. I cannot tell you specifics about the balloting. It's all confidential. Forever. But there are some things I can tell you about my year.
We met for the first time at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in January. This was primarily for introductions and to discuss procedures and eligibility issues.
Then the work began. I received many books from publishers, some from my library system, and some through interlibrary loan. I learned about some titles through word of mouth, but I resisted reading print reviews before I'd read the book. I wanted to form my own first impressions.
When I found something I thought might be a worthy candidate, I sent the title (with a sentence or two pointing out its strengths) to the committee chair. We had monthly deadlines for suggestions. After each deadline, the chair compiled a list containing all of the suggestions and sent it to everyone. All committee members were required to read the books others had suggested and continue to seek out other great titles.
[When I served, our members did not discuss books through email, but I'm not sure what the process is now. I will find out when I begin work on the 2011 Caldecott Committee in January.]
In June, the committee met during ALA's annual conference where we again reviewed criteria for the award and discussed some of the books we'd read. We did not eliminate any titles at these meetings. This was an opportunity for us to get a sense of the group's chemistry and how members were examining various aspects of the books they had read. It was a chance to do some bonding and get excited about the process.
Each committee member nominates three books in October and three more in December. This gives all members a chance to read the books others on the committee are favoring. Again, this process does not eliminate any book. All remain eligible and on the table until we begin our final meetings in January at the ALA Midwinter conference. At Midwinter, we met all day for three days. One night I didn't get back to my hotel room until 2 a.m. After selecting the winners, the committee prepares a press release. Before the Monday press conference announcing the winners, the chair (with committee members present) telephones the winners, and (what fun!) shares the good news.
5. How does the voting work?
When the committee decides it's time to vote, each person writes down his or her three top books, ranking them by points-top choice gets four points, second choice gets three points, and third choice gets two points. There is a formula to determine the winner. The Medal winner must receive at least eight first-choice votes at four points per vote for a total of 32 points. It must have at least an eight-point lead over the book receiving the next highest number of points. If this doesn't occur, the committee begins another round of book discussions and votes again. This process continues until the voting produces a clear winner. Honor books may or may not be chosen. Again, details can be found in the October 2009 Newbery Committee Manual. The process of selection is an amazing and difficult one. How do you compare a science fiction novel with a biography or a nonfiction book about the solar system? How do you compare a collection of poetry with historical fiction or fantasy? It is fascinating to witness how a group of 15 individuals come together on a thing so subjective.
Not all members of the book community are happy with the winner. "How could they have not chosen this book?" or "How could they have ignored that one?" they ask.
The Newbery Medal is definitely a committee choice. And for me, this is what gives it integrity. Any time you can get 15 literary people to agree on a single book, that book is worthy.
6. How does being on the Newbery or Caldecott Committee impact your job as a librarian? As a writer?
I use technology resources on a daily basis and have come to depend on and find great satisfaction in the wonderful options they can provide. However, at home, though we have a computer for writing, we are not on-line and, in fact, still have rotary telephones. The bottom line is I am a book person.
When I was nominated to run for the Newbery Committee in 2002, I hesitated. I had served on the committee in 1990, and although it was a wonderful experience, it was also a huge commitment of time and money. My husband, Drew, was very supportive, but justifiably felt a bit like a widower that year, and I wasn't sure I should put him through that again. Also, I knew it would mean that there would be no time for my writing. Despite the sacrifices, I knew in my heart that I wanted to serve again. I needed to serve again. I have worried that technology has become the priority for my profession, the profession I entered because of my love of literature. I worried that libraries were leaving me behind and, soon, I would no longer fit in.
Serving on the Newbery Committee allowed me to make reading my top priority for the year. It allowed me to immerse myself in literature and remember why I came to the profession. It allowed me to sit down with other lovers of literature and talk in depth about books with no technology intruding between us. It helped me to see that there still may be a place for people like me. That my role should be as an advocate for a literature movement, to help keep libraries from going too techno, and bring librarians and teachers back to helping children experience what books, all by themselves, have to offer.
As a writer, serving on the committee was both stimulating and humbling. Consuming so much good literature made me anxious to start writing again myself. At the same time, after reading something really incredible, I sometimes found myself feeling, "I'll never be able to measure up to this." Still, it made me want to try.
From a writer's perspective, the committee discussions were gratifying. Gratifying because I saw that there are still places where literary merit is the order of the day, where numbers of copies sold is irrelevant. Gratifying, too, because I saw that the blood, sweat and tears I put into researching my material, into agonizing over every sentence, every word, is worth it, because some people notice.
7. What do you personally take away from being an Award Committee Member?
We chose A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park as the 2002 Newbery Medal winner, and two honor books: Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath. In 1991, my Newbery Committee selected Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli for the Medal and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi as the honor book. I am proud of all of these choices.
Aftermath feedback made it clear that A Single Shard was a surprise - even to the publishing company, which was unprepared to fill the demand that immediately followed the announcement. A Single Shard was a marvelous sleeper, and I am happy to have played a part in drawing attention to this worthy book. And I am proud to have played a small role in what has become a piece of the history of children's literature. I can look back at the list of Newbery winners and say, those are my books.
In 2002, when my Newbery year was over, I was relieved. I was happy to be able to attend to those loved ones and projects that had been patiently waiting the ir turns. Happy to get back to my life. But I also felt something else - something I can only refer to as post-Newbery blues - a sense of loss. This did pass, as once I again began experiencing the joys that come with taking a walk with my husband, baking a pie on a Saturday morning, and escaping into my writing.
This January I begin serving on the 2011 Caldecott Committee. I can't wait.
If you've been a loyal Spellbinders reader, you're probably thinking this corner of the newsletter is only about censorship and book challenges. Not true! It's also about words that have a right of their own to be accurate, playful, descriptive, and fresh. Some words and phrases make the senses soar and the heart race like a sprinter's. Others scritch like nails on the blackboard. Witness as we segue into the following:
Teachers and cybarians, we toil in a community of learners, so let's brainstorm and look at some talking points to dialogue about teachable moments. Taking it to the next level, I'm cautiously optimistic that we can multi-task with impunity, that is, you can read this while peeling rutabagas and red-penciling your students' essays. Now more than ever, you can pick a humble word and analyze it for its truthiness, its winningest virtues, and fling that word back at students and library friends, even if you haven't friended them yet.
If that paragraph sounds stilted and a bit too familiar, too riddled with clichés, it's because the bolded words are on the Lake Superior State University's annual lists of words and phrases to be banished from the Queen's English. People who fine-tune that list seem most aggrieved by the "verbing of innocent nouns," as in, to mentor, to transition, to party, and to gift. Well, that's a no-brainer, so let's not even go there. But if you really want to hunker down and wallow in over-used and imprecise language, visit this page on LSSU's web site for printable lists and downloadable posters going back to 1996.
The point we're chasing here is that we have the responsibility to keep words alive and zinging with originality among the young people we work with. They've invented their own colorful and highly expressive language (not to mention creative spelling) with such vehicles as Twitter, Facebook, texting, and email. But let them not forget how to use standard English. There are loads of amusing and challenging word games available free on the Internet. You can just Google 'word games'. Oops, Google. There's an innocent noun verbed to death. Here are a couple of Websites to visit: www.agameaday.com and
Incidentally, the time-honored Oxford English Dictionary word of the year for 2009 is ... unfriend. In this new year, I wish you a universe of fun with user-friendly and evocative words. Hey, have a good one!
NOTE: Please feel free to reprint any of the articles you find in SPELLBINDERS, but do give credit to the author(s) and include a reference to our blog by giving the following information - written by (author) and reprinted with permission from SPELLBINDERS, Helping Librarians and Educators Create Lifelong Readers www.spellbindersbooknews.blogspot.com.
In October I gave a brief overview of my twelve-step story method called, "The Secret Language of Stories" (SLOS) and discussed the NEW WORLD vs. the OLD WORLD as well as the impact of setting on character development. In November, I discussed the CALL and the REFUSAL and in December I explored the CROSSING. If you missed any of these articles, you may find them on the Spellbinders' blog along with a copy of the January issue of this newsletter.
This month I will be revisiting the concept of the NEW WORLD and discussing the PRIZE. The arrival in the NEW WORLD marks the beginning of the middle section of the story. If you will recall, the NEW WORLD represents the new setting to which the main character travels or sometimes it represents the changes that occur in the OLD WORLD as a result of a new person or situation arriving there. At this point in the story the hero meets new characters and may have his first encounter with the antagonist. Some of the new people he meets will prove to be allies and some will be enemies. There will be trials, obstacles, and challenges through which the hero will gain power, strength, and information while identifying and drawing closer to his ultimate goal. Though the main character may face difficult challenges and obstacles at this stage of the story, they are nothing compared to the big challenges to be faced in the latter part of the story. Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, compared this stage of the story to an initiation where new members of a society must go through a series of tests to prove themselves worthy of belonging.
The PRIZE represents the main character's story goal and it is in the middle section of the story that the prize becomes more defined. The hero may have a clearly defined goal at the beginning of the story or he may not have any goal at all until he is thrust into the NEW WORLD. He may even spend a good deal of time there before a clear need or goal emerges. The prize may be anything important to the hero: treasure, gold, medicine, a ship, a car, love, knighthood, knowledge, information, an important clue, self-respect, epiphany, or a new rank. Often there is a problem to be solved, but the problems may not manifest until the main character sets out to achieve his goal, at which point intense opposition and resistance will almost always arise. If there was no opposition then the goal would be easily achieved and the story would be over. This is a concept that most young writers have difficulty with. Once they set up a goal they want to see their character achieve it quickly and the building of obstacles often seems like a contrivance, which of course, it is. It is vital, however, to point out that without a problem or conflict, there is no story.
Think about the personal stories you retell over and over again. They typically involve something going very wrong-the camping trip where the bear tried to break into the camper where the cooler was being stored... the wedding where the maid of honor fainted. Events that are lovely but uneventful get top billing in the family photo album or scrapbook, but they don't make very good stories. The conflict is what keeps us reading.
For a fun activity exploring the NEW WORLD and the PRIZE see the January Random Writing Activity on the blog on my website at www.caroleedean.com
Let's say you have a child/student who is about ten to thirteen years old and loves to read. Because of their age, they are way beyond chapter books - and they've already read every middle-grade book in the library. They might start dipping into the YA bookshelves, but most tweeners are not mature enough for the problems and teenage experiences of Young Adult novels (in which many titles have characters close to college age and dealing with very adult situations), and yet middle-grade novels are quickly becoming too easy or "young". After all, kids want to read about characters who are slightly older than they are.
So what books do you put into the hands of these "tweener" readers, the kids who live in that no man's land between childhood and teenage-hood? Book Buzz to the rescue!
The Total Tragedy of a girl named Hamlet by Erin Dionne (Dial)
Hamlet Kennedy just wants to be your average, happy, vanilla eighth grader. But with Shakespearean scholar parents who dress in Elizabethan regalia and generally go about in public as if it were the sixteenth century, that's not terribly easy. It gets worse when they decide that Hamlet's genius seven year- old sister will attend middle school with her- and even worse when the Shakespeare project is announced and her sister is named the new math tutor. By the time an in-class recitation reveals that our heroine is an extraordinary Shakespearean actress, Hamlet can no longer hide from the fact that she-like her family-is anything but average.
Operation, Yes by Sarah Lewis Holmes (Arthur Levine Books, Scholastic)
No one in her sixth-grade class knows quite what to make of Ms. Loupe, with her short hair, her taped square "stage" on the floor, and the interest in improvisational theatre. After all, their school is on an Air Force base-a place that values discipline more than improv. But her students soon come to love her fresh approach; and when her dear brother goes missing in Afghanistan, and Ms. Loupe herself breaks down, they band together to support their teacher. What starts as a class fundraiser expands into a nationwide effort for all injured troops, and an amazing vision of community and hope.
Escape Under the Forever Sky by Eve Yohalem (Chronicle Books)
Lucy's mother is the U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, so Lucy's life must be one big adventure, right? Wrong. Lucy's worrywart mother keeps her locked up inside the ambassador's residence. All Lucy can do is read about the exotic and exciting world that lies beyond the compound walls and imagine what it would be like to be a part of it. That is, until one day Lucy decides she has had enough and she and a friend sneak off for some fun. But to their horror, Lucy gets kidnapped! With only herself to rely upon, Lucy must use her knowledge of African animals, inventiveness, will, and courage to escape, and in the process embarks on an adventure beyond her wildest imagination. Loosely based on actual events.
The Case of the Missing Marquess, an Enola Holmes Mystery by Nancy Springer (Puffin).
When Enola Holmes, sister to the detective Sherlock Holmes, discovers her mother has disappeared, she quickly embarks on a journey to London in search of her, but nothing can prepare her for what awaits. Because when she arrives, she finds herself involved in the kidnapping of a young marquess, fleeing murderous villains, and trying to elude her shrewd older brother-all while attempting to piece together clues to her mother's strange disappearance. Amid all the mayhem, will Enola be able to decode the necessary clues and find her mother? The first title of a much-lauded new series.
Leaving the Bellweathers by Kristin Clark Venuti (Egmont USA)
The young Bellweathers-fourteen-year-old Spider, thirteen-year-old Ninda, and the ten-year-old triplets, Brick, Spike, and Sassy-and their equally peculiar parents have brought constant chaos to the once-peaceful village of Eel-Smack-by-the-Bay. Still, no one has suffered more than their loyal butler, Benway, who has finally had enough. He is secretly writing his tell-all memoirs, packing his bags, and planning his move to a tropical location, Far, Far Away. But when the siblings discover Benway is preparing to leave their lighthouse home, they band together to prove how much he's needed, as only Bellweathers can. . . . Full of comic capers, close calls, an art heist, albino alligators-and good intentions gone wrong.
So grab a book for the "tweener" in your life-and happy reading!