Subscribe to The Horn Book

>Which would YOU rather have?

>Forthcoming from the Spring 09 Horn Book Guide, we’ve posted our review of NBA winner What I Saw and How I Lied.

I’ve noticed that the recent panels of judges for the award have been composed exclusively of writers. When I judged it back in 1999 (When Zachary Beaver Came to Town was the winner), the panel was three critic-librarians (Hazel Rochman, Zena Sutherland, me) and two writers (Veronica Chambers and Mary Ann McGuigan). I wonder what difference it makes? There is rarely overlap between the ALA awards and the National Book Awards, and I wonder if it is a difference between expert readers and expert writers. Not to say that one cannot be both.

I’m reminded, though, of those winners of the Screen Actors Guild awards who gush that the SAG award is way more gratifying to receive than an Oscar because it’s given by “the actors.” In the words of the immortal James Marshall, “oh, sure.”

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >I believe that each year there are many books worthy of awards. It appears to me that the chosen have to do with many factors (including excellence): the books published that year (obviously), the reading taste of the judges, the ability of the each individual judge to articulate and advocate for favorites and the dynamics between judges.

    But Roger, I do not know of any “expert writers” that are not also “expert readers”.

    A reader

  2. Roger Sutton says:

    >Really? I do. While I can’t think of many writers who aren’t readers, they aren’t all equally gifted when it comes to thinking about literature as a whole, in the abstract, or disinterestedly, all of which an expert reader needs to be able to do.

  3. >I believe you are describing an “expert judge”.

    It is my impression that most “expert writers” have to read with a careful and critical eye and ear. They have to understand how stories are told and what they can mean. Further it seems to me that most “expert writers” read from all different genres and have a broad understanding of literature. They have to be able to think very abstractly in order to do what they do. As far as disinterest, are the “expert readers” truly disinterested? How can one be a reader and not develop certain affinities. The “expert judge” recognizes their own predispositions.

    ‘Course this discussion would be much more fun if some of the expert readers and writers would jump in.

  4. >Ah, without spending a lot of time studying the issue, I would prefer a mixture of expert readers (like me) and writers. I instinctively feel that both groups — which of course overlap a lot — will bring very valuable perceptions to the task.

  5. >I’ve long been curious about the qualifications of literary award judges. Who chooses them? On what basis? Do judges recuse themselves if they have a personal connection to a book? Would you consider a post on this, Roger?

  6. jimmyprell says:

    >As a writer, I am often in awe of the “expert readers” out there — the voracious readers, the ones who have widely and deeply. Because I often feel a need to turn all that off. That is, the reading, for me, gets in the way of the writing. Too many voices. So I’ll never be as well read as the top reviewers working today. How do you do both? Ideally, I think a committee would have some balance, because I do feel that writers — and boy, I am in the land of gross, sweeping generalizations here — do bring something different to the table, as readers. — James Preller

  7. Roger Sutton says:

    >James, the NYT Best Illustrated juries have three members–a librarian or teacher, a critic, and an illustrator. The first two generally share a context, vocabulary, and knowledge of a canon of books; the illustrator is a total wild card. It’s fun!

  8. Roger Sutton says:

    >Anon 7:37, all the awards have different procedures. The way committees are chosen for ALA awards (Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, Wilder, etc.) is carefully codified, and each (elected or appointed) member has to sign a I-have-no-conflicts-of-interest form. I choose the judges (soliciting suggestions from colleagues) for BGHB Awards; it’s a much less formal procedure, but I do ask potential members if they have published anything that might be eligible and if they are serving on another award committee judging the same group of books. In selecting judges, I try to get diversity of several kinds so as to not have, for example, three thirty-ish white female librarians working in the suburbs serving on any one committee. It’s imperfect, of course. I don’t know exactly how NBA and NYT appointments work but I think the person-in-charge probably solicits names (as a former NBA judge, I’ve been asked by them to suggest some) and takes his or her best shot.

  9. jimmyprell says:

    >Sorry, I didn’t articulate my previous comment very clearly — I was rushing — so I’d like a recount. What I meant to say, chiefly, was that I am continually impressed and amazed by the true READERS out there. Looking at websites, reading blogs, I encounter such amazing dedication and love for literature. Such range and scope. OTOH, as a writer, I go long stretches where I avoid reading fiction altogether; where my reading is purposeful, research-oriented, designed to feed my creative self. There are times when other books would only get in the way of my work. I can’t spend too much time reading great contemporary works by other writers partly because I don’t have time, and partly because it would likely leave me feeling inadequate and paralyzed. For example, when I was writing a recent story, several people told me that I had to read LOSER by Jerry Spinelli. And I was like, no, I absolutely can’t, not now when I’m writing this. At a certain point, you have to shut all that off. While I consider myself a perceptive reader — a lifelong and enthusiastic reader — there are people who are far better qualified to serve on awards committees. And of course, that’s just me. I’m not against writers being on various committees; but I am blown away by the great, great readers out there.

  10. Julie Larios says:

    >I agree that there are many writers who are not readers – but when you say “expert writers,” that’s a different category, and then it’s hard to believe that an expert writer does not study the strategies (voice, tone, pacing,character development, etc.) of other excellent writers by reading closely and carefully. How else do writers learn their craft and keep up with the new talent? To say that critics who are buried under stacks of books waiting to be reviewed read more expertly than writers defies logic. Critics don’t get weary and skim through books?
    Even NBA nominated books. Of course, EXPERT critics read as carefully as expert writers, and a committee that’s a good mix of both is probably best. If I had to choose, though, I’d go for the expert writers, who are going to understand the effort that goes into the magic, as well as the trick itself.

  11. >Well, with temerity I must disagree with the redoubtable Julie Larios whose lectures on things Literary at Vermont College filled me with feelings of inadequacy. (I love you, Julie, but you are terrifyingly smart!)

    I am more in the Jimmyprell camp.I read widely, but don’t spend a lot of time critiquing what I read or thinking deeply about the books. I enjoy and move on. And I NEVER read fiction similar to my own when I am deeply in a new piece of writing for fear of stealing/borrowing. Besides, if I am writing something that needs a lot of research, who has time for all that other reading?


  12. Beth Kephart says:

    >I absolutely love the conversation that goes on on this site (and the labels; your most recent on the spigots and pipeline is fantastic, wish I’d thought of it when I posted on a similar topic this morning).

    About the awards, this short story: I was chosen to chair the young people’s literature award for the 2001 National Book Awards. Though I’ve reviewed adult books for many papers (Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Salon, Inquirer, etc.) and while I’d written and published books of my own, my known “expertise” at that time was adult nonfiction. I was asked to chair the YPL jury only because I’d been nominated for a NBA myself a few years earlier, in nonfiction.

    That said, I had on my team a librarian, two writers, and a woman who worked for a children’s foundation. After reading several books, I developed criteria to which we all eventually (with modifications) agreed. With the NBA YPL awards there’s the gigantic challenge of sorting through books published for so many different ages, in so many different genre.

    We worked hard at doing it right, at being fair. But I’m not sure any of us would ever call ourselves experts. We were passionate. We cared. We wanted to honor five books of greatest artistic merit.

    I think, I hope, we did that.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind