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Confessions of an Award Committee Addict

Pile-of-BooksHello, my name is Robin, and I am addicted to serving on book award committees. I have been struggling with this addiction for seven years.

Before then, my interest in children’s books had not gone beyond reading aloud about two hundred books a year to my second graders, finding books that were perfect for my second graders to read, and reading books with shiny stickers on the cover. I didn’t really know how the stickers got there. I assumed that some cabal of powerful librarians decided such things. I had never realized that regular folks got to serve on award committees.

I remember when it all started. I was standing in the hallway in a dorm at Radcliffe College where Children’s Literature New England was being held. It was my second year as a participant, and I was still in awe of the reading list, the lecturers, and the participants, many of whom referred to piles of color-coded index cards during the book discussions. My preparation was along the lines of title, author, illustrator, and what I liked about the story, scratched in a notebook wrestled from under my son’s bed. I felt like a teacher with a lower case “t” in the world of — pause for angelic music here — Books. Sure, I was already reviewing for my local paper and I ran a book-centered second-grade classroom, but the folks at this conference were giants of children’s literature and I was just there for the ride. A few of us were standing in the hallway as Rita Auerbach was holding court. I stood there, saying little, desperate to Fit In. Rita casually mentioned something like, “That was the year I read all the novels published.”

Everyone seemed to know what she was talking about and I, as usual, did not. So I blurted out, “Why did you read so many that year?”

Rita replied easily, “That was the year I was on Newbery.” I lost consciousness for a moment — this ordinary-seeming woman right in front of me had been on a Newbery committee? I returned to the conversation and recovered enough to ask which book had  won her year. “The Whipping Boy,” she stated. (Here would be a good time to admit that I have No Poker Face.) I imagine my face showed my lack of knowledge of that book. Rita stared me down. “It was the most distinguished book of the year.”

“Oh,” I replied. (I am quick with the snappy retort.)

I dragged all the details out of Rita, including the stunning information that teachers could join ALA and volunteer to be on book committees. Never knew that. It’s the American Library Association, for Pete’s sake. She mumbled something about joining and getting involved. That was my first taste of the idea, but it seemed so out of my league…like cognac. Really. I was just a second-grade teacher who loved children’s books. I figured that dream was not meant to be.

Until one day.

I was reading the back pages of The Horn Book Magazine. By then, I was reviewing for Kirkus and occasionally writing for Horn Book. I was staring at the little bibliographies about the guest reviewers and noticing how lame mine looked next to the college professors and writers. My eye shifted a bit to the words “Geisel Award,” a new ALSC award for books for beginning readers. My people. New readers. I might be just a teacher, but I knew what new readers liked and what helped little people learn to read. I plopped down the money to join ALA and went right to the volunteer page and wondered if a teacher would be welcome on the Geisel committee. I waited, hoped, and was disappointed. The list of the committee members was announced, but my name was not on it. I assumed my time with ALA would be short-lived, and my desire abated. Little did I know that ALA was not the only place to find committee work.

My phone never rings in my classroom, but it did early in September 2005. My kids were in PE for another few minutes, so I answered. It was Roger Sutton. Roger Sutton was calling
me? What? He wanted me to serve on the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award committee. What? I sat down. I remember asking him if he was serious (again, quickness is not my best trait). He was. I jumped up and down in my classroom and breathlessly raced to tell my husband, fellow teacher and book reviewer Dean Schneider, the news. He was the only one who was impressed. My children and cat did not give a rip, let alone my colleagues, who had long since tired of my book enthusiasm.

Soon the books were arriving on my porch. Many books. Stacks and stacks of books. I loved opening the boxes. I loved arranging them. I loved reading them and moving them around again. I spent hours organizing them…by publisher…by title. It didn’t matter how I tried, there were just so damn many books and I loved it. Folks would come over for dinner and my formerly large dining room was cozy with books. The reading! The re-reading! The suggesting! The nominating! The reading of the committee members’ suggestions! I couldn’t get enough. It took a lot of self-control not to talk about the books all the time. People began avoiding me.

A month or so into this heady time, I found out that I would have to have some surgery. I figured, “More time for reading!” When my illness turned out to be quite a bit more serious than first thought, the books kept me focused. My second surgery happened to be on the same day as the ALSC announcements. Coming out of anesthesia, the first question I asked my husband was, “What won the Newbery?” I smiled when I heard my husband say Criss Cross. When I flew up from Nashville for the BGHB committee deliberations, it was the first flight I had taken since getting sick, and I could not have been more excited to be on a plane. I knew I would get to talk face-to-face about books to people who really cared. The hours spent with the committee — all books, all the time — were invigorating. I was hooked. I wanted more. At the awards ceremony, I sat in awe, looking out at the audience, all book people, all interested in what the winners had to say. But underneath, I was sad. The year of intense reading was over.

Until one day, when then–ALSC President K.T. Horning and I were talking about (what else?) books. I was still pining about the Geisel committee and had become just a tad obsessed with making sure my volunteer form was up-to-date. I asked her if there was anything I should put on the form that might make me look more worthy — less teacher-y. By this time, I was reviewing a lot and speaking at CLNE and at teacher in-services. I had written for Booklist and Book Links and was starting to feel like I might have something to offer. The phone rang again. This time, it was someone I didn’t know, calling from ALA, asking me to serve on the Geisel committee. Well, I don’t think she had a chance to finish her sentence before I said yes. I didn’t want her to have time to change her mind.

I itched to open boxes again and read with the purpose of finding the best books for beginning readers. That committee was like crack for me. If there were no books for a few days, I would e-mail the committee members to see if anyone else was getting books. I would pore over publishers’ catalogs to make sure we were getting the right books and would read every review book with a special eye for beginning readers. The committee deliberations were exhilarating, and counting the votes was nerve-wracking, but calling the authors and illustrators was one of the best things I have ever gotten to do. Never mind that many of the authors and illustrators had not heard of the award; they were thrilled to listen to our description of it. Or maybe we were excited to blab on and on about it. Sitting in the press conference and hearing our books announced was just about the most fun I could imagine.

I wanted to do it again. I was hooked. Greedy. But all the committees were filled for the next year.

Luckily for me, there was a last-minute need on the Coretta Scott King Book Award Jury, and I nearly broke my neck accepting the offer when the chair, Deborah Taylor, called. Then, right when I was feeling sad that my two years on the CSK was wrapping up, I got
another phone call. Would I like to put my name on the ballot for Caldecott?

Well, yes, I would. I was terrified, but I would love to. The ballot scared me because I knew my biography would scream “just a teacher.” But the Caldecott? I had to give it a try. And I was elected. And I served. My new box cutter got quite a workout. My bookshelves groaned, but I never complained. It was heaven.

My goodness, have I been lucky. I have read so many books and gotten to talk about them with the smartest people I know: librarians, reviewers, and teachers who love books. I have learned the challenges and intricacies of creating a book for new readers and the special blessing of evaluating books by and about African Americans. I have become skilled at running mock committees of all sorts with my second graders and have strong-armed my adult book club into reading picture books and books that were being considered for the CSK award. I had always read the CSK books, but now I can say I read every children’s picture book and novel published in America by an African American in two straight years. It’s a wonderful habit I continue, even bugging members of the current committee to make sure I remain up-to-date.

I have learned to completely respect the committee process and to be grateful for every member of every committee I have served on. They have had to listen to me lobby for books, and I have learned to slow down and read much more carefully. I will never look at a gutter, endpapers, back matter, line, color, or shadow the same way again. I can still hear the voices of wise librarians pointing out weaknesses I had neglected to see. I love the collegial nature of book committee work; it has fed my soul for many years now. I savor the times where I can be in a room with people who read carefully, think deeply, and feel passionately about books. I love explaining why I appreciate a book, and I even enjoy being persuaded to change my mind.

I love opening all those boxes.

Since this past January’s announcements in San Diego, my life seems a little empty. The stacks of boxes on the porch no longer belong to me. But at least there are stacks. They belong to my husband, who is on the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award committee himself this year. I try not to be jealous. I try not to figure out the calculus of his book arranging. I try. But my addiction is too great. I can’t help but offer him little bits of wisdom about the books as I “help” to unpack them. He smiles and instantly disregards my opinion. He knows the only way to get over this addiction is to go cold turkey.

How many more years until I can put my name in for Newbery?

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.

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Comments

  1. Christine D Wilson says:

    Where do I sign?

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