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“Winners, Losers, and Something in Between” awards panel recap

cbb winners panel

moderator Roger Sutton with panelists Cathie Mercier, Nancy Werlin, and Charlotte Taylor

What makes a book award-worthy? Who decides, and how? These questions were the focus of “Winners, Losers, and Something in Between: An Inside Look at Book Awards,” a panel sponsored by Children’s Books Boston that met at Simmons College on Tuesday.

The panelists and moderator had years of experience choosing book award winners among them. The moderator, our own Roger Sutton, and panelist Cathie Mercier, Director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons, have both served on committees for a number of long-running book awards, including plenty of American Library Association Youth Media awards. Panelist and author Nancy Werlin has served as a judge for the National Book Award and the Edgar Awards, and has been a finalist for both those awards and a winner of the Edgar. Panelist Charlotte Taylor is a blogger and longtime judge of the Cybils Awards.

Committee composition was a hot topic, with various types of diversity coming up again and again — gender and ethnic diversity, but also diversity of professional experience. Are the judges librarians? Booksellers? Authors? Bloggers? Do they have opportunities to share books with kids? Do those kids come from different backgrounds? Do they have a variety of genre preferences, and can they get past their preferences? And how big is the committee? Will it be dominated by one or two strong personalities? (Or not-so-obviously-strong personalities — as Nancy put it, quiet committee members in the back of the room are just as capable of digging in their heels as anyone else.)

Another big question was how the books get into the committee members’ hands. In most cases, publishers submit books for consideration, sometimes with a submission fee, sometimes without. ALA award judges are expected to read beyond what’s sent to them; National Book Award committees can “call in” a book from a publisher (and if the publisher is a small one, the submission fee is waived). The Cybils, an award judged by book bloggers, has a completely different process: anyone can nominate a book for the first round of judging, in which one group chooses a shortlist that’s handed off to a second round of judges.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work involved in being on an award committee. Cathie emphasized the importance of preparation before meetings, since time is short and there are so many books to discuss. When she chaired the Sibert committee, she insisted that committee members write annotations of the books they were supporting. (I’ll bet she did, thought all the Simmons alums in the room.) “You have to be able to see what people are thinking,” she explained.

The perspectives of the panelists varied most widely on the question of what makes an award-worthy book, and how one decides. While ALSC awards use terms like “most distinguished” in their criteria, the Cybils emphasize “kid appeal,” a term Charlotte admitted is subjective, since the adult judges bring their own biases. Cathie expressed that she feels “really, really inept at determining what kid appeal is,” but Charlotte said that the Cybils rely on the experience of the judges, many of whom work with kids.

All in all, the discussion was lively as advertised. And if you enjoy lively CBB events, join us for the liveliest of the year: Wicked Boston Children’s Book Trivia Challenge, hosted by Jack Gantos, at M. J. O’Connor’s on June 13.

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College.

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