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Five questions for 2016 BGHB Committee Chair Joanna Rudge Long

JoannaRudgeLong large Joanna Rudge Long is a longtime Horn Book reviewer, the former children’s books editor of Kirkus Reviews, and this year’s BGHB Committee Chair. (This isn’t Joanna’s first BGHB rodeo; she previously served as a judge in 2000.) She graciously satisfied our curiosity about how this particular committee operated — and how she handled all those books.

1. You received hundreds and hundreds of submissions (at your home!). How did you keep them all organized?

JRL: At least a thousand books came! Having dealt with similar abundances for thirty years or so (Kirkus, ALA Notables, the BGHB committee in 2000, etc.), the strategies are familiar. This time, my husband and I each liberated several shelves while my daughter found some handy planks to be assembled at need. I organized first by fiction, nonfiction, or picture book; then alphabetically by publisher (rather idiosyncratically: Greenwillow with Harper, but FSG still FSG). I only had to find a book if it was nominated, so it wasn’t worth being more precise.

Getting them out of the house again is another story. So far, half a dozen local librarians and teachers have helped themselves (including the librarian from West Hartford, where the entire children’s collection washed down the White River in the Hurricane Irene flooding). Other books will go to Vermont’s wonderful Children’s Literacy Foundation, to an inner-city school in Boston, to a local book sale….

But what to do with the voluminous packaging, here in Vermont where we drive fifteen miles to the dump to recycle? One publisher sent each book in its own big box with enough paper to start at least two kitchen stove fires. At Roxanne’s [BGHB judge Roxanne Hsu Feldman] New York City school, environmentally aware children were astonished by the waste.

2. How often and by what means did the committee members communicate before meeting?

JRL: We met briefly at USBBY in October, then emailed to exchange book recommendations and define procedures. We’d thought to begin making nominations in January, but there were so few submissions by then that we delayed a month. By May, we were making more formal nominations and narrowing our discussion list.

3. The BGHB categories are: Nonfiction, Picture Book, and Fiction/Poetry, but it’s at the committee’s discretion to decide how to categorize each book (e.g., this year’s Picture Book winner is also Nonfiction — and Poetry!). How do you deal with the categories in an era in which books keep changing the rules?

JRL: How — a vital question — was addressed, successively, with puzzlement; with yearning for a separate category for poetry; with ingenuity concerning what we might plausibly do with those multi-gifted titles; with discussion; and, finally, with a sensible reminder from Betsy [BGHB judge Betsy Bird] concerning basic cataloguing (Jazz Day, well-researched and documented as it is, has some delightful fictional components). We knew early on that this would be an issue. It remained unresolved till nearly the end: in one late round of nominations, we added a “Wild Card” category to our other three. We were certainly aware that the lines, as traditionally drawn, are becoming more artificial.

It occurs to me, weeks later, that the gorgeous illustrations in both Orgill’s “picture” book and Weatherford’s “nonfiction” are arguably as fictional, in their visual reimagining of real events as, say, Orgill’s poems.

4. What advice do you have for the next BGHB committee?

JRL: Twice now I’ve had the joy of reading widely and deeply before embarking, with two equally dedicated colleagues, on the challenging task of narrowing a long list of genuinely “excellent” books to a year’s BGHB winners. It’s not always easy to keep an open mind while championing one’s own favorites, but it’s essential — and rewarding. A three-person committee doesn’t have, or need, a lot of rules. What it does need is a friendly and respectful giving and receiving of ideas, plus willingness to compromise in settling on the nine books that all three judges agree are the best.

And I’d add that a good night’s sleep between that first round of narrowing nominations and a day of final decision-making is beyond price.

5. In five years’ time, what is one thing you think you’ll remember from this experience?

JRL: I’ll remember how we three quite different people became friends while threading our way through complex two-day negotiations to a list that pleased us all — as happened with our earlier trio sixteen years ago. Each time, the others’ input enlarged my understanding; each time, we were all happy with our final decisions.

From the June 2016 issue of The Horn Book Herald. Click here for a list of past BGHB winners and honorees. For book reviews, acceptance speeches, and more, click the tag Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards or BGHB16.

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