A Fascinating Term as 2021 Newbery Chair

In hindsight, it seems fitting that I would be contacted about the possibility of serving as chair of the 2021 John Newbery Award Selection Committee on the same day I attended a children’s literature conference in March 2019. At the time, I was a professor at Clemson University and had made the short trip from Anderson, South Carolina, to Athens for the Georgia Conference on Children’s Literature. It had been an inspiring conference, with stimulating keynotes by authors such as Aisha Saeed, one of the cofounders of We Need Diverse Books, and Kwame Alexander, who had mesmerized the audience.

The conference had just ended, and I was spending some time with one of my dear ALA friends, Alan R. Bailey; we had co-presented a session about the fiftieth anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards. I happened to check my email and saw a message from ALSC President Jamie ­Campbell ­Naidoo that read something like: “Hello, Jonda. Please let me know if you would be willing to serve as chair of the 2021 Newbery committee.” Although the email was brief, it was monumental and potentially life-changing.

So many thoughts immediately flooded my mind. I had just completed a term on the 2019 Caldecott committee (and before that serving in various roles for approximately nine years within the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee). I needed a break. I was also editing Language Arts, a journal of the National Council of Teachers of English. Could I serve as Newbery chair and continue editing Language Arts? If I turned down the offer, would I ever have this opportunity again? How many Black women had served as Newbery chair? Why did Jamie ask me to do this? Most importantly, could I do this herculean task?

As I asked myself all these questions, I knew deep down that I could not decline this invitation. Even my mother (who normally advises me to be careful about overloading myself with work) said I should do it. But before saying yes, I needed to make sure that my department chair and dean would provide support. Thankfully, they both agreed to do so. One of them even mentioned that she used the award to select books to read to her children. Because who doesn’t know about the Newbery Medal, right?

In the fall of 2019, I had been contacted about applying for a position as the Charlotte S. Huck Endowed Professor of Children’s Literature at The Ohio State University, so there were then two major events taking place in my life: applying for a new job and chairing the Newbery committee. I accepted the offer to serve as chair and began preparing to meet my fellow committee members at the 2020 ALA Midwinter conference. Nearly all of us were present at that first optional orientation. We bonded as a group after sharing our fears, doubts, concerns, and past experiences of serving on book award committees.

Another good thing happened at the conference: I ran into Sharon Levin (a member of the 2021 Notable Books committee), and when I told her about chairing the Newbery, she suggested asking ALA to provide an administrative assistant. Gretchen Schulz, a librarian from Illinois, was assigned to us. She received all the books, kept a listing of titles, and compiled suggestions and nominations, while gaining valuable experience. I do not know what I would have done without Gretchen or Kathie Meizner, our priority group consultant (on hand to answer eligibility questions and more).

A few weeks after our orientation, I traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to interview for the Charlotte Huck position. I was offered the job and had to begin packing to move to Ohio while serving on the Newbery committee in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Those of us who love children’s literature know that moving our massive book collections is no easy task!)

Because of the pandemic, our committee could no longer meet face-to-face, so in June (the time of what would have been ALA’s Annual conference), we pivoted to Zoom meetings. I wanted to lighten the mood and build a sense of community. A few months earlier, I had attended a church service with two of my Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters, Barbara Latimer Hodges and Chaka P. Smith. We had discussed what we would wear to the service, and Chaka said, “I’m wearing a fascinator.” Barbara offered to lend me one to wear, too, and I fell in love with them.


From left, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters Barbara Latimer Hodges, Chaka P. Smith, and Jonda C. McNair at church,
on the occasion of Jonda wearing her first fascinator.
Photo courtesy of Jonda C. McNair.

I shared a photograph of the three of us with the Newbery committee members and told them that I planned to wear a fascinator while standing on the dais at the Newbery-Caldecott-Legacy Banquet (at that time, we thought the conference might happen in person). My decision to wear a fascinator was a nod to my longtime friend and ALA conference roomie, Chrystal Carr Jeter; simply put, the woman loves her hats. I told the committee we could “deliberate” about which fascinator I should wear, and I shared pictures of ones I planned to purchase. Comments ranged from “What’s a fascinator?” to “Not that one, it’s for a wedding” to “Where can I order one?” Committee member Susan Dove Lempke later wrote,

The fascinators were a very smart and fun way for you to encourage everyone to speak, and for us to get accustomed to advocating for something in a friendly way. We especially needed it because not only were we getting to know each other, we were also getting used to meeting through technology.

Our final deliberations, in January 2021, took place virtually. In many ways, our committee was similar to previous ones in that we received hundreds and hundreds of books to read (we received many digitally across different platforms, such as Glose, Dropbox, and Edelweiss) and grappled with what makes a book a contender, keeping in mind that this varies depending on the genre and that the Newbery Award is for all genres and formats. We relied on children’s literature textbooks and other important titles, such as Kathleen T. Horning’s From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books, to guide the writing of our nominations, our analyses, and our deliberations. Although it was a challenge, we felt up to the charge, and for some of us, having this enormous task to perform throughout the pandemic was a way to help us focus during a difficult time.

We did it! We chose Tae Keller’s When You Trap a Tiger as the 100th (!) Newbery Medal winner, and five Honor Book titles, and then we made the phone calls that everyone loves to hear about — only this year, we made the calls via Zoom. (We made two separate calls to Christina Soontornvat, not giving her a clue in the first one that she had won two Newbery Honors!) I was incredibly nervous before making the calls — the weight of it all seemed to come crashing down on me at that point. My committee members graciously pretended to be the authors to help me practice reading my scripted comments. What would happen if someone else answered or the author wasn’t home? What would I say? Soon afterward, we took a group photo ­wearing our fascinators or fancy ties, to be displayed during the live-streamed ALA Youth Media Awards ceremony.


The 2021 Newbery Award Selection Committee on Zoom, wearing their fascinators or fancy ties,
celebrating their choice of When You Trap a Tiger as the 100th Newbery Medal winner.
Photo courtesy of Jonda C. McNair.

In May 2021, I videotaped my remarks while wearing one of my ­favorite fascinators, a silver one. We watched the banquet together as a committee via Zoom. Being recognized by Tae Keller during her acceptance speech was something that I will never forget. It was the icing on the cake! Serving as chair of the Newbery committee is a career highlight that I will always cherish. It is a good feeling to know that on library shelves around the ­country, there will be copies of the books we chose sitting alongside ­Newbery titles such as Kwame ­Alexander’s The ­Crossover, Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard, and E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (an Honor Book, but a Newbery title nonetheless). We know that a different set of folks might have chosen different titles, but we are proud of and stand behind our work.

Although our work is done, we are still bonded by our time together as a committee. We recently had a watch party via Zoom for the 2022 ALA Youth Media Awards announcement, and even those who had to wake up at the crack of dawn on the West Coast (and one who is now living in London) were ­present — some wearing their fascinators. In a recent email to me, committee member Maren Ostergard wrote,

The fascinators are such a happy memory for me. The fascinators (and ties) were a fun way for us as a committee to prepare and celebrate together. They really contributed to my anticipation and excitement about the event and were a special thing we could share as a committee. For me, they also captured a bit of the fancy feeling of attending the banquet in person. It felt like such a “normal” committee thing to do in a year full of things that hadn’t felt or been “normal.”

The fascinators and ties represented warmth, friendship, togetherness, community, joy, pride in our hard work and accomplishments, an opportunity to pop on camera and get glammed up — and, moving forward for us, a tradition. It was indeed a fascinating term as Newbery chair for me.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Jonda C. McNair

Jonda C. McNair
Jonda C. McNair is a professor of literacy education at Clemson University in South Carolina. She is a past chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee and a member of the 2019 Randolph Caldecott Award Selection Committee.

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