The YMA Phone Calls

rudineSo, I had to stay home again. I wasn’t in any of the little rooms where it happened, nor was I in the giant room where it was announced. Blech. I was, however, in a queen-sized bed with all manner of wireless devices surrounding me. I was prepared. And a good thing, too, because the Facebook live video feed worked until one second after the Geisel announcements and I had to do a frantic Twitter search to figure out who was winning what until the live feed was restored midway through the Caldecotts. It took me a few minutes to pull myself together and make sure I had everything in order. When my husband returned from Atlanta, he had a copy of Cognotes (the newspaper of the ALA convention), and I felt complete. I had all the information that I needed. I would call Martha Parravano later to hear about the phone calls.

The phone calls are my favorite part of Youth Media Awards day. Even though we imagine all the Monday morning calls, many of the calls are made on Sunday evening these days. (There are a LOT of awards, from the Alex Awards to the Geisel to the Wilder to the Arbuthnot, and so on.) That means that the Sunday people (i.e., the authors and artists who are notified on Sunday) are probably truly surprised and that there is a pretty good chance that the Sunday people were not dragged out of the shower or bed at some ungodly hour.

But here is how the calls go down for the Coretta Scott King, Caldecott, and Newbery committees on Monday morning:

Place: tiny room in a hallway of the Convention Center.

Time: 6:00 AM or so. The time matches the time at the convention. So, if you live in California and the convention is taking place in Eastern time, you are definitely being dragged out of bed. Because it’s about 3 AM your time. Unless you are still out at a bar, and then you are probably pretty drunk. I am not sure what is worse: tired and loose or tired and cranky because the phone is ringing at this horrible hour.

Who is there: the members of the committee; a hard-working tech person from the Convention Center; and a hard-working, overly caffeinated ALA staff member. In other words, people to help with technology and phone numbers.

Why are there so many extra people in the room?: Because the convention phones often don’t work. And it will take many repeated dropped calls and calls with fuzzy reception and broken speakers (who really knows how to operate the speakerphone on an old, cheap phone anymore?) before one of the tired members of the committee finally has the brilliant thought: Why don’t we just use a smart phone? (It’s flipping 6:00 AM; cut them some slack for taking so long to realize this.) The committees calling on Sunday simply meet in the chairs’ room and have a rather civilized, calm time calling and leaving messages and waiting for the sheepish artists and writers who have to call back because they would never dream of answering a call from an Unknown Caller on their phone.

What happens?: The author or illustrator answers the phone, and the chair (or someone else on the committee) makes sure she has the right person. There is a script to read from (because, really, everyone is excited and it’s better that way). The caller is usually really nervous and hopes that she will not say “Medal” when she means “Honor,” or vice versa. Usually the caller has to repeat the information with added emphasis on the word “Medal” or “Honor.” The committee cheers in a loud, rather embarrassing manner. There then follows Awkward Silence.  There is more cheering while the caller makes sure that the winner knows not to say ANYTHING until after the real announcement. There is More Awkward Silence and cheering and saying goodbye. The members of the committee are giddy and spend time wondering if they sounded stupid or if the person really understood what we were saying. Then, the dialing continues.

Often the phone number given to the chair of the committee is for the publisher’s office or for a little-used land line or an old number that no longer works, or the artist has put her phone on silence until a less ungodly hour. That’s a bummer. The committee then goes to the internet (if it’s working, deep in the bowels of the Convention Center) and searches for other numbers where they can leave a message. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to give someone such great news but being unable to do so. It happens.

When the calls are done and everyone is exhausted from the early morning hour and the excitement of changing people’s lives, the committee takes their saved seats in the auditorium and waits just like everyone else. All of a sudden, people on the Caldecott committee realize that they actually care about the Newbery and the Schneider book award and all the rest. And, soon, and in quick succession, everyone in the room will learn who all the winners are. I have to say that watching the feed online captures the feeling in the room very well. The fact that the feed is always iffy at best in my bedroom adds to the realism of the moment. In the Convention Center, people are always anxiously asking, “What got the honor?” as they are taking notes, and the people at home are thinking, “Slow down, slow down, I have to refresh!”

And that’s it. I look down at my notes and do a little happy dance for all the books and people I love who have been honored. Dr. Bishop? Naomi Shihab Nye? Ashley Bryan? Javaka Steptoe? Greg Christie? It goes on and on and on. I look at the predictions I made last week and smugly smile when I see that my predictions have been somewhat accurate. I try not to think about books that have not been recognized that I were sure would be recognized. There is time for sadness tomorrow. Today belongs to the winners. And their phones.
Robin Smith
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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Sam Bloom

Anonymous and Joe, I don't know that you're going to see this, but I was just catching up on my CC reading and saw that no one answered your questions. 1. Yes, the phone numbers come from the publishers. There have been times when the phone number we're given is wrong and the chair of a committee has to call someone from the publisher, who is often ready with an alternate number. 2. This has happened A LOT in my experiences as a committee member. I've had probably 5-10 times where we never did get in touch with the author/illustrator... BEFORE the YMAs. But my committee was always able to get in touch with them soon after the announcements were made. And the reason for those authors being unavailable ranges from the mundane (driving kids to school) to spectacular (on vacation in Jakarta). Another issue: time zone differences. Poor Javaka Steptoe was in Seattle this January, and the phone calls were coming from Atlanta at 6:something local time, so... VERY early wake-up call(s) for him!

Posted : Mar 08, 2017 06:26


I'll echo Anonymous' questions, because it has always confounded me: what happens if the committee can't get a hold of the person?

Posted : Feb 07, 2017 06:52


Two questions: 1. Where do the phone numbers come from? Publishers? 2. What happens if the caller hits the author's voicemail?

Posted : Jan 25, 2017 11:54

Martha V. Parravano

Robin, I love how you sneaked that part in: "the excitement of changing people's lives." Because yes! The awards do change the lives of the authors and illustrators, and they also change the lives of the kids who will read these amazing books — hopefully for years and years into the future. It truly is exciting. Unforgettable.

Posted : Jan 25, 2017 09:24

Eric Carpenter

Great summation! One thing to add: the area around the calling room/booth is also full of all the other award committees milling around (talking about award predictions, or trying to listen to the number of rounds of cheers that may come from that phone room) as they wait to take their official ALA group photographs.

Posted : Jan 25, 2017 06:38



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