I Wanna Be on a Youth Book Award Committee

Many (most) of us have this aspiration. There are a number of avenues to make this dream come true - among them through the many excellent awards bestowed by state library associations; in the blogosphere with awards like the Cybils and through national associations like NCTE; USBBY; National Council on Teachers of English that have book awards. I would be kidding myself - and you - if I didn't say that most of the time, people really, really, really, really want to serve on one of the "big" ALA award committees (Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, Coretta Scott King, Geisel, like that).

But I tell you, you need to crawl before you can walk; walk before you can run; and run before you can race strategically. So what are the pathways to becoming a critical reader (an absolute MUST) and an awesome award committee candidate? Sarah at GreenBeanTeenQueen wrote a great blog post about the critical reading aspect so please start there. Her wise words and links to other wise words are outstanding

Let's assume you are already a member of one of the ALA youth divisions or sections that present youth awards (oh, you're not? I'm sorry you can't pass go if you are not a member - and, not to be mean but, rightly so). Don't just say, "Well, I review books on my blog or for print publication". That's like talking to yourself in the mirror. You need to learn how to give and take - not just express yourself but learn about what the book reveals to others as well. I.am.not.dissing.book.review.bloggers.or.reviewers. I blog; I have reviewed for a SLJ. For me, the experience of writing is "in my head", or like talking to myself. Although I assume you are out there, my friends, it is faith, comments -and kind tweeps - that make me believe I am not whispering, Midas-like, into a hole I've dug in my back yard. Don't get me wrong, it won't hurt you to review - but discussion chops are huge.

I would suggest getting involved in or starting a youth book discussion group - no, not a "this-is-what's-happening-in-my-life-right-now" book discussion group, but one that truly delves into a book or group of youth books and examines them carefully and thoughtfully. If you are near a children's literature center like the CCBC; Butler; or others you may find high level discussions scheduled that really help you learn how to do outstanding discussion work. Use the CCBC's outstanding guidelines; they help one become a far better critical thinker, listener and  reader. I cut my teeth on the CCBC discussions before I served on my first award committee and learned how to listen, share, think and react to each book's positives and negatives.

Apply to attend the ALSC Bill Morris Book Evaluation seminar at midwinter every two years - if all goes well, the next one will be at January 2014 in Philly. As Dan Rude wrote on the ALSC blog before the last seminar application process opened up in September 2011: " This invitational seminar supports and honors William C. Morris’ dedication to connecting librarians and children with excellent children’s books by bringing ALSC members with limited evaluation experience together with those who have served on ALSC’s media evaluation committees. Attendees are trained and mentored in the group process and in children’s media evaluation techniques, resulting in new and emerging leaders for future ALSC evaluation committees." I attended one as an observer and the training/mentoring is priceless.

If you are attending ALA, spend time at open Notable Book discussions and Best Book lists discussions . You can learn a ton from observation. Who is able to speak to the book rather than bringing in their experience sharing with their own child or grandchild ("Binky LOVED this book!")?  Who is able to articulate a point of view clearly without getting pushy or disrespectful in their zeal? How is the book talked about? What does it reveal about the book rather than the speaker? You quickly learn who has had experience in speaking in a thoughtful way about the plot, voice, characterizations, art, design, impact, troubling details, scope, or importance of the book they are discussing. Learn, grasshopper, learn.

If you want to be on a book award committee in ALSC, do a little heavy lifting and spend some time on one of their process committees. You meet great colleagues; become an awesome advocate for ALL children's librarians and help push the envelope of innovation at a national level. I have served non-stop on ALSC committees (sometimes more than one in a year) for over 30 years and served on Caldecott and Newbery once each. You can do the math on where I spend my professional association time.

As I've said before, the process committees are like meat and potatoes compared to the dessert-like high of award committees. Too much sugar gets you shaky and pound-heavy (and makes you hallucinate that you are far greater than you really are). The process committees keep you nimble, yet rooted in youth librarianship goodness  - and humble (publishers rarely fĂȘte you but the changes and advances you make with colleagues on process committee last for decades). And your hard work on these committees plus added skills learned in book discussions and reviewing just may earn you a coveted call to serve.

You also need to be aware that in a big division like ALSC with 3,000-4,000 members, there are quite a few people who want to serve. ALSC vice-presidents and nominating committees can attest to the plethora of volunteer forms asking for award committee consideration only. A few years back, the ALSC board made the decision that if one has served on an award committee or Notables, they need to wait five years before serving again. I applaud this decision. This has opened far more spots to new people and spread out the opportunity. That doesn't stop people from then working to get on YALSA or other youth award committees in those off years but at least it's a start.

Finally, if you've served on an award committee a time or two or three, make room for others and don't be a pig. Sorry to be harsh but you all know who you are out there. Everyone who is a member of the division deserves a chance to be part of an award committee and have that special shining year. The more the same people flit between YALSA and ALSC award committees, the smaller the pool of people who can weigh in as new voices to these committees. Stating that you deserve constant award book committees because you know books is silly - so do tons of your colleagues; we pride ourselves in youth librarianship on our literature chops. Stating that being appointed/elected to award committees is the only way to attend conferences may be true, but it's still selfish. Learn to advocate for your worth at your library and the worth to the library of your experience serving on a process committee. Don't be such a special snowflake; let others play in the sandbox; bring back your best kindergarten-sharing self; like that.

These are my top tips - what are yours (especially in terms of YALSA)?

Image: 'throwing a fit'  http://www.flickr.com/photos/88013032@N00/2965376213 Found on flickrcc.net


  1. Marge! Such great points!

    I think it is really important to serve at the local and state levels. Not only do they build your chops, they help your resume AND you can make some really good contacts. I was nominated to a prize committee by someone on the YALSA nominating committee. She knew me and my work because we had been on a state committee together.

    I have a coworker who bounces between local and national committees. I think that's something also to mention-- local and state committees aren't just for beginners-- they're still there to serve on when you're taking a break from the national committees. They're also great because you can forge some friendships with people you can see more frequently and build some cool partnerships.

    The other thing I would recommend is being active on list-servs, especially if you decide to run for committee election instead of being appointed. (This might change-- there's some election bylaw changes up for a vote). This gets your name out there, and, like you said, participating in discussion is a different skill set than reviewing (which is also an important skill set. I feel like for an award committee, you need both.)

    You talk about how being on committee is the only way for the library to fund conferences and that you should advocate for your value so you still get to go. I would counter with-- don't go. In most places I've worked, more people want to go than can. It's not just a funding issue-- someone has to stay behind and be on desk! I was unable to attend ALA for many years because of coworkers who were always on committees and so they were the ones who got to go. (Not even award committees-- many were process.)

    On the other hand, not being able to go to ALA meant that I could go to state conferences and I got really involved at the state level. (One of the hard parts about changing systems was I changed states and I'm no longer plugged into that network and because of my work for YALSA, I am unable to plug into my new state system.)

    1. That's a great point about local and national committees..kinds of keep your toe in somewhere but still give others a chance! And I agree about staying involved and vocal at whatever level you can participate in. I love that social media lets us reach out far beyond our library walls to connect!

  2. This was the first year I was able to be an ALSC member - yay savings account! And I was very excited to try out a committee for the first time. I admit I was feeling kind of meh about it until I met my colleagues at midwinter and we were able to discuss face to face - awesome! Sadly, I can't afford the conferences every year, so it will be a while before I can go on again, but I recommend trying a "regular" committee if you can.
    I have to admit I have no ambitions to be on Newbery or Caldecott - I am happy with Cybils, which fits me well (and you are absolutely right about there being a difference between discussion and reviewing) but one thing I am interested in is possibly reviewing for a journal someday. Make your next post about how this works please! I have my sights on SLJ.

    1. ALSC is doing more with virtual membership too. I am a virtual member of the School Age Services Committee (I'm on Council so my meetings conflict.

      As for School Library Journal... send a note to one of the review editors and volunteer. They are looking for 250 word-ish reviews so show stuff that reflects that clarity. Give them a link to what you consider your top 10 best short reviews (and let them know your preferred niche - picture books; NF; chapter; etc.) Let them know you've been on the Cybils and include your list's final selection. That may get you going.

  3. I actually think my committee inexperience helped me get on the Printz (currently serving NOW, woo!). I've served on the Cybils and my state's book award (The Maud Hart Lovelace committee) but in terms of YALSA, I only have Popular Paperbacks committee. This is all great advice but sometimes I think it's good to just take a leap too, apply, and see what happens. I certainly never expected to already be serving on the Printz.

    I like your point about Process committees too though. They are very important and help build contacts so when you do have that chance, someone is going to recognize your name.

    1. I think it's cool you've had great experiences & I do think taking a leap is important - just hope people don't get discouraged if an opportunity doesn't come along for a bit.

    2. It seems like ALSC is a whole other can of worms when it comes to selection committees. YALSA, from what I've read from other people, doesn't seem to get quite the volunteer amounts ALSC does which definitely makes that initial step more difficult.

  4. Wow-thanks for the shout out! :)

    This is great advice! I also think getting involved in state committees is a great way to get started. And like Jennie mentioned, getting your name out there on listservs is very helpful-I think that's what helped me get put on the ballot for Printz. By getting your name out there though, don't self promote yourself or your blog on listservs, but instead post thoughtful questions and answers to discussions already happening. If you need help with a program-ask. That's the best way to get your name out there.

    And process committees and juries are a great way to get started! You have to prove yourself and you can't start with something huge.

    I'm hoping to get involved in ALSC more when I can apply for committees again in June. I'd really like to start serving with both YALSA and ALSC.

  5. Sarah, your post was buzzing around my head since I saw it. We all read but reading critically is a horse of a different color. It was great! Oooh, and I hope to see you in the ALSC world!

  6. I love, love, love this post. I love that you talk about doing more than just polishing your critical reading skills (thought that's obviously important.)

    It's so important to get involved at all levels. I've served on several process committees in ALSC and "big ALA", as well as the Stonewall Book Award committee for GLBTRT. The process committees do really interesting work, and it's a chance to get to know people who do all different kinds of work.

    Over the last year, 5 ALSC committees were moving to virtual operation (in addition to 5 that were already virtual), giving folks who can't necessarily make it to conferences twice a year (as Jennie said, someone's gotta work the desk!) more opportunities. Those are in addition to some committees that meet physically and also have a seat or two for virtual members. If you're interested, look for the little "v" after the committee names on the volunteer form. (That'd be a general "you", not Marge specifically! ;))