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Posts Tagged ‘caldecott’

Oh, I’m so going to get in trouble for this post title, but here’s the thing: why doesn’t the ALA provide shortlists for the Caldecott, Newbery, and all the other awards they dish out at their annual midwinter conference?

Obviously, I’m writing about this because the awards were announced this morning, but not because I had any particular dog in this race. Do I have friends who are writers, people whose book I feel deserve some recognition? Sure, but I’m not writing because they didn’t get a mention either as Winner or as Honor books, I’m writing because the question came up in Twitter buzz about this being a “strong” year with fewer than “expected” Honors given. Then I shot my mouth off about a particular book  not getting attention, calling the award committee “chicken” for not wanting to take a stand on deciding who the books true author was, and the next thing I know I’m back in the mire of my problem with the ALA awards.

Unlike other awards, like the National Book Awards, or the Carnegie or Greenway medals, the American Library Association’s awards for children’s books are announced without a prior shortlist being made public. When the ALA awards are announced (as they were this morning) the public first learns of the Honor books in the category and then the winner of the award in question. The number of Honor books varies as each award committee selects and awards books in secret up until the awarding of the titles (with the exception of the authors who are called early in the morning before their names are announced). This means that until the books titles are named there is no way of knowing which of the 24,000 children’s books published annually will be mentioned during the award ceremony.

Watching the announcements via a live webcast, each of the titles mentioned get cheers and applauds from the ALA members in attendance at the conference, but what goes on with the public (as witnessed on a live Twitter feed) is a collection of individual responses varying from cheers to confusion. Everyone has personal favorites they’re rooting for, and when little-known titles pop up the initial confusion is “Huh, I wonder if that title is truly better than the ones I’ve read.” So the public (or at least the public concerned with children’s books) collectively look at the honor book, then the winner, and they think From this pool of great books a winner was chosen.

Or: A winner was chosen from this pool?

But this year there were only two Honor books for the Newbery Award, which caught a number of people off guard. Normally there are three or four honor books, rounding out the general pool of consensus about which books were considered “the best,” which is what the award looks to celebrate. The problem with only two Honor book is the suggestion that, along with the winner, there were only three books considered good enough for the award. I think everyone in the kidlit community could draft a shortlist of TEN books that would be honor-worthy, and to see only two books honored feel like something is wrong.

What’s wrong is that the process really only looks to award ONE book and Honor books are a bi-product of the committee’s process, not a true designation of all that could be considered contenders for “the best” in that category. Or, as one author suggested, when there is more consensus on the award winner and less dissention within the committee, there are fewer honors. Which if true suggests that if the entire committee agreed on the winner there could be NO Honor Awards that year, not unless they manufactured a list of also-rans.

This is the problem I have with the secrecy of the selection process, it just isn’t transparent.

But should it be?

It’s the ALA awards and they can run the show any way they like. The way they run it now, each award category has its own committee and those committees select and vote on titles in seclusion from the rest of the ALA until the midwinter conference. I have heard tales of books being put forth to the rest of the committee at the conference itself, forcing the members to read and evaluate this last-minute nominee and depriving them of sleep (and consensus) in the process. One could argue that this suggests an openness to be as inclusive as possible in the efforts to find and put forth the best books possible… or that the nature of the process is flawed that the committees are not forced to agree on a shortlist in advance of the award.

Here’s why I think not having and announcing a shortlist in advance is a mistake: it removes the discussion of books from the public, which fails to engage a wider audience to actually care about the awards.

Once an award has been delivered, it’s a done deal. When you announce awards without any lead-up (like the public discussion that proceeds almost every other award) you fail to build an audience who cares. A year ago when the TODAY show decided to bump a segment on the ALA awards in favor of a visit by Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi to promote her new book the only people who cared were people in the kidlit community. The general public? Eh. They weren’t following the awards prior to the announcement, so they probably didn’t even know the winners were announced. They certainly hadn’t had a chance to review a shortlist of possible winner to factually know whether or not Snooki’s book might have merited more attention than the Printz or Newbery winners – it didn’t, but who knew? And that’s the point. You can’t care about an award you don’t know about, and you can’t build excitement or anticipation over an award whose judging criterium is a mystery beyond simply a group-think definition of “the best.”

While working on my MFA in creative writing our instructors (many Caldecott and Newbery Award winners in the bunch) warned us that you cannot write with the intention of winning awards, that you have to write the book that wants to come out. This is true of any art, really. But what was unsaid was that there was no way in hell you could possibly write toward winning a children’s book award from the ALA because the reality is that the criterium are a mystery. The selection committee changes from year to year, and the decision-making process and awarding of winners and honors is subject to a secrecy elevate to the art of whim.

Given how these award winners are held aloft and foisted onto kids by parents and teachers you’d think the awards were etched in stone from an omniscient god whose decisions are unerring. Instead, we get a tin-can-and-string announcement from a cargo cult committee of self-appointed elders.

And, damn it, I still hope to win one of these awards some day.

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Every time there is an award ceremony someone is always upset their favorite book/movie/president didn’t win and then whines about how it’s unfair, how the real winner was robbed, or how, clearly, the judges wouldn’t know a winner if it bit them in the ass.

This isn’t gonna be like that.

The ALA 2009 Youth Media Awards wew announced this morning at the ALA mid-winter conference in Denver, an event akin to the Academy Awards for the kidlit world, though nowhere near as brash.  In a simple ceremony that lasted under an hour (Motion Picture Academy, are you listening?) the American Library Association doled out its annual awards for the Caldecott Medal, the Newbery, and all the others people may (or may not) have heard of.  As always, there was buzz and speculation leading up to the event where the winning and honorable mentions are announced in breathless anticipation to a room full of librarians and an internet full of interested parites.  And as always there were surprises among the expected.

I’m not going to recount the winners here, nor is this going to become a political discussion about what did, didn’t, or should have won.  After a trip to my local indie bookstore, some careful consideration, and a shower I have come to see as clear as the morning air how these awards need to be fixed. Fixed implies there’s something broken, and there is.

When the awards are announced there are very few people who know in advance which books are even under consideration.  Publishers may get an inkling that something is up when calls are placed the day before on behalf of the committees asking for the contact information of an author so they can be, uh, contacted.  So outside of the committee members the first notion that a book is about to win trickles through less that 24 hours in advance.  That means that even the most ambitious of publishers isn’t really going to get a head start on priming warehouses for demand and sending books back to press.

This is key, because what happens is that on the day the awards are announced few booksellers have a majority of the winners on the shelves, much less in quantity.  There then comes the mad scramble to secure books from distributors, or calls placed on print runs, and a fickle buying public becomes too impatient to wait for something they want right then.  Interest in books wane, and then a book buying public just assumes to wait until a paperback edition with a little foil emblem appears or their local library finally gets a copy.

But there are solutions.

1.  Announce the shortlist a month in advance

Hollywood doesn’t get a lot right, but they understand how to make Awards work for them.  They announce their shortlist a month in advance of their ceremony, which gives studios time to flood movies back into theatres and wring some more money out of them.  They create interest, and people like to feel as informed as the Academy in these things.  Then, when the winner is announced, they can argue the merits, agree or disagree, and generally feel like they were part of the experience.

If the ALA were to toss out a shortlist of TEN titles for each category six weeks in advance of their mid-winter conference, publishers would have a heads-up AND the opportunity to reposition these books for holiday sales.  What’s key here is that by announcing the titles up front they generate interest in titles for time on both sides of the award, where now they only score that interest after the fact.  Publishers, librarians, distributors, and booksellers would then be able to help guide readers (and buyers) toward titles that have been pre-selected as possibly the best in the field.  This isn’t as easy to do after the fact.

With books in stock up to the day of the announcement, booksellers are then able to best capitalize on the awards and keep customers happy, rather than sending them away feeling like a book that wasn’t available was too obscure to be on hand.  This perception cannot be underscored enough, because if a consumer goes into a store unsure of an unfamiliar title to begin with and they discover it is not available they will be less inclined to seek it out.  Conversely, studies have shown that if a person puts an item in their hand (or has one put there for them by a bookseller) they will be something like 70% more likely to purchase it.  Say what you will about the noble art of reading, books and publishing is also still a business and anything that encourages sales encourages reading and vice versa.

The reason for ten titles is so that the ALA can still award a winner and three or four (or five) honor titles and still maintain some mystery around which book will win.  It also generates controversy about those that don’t, because controversy is still talk, and talk is like advertising, and books could use all the PR they can get.

2. Drag the president into the fray

Why do the winners of the Super Bowl and the World Series get to meet the president and book award winners do not?  Why can’t the president make a public acknowledgment of the shortlist in advance and then meet personally with the winners in a public ceremony with the press as part of his platform on literacy?  I don’t have the pull or the president’s ear, but someone has to, and for a guy who featured families reading to their kids at least three times in his paid political announcement it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibilities for this Obama guy.  Seriously, what’s the cost of something like this?  Nothing?  And what does it do for reading and publishing to have a president give the same amount of face time to writers of children’s books as he will for overpaid sports “heroes?”

3. Oprah

No, I’m not kidding.  I was working in a bookstore when Oprah’s magazine debuted and there was a small, one-paragraph article about a book called The Four Agreements among all the ads and fluff.  That mention in her magazine generated over half a million sales of that book in one week following that mention.  Prior to that the book hadn’t sold fifty-thousand copies in its previous two years.  That kind of power can be scary in the wrong hands but so far the big O has used her powers for good and not evil.

So why not a Oprah Book Club for kids, an O Jr.?  She could give some kidlit authors the same coverage she gives to jokers like James Frey and be promoting literacy at the same time.  Once a month she throws out some quality fiction for middle grade, YA, and picture book readers.  Then in the early part of the new year she does a show (or magazine feature) on the books nominated for the pending awards.  Instant interest, books flying off shelves, and more importantly, young people reading.

Ten years ago if I could have traveled into the future of today I would have slapped myself for saying such a thing, but Oprah cannot be ignored.  She has proven herself to be a champion of books and despite what anyone might think of the person, the advocate for reading that is Oprah cannot be denied.

It doesn’t seem likely that any of these three fixes will be put into place, but any one alone would be almost enough to send a seismic ripple through the publishing world in a good way.  Set aside the question about whether or not books or ebooks are the future of publishing, there will be no future without readers and the place to generate that interest should come from those most passionately concerned about literacy.

For those intersted in the results of today’s announcement you can go to the ALA’s unfriendly site and sort through the individual winners here, or sit through the entire webcast, or just wait a few months until the  books finally arive at your local bookstore with their little foil medallions attached.  If you still care.

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