Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the closed doors of a book award committee’s deliberations? How a group of people can, with confidence, pronounce a particular book the “best” of the year? An earnest committee, regardless of their makeup, will go through a similar process in their deliberations.
Our Picture Book of the Year committee for World magazine included Megan and me from Redeemed Reader, Janie from both Redeemed Reader and World, Susan Olasky from World, and Pamela Palmer, a children’s librarian. While it may seem that our committee on the surface is rather homogeneous, we had some very spicy discussions. Evaluating children’s literature is part science and part art: there are distinct skills an illustrator or author must demonstrate coupled with skillful storytelling, the right “voice” for the audience, and even the right bookbinding techniques. But evaluating someone’s perceived skill requires much subjective analysis when all is said and done.
Thus we five poured over the books, eagerly debating the merits of a given book, asking others to clarify their opinions and arguing about truly minuscule details even while we championed the big picture presented in a story. We read them to colleagues, to family members, to children–our own and any others we could round up. I can guarantee you that the Caldecott committee and all other picture book award committees go through similar processes.
Here is a peek “behind the curtain” so to speak:
The PBOTY Committee Reflects…on Mr. Squirrel and the Moon, this year’s winner
“I love the humor especially as it’s expressed through the illustrations,” writes Susan. Janie says, “I like the unexpectedness of it. I was halfway expecting a sweet story (like “Many Moons,” a classic children’s story by James Thurber) in which Mr. Squirrel’s anxiety about the moon doesn’t go all that deep, but it turns out that there are all kinds of things in this world to worry about! The story and pictures make us laugh, but also remind us that fear is a basic part of the human makeup–probably squirrel, too. Not that you have to reflect deeply on it–it’s enjoyable purely on the surface!” Megan “love[s] the amazing expressions on Mr. Squirrel’s face that are created with simple pencil lines and the imagined prison scenes.” Pamela “liked the end papers giving the context for the story; it is just so well-done that most readers want to go back to it again and again–including me!” Betsy concludes, “Mr. Squirrel was my favorite from the get go, and I was delighted to see so many other people fall in love with it. It succeeds on every level.”
As a committee, we read many excellent books that didn’t make the final cut. At the end, though, a decision had to be made. The committee members share the books they most mourned as they landed on the cutting floor.
We conducted all of our deliberations via email. Sadly, we never had the chance to sit around a table with books in hand, face-to-face, something I (Betsy) lamented several times. I was challenged to apply all my critical faculties to these picture books in a way I haven’t done since graduate school. In the process, I gained a new appreciation for books I’d first passed over (such as If You Plant a Seed). Megan adds, “I enjoyed trying to persuade my fellow committee members to appreciate a book I was passionate about, which is why I went to bat for The Golden Plate. It was great learning from such different perspectives. Thankfully I have a high regard for each member, so it was a pleasure to banter with them about books.” Pamela said she “loved the challenge to rethink my conclusions about a book that didn’t impress me so much the first few times, but was a favorite of others. Both Sidewalk Flowers and You Are (Not) Small fell into this category. I learned so much about what to look for specifically, what particular questions to ask about a book, past my gut feelings (which while educated by reading many many picture books over the years, were still too subjective).” Susan sums it up well: “I loved hearing other members make the case for their favorites. I profited from the detailed discussions of illustration, text, and meaning.”
If you’ve had the chance to read any of the Picture Books of the Year, which ones surprised you most? Which is your favorite? Do you agree or disagree with our ranking of them? (In other words, do you prefer an honor or an honorable mention more than the winner?) Committee members must speak their minds; now it’s your turn! And don’t miss Tuesday’s PBOTY Story Tea complete with snack ideas!