Awards, Lists, Reviews and Readers’ Advisory Possibilities: It’s Not Just One Big Chocolate Shop

Each Midwinter, I listen to and watch the immediate responses as YALSA’s media awards are announced, fascinated by how many interpretations audience members make of what doesn’t “win” and what the winning titles “say” about those who selected them. book with post it notes francisca goldsmithOver the years, I’ve served on three YALSA awards committees (Margaret A. Edwards, Odyssey, and Printz), a couple of YALSA list selection committees (former versions of these are now swept into what we call Amazing Audiobooks), and both award and selection list committees for other organizations (the Eisners, the Audies, and the California Young Reader Medal among them). For way longer, I’ve been reviewing books and media for an array of professional journals (Library Journal, School Library Journal, Booklist, VOYA, Public Libraries, Busted) and a couple of “general reader” publications; my typical annual review production numbers somewhere between 100 to 150 titles, mostly assigned to me by editors.

As a fairly long-term readers’ advisory practitioner and instructor, I read widely beyond what I review and what I judge for lists and awards. What I hope to provide here is some focus on how all these different book and media considerations differ in both purpose and approach.

First, a review is one reader’s considered view of a title’s merits and shortcomings, with the sometimes added inclusion of prescribing for a specific audience. Committee work, on the other hand, whether for an award or for list recognition purposes, involves, by definition, the important difference of multiple viewpoints being expressed as decisions are considered, let alone made. A reviewer eats a piece of chocolate and then writes his or her judgment of it, making use of previous chocolate-eating knowledge but also of potential consumers of this chocolate, while a committee is composed of members with different taste organisms, chocolate consumption experiences, and familiarity with the diverse climate and diet realities of prospective chocolate eaters.

Second, an award is a singling out, an identification of the exemplar, while list creation highlights particular elements of individual items without prioritizing the highlighted elements. Everything in the box of chocolates shares such attributes as sweetness, cacao, and designed shape, but some of the pieces may have nuts, some may be chewy, and it’s not the committee’s work to tell us that nuts are better than soft centers but to make sure the best of both are well represented.

Third, each award has stated criteria that are essential to the identification of the exemplar. Putting forth the highest cacao-content chocolate as the exemplar isn’t appropriate when the stated criteria for the exemplar are that the chocolate be mixed with an equal portion of sugar and be available for mailing to all climates at all times of year. Putting forward the highest cacao-content chocolate as the exemplar when the criteria are the chocolate be available in ounce-sizes and shaped like a daisy may be appropriate — if the highest cacao-content contender happens to be portioned in ounce-sized pieces shaped like daisies.

So…where does that get us upon learning what “won” and what “got listed” when we’ve already read reviews and also read presumed contenders? Sometimes, when hearing the award and list news, I’ve gone back to refresh my familiarity with the criteria by which specific selections were made, and I see that I was so focused on how delicious the dark-dipped, cream-centered pieces in the chocolate box tasted that I’d forgotten that the particular award is for the salted nut to chocolate ratio.

Other times — most times — I delight in having my attention pulled to a title or several titles that flew under my personal radar, because while I’d read all year, I am not a superhuman who can consume the full outpouring of publishing that fits the minimum criteria (such as year of publication and distribution availability), and I know that committee work changes the very literal conversation about other qualifying aspects and elements, such as recognizing a voice as authentic or if a series title can stand alone.

This year, my reading experiences included serving as one-ninth of the 2013 Printz Committee, a vantage point from which I want to bring perspective to your own reading opinions and plans. We’ll start by looking at the 2012 universe as it can be described quantitatively (or, what’s that box of chocolates hold anyway?). I’ve asked for and received permission to share these dimensions, none of which tells any confidential details of the committee work:

  • Nine committee members spent
  • Twelve months reading and discussing, both online and during
  • 36 hours of face-to-face meetings
  • 698 titles produced for young adults by
  • 85 publishers distributing in the United States

The way to work with all those variables is to stick true to the criteria for the award. In the case of the Printz, for example, these include the fact that Printz Honor books are not “runners up” but are determined by a process that has a beginning only after the award winner is decided. That isn’t true of all awards, but it is true of this award. And it’s not true just for the 2013 committee but for each standing Printz Committee. Rules like this one keep the award consistent from year to year, even while the committee members and the books themselves necessarily are different.

The luxury of committee discussions, in contrast with review writing for professional journals is sheer words. Instead of making a case for or against or simply describing in 150 words or so, discussions include back and forth between both impressionistic talkers and pithy talkers. In contrast with young adult literature reviews in general periodicals, on the other hand, award committee discussions occur among a group with deep and broad expertise in young adult literature and young adults, and so is focused on the specific criteria of this award, as opposed to what sells, what cultural tropes seem of the moment, or what the works under consideration might “teach.”

While access to lots and lots of reader opinion burgeons with book blogs, and publishers crave starred reviews in some vetted resources, the award committee’s work, while underway, doesn’t correspond directly with that public sphere. After the committee work is said and done, the exemplar determined and announced, having the award is part of the wonderfully ample universe of resources we have from which we can do readers’ advisory work.

But the award isn’t about finding the Perfect Book that will magically fit Any Reader; it’s the book that shows off to highest possible degree, in the refined judgment of a committee, that the award criteria are embodied in it during this annual award cycle. It’s the blue ribbon bonbon among the year’s confections, not the one piece of chocolate that all tasters would agree as making the perfect breakfast food.

Happy post-Midwinter reading, listening, and viewing — to say nothing of chocolate explorations.

— Francisca Goldsmith, member of the 2013 Michael L. Printz Committee, currently reading Crater XV by Kevin Cannon and The Good Son by Mark Kriegel

This post also appears on the The Hub.

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