What It’s Like to Serve on the Newbery and Caldecott Committees

You never know what is going to land in your mailbox (or today in your email box) but one day in December 1996 I received a letter informing me that I had been appointed to serve on the 1998 Caldecott Committee with the first meeting at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in January 1997.  The Caldecott Committee each year is composed of 15 members: eight are elected, a chair is appointed, and the remaining six members are also appointed.  No one may serve on the major award committees more than once every four years.  Committee members are appointed or elected from the membership of ALSC, The Association for Library Services to Children, a division of the American Library Association. Membership in this organization is not limited to librarians but includes K-12 teachers, university professors, and others with a professional interest in library services to children.  The 1998 Caldecott Medal was awarded to a book published in 1997.  The name of the committee is always the year following the publication year that was considered for the award.  In 2003, I was asked to place my name on the ballot for the 2006 Newbery Award Committee and I was elected to begin serving in January 2005.  A list of the medal and honor books from each of those committees is listed below this posting.  I have augmented my memory through references to the Manual for the Caldecott Award Committee.

The first meeting of the Awards Committees in January at the Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association is to go over expectations for the year of service, to meet other committee members, and to discuss criteria.  For each committee we were advised to read about evaluating books for children and for the Caldecott we were offered the suggestion that we also educate ourselves about art and design through visits to art galleries and museums.  This first meeting is open to the public but subsequent meetings are held behind locked doors.

Following the initial meeting, committee members return home to eagerly await the arrival of the boxes of books that will soon arrive from publishers.  The boxes that came to my house were like Christmas gifts; I couldn’t wait to unwrap them. This began the process of reading, evaluating, and organizing the books that were received. A schedule was set for members to submit suggestions to the chair which included justification for why the book was worthy of consideration.  The chair compiled suggestions and distributed them to the members of the committee.  Suggestions served to alert other committee members of strong contenders.  Often suggestions from other committee members caused me to re-examine a book with new eyes but critically for reasons why the book might or might not be worthy.

At the Annual Meeting of the American Library Association held in the summer, the Awards committee meets to practice introducing and discussing books from the Suggestion List.  Only the deliberations at the Midwinter Meeting are relevant in the medal selection so the process at this time is for practice and to find a format for book discussion that is comfortable for the membership. The Suggestion List and the meetings at Annual are confidential.  As a committee member we were able to talk with others about our own opinions but we not permitted to share any of the conversation, information about was or was not on the list, or any information about balloting.  Membership on the Caldecott or Newbery Committee feels like being a sequestered jury member and indeed, much of the process to choose the medal winner feels like a juried process.

Between the Annual Meeting in the summer and the Midwinter Meeting the following January when the award winner will be announced, committee members submit more formal nominations to the chair on three different occasions nominating 3, 2, and 2 books for a total of seven titles each.  The nomination process served to focus on what were likely the strongest contenders signaling committee members what titles they would probably want to re-read and critically notate.  With fifteen committee members times 7 nominations, the list of nominated titles could be as many as 105 titles but generally at this point in the process, there is overlap among members.   The actual number of titles that are nominated is also confidential.  The chair compiles and distributes nominations to all committee members.  It was always very exciting to get the compiled nominations.  Books must be nominated to appear on the Discussion List at the Midwinter Meeting.

The Midwinter Meeting is generally held in January following the publication year under consideration. Committee members are assigned to introduce titles from the list.  Some discussion may occur about what order to discuss books in: author, title – reverse alphabetical order?  Generally several time slots are set aside for the committee to meet, discuss and vote.  The meetings are held behind locked doors and only the chair has a key.  During the discussions, a member who nominated a title may request that a book be taken out of consideration but any committee member may ask that the book remain under discussion.  Once a book is taken “off the table” for any reason it may not be brought back.  This is particularly important once balloting has begun.

Once all books have been discussed to the satisfaction of the committee, balloting may begin.  The balloting process is where things get interesting and tense.  Committee members vote for their first, second and third choices for the award.  Remember there are fifteen members so at this point at most 45 books will survive and generally following discussion some consensus has been built and the list is significantly less.  In tabulating the votes there is a formula applied.  Four points are assigned for each first place vote, three for each second place vote and two for each third place vote.  A book must receive at least 8 first choice votes (over half the committee) and must have at least an 8 point lead over any other title.

At this point, just as it is unlikely that there will be as many 45 books remaining (everyone votes for different titles), it is also unlikely that a clear winner will emerge on the first ballot.  And if this has ever happened, the committee members are sworn to secrecy and may not reveal this. If there is no clear winner, then a process if followed for re-balloting.  Committee members may decide to remove any books that received zero votes from the table as well as any books that have very little support.  But once withdrawn a book may not be reconsidered (even as an honor book).   Generally discussion follows of the books that remain on the ballot.  If there was not a clear winner on the first ballot, then members must begin to reconsider and perhaps change their votes.  This is often an agonizing step in the process.  It might mean changing the order of your votes – for example giving a first place vote to a different title that has more likely support.  This is the point in the process that begins to feel like a jury where members may feel the need to bend their opinions in order to reach a group consensus. Rounds of balloting and discussion will follow until a winner emerges.  The process at this point is fraught with emotion and anticipation.

A winner must be selected because there are deadlines that must be met in terms of notifying the ALSC office, calling the winners, writing press releases, etc.

Once there is a clear winner, the committee may name honor books.  The committee has more leeway in this process in terms of whether they will name honor books, how they will select them, and how many they will select. Honor books must have been in contention for the medal – they may not have been removed from the table or the ballot.  Only books that received votes on the award-winning ballot are eligible.  This is a point that many are unaware of – books receiving Honor status for the ALSC awards were true contenders for the medal – they are not mere runner-ups.  Indeed given the balloting process, they were likely the first choice of at least some committee members.

At this point the committee is exhausted and jubilant and their work is not complete!  First they cannot tell anyone – secrecy is required until the announcement is public.  Many of us joked that we could not call home because family members would hear it in our voices.  The committee members now divide up the task of writing the press release for the medal and honor books including biographical information about the authors.  The chair must submit the press release and winners to the office generally midday on Sunday.  On Monday morning there is a press conference scheduled (usually early in the morning) but before this press release, the committee chair and members meet to phone the winners (medal and honor).  This is really exciting because everyone gets to hear the reaction of the author or illustrator and quite often their story about “the call” becomes legendary.  I believe Kate DiCamillo reported that she asked the chair to please repeat what she had said.

The Press Conference is where the world learns about the winners and it’s really exciting to be there. Today that event is streamed live on the Internet and cell phones deliver the news almost instantaneously but many of us remember when there was a phone tree where someone from your locality who was at the event called someone at home who then activated the phone tree and the word moved throughout the day.

The medal and honors are presented at the following Annual Meeting of the American Library Association at the Newbery Caldecott Banquet.  Committee members generally enjoy invitations to numerous meals and receptions with the winners, their editors, and other members of the publishing staff to celebrate the awards. 

 Association for Library Services to Children.  Caldecott Medal Manual. Available online from: http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/caldecottcomm/caldecottcommittee.cfm

1998 Caldecott Medal:

Rapunzel, by Paul O. Zelinsky (Dutton)


  • The Gardener illustrated by David Small
    Text: Sarah Stewart (Farrar)
  • Harlem illustrated by Christopher Myers
    Text: Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic)
  • There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly by Simms Taback (Viking)

2006 Newbery Medal: 

Criss Cross by  Lynne Rae Perkins (Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins)


  • Whittington  by  Alan Armstrong, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Random House)
  • Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by  Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Scholastic)
  • Princess Academy  by  Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)
  • Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
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Outstanding Picture Book

This year’s winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator award was also a Caldecott Honor.  I have chosen Dave the Potter to model the annotations required for Children’s Literature.  I will note that this took me much longer to write than the critique.


Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, by Laban Carrick Hill.  Illus. by Bryan Collier.  Little, Brown, 2010. 

Bondage, Agency, Creativity, Breath-taking, Expansive,  Informative, Craftsmanship, Earthy, Authoritative, robust

Earthy browns represent both bondage and freedom for a potter.

Expansive, often breath-taking collage illustrations accompany a poetic and informative text introducing the work of Dave, a slave, whose remarkable craftsmanship endures today in his large pots many inscribed with short original verse.   An authoritative afterword with author and illustrator notes round out this robust presentation.

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Newbery Medal Winner

I’ve chosen this year’s Newbery Award winner to illustrate the critiques required for Children’s literature:

Citation:  The Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool.  (Delacorte Press, 2010).  351p. Historical Fiction.

Summary:  Jumping off the train, Abilene Tucker returns alone to her father’s home in small town Manifest where she discovers a cigar box full of mysterious letters and mementos that lead her to learn more about the town and her father.

Critique:  (a.) One of the greatest strengths of this title is the voices we hear not only of the narrator, Abilene but through the storytelling of Miss Sadie, Hattie Mae’s News Auxiliary, and the letters she uncovers to Jinx. (b.)  Of these, Abilene’s is the strongest and most lyrical.  Her actions are feisty, independent, and persistent but her words are observant and poetic.   She jumps off the train before the station because “As anyone worth his salt knows, it’s best to get a look at a place before it gets a look at you” (p.3).  (c.)  The language in this story invites the reader to linger over such phrases as “I took another long look behind me, through leafy branches swaying and bowing in the wind, to convince myself that my imagination had run away with me” (p.110), or “If there is such a thing as a universal – and I wasn’t ready to throw all of mine out the window – it’s that there is power in a story.  And if someone pays you such a kindness as to make up a tale so you’ll enjoy a gingersnap, you go along with that story and enjoy every last bite” (p.144).  In this multi-layered story I did indeed “enjoy every last bite.”

Curriculum Connection:  Now that this book has won the Newbery Medal, I suspect it will become a staple for classroom reading.  I believe it’s a great example of the lure and power of storytelling in families and communities and would be a great launch for collecting oral histories in upper elementary or middle school language arts classrooms.

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Children’s Books

I am creating this blog to share with my Children’s Literature class this semester.  I am asking each of my students to create a blog as well and hopefully will provide links to their pages from here.

Right now I am in San Diego for the American Library Association Midwinter Conference.  I am serving on the Notable Books for Children Committee of the Association for Library Services for Children (ALSC).  This list is published every year following the Midwinter ALA Conference. We are meeting every day from 1:30-4:30 p.m. to discuss potential Notable books from the past year.  On Tuesday we will vote and publish our list.  Past Notable lists can be found here:  http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/notalists/ncb/index.cfm

As a member of this committee for the past two years I have received thousands of books from publishers.  Our criteria can be found at:  http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/notalists/ncb/ncbsubmissions/index.cfm Everything published in the United States for children (age birth – 14) is eligible regardless of the genre or the nationality of the author.  So that’s a lot!  A whole lot!  I have books in my office, books in my bedroom, books in the dining room, books in the den.  I have books at work and books in my car.  I had to bring books in my suitcase.  I have been a reading fiend for the past two years!

Committee members read the books.  Five times during the year we submit nominations to the chair and she compiles our nominations and sends the list out to us.  We locate and read any books nominated by other committee members (often re-reading books) and then we vote on whether the book will be discussed at our meeting.  We meet twice: once at Annual which was in D.C. last year and then again at Midwinter.  Our discussion list for this Midwinter 2011 meeting can be found at: http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/notalists/index.cfm

The reading has been intense.  Our discussions are interesting as well because they are open to observers.  So if you are attending an American Library Association Meeting you can attend and observe.  The books we are discussing are on display and it’s a great way to find out what’s current and worthy of note.

It’s also an interesting way to find out what people are talking about particularly if you are among the many who like to predict what might win Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, and other awards which will be announced on Monday, Jan. 10.  You can find out how to learn about these awards Live, on Facebook or on Twitter through this ALA press release: http://www.ala.org/ala/newspresscenter/mediapresscenter/presskits/youthmediaawards/alayouthmediaawards.cfm

Anyway, for my students – this seems like an unusual introduction but it is certainly relevant to the course we are about to enter.  I look forward to sharing more with you in the upcoming months.

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