One hundred children’s booksellers, publishers, librarians, and students turned out for the second gathering of Children’s Books Boston, a group that encompasses area publishers, authors, booksellers, librarians, and educators. Simmons College was the setting for a panel on literary awards, inspired by the recent selection of the 2014 Newbery and Caldecott winners. The three panelists – Vicky Smith of Kirkus Reviews, Julie Roach of the Cambridge Public Library, and Martha Parravano of The Horn Book – plus moderator Roger Sutton, executive director of The Horn Book and founding member of CBB, have all served on previous award committees.

Sutton began by asking, “What surprised you the most about a book that won or didn’t win?” Parravano said that although she had been sure that The Thing About Luck would win a Newbery, she’s “getting very good about not expecting.” Roach admitted that she was surprised that Flora & Ulysses won the Newbery, because she thought the book was illustration-heavy. On second reading, however, she realized that there weren’t that many illustrations. “[Kate DiCamillo] writes in such a visual way,” she said, “that it seemed illustrated.” As for Smith, she said that she was “thrilled” by Brian Floca winning the Caldecott for Locomotive: “He seemed to be a permanent bridesmaid.”

The discussion then turned to the question of whether there should be a shortlist announcement. For Sutton, one of the great things about most of the children’s awards is that all books are in play until the end. But, he asked, would a shortlist serve a purpose? There was no consensus about having a shortlist. For those opposed, the anticipation and mystery surrounding what book will win adds to the gravitas of the awards.

Nor did the panelists propose many big changes to the way the awards are run. Smith suggested that the ALA awards no longer be restricted to American authors, a criterion she believes causes young readers to miss out on a lot of great books. This prompted a discussion of the history of the awards, which were originally created to inspire writers to create children’s literature at a time when there wasn’t much quality literature for young readers.

A subsequent discussion about the awards’ criteria and how the committees interpret them returned to the opening question. People are often surprised by the winning choices – either a book they were unaware of wins or a book that they wouldn’t have thought could win does.

A Peek Behind the Curtain

Although the panelists described some of the inner workings of the committees, the need for confidentiality kept them from divulging stories from their own experiences. Roach explained that members have to feel that they can be open and honest in discussions and that what they say is not going to be shared. The audience was amazed that there has never been a major leak of information. One thing the panelists were willing to discuss is the mechanics of choosing books. Books are submitted by publishers; committee members can also nominate titles. The committee members do, effectively, create a shortlist. But only the insiders are privy to the list.

Smith viewed choosing the winner as a mathematical process involving the casting of votes. But choosing the honor books is another matter. One of the best parts of being on a committee, the panelists agreed, was the influence of the other members on their thought process. Roach said that she was told by the chair of her committee, “The most incredible thing that can happen this year is that someone can change your mind.”

An audience question about whether the panelists have an art background – and, if not, how they can knowledgeably choose a winner for an illustration award, especially if the award criteria include the quality of the art and how the art was created –generated much conversation. Sutton laughed and said that the short answer is “no.” The committee members are not necessarily art people, nor is it necessary. The panelists noted that they were judging the book as a user and on whether the art has done its job. Roach, who served on a Caldecott committee, did clarify that the committee is given a reading list and some education on how to create a vocabulary for discussion. The committee then has a shared vocabulary and can judge the books based on this shared understanding.

Diversity was also a big audience concern – race, gender, and geography. Yolanda Scott, editorial director at Charlesbridge, said that it’s part of a wider issue that the children’s book world – writers, publishers, librarians – is predominantly white and female. But Sutton said that the governing organizations do try to mix it up when choosing committee members.

Another audience member asked about “special” awards. While it’s good that they exist, she said, it’s a bit worrying that perhaps we’ve created a way to “ghettoize” the awards by accident. Parravano acknowledged this year’s winners of the “big” awards are quite white – both characters and creators. Sutton shared a concern that perhaps too many creators of color are being slotted into working on books that would be eligible for the Coretta Scott King, for instance, which doesn’t allow them to break out to other things.

By discussion’s end, it was clear that those in the room who have served on an awards committee took the job very seriously – and that readers take the winning titles just as seriously.

Donna Spurlock is director of marketing at Charlesbridge; Karen Boss is assistant editor at Charlesbridge.