Before sunrise next Monday, the careers of some lucky, talented authors and illustrators are likely to change in profound ways with a ring of their telephone.
It’ll be “the call” from one of the committees charged with anointing the most distinguished books for kids and teens of 2018—ALA’s Youth Media Awards, which include the Newbery, the Caldecott, the Printz, and the Coretta Scott King Awards. Winners will be announced beginning at 8 a.m. PT Monday at the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference in Seattle. (A live webcast can be watched here.)
But though the specific books under serious consideration are known only to committee members, interested parties have been speculating about contenders all year. There are award discussion blogs like School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal or the Horn Book’s Calling Caldecott, which have been churning out online chatter about possible winners for months. Countless schools and libraries have already staged “mock” voting events and announced their winners on the ALSC blog, where organizers are encouraged to post their results. Do you adore Julían Is a Mermaid by newcomer Jessica Love? You are not alone. Is your pick for the Newbery Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep? That title is showing up as a winner on multiple mock ballots.
But a mock win is not the same thing as an actual win.
“The mocks can sometimes create the illusion that a field of favorites has emerged and that this short list of books is what the committee is discussing, but that is simply not the case,” said agent Steve Malk of Writers House. “What’s being discussed among the award committee is known only to the committee. I tell my clients that being ‘in the conversation’ is meaningful in itself and ultimately all you can ask for.”
But even if you are an author or illustrator who has tried your darndest to ignore the buzz, it’s almost impossible to avoid hearing what others are saying might happen on what author Rita Williams-Garcia refers to as “Pumpkin Monday.”
“I was lucky enough to be shrouded in ignorance until 2011 and even then I had to be told when the date was,” said Williams-Garcia, who won a Newbery Honor that year for One Crazy Summer. “My editor [Rosemary Brosnan] didn’t want me to make myself crazy about it and never mentioned Midwinter to me. But now I know! People tag you on everything, so unless you’re without social media, you’re aware of the sorting hat.”
Couple the existence of so many pre-award prediction sites with the megaphone provided by social media, and what used to be a quiet anxiety or nervous anticipation known only to an individual, their editor, and their agent, has taken on a public component. A book can “fail” when it doesn’t meet the expectations of people who had absolutely nothing to do with deciding who wins.
“That Monday morning has always been hard on authors and artists (and editors), but with the proliferation of online prognosticators and mock results postings it’s become downright head-rattling,” said Neal Porter, who has an imprint at Holiday House, and who has edited multiple books that have won notice from the Caldecott committees. “I always encourage those I work with to take a break from social media; I wish I followed my own sound advice more closely.”
Adam Gidwitz, who won a Newbery Honor for The Inquisitor’s Tale, says he did not sleep a wink before his win. “The night before, for those who have been on many best of- and mock Newbery lists, is a pretty unique experience,” Gidwitz said. “There are few other moments in life when the next day your life could change forever—but maybe won’t. It’s not like before a big game, or a baby being born, when you know something will happen. You might just wake up, eat breakfast, and never get a call. Or maybe the call will come. The uncertainty makes sleeping pretty much a pipe dream. And while there was a happy ending for me, most people don’t experience that. And that’s a hollow, empty feeling, on no sleep.” His advice: plan a celebratory breakfast, win or lose. “I chose blueberry pancakes,” he said.
“The mock lists, while wonderful and gratifying, can heighten anxieties in the days leading to the award announcements,” said agent Rosemary Stimola, who makes sure to check in with clients whose books are getting award buzz. “I do chat with [them] in advance, noting it is fine to have quiet hopes, but never expectations, and to try and take some measure of comfort that their title has already been so beautifully acknowledged. That said, the night before is often sleepless in anticipation of that phone ringing in the morning... or not.”
Strategies for Sanity
So what’s a “mock” frontrunner to do?
Author-illustrator Jon Klassen advocates staying uninformed for as long as possible. “I find that the best solution is to be so disorganized that you don’t even know they are announcing anything at all,” he said, though he no longer has the option of blissful ignorance. He’s gotten multiple early morning phone calls from multiple committees for his picture books, including This Is Not My Hat, which won the 2013 Caldecott Medal.
If you can’t help but know when the awards are going to be announced, as he now does, then he suggests treating it as you would the purchase of a candy bar you intend to save for “later.” “I liken it to buying a Twix bar at the store to put in the freezer back at home. The hope with this Twix is that you forget about it completely and then are happily surprised when you open the freezer at some later date,” he said. “Sometimes this works and you really do manage to put it out of your mind, and other times you go and sit in the next room and the Twix is every second thought in your head for the rest of the day.”
Many editors and agents engage in the undersell. “We should assume the book has not won anything,” said Donna Bray, co-publisher of Balzer + Bray. “It is exciting that it is being discussed, and of course it deserves to win, but we have no idea what committees are thinking and so we must have no expectations.” This is an exceedingly mature attitude that Bray admits is mostly just a goal: “It’s very, very hard to ignore the buzz and quash the fantasy, so I doubt my strategy works all that well!”
Stimola advises distraction. “I just suggest they try not to think about it too much but... tough advice to follow.” Similarly, Laura Rennert at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency promotes strategic diversions. “Get off social media and do whatever brings you comfort—baths, tea, baking, spending time with pets.”
Author Anne Ursu agrees. Her 2011 novel Breadcrumbs was on many mock Newbery lists; her 2013 follow-up, The Real Boy, was nominated for the National Book Award. “The sanest thing you can do for yourself as an author is detach from the buzz and be happy that people are talking about and reading your book,” Ursu said. “But authors are not always good at doing things that are sane.”
Jack Gantos, who won a 2001 Newbery Honor for Joey Pigza Loses Control, a Printz Honor in 2003 for Hole in My Life, and the 2012 Newbery Medal for Dead End in Norvelt, said the key is to do whatever you have to to shut out the noise. “A stiff drink is a good idea. A bracing talk in the mirror about being ‘serene’ in the morning no matter the results of the committee, and a sleeping pill, is a good approach,” Gantos suggested. “That way, if the phone doesn’t ring, you at least get a good night of sleep and can bring that mental refreshment to the library and knock out a few thousand words and love yourself for it.”
And then there is the Zen detachment of 2017 winner Kelly Barnhill, who was sound asleep when the Newbery Medal committee called her with the news that her novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, had won its top prize. “I had no idea I was even on their radar,” she told PW at the time.
Putting the Spotlight on Great Books
Here’s the contradiction: everybody loves the mocks. They do. Not one person interviewed for this article thinks the mocks should go away. “It’s really cool and it’s really fun to see these discussions happen,” said Ursu.
“I love the way that mocks get people—especially young people—to closely examine books in new ways and become even more invested in a book’s success,” said Malk, who draws inspiration from this classroom’s reaction to the announcement that one of their favorite books—Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon—had won the Newbery.
But Gantos and others say the blogs and online commentary can occasionally border on casually cruel critique, pitting one book against another for no good reason. “There is so much opinion that not having an opinion is refreshing,” he said. “Having an open mind and keen critical values and judgment skills is so invigorating.”
Still, everyone acknowledges it is going to be impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. Writers House agent Rebecca Sherman thinks the rise of internet polls and mock voting is likely in response to the fact that the real committees have a track record of secrecy that makes the Mueller investigation look like a leaky cauldron.
“Because all the real discussion is so closely guarded, this is the only way the rest of us can have a conversation publically abut our favorite books,” Sherman said. “And I think that’s human nature to have some anticipatory anxiety, getting your hopes up or having your hopes dashed. I get very excited about the awards and what might happen, just like I get excited about the Tonys or the Oscars.”