Every year, the biggest arts and pop culture awards—the Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, and Tonys among them—make headlines, create buzz, and have their handicappers. The John Newbery medal—one of the top prizes in the prestigious lineup of the Youth Media Awards, presented annually by ALA’s Association for Library Service to Children division—is no exception. Booklovers and industry stakeholders alike have long tried to guess the winner, which is decided by committee behind closed doors, and details of the proceedings are kept confidential. But in recent years, discussions and predictions relating to the book awards have become much more formalized, a shift well documented by a proliferation of mock Newbery websites, blogs, and programs.

Many schools and libraries are right in the thick of things when it comes to analyzing and predicting Newbery and Caldecott winners. As a preview to Midwinter, we chose to shine a spotlight on some exemplary mock Newbery book clubs designed for students, and spoke with several school librarians and one teacher who have introduced mock Newbery programs into their schools. Though the specifics of their programs may differ, the club leaders all talked about using some similar strategies to put their mock Newbery plans in motion.

Don’t Go It Alone: Create strong partnerships with teachers and librarians in your school and district, as well as in your community, at the local public library. Be sure to network with colleagues via professional organizations and conferences, including Nerdcamps.

Use Social Media: The librarians whom we spoke with for this article all belong to a mock Newbery group on the messaging app Voxer, and have found the inspiration, support, and exchange of ideas available to them there invaluable. Social media can also help spread the word about a program to a broader community. And authors and illustrators are often open to connecting with teachers, librarians, and students via Twitter, Skype, and other platforms, which is a boost to mock Newbery programs.

Aim for Inclusiveness: Design a program that is welcoming even to kids who are not confident readers.

Start early: Be ready to roll on the first day of school.

Here’s a closer look at the impressive mock Newbery clubs in three elementary schools.

Berkeley Mock Newbery

Mary Ann Scheuer, a teacher-librarian at Emerson Elementary in Berkeley, Calif. and the creator of the blog Great Kid Books, has been running a mock Newbery program in her school for the past three years. “Part of the impetus for starting the program was how excited kids at elementary schools are to join clubs,” she says. “And part of the impetus comes from the adult side, inspired by the Oakland Heavy Medal club, which is now affiliated with School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal Blog.”

Scheuer and Armin Arethna, a children’s librarian at Berkeley Public Library who served on the 2015 Newbery committee, had both participated in the in-person Heavy Medal mock Newbery discussions, many of them held at Oakland Public library in years past, and that experience inspired them to launch a mock Newbery book club at Scheuer’s school in fall 2013. “It’s exciting to talk about the best books of the year. We wanted to do something like Heavy Medal and make it kid friendly and bring it into the schools,” Scheuer says. “We also wanted to target all readers—especially readers of color—to let them know that their voices matter and their opinions about books matter. We wanted them to know that adults in their lives are listening to them. It’s not just ‘Which book did you like best?’ but we go deeper and explore bigger ideas in our discussions.”

Scheuer and Arethna have honed their program over the past few seasons, and this year, with support from Becca Todd (the district library coordinator for Berkeley Unified School District), colleagues at the participating schools, and the children’s librarians from Berkeley Public Library, Scheuer’s and Arethna’s mock Newbery program has gone district-wide. Now all 11 elementary schools in the district host a mock Newbery book club.

“We targeted that fourth- and fifth-grade level because things really start to change once the students get to middle school; kids move between classrooms and teachers a lot more,” Todd says. Early response to the program was overwhelmingly positive. “This idea has caught the fancy of students and teachers,” she says. “And many of the principals are reading the same list of books.” Part of the appeal of the mock Newbery clubs, according to Todd, is that readers select the titles that they want to focus on. “It’s important to honor that aspect of choice,” Todd notes. “The books are not assigned. We list 10 or 11 of the best books we’ve found, and the kids choose what to read. And they give up their lunch period to do this!”

Scheuer has been impressed with the results across the district so far. “We are seeing 40–60 kids joining per school. So with a relatively small budget we are having an amazing impact.” The mock Newbery kickoff took place in September with three to four schools launching their program each week. “We just keep dropping our jaws over how many kids are interested,” Todd says.

Each school in the Berkeley district has some leeway in how it runs its mock Newbery club, but there are some specific guidelines. Todd and Scheuer were among the librarians who read books over the summer trying to narrow down some options that met the Newbery criteria and held appeal for fourth and fifth graders. “We identified seven books in August that would start the program,” Scheuer says, “so that school libraries could buy one copy per library.” Additional books are purchased with PTA-raised funds or grant money, and some—both ARCs and hardcovers—are donated by publishers.

There are four mandatory club meetings: the launch meeting in September; one meeting in November to finalize a list of 10 books; and two meetings in January to have final discussions of the books and select winners. In between there can be as many informal meetings as each school’s club wants.

Each club member is required to read five books by mid-January. “But we stress to them that all of the titles are high-quality books, even if something they choose to read doesn’t make the final cut,” Todd says.

Club book discussions include students’ subjective assessments but are further energized by assessments that use the Newbery criteria. The facilitating librarians and teachers ask open-ended questions about character, plot, setting, language, and other key elements of the books. At Emerson Elementary, readers can also record their various opinions on large posters dedicated to each book title.

From the beginning of the school year and throughout mock Newbery season, Scheuer hangs a sign in the library that reads “Bring your lunch. Bring a friend.” “The social aspect is really a big deal,” she observes. “Kids get excited about eating lunch in the library with their friends.” And, she stresses, “Inclusivity is key. Students may come but have only read one book, but they see their friends are coming, and all of that is contributing to their development even if they struggle. The kid who reads one book this year will come back the next year and read all five required.”

Scheuer’s goals include not only helping students learn to express their thoughts about what they’ve read but also modeling civil discussion so that they can learn what to do when they don’t share someone else’s opinion. “Our families listened to and watched the political discourse this election season,” Scheuer says. “We want to honor kids who disagree and show them that they can respectfully disagree. It’s important to see that.”

As a nod to inclusivity, both Todd and Scheuer highly recommend Tales2Go, a kids’ mobile streaming audiobook platform, to families at their schools, because their district subscribes to the service for elementary students. “We are supporting kids all across the elementary spectrum with Tales2Go,” Todd says. “Struggling readers can listen or follow along. Having a beloved adult reading aloud at home also counts. All reading counts.”

FES Mock Newbery Book Club

At Falmouth Elementary School in Falmouth, Maine, school librarian Cathy Potter, who will serve on the 2018 Newbery committee, is in her seventh year of running a mock Newbery book club. Like Scheuer in Berkeley, Potter was encouraged by a fellow librarian to join the mock Newbery fray. “One of our local public librarians, Louise Capizzo, was on the 2011 Newbery committee and she came to me with this idea,” Potter says. “She wanted to get the kids in Falmouth excited about the award.” That first year, Capizzo would come to the school and “we chose and discussed the books together,” Potter notes. But when the 2011 winner was announced during ALA Midwinter, “it wasn’t even on our radar,” she recalls with a laugh. “The kids asked, ‘Do we even own that book?’ I always tell the kids, ‘We have no idea what goes on behind those closed doors!’ ”

Potter says that she spends her whole summer reading and then picks “15 titles that I know are eligible and that I think fourth and fifth graders [who comprise the club] will be able to discuss.” Then she prepares for recruitment of club members. “The whole first week of school, I talk to all the classes and tell them about the club,” she says. Any children who want to join must have a permission slip signed “so that their parents know that I am asking that their child read at least five books,” Potter says. There are typically 75–85 kids whom Potter breaks down into groups of 10. “Any bigger than that,” she says, “and not everyone gets a chance to share.” The groups meet once a month during lunch periods. Book discussion is opened up for positive comments first, and “then I give the kids the Newbery criteria, which I have put into more kid-friendly language,” Potter explains. “I want to encourage them to not just summarize the book. I had one girl recently say a book was ‘too neat and tidy at the end. That would never happen in real life.’ ”

As the club has grown, it has also evolved. For example, in the early days, Potter had the kids use a nomination process to create a shortlist of books. But the problem with that process, she says, “was that sometimes there would be kids who hadn’t read any of the books that were finalists, even though they had read their required five books.” Now her groups do a straight ballot with points assigned to the rankings, “the same way the librarians do it,” Potter says. In a January lunch meeting the club members make their ranked choices and, according to Potter, “usually a clear winner emerges and if other books clearly rise to the top, we pick some honor books, too.”

In years past, Potter’s school has held assemblies to announce the mock Newbery winners and has shown book trailers and featured special guests who have read passages from the books. “It was like a big pep rally for books,” she says. Potter has often invited students and teachers to watch the live stream of the Youth Media Awards in the library. Because she typically attends Midwinter, when she arrives back at school she will play back the recording of the awards and discuss it with the students. “I’ll pause it and say things like, ‘Do you know why everyone gasped when they announced that title?’ ”

Potter’s club has yet to select the same winner as the Newbery committee, but the club has consistently come close. “Many times, the ones we’ve chosen as winners were selected as honors,” she says. “Last year we picked The War That Saved My Life as our winner and it was an honor book. And the kids correctly picked Roller Girl as an honor book.”

Mr. Lewis’s Mock Newbery Club

Jason Lewis teaches fifth grade at Tyngsborough Elementary School in Tyngsborough, Mass., and he, like many others, found a trove of ideas for beginning a mock Newbery club on Voxer. “I met and communicated with educators through Twitter, but Voxer is better for that purpose. It’s like a walkie-talkie app, and there are not limits on anything,” he says. His club is up and running, now in its second year.

Lewis buckles down for club organization in August, when he compiles a list of eligible books, and after discussions—many via Voxer—he whittles the list to a manageable number. This year the initial batch of books consisted of 12 titles, but that number is now up to 14. “I added two in October,” Lewis admits. Soon after honing the list, the publicity pitch to students begins. “I want their interest to be piqued at the beginning of the school year,” Lewis says of his potential club members. In that first week of school he rolls out book trailers and begins book talking his shortlist. Two fellow fifth-grade teachers also help with the club, and out of the school’s 120 fifth-grade students, “we had about 50 or 60 kids sign up this year,” Lewis says.

Students who want to participate sign a permission slip with their parents in which they agree that club members have to read at least five books to take part in the mock Newbery vote in January. The accountability is an important part of the process, Lewis says. “They’ve made a true commitment to reading,” he explains. “I let them know that they can read with their parents at home or listen to the books on audio, and even if I read a book aloud in class—it all counts as ways to read.”

Lewis’s club meets once a month during the lunch and recess block and they discuss one book per meeting. Using the award criteria made available on the Newbery website, Lewis leads discussion that explores problems that characters face, important events in the plot, how the setting is or isn’t integral to the story, the author’s writing style, point of view, and presentation (i.e., how the book is organized). “At the end of the discussion I ask, ‘Is this a distinguished or excellent book?’ ” he says. “We want them to use accountable talk [an educational term referring to students developing the skills to speak and listen respectfully and build and use their knowledge as they participate in discussions] in the group and learn how to talk about books.”

When all the reading is done, the club holds a January meeting before school, with food, and they talk about one more book and discuss the favorites they’ve read along the way. Then the kids vote and tally. When schedules permit, Lewis can plan this meeting around the ALA Youth Media Awards webcast. “We didn’t pick the winner, but we chose Echo as our winner last year and A Night Divided and The War That Saved My Life as honors,” Lewis says. “When they announced books that the kids knew, the excitement was unbelievable. To see the expressions on their faces—it was perfect. It just makes everything you’re doing worthwhile.”

A History of Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog, which is one of School Library Journal’s suite of blogs, was one of the earliest nationally recognized mock Newbery programs and has served as an inspirational blueprint to many that have followed. The blog was initially the brainchild of Nina Lindsay, children’s services coordinator at the Oakland Public Library in California. But technically speaking, Heavy Medal didn’t start out as a blog. “I started a very loose mock Newbery group with no online presence in 2003, when I was on the Newbery committee, and kept it going in following years, as I enjoyed it,” Lindsay explains. She modeled the process for her discussion group at the library on the ones she had attended at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wis., when she was in library school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

In 2006, things took a digital turn. “I started a blog as a way to track and generate ideas and thoughts for books to consider,” Lindsay says. By that time, close colleague Sharon McKellar [community-relations librarian for Oakland Public Library, who also wrote her own Newbery-discussion blog] had become a regular part of the Oakland mock Newbery group. “Because I was chair of the 2008 Newbery committee, I asked Sharon if she would take over,” Lindsay recalls. “I wanted to be able to listen in on the group, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate, for confidentiality, for me to lead it.”

After the 2008 Youth Media Awards wrapped up, both Lindsay and McKellar had already planned to jointly continue the library discussion group and expand their blog presence when School Library Journal came into the picture. “Luann Toth [managing editor of SLJ’s reviews] asked me if I wanted to pitch a blog idea to her, and so I pitched Heavy Medal [which actually got its name later on, from former SLJ executive editor Rick Margolis]. In fall 2008, the Heavy Medal blog took flight on SLJ with Lindsay and McKellar facilitating, and continues today under the leadership of McKellar and Jonathan Hunt, county-schools librarian at the San Diego Office of Education. Earlier this year Lindsay was elected v-p/president-elect of ALSC; she will serve as president in 2017–2018.