The results are in: Of the hundreds of books submitted by publishing companies, this year’s Newbery Award winner is WHEN YOU REACH ME, by Rebecca Stead. It is a story of a 12-year-old girl in Manhattan in 1979 who must unravel a mystery posed by letters she receives accurately predicting the future.
As the announcements were made, Beyond The Margins caught up with Diane Bailey Foote, one of the judges, to gain her insights about this year’s field of contenders and what makes for an award-winning children’s book.
What made WHEN YOU REACH ME a winner for you?
As a young reader one of my favorite books was Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME (also a Newbery medalist). WHEN YOU REACH ME is an homage to that book, and concepts explored by L’Engle are revisited here, especially time travel and the interconnectedness of seemingly random events. The intricate plot weaves together a vast number of threads and clues in a very satisfying way, with a stunning surprise of a conclusion.
What were some impressions you had of the field of nominees?
I noticed a large number of books about children and families coping with war. There were a few contemporary books in which the Iraq war figured, and many more that took place during the Civil War, World War I or II, or the Vietnam War.
Can you tell us about the nominating process? Do authors nominate themselves?
The Newbery Committee seeks out and evaluates the contenders, but many other organizations offer submissions as well. All members of ALSC send their suggestions to the committee chair during the year. And most publishers are eager to submit their newly published books to us, so we receive hundreds of submissions.
What are the criteria to be considered as a Newbery Medal book?
The award is given for “the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature” published in the prior year in English in the United States, and the criteria have changed relatively little since the award was established in 1922. The award is not for popularity or didactic intent, and it’s given for the text alone, not the illustrations or design or any other aspect of a book. Criteria include interpretation of the theme or concept; presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization; plot development; delineation of characters and setting; appropriateness of style; and excellence of presentation for a child audience.
Can you tell us about how books are winnowed down (finalists, semifinalists, etc)?
Judging begins as soon as the first books published in the year prior to the award announcement are available. (For example, books for the January 2010 award began with the first books published in 2009.) Starting in mid-fall prior to the award’s announcement in January, each committee member nominates seven titles. The nominations are confidential. Since there are 15 committee members, the maximum number of titles that could be nominated is 105. But stellar books often have more than one nomination, so there are generally fewer nominated titles than that. All of us read all the nominated books. If there is no clear winner (a book needs eight first-place votes in order to win the Medal), there is another round of discussion, then another vote, and so on.
What makes a book stand out for you personally? What are important elements for excellence in children’s literature as opposed to adult fiction?
For me, a strong novel, picture book, or poetry book will be fresh and immediate, “shows” rather than “tells” the audience about the characters and their actions, and is written in an engaging style. For informational books, engaging style is also important, and the facts must be absolutely accurate, explained clearly, and documented. It’s essential to think back to what it was like to read as a young person; I’ve read several children’s books this year that appealed to me as a grown-up that I’m not sure really are the most distinguished books for children from 2009.
Is this your first year working on the Newbery awards?
This is my first time on the Newbery Selection Committee itself, although I have been heavily involved with the award and other children’s literature awards, including the Caldecott Medal (for picture books).
What kind of work experience gave you entrée to being a judge?
I’ve been an editor at Book Links magazine, published by ALA, and wrote hundreds of children’s book reviews for Kirkus Reviews and Booklist. I am trained as a librarian (with a masters degree in library and information science from the University of Illinois), and spent 10 years in children’s book publishing. Obviously, I did not work on the publishing side of the business while reviewing and serving on award committees!
Will you do it again next year?
For the 2011 awards, I’ll be on the committee for the Coretta Scott King Award, the ALA honor for books on African American topics by African American authors and illustrators.
*Diane Bailey Foote is one of 15 members of the 2010 John Newbery Award Selection Committee, a past Executive Director of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC, a division of the ALA), and a reviewer of children’s and parenting books.