Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Rewarding Process of Giving Awards

I stumbled across the CYBILS awards blog last summer, saw a call for judges, and thought I may as well apply.  Rather to my surprise, I lucked into a 2nd round judge position for YA contemporary.  This meant I got to read the seven great books chosen by the first round judges, discuss them at length with my fellow judges (not that any of us are fellows), and help make the final selection.

The full slate of winners in all categories is here, but to sum up my little corner of it, Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone was our pick, with Dumplin'; Everything, Everything; Infandous; How it Went Down, All the Rage and The Truth Commission all getting short-list honors.

Being assigned to read these books was such a treat.  Not only were they all very good, but they were all very different from each other.  There was no feeling of same ol' same ol' despite the fact that they all fit in the same genre and were published in the same year.  On top of that, getting to hear the perspectives of several other people who were reading thoughtfully and thinking critically, but also passionately, about the books was so enriching.

Having zero experience with this type of process before, there were some aspects I found really interesting.  First, as I alluded to above, our judging panel was (based on people's name) all female.  This ties into something I see in the book blogging community in general, which is a decidedly skewed gender representation.  Why is that?  Do men not admit to reading YA?  Do they really not read YA?  Or do they just not feel the same compulsion to discuss, analyze, and fanboy over their reading?  

I also realized as we worked on the process that it wasn't actually helpful to think we were choosing The Best Book.  We were choosing a winner, sure, but just because it won didn't mean it was clearly superior to All Other Books.  The winner would be the book that ALL of us LIKED A LOT, and NONE of us DISLIKED.  Still, it made me wonder about Newberys and Printzes and from there on to Oscars and Emmys and Nobel Prizes.  Is the winner of a subjective competition always going to be a highly deserving compromise?  Or are there times when one contender blows away the competition?

There were a few we disagreed on.  One person made a persuasive case for a book that really spoke to her; I felt it was less original than the others.  I thought the changing POVs in another made it more compelling; others thought it was confusing and the voices weren't distinct enough.  Others we agreed more on--this one fun, but not as literary, that one incredibly well written but with a narrow audience.  In the end, Every Last Word was an easy decision.  All of us liked it a lot.  Even if it wasn't every individual's favorite, we all felt it hit the criteria (literary quality and appeal to the target audience) strongly.

At one point, giddy off Matt de la Peña's Newbery win,  I brought up the question of representation in the books.  Two had people of color as the main character, and others featured non-mainstream situations such as poverty or illness.  My question was, if two works were equally deserving, one of which portrayed upper middle class white kids and one of which portrayed inner city black kids (and was written by a person of color), would it behoove us to choose the book about less privileged kids?

Yikes.  The only real response I got was along the lines of "Color doesn't matter; it only matters whether or not it's a good book."  Well, yeah, I understand that, which is why I prefaced my question with the whole "two equally deserving works" bit.  Because let's be clear--if you are an middle or upper class kid of European descent, you are going to find LOTS of books about Kids Like You.  But if you are not all of those things, it gets harder.  And going back to the window/mirror analogy I glommed onto when Martha Brockenboough mentioned it at a conference last fall, us middle class white people could stand to be exposed to a lot more windows into other experiences also.  I was a little surprised more people weren't willing to discuss the issue.

For all that, I am happy with our winner (but will also be getting How It Went Down for my classroom.)

I would love to hear your thoughts about all of my (literally) large questions above.  Also, have you read any of the final field?  Which would you have chosen from them?  Or is there another book you think should have made it through the first round?  Me, I was a little surprised to not see Made You Up, Challenger Deep, or Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda on the list.  (Also, why is there no apostrophe in that last title?   It bugs me.)


  1. Okay, first I have to address your final question (because I'm nerdy about words). While I haven't read the book, I'm assuming the title doesn't have an apostrophe because it's not saying that it's the homo sapiens' agenda - it's saying it's an agenda concerning Simon vs. the (plural) homo sapiens. Make sense?

    Now, on to my actual comment. :-) It sounds like this was a really fun and rewarding experience! I'm so glad you got to participate - I would imagine it would be a really tough process to come up with one book that you could all agree on, but it sounds like it went pretty smoothly!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    1. Ah, but it is about him versus their agenda. I did some more research, and it turns out that homo sapiens, being a scientific nomenclature in Latin, isn't a plural term. So "homo sapiens agenda" is in counterpoint to "gay agenda," which also doesn't take the possessive case. Word nerds unite!

  2. How fun for you to be a part of! You were able to read so many amazing books. I haven't read your final selection yet, so I guess it's time to pick it up!

    1. I really do recommend it. All of them are worth looking into, although not all will appeal to everyone.

  3. I've wondered about the process that was used to select the CYBILS. I read so many Printz-potential books (50+) this year but somehow only managed to read The Truth Commission on your list. In a lot of ways I am glad the Cybils recognize different books (spread the wealth and all that) but am mystified why there is so little (or none) of the crossover with National Book Award or Printz titles, or even Morris Award finalists? What is the process for getting a book into consideration? I guess I should pay more attention when the Cybils are making calls for judges and try to get involved. But then the thought of "having" to read more books on top of what I already "have" to read is often a bit overwhelming. Is there separate committee for the Speculative fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels?

    Of the seven, which was your personal favorite? The Magoon title?
    I am surprised that Everything Everything was on the list. I didn't think the writing or the plot were strong.

  4. They had open nominations from blog readers--first for the public, then for people in the industry. The first round judges read all those nominees and forwarded their top picks. And yes, there are separate round one and round two commissions for each category.

    My students really enjoy Everything, Everything, and do NOT see the twist coming. I personally really liked How It Went Down, Every Last Word, and The Truth Commission.


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