Newbery 2021: 81,000 pages in 365 Days
In the fall of 2019, I was watching TV with my family when I heard a chime on my phone telling me that I had a new email. I quickly glanced at my phone and saw it was a committee appointment from ALA. Upon further inspection, I realized it was an appointment to the 2021 John Newbery Medal Selection Committee. I shook my head in disbelief and asked my husband to look at it. He smiled, laughed, and said, "That can't be right. Jackson, look at this." Jackson, my oldest son, read the email and exclaimed, "That can't right!" We were all in mutual shock! I have always set high goals for myself but serving on the Newbery committee was one that was so far beyond anything I ever dreamed possible for myself.
Every year, the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, charges 15 librarians throughout the country to unite in recognizing the most distinguished contributions to American literature for children. This selection committee is tasked with reading and evaluating the year's publications for youth ages 0-14 to identify truly distinct and distinguished books marked by conspicuous eminence. This award is not designed to be a "best books of the year" list. The best book for any reader is the one that speaks to them; it is incredibly personal. The purpose of this award is to recognize distinguished contributions to the field at large.
Throughout 2020, I read over 350 books, approximately 81,000 pages, and used thousands upon thousands of sticky notes. I consistently went back to authoritative textbooks, such as Vardell's Children's Literature in Action and KT Horning's From Cover to Cover, to learn more about genre-specific criteria, language, and literary elements and plotting. I often missed pizza and movie night at my house, spent my lunches reading and thinking, and consistently felt the pressure to be reading (although I did take brain breaks to binge Schitt's Creek, Gilmore Girls, and Travelers).
In the days leading up to our deliberations (held on Zoom this year due to the pandemic), I pushed myself harder than ever before. I read and reread all our top contenders to the point that I could quote page numbers and entire passages of exquisite text. I dug deep to identify and support what was sitting well with me in the text and what wasn't. My anxiety ran high, but my excitement soared higher. I kept the great responsibility before me in my mind at all times, and I kept the intended audience of this award at the forefront of my mind. My three children were constantly bombarded with requests to "read this one passage" or "what do you think about this…" questions. They helped me escape my adult head and see the power of each story for a young reader.
Once deliberations began, my anxiety eased, and the committee and I settled into a comfortable rhythm. Every comment made was respectful, kind, and honored the individual reading experience. From the first moments together, we collectively acknowledged that every book we were discussing was a good book that we would happily put in readers' hands. That was a powerful shared sentiment that continued throughout the entire process. At the end of each day, I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Book deliberations are a draining process that requires you to give much of yourself, but I was also more energized and joyful than I had ever been.
After hours and hours of conversations, we finally agreed on our Newbery winner and was able to place the Newbery seal on the front cover of Tae Keller's When You Trap a Tiger. I'm bound by a confidentiality agreement, so I can't discuss what was said in the meetings, but I can share that I cried when the committee and I put on the medals on our copies. A few moments in my life stand out—the birth of each of my children, my wedding day, my college graduation—and this moment is now among them. I have never been prouder of anything I have ever done professionally.
Tae Keller's When You Trap a Tiger is a masterfully created piece of literature that expertly weaves together a magical realism story that leaves readers laughing, crying, hoping, dreaming, and breathless. It is a book that I will happily put into the hands of any reader and seeing it on the shelves next to classics like The Giver, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, and A Wrinkle in Time warms my heart and fills me with pride.
The story of my Newbery journey would be incomplete without mentioning the overwhelming support I received from the library community. Thank you to every staff member who reached out to me with their favorite titles of the year. Thank you to every person who discussed a book with me. Thank you to every reader who asked me how it was going and asked how I was doing. (Self-care and balance are so important!) Thank you to every reader who gives When You Trap a Tiger a chance and to every staff member who puts that book into a reader's hands. The biggest thank you to my staff here at DeHoff for encouraging me when I lost faith and when I began to question my ability to do this work. This book joy is one that each of us can celebrate together.