What It’s Like To Be on the Committee

The call is out! ALA’s GLBT Round Table is accepting applications to volunteer for the Stonewall Book Award and Book List committees until Friday, December 7.

What’s it actually like serving on the Stonewall committee? How does it differ from other award processes? Guest blogger Amanda Foulk provides insight based on her experience as a 2018 committee alum.

My year on the Stonewall Book Award Children’s & Young Adult Committee was eye-opening. I’m proud of the outcome of our deliberations – I think we selected two exceptional winners of the Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award and two excellent honor books. What I felt qualified me to serve on the committee was previous experience evaluating children’s books based on set criteria, and a willingness to thoughtfully and passionately discuss those books in a way that built consensus. What I didn’t realize going in was how different the process would be from my previous experiences.

Misconception #1: There will be a YA Winner and a Children’s Winner.

Looking back, I don’t know why I had this impression. I share my foolishness with you, potential future committee member, that you might both know and do better. Perhaps my confusion developed because previous committees sometimes had a mix of ages represented among their winner and honor books?  It could be that I was selectively recalling 2016 when the award was shared by George and The Porcupine of Truth, or 2015 when This Day in June took the win, and the honor book slate included YA Fiction, Nonfiction, and a second picture book. However, you have only to look at the committee procedures to see that there can only be one winner. Furthermore, those procedures make no recommendations about bringing a mix of age ranges or styles to your nominations – that’s up to the individual committee members making their nominations and casting their ballot votes.

Misconception #2: There will be expansively developed criteria on which to base our decision.

“The Stonewall Book Awards of the American Library Association are given annually to English-language books of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender experience.”

That’s the criteria. All of it.

For context on why this was a bit of a shock, allow me to explain that my experience serving on book award committees prior to my time on Stonewall were as a member of the 2016 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award Committee and as a convener of my library’s Mock Newbery, Mock Caldecott, and Mock Geisel experiences. If you’ve ever seen the toolkit for running a Mock Newbery or Mock Caldecott, you know that the documentation for explaining the criteria is thorough. There are several 2-page documents I pass out at Mock Newbery discussions to help explain the Terms, Definitions, and Criteria – and that’s for folks who aren’t serving on the Real Committee, just imitating the process. For the Geisel Award, there are – in addition the usual terms and conditions – twelve bulleted points of criteria that range from straightforward (“There is a minimum of 24 pages”) to more subjective (“The book creates a successful reading experience, from start to finish”).

Again, this information – or lack thereof – is available online. But I had thought I was simply looking in the wrong place. Surely there was at least an expanded definition for “relating to”, so the committee would be agreed upon how much queer representation was required for a book to be Stonewall eligible? Not so – what you see is what you get. Each committee gets to interpret the above statement for themselves, with the guidance of the chair. Does this mean we could one year see a winner that is a book of unquestionably exceptional merit but with only the most incidental of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender experience?

Misconception #3: There would be a “right” time and a “right” format to advocate for titles that I felt were strong contenders.

Again, I can only point to my prior committee experience for the basis of my misunderstanding here. For what the Stonewall Book Award Committee requires you to do is something you are absolutely forbidden to do on the Geisel, Newbery, or Caldecott. Namely, you must advocate for the outstanding books to your fellow committee members via every private digital channel you have. With the ALSC awards mentioned, all discussion takes place in person during a practice discussion at ALA Annual and the real discussion at ALA Midwinter, with the only communication in between in the form of anonymously compiled monthly suggestions and the nomination process.

With the Stonewall, the chair sets up group virtual calls which may or may not have most of your fellow committee members present. Those calls are your main chances to advocate for contenders you’ve identified. When you get to nominations, things move fast and it may be too late to get your fellow committee members to consider titles that have impressed you.

Misconception #4: We would discuss all of the strong contenders at some point during the process.

Committee members nominate not less than 10 and not more than 15 titles to be semifinalists.  Committee members are encouraged to submit 15 titles.  The chair tallies the votes and the 10 titles with the most nominations advance to be discussed at the Midwinter Meeting.”

Dear future committee member, your nomination alone will not be enough to bring your favorite into that top 10 if you haven’t convinced other members of its potential by the time nomination happens. Mention it in one of those calls! Send an email, if your committee is using email to communicate. Likewise, don’t hold concerns back until that in-person discussion. Share them before nominations. If it isn’t in that top ten list, it is off the table – there are no second chances after that shortlist is set.

Clearly, I learned quite a lot from my experience on the Stonewall Book Award Children’s & Young Adult Committee. I hope that I will someday have the opportunity to serve again on the Stonewall Book Award Children’s & Young Adult Committee. My time on the committee broadened my understanding of what committee service looks like, and I believe that I will be a better and more effective member of any book award committee going forward for having cleared up just a few of my misconceptions.

Amanda Foulk (she/her) works as the K-12 Specialist at Sacramento Public Library and served on the 2018 Stonewall Book Award Committee.

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