Thom Barthelmess (curator and lecturer, Butler Children’s Literature Center, Dominican University, Chicago, IL) has been President of ALSC, has served on the Newbery Committee, and recently chaired the 2012 Boston Globe Horn Book Awards Committee, which will present its awards this Friday evening at Simmons College. They chose as their Fiction winner one of our recent discussion titles, NO CRYSTAL STAIR. Jonathan and I chatted with Thom last week by email, asking him about how the Boston Globe Horn Book committee selects its winners, and how those criteria compare to Newbery criteria.
All the way through the process I was struck by how different it was from my Newbery experience, and kept thinking and wondering about how those differences might play into the choices we made.
With respect to criteria, the biggest difference between the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards and the Newbery Medal is that the Newbery has lots of them and the BGHB does not. Over the years on Heavy Medal you all have dug down into the Newbery terms and criteria with lots of care and precision, and you understand just how specific and important they are. For BGHB, we have eligibility criteria: the book must be published by an American publisher between June 1 of one year and May 31 of the next. Beyond that, it is up to the jury to define excellence and use the measuring sticks of our creation to assess the books before us. And we can do that book by book. Roger Sutton, Horn Book Editor in chief, has been heard to say “Let the book tell you how to read it.” That attitude was something of a guiding principle for us, and the freedom that comes with it is both challenging and exhilarating.
Take CHUCK CLOSE: FACE BOOK, our Nonfiction winner, for example. The book displays excellence in many ways, but perhaps its chief distinction is the way the book’s design and the structure of the narrative echo its subject’s artistic process. Chuck Close paints enormous portraits by breaking the faces into granular grids and filling individual squares with everything from paint to fingerprints to leftover chips of paper pulp. In isolation the squares have no apparent meaning, but their organized collection offers a remarkably clear portrait. The book’s design functions in much the same way. Rather than following a traditional, linear narrative, the book answers individual questions from a class of fifth graders, offering significant pieces of biography here and there. From these isolated answers a complete portrait of the artist emerges. The book also features a “flip book” component in the middle. Pages are broken down horizontally into three sections. Different self-portraits are reproduced on each divided page, with forehead on the top, eyes and nose in the middle, and mouth and chin below. Readers can mix and match from the pages, further exploring the expressionistic synthesis of the artist’s technique. It’s a stunning piece of bookmaking that contributes to a powerful and palpable biography. As a jury we had the freedom to recognize and celebrate those elements as central to the book’s success. Given the Newbery’s admonitions about the consideration of illustration and design only when they make the book less effective, I don’t know that the Newbery Committee could consider the book in the same way.
I agree that CHUCK CLOSE: FACE BOOK is excellent and that it will be difficult for the Newbery committee to find that evidence solely in the text since design and illustration are so integral to the book’s success.
Can we talk about your Fiction winner, NO CRYSTAL STAIR? It’s probably my favorite fiction of the year but I’ve seen comments both at Heavy Medal and elsewhere that the book is too old. I know the BGHB award goes up to age 18, but I’m curious whether you also see it as a serious Newbery contender as well? How do you see this book through the lens of the Newbery criteria?
Indeed, we might go ahead and call it NO COMPARISON, as it is both tremendous and unlike anything else!
From my point of view it has much to recommend it to the Newbery committee: crisp, resonant writing; especially effective use of multiple voices/perspectives; a fascinating approach to illuminating a real person’s life; a nuanced exposition of the black power movement and the civil rights movement and their complicated intersection; comprehensive back matter; and the hard-to-describe yet inescapable commitment of the author to the subject. As to the “too old” position, I guess my question would be “too old for whom?” It’s certainly not too old for kids at the upper end of the Newbery age range. I have worked with plenty of 12-14 year olds with more than enough curiosity and insight to bring a lot to it and take a lot from it. We were (and remain) quite taken with the pictures, both R. Gregory Christie’s evocative spot sketches and the facsimile reproductions. While the Newbery committee can’t entertain that imagery, I think there’s plenty in the writing to occupy their consideration.
Thom, you’ve served on the Newbery committee as well. I’m struck by Roger’s instruction to “Let the book tell you how to read it,” which is such a succinct and basic mantra for any critic, and should be a consideration of any award committee. Do you think the Newbery criteria are at odds at all with this statement?
I do think that asking a book to tell us how to read it makes for a terrific beginning to book consideration. I use it as a reviewer. I use it with my students. I use it when I’m reading, just for me. I don’t find it at odds with the Newbery criteria at all. I think it would be a great way to begin thinking about a Newbery contender. The conflict comes, I think, in what the book has to say back to us. Take a graphic novel, PERSEPOLIS, maybe (choosing one from the past, on purpose). Leaving aside the eligibility issues concerning the author’s nationality, I think that what the book has to say about its own success, the interplay of text and picture, the role of imagery in communicating the action, the tone, the conflict, etc., these things are at odds with the Newbery criteria. I don’t know that that’s a bad thing. The Newbery criteria are specific and they are enduring. But I think it is a true thing.
Perhaps the book tells us how to read it, and then we apply the Newbery Criteria to that. So, PERSEPOLIS shows us interplay of text and picture; then we look at the text’s part in that interplay. You’ve chosen an example that’s a truly difficult one, because so much of its story is in the pictures. But I think there are others that might stand up to Newbery scrutiny.
Is there a book that you looked at that you hope the Newbery committee considers this year? How might you approach it from a Newbery perspective?
If I learned anything from my Newbery experience it’s to trust the process, to believe that the inarguable diligence of those 15 readers will produce the proper result, more or less by definition. So, rather than suggesting a title, I’ll reaffirm my faith in the 2013 Newbery Committee and promise to openly examine their choices, looking for evidence of excellence.
Can we talk a bit more about the BGHB process? It’s nice to be able to recognize up to 9 books. It’s also nice to know exactly where people stand on certain titles. Would you agree?
The numbers are funny. It is true that BGHB can recognize as many as nine books. The flip side is that BGHB has many more books from which to choose than the Newbery, both because the BGHB jury is encouraged to consider illustration and because the BGHB eligibility is not limited to American citizens/residents. The big difference to me is the size of the jury. The Newbery committee is 15 people. The BGHB jury is three. That difference has many implications. From a consideration perspective it ups the pressure to look as closely as possible at everything that comes in to guard against something getting missed. From a selection point of view it impacts consensus. A book that three people unanimously admire may be very different from a book 15 people admire.
As far as process goes, the BGHB has lots of freedom. We determine how we suggest, how we nominate, how we arrive at a short list, whether or not we discuss as we go, how we vote, all of that stuff. That adds a level of work, but it also allows us to tailor the process to our own situations and inclinations. As far as knowing where people stand on certain titles, I think you mean that you go into deliberations having already talked and written about the books. That was true for us. We kept a list of suggestions and communicated support and concerns as we went. This, of course, is strictly forbidden in the Newbery process. For us on BGHB it worked really well, and the reason it worked is because all three of us remained open to changing our minds, up or down, as the discussions unfolded, right up to the end. At the end of the day, that was the most exciting and gratifying part of the BGHB experience for me, engaging in deep, insightful book discussion with people who were really, really listening. Not to say that that doesn’t happen with the Newbery. Of course it does. I loved my Newbery experience. But the kind of exchange that
happens among three people is special in its own way.
As a past president of ALSC, you’ve had the opportunity to appoint people to the Newbery committee. Realizing that other presidents may have had different approaches, what kind of qualities and/or experiences did you look for in a potential Newbery committee member? And what kind of considerations did you take into account when considering the committee as a whole (i.e. balance)?
Yeah, the appointment process is a critical piece and from my point of view it was an exercise in balance, thinking as much about the committee as a whole as I did the individual members. Ideally you want as diverse a committee as possible, and you want all kids of diversity. You want public librarians and school librarians, teachers and academics and critics. You want people from across the country, from big cities and small towns. You want people of different ethnicities, different physical genders and gender identities and sexual orientations. Different veteran statuses. Different physical abilities. You want people with extensive experience and people with a fresh perspective. You want all of these people to have demonstrable book evaluation and discussion expertise. And, with eight members elected and the chair appointed by an earlier president, you have six spots to fill. You have hundreds and hundreds of appointments to make in total and there’s no time to go one person at a time, thinking if person A says yes I’ll ask person B, if person C says no, I’ll ask person D. And, of course, you’re appointing people you don’t know, using the ALSC Committee volunteer form as resume. It is really more of an art than a science. I will say that for me, one of the paramount considerations was the freshness of perspective. I believe that complementing today’s experts with tomorrow’s is good for the award, as more varied opinions lead to more careful listening and richer understanding, and is good for the Association, as the more we share opportunity, the healthier we are.
Thom, thank you! I feel that’s about as long as we can keep you. You have an awards ceremony coming up, after all.
Thanks to both of you. I enjoyed thinking about both processes in new ways.