Follow This Blog: RSS feed
A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

But If I Can’t Harangue in Person, How Will They Know I’m Right?: Book Committees in a Pandemic Age

The most beautiful sight to my eyes, each and every year, is this room:

Look at it. Beautiful books for children crammed into every nook and cranny. This is what the final meeting of my 101 Great Books for Kids committee is supposed to look like. Over the year my intrepid library workers have read every single children’s book published in 2020 that they can get their hands onto. They meet monthly, debate, defend, and put their thoughts on a shared Google Doc. Then, in mid-October, they are ready to defend the books they love in a drag ’em out, teeth bared, final book committee to beat them all. Hundreds of books enter. Only 101 emerge victorious.

And then came COVID-19.

At first, I wasn’t too concerned about the pandemic. Back in March I realized that a lot of publishers were sending e-galleys of their upcoming titles rather than final physical books, but that actually wasn’t too bad. I was able to send some of these to my committee members. They, in turn, set up a system by which the books we were occasionally able to slip out of our main location were delivered to people in their homes. We kept up the meetings, only virtually this time. It was okay.

As we met online, I kept thinking about other book committees out there. With ALA Midwinter cancelled, every ALA YMA committee, from Newbery to Printz to Coretta Scott King, will meet completely virtually.

So . . . . how?

You see, with my 101 Great Books committee, that day when we squeeze in together in a small space and then, like a great big lump, walk around the room from category to category to category, debating and removing and making deals, that’s an imperative part of the process. Committees like the Newbery and the Caldecott do it differently. They’ll have winnowed down the titles a bit, but they still have to discuss, however briefly, a great number of contenders. Hence, the trunks.

Visual Approximation: Not Actual Trunk

There was a time, oh best beloved, when I wanted to write an article about the ALA trunks. If you haven’t encountered them, allow me elucidate you on the matter. You see, ALA provides its book committees with these massive trunks, filled with all the books they’re going to discuss over the course of ALA Mid-Winter. These trunks look old. They look sturdy. They must be hella heavy. And so, naturally, I have questions. Where did they come from? Are they ever replaced? How regularly? Do they have names? Does every ALA committee get them? If a new award is established, does that mean there has to be a new trunk? Where do you buy the trunk? If anyone has any information they can offer on the ALA trunks, I would be delighted.

Of course, this may be the first year since their purchase that the trunks will sit, unused, lonesome, empty. The committee members will have to rustle up their own books and keep them on hand. That doesn’t just mean the physical books they received in the mail, but also all those aforementioned e-galleys as well. How do you organize those? How do you make sure you can get to them when you need to debate their relative merits at a moments’ notice? What if you have a scintillating point to make, you go to search for that PDF on your computer, and by the time you get back the conversation has moved on (and 3 of your committee members appear to be frozen)?

Seems to me that there are going to be a lot of unanswered questions as we make this skid into those January 2021 discussions.

And my library? What will we do? Well, we may have a solution. To be safe, all employees of my library have been split into two teams. Team A and Team B are never allowed to be within 10 feet of one another. That way, if someone gets sick on Team A, we quarantine that team and let Team B run the library, and vice-versa. So my plan is to get all the books the week before the meeting, put them on carts, and keep them in my office. Team A will be able to look at them Monday-Wednesday. Team B will be able to look Thursday-Saturday. The follow Monday our library is closed and I’ll be able to spread the books on the floor, like in the old days. Only, instead of people walking from pile to pile, we’ll have a virtual meeting and I’ll move my laptop around. We’ll send PowerPoints of all the covers. We’ll be able to involve employees that are keeping safe at home.

It is not a perfect plan, but it may work. And to those brave souls on other committees out there, the National Book Awards and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, the ALA YMAs and the small awards that are no less important, I wish you following toast:

My your discussions experience flawless internet service, Zooms that always open upon command, and the wisdom to never speak when your mute button is on.

Here’s to the strangest award year in history.


About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Betsy, Thank you for this post about a crucial issue facing many of us. I have one question; why did the NY Times and NYPL cancel their best illustrated books award issue this year? I am unconvinced by the argument that ebooks are inadequate, even though that is clearly true. The fact that the meetings would have to be virtual doesn’t add up either. It is particularly disappointing because that award is not “winner-take-all;” it recognizes several books equally. What really happened?

  2. My time as the 2020 BGHB Chair was mostly pre-pandemic, but the virus had snuck in at the end there. We had to meet via Zoom to deliberate, and though I regret that I didn’t get to sit under the lilacs in Boston (as Roger put it at some point) and discuss books in person with my two fellow judges, I’m here to say IT IS POSSBIBLE! Have hope, everyone. (It depends on the award — I know, I know.)

    I did NOT know, however, till I saw Emily’s comment just now that the NYT/NYPL Best Illustrated had been cancelled this year. Woe!

    • Woe indeed. Of course the BGHB can only consider starred Horn Book titles, is that right? The Kirkus Prize is conducted in much the same way, so you get a more limited scope. The NY Times/NYPL Best Illustrated Books, on the other hand, consider every single picture book submitted to the offices of the Times, and then some. To know that they cancelled the awards backs up my suspicion that this is more difficult during COVID than one would suspect. What ARE the ALA Award committees going to do?

  3. Nope, BGHB is any and all titles (even international ones) published from the beginning of June to end of May. Not just starred titles. It’s EVERYthing.