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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

It’s an Honor

Just Honor material?

Jonathan goaded me in the last paragraph of his P.S. Be Eleven post:  “it has the kind of broad support necessary to go far, but I’m not sure that it’s anything more than . . . wait for it, Nina . . . an Honor book.”  He knows I bristle when anyone categorizes a contender as “only” Honor material. But it’s easy to make me bristle, and Jonathan is hardly the only person who thinks about contenders this way.  Destinee Sutton said the same of Eruption recently, ” I’d be happy to see this win an Honor, but not the Medal,” and added that “To see this as a Newbery book, I really have to push myself to think outside the traditional Newbery box, which is why I love this blog.”

I have never looked at a contender and thought “I’d be happy to see it win an honor, but not a Medal.”  In my mind, a contender is either worthy of a Newbery–gold or silver–or it isn’t… and that gold/silver distinction has to do with how consensual that determination is (imagining the 15 committee members as representative of the critical body for children’s literature…a different post, perhaps).  The more consensus, the more “truly” distinguished.

Of course I think I’m right, but I also know enough to know that I’m not right just because I think it.  In truth, my perspective has meant that I have to make peace with the medal on books that I’ve felt are “not worthy.”  Would it be a more legitimate perspective, “truer” in a way, to recognize more books as “honor worthy” from the get-go?

Wherefore the “honor book?”    The Newbery Medal “about” page tells us that:

“From the beginning of the awarding of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, committees could, and usually did, cite other books as worthy of attention. Such books were referred to as Newbery or Caldecott “runners-up.” In 1971 the term “runners-up” was changed to “honor books.” The new terminology was made retroactive so that all former runners-up are now referred to as Newbery or Caldecott Honor Books.”

First, it’s interesting to note that “could, and usually did,” and indeed, you’ll notice that conditionality is still in the current terms and criteria:  “Honor books may be named. These shall be books that are also truly distinguished.”  The manual clarifies that the first order of business in selecting honor books is to entertain “whether honor books will be named.” (p.41)  There were a handful of years in the 1920, the earliest years of the award, when there were no honor books (or runners-up) recorded; but since then there has always been at least one selected.   In fact, in the early 1930s there were several years of LOTS of honors, as many as nine…perhaps in response to the years of none?   It seems to have leveled out, so that 2-4 honor books are almost expected, but, truly, there may be any number.  (There’s always a funny group gasp at the Youth Media Awards announcement when the President says: “in addition, the committee elected to name X honor books.”  The gasp is “outlandish” if there are 2, or 4, as if the committee were treading dangerously toward either paucity or greed.  There were 5 honor books last  in 2003; 1 in 1999, but I can’t recall the sound.  Anyone?)

How does the committee select honors?  First, you have to be familiar with the committee balloting process to select the winner (p. 40 in the manual):

When there is consensus that all the books on the discussion list are fully discussed, the committee proceeds to a selection ballot. Certain procedures apply:
••• Committee members list first, second, and third place votes for the award on a selection ballot.
••• In tabulating ballot results, the tellers assign four points to each first place vote, three points to each second place vote, and two points to each third place vote.
••• There is a formula to determine the winner. A book must receive at least 8 first choices at four points per vote for a total of at least 32 points, and it must have an 8 point lead over the book receiving the next highest number of points.

If there is no winner in that first ballot, the committee, after discussion, re-ballots until there is. I’m skipping through this part of the manual, but a key point to the honor book discussion is that the committee may withdraw books from the table during re-balloting, and, once withdrawn, they cannot be reintroduced during the honor book discussion.  Then,

Selection of Honor Books 

Immediately following determination of the winner of the Newbery Medal, and  following appropriate discussion, the committee will entertain the following:
• Whether honor books will be named.
• Whether the committee wishes to choose as honor books the next highest  books on the original winning ballot or to ballot again.
• If the committee votes to use the award-winning ballot, they must then determine how many honor books to name.
• If the committee chooses to ballot for honor books, only books that received points on the award winning ballot may be included. [emphasis mine] The same voting procedure is followed as for the award winner.
• If the committee has chosen to ballot for honor books, following that ballot, the committee will vote how many books of those receiving the highest number of points are to be named honor books.

 So, however it is cut, the honor books are always “the next highest” on a ranked, weighted ballot of titles that were pitched for the winner. What is interesting is that they may be simply the next ones down from that “winning” ballot (indicated that they are, actually, “runners up” in the sense that the voters were staking them toward the gold), or from an “honors” ballot, in which case committee member might now circle slightly different wagons in the play for the silver.  And: we won’t ever know.   But–and here I finally come all the way round to my bristle about honors–if there is a book that you feel is an “honor” book; yet you (as a real or imaginary committee member) aren’t willing to put it on your ballot for the winner–there is a very good chance that it won’t have a chance at an honor, if no one else votes for it either.    Taking the award terms at their most literal–“Honor books may be named. These shall be books that are also truly distinguished.”–I’ve always considered contenders for the Newbery as either distinguished, or not distinguished.  “Does it belong on the winning ballot?” is the way I look at it.  And then, it’s the group consensus that makes the gold/silver determination–not me.   It’s true that this means I have to come round to accept that books I didn’t feel were distinguished are, actually; but in some ways, honestly, it’s easier for me this way.  I don’t have to change my own critical view about a book.  It just means I have to admit that I’m not the only one in charge.  And, maybe, wrong.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. As a librarian, I’ve always thought of Honor books as being pretty much on the same level as the Medal winners. Maybe that’s heresy, but when I look at the lists of past winners, there have been many Honor books that I consider AS distinguished, or even MORE distinguished than the book that gets the gold sticker. I guess I’ve had the idea that if a book makes it to the level of getting a sticker, the color of the sticker is practically moot. Of course, every year there are distinguished books that don’t get stickers–not because the committee isn’t a good committee, but because there has to be an affinity between the temperament of the committee members, and the sensibility of the book. There is always luck involved. Always.

    I appreciate this defense of honor books. I think because we live in a sports-dominated society, there’s the idea that being in any way second best is tantamount to being a loser. I suppose that’s true with football or golf or the Miss America pageant. But if you’ve got a sticker on your book, that’s a fine book, a book that was singled out among other very fine books. It’s a big deal. It’s not “only” an honor at all.

    • Seconded – I lump all the Newbery stickers together and all the Printz stickers together when I think about “Award Winners”. And indeed, most of my favorites from each of those committees have silver stickers on them.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    Clearly this discussion has been going on for a while, so apologies if this just repeats what has been said in years past…

    If I’m reading everyone correctly, I think the Medal is associated in some people’s minds with “passion” and an Honor with “consensus” and I think that’s consistent with the voting system, because the Medal has that first place vote requirement. If a book were ranked 2nd or 3rd by everybody, and 1st by nobody, it may get a large number of points, more than 32, but not be a serious Medal contender. In addition, the Honor book goes by a particular definition of “runner-up”: not the 2nd-most 1st place votes (passion) but 2nd-most points (consensus). It’s an interesting system and leaves room for different approaches to balloting.

    There is a really, really good, fun, and readable book (not aimed at children, though older students definitely could) called GAMING THE VOTE by William Poundstone, which describes various voting systems in all their quirkiness and unintended consequences. (Did you know Lewis Carroll independently re-discovered two of the most important voting systems?) The thinking “does it belong on the winning ballot” is similar to what’s called “approval voting” where basically one can vote for as many candidates as they want. That solves the problem of “vote-splitting” in situations where you’d genuinely be happy with more than one candidate winning. The problem is the “mediocrity” issue — the “winner” may well be everybody’s actual 3rd choice, but nobody’s first. That’s why systems like the Newbery use ranked ballots, though the Newbery does so in a kind of unique way (combining elements of Borda and IRV systems, blah blah blah, just go read the book.)

    So I think saying “only an Honor book” is just a convenient shorthand for saying first place votes (and passion) do matter.

    • Well, said, Leonard! Because you have to rank your choices, you must decide which book takes 1st place, even if all the books are equally distinguished in your estimation. For me, ERUPTION is definitely in my top books of the year, but I don’t think it would ever take my 1st place spot. That’s why I see it as an honor book (if I could pick the medal and honor winners all by myself).

  3. Hear, hear. I am completely in agreement with you, Nina. When I was on the Committee I nominated seven books I felt deserved to win — gold or silver, it didn’t matter. However, of course, there is also strategy going on (as Jonathan has written about when describing his decisions for mock nominations here) and so what ends up where is a result too of individual strategy and working toward consensus. I have never been able to understand how someone could go into the process already having decided something is an Honor but not the Medal.

  4. There can only be ONE winner. We may love and admire different books for different aspects of distinguished, but only one book can win. In order to get to the 8 votes for first place, most committees, I would imagine, have to ballot several times. Between the balloting the individuals on the committee may come to understand that they are a lone ranger or part of a losing cabal. Someone has usually got to change their vote. This is why it takes a long time and is nerve-wracking and painful. I think everyone who has ever served on a committee where a decision has to be made for one choice only, can remember having to compromise, learn to accept the other’s viewpoints and leave behind a dearly beloved book. Monica mentions that she had 7 choices going into discussion all of which were Medal Worthy titles in her opinion. I’m sure all committee members have been there. Something has to give.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      So interesting to see fully reasoned responses on both side of this. It’s precisely because “something has to give” that I don’t see honor books going into the process. *Knowing* there is only one winner, I have to be willing to see each book, on its own, as either a potential winner or not. I expect something to give in the process, but that’s how I’m able to go into it.

      • Nina, I always remember something you said to our 2008 Committee regarding the oppositional tension we needed to have — to both be fierce in our passionate love and arguments for our nominees and equally open to letting them go without misery as we worked toward consensus. My personal goal (which I achieved) when on that Committee was to be happy with our choices. I just wonder how you can do that if you go in having two tiers of books.

  5. Benji Martin says:

    Thanks for this post. Some of my favorite books are Honor winners. Charlotte’s Web, A String in the Harp, Calpurnia Tate, Elijah of Buxton and many many more. It truly is a very high honor to receive a Newbery Honor.

  6. Librarians are certainly a nice bunch of people – and children’s librarians especially so! This polite discussion brings to mind the very entertaining feature in the Guardian (UK) newspaper on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Booker Prize (2008), in which a judge from each year provided the inside story of the decision process. (Compromise? Consensus? Horse-trading is more like it.)

    And more relevant to the above posts….the adult literary awards in the US are moving toward the British longlist/shortlist/winner format, which I like because it brings more attention to a wider variety of books, and it avoids the absurdity of judging one excellent book as “better” than another, very different, excellent book. Rather than second-best, the shortlist or “Honor” nominations are seen as the ultimate prize, and the winner is simply first among equals. Will the juvenile awards make the same transition?

  7. Nina, I remember the announcement of the “one” in 1999 (I was on the committee.) Leslie Holt was making the announcements and when she said “ONE honor book” she said it with a mock-dramatic flourish, waited for the gasps, and then mimicked them. It was funny.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      Obviously we will never will, but I would love to know how close HOLES and LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO were in the initial ballot. (I’ve always wonder the same about the Maniac Magee/True Confession of Charlotte Doyle pair).

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Eric, here’s my own suspicion about those 1:1 pairs, based on how I’ve seen various ballots shake out in mock committee voting. Sometimes, even on a very first ballot, there is one clear winner (or so close to clear that you know the next ballot will turn it); and then *one* book that’s below it but so clearly well above anything else that got votes, that it stands well above any other possible honors. Sometimes, the mock committee decides to reballot, and then we end up with a field of honors anyway. But I always ask the mock committee if they want to consider just one (or, sometimes, just 2) honors in order to really single them out. Most people seem to prefer more. 🙂

  8. Benji Martin says:

    Roger, you certainly picked two winners in 1999.


  1. […] then there is Nina Lindsay’s post over at Heavy Medal, “It’s an Honor,” in which she addresses the way some (Jonathan, for one) who comment that they think a […]

  2. […] then there is Nina Lindsay’s post over at Heavy Medal, “It’s an Honor,” in which she addresses the way some (Jonathan, for one) who comment that they think a […]

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