Long Weekend Award Reading Challenge

It’s Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday Weekend, and it’s time for a Long Weekend Award Reading Challenge!

Here’s the thing: I was on the Morris Award selection committee last year, but I didn’t take myself off the Mathical Book Prize selection committee. We finished our Morris reading in December, and it went to my head a little. I got out a jigsaw puzzle and read a Christmas novel, among other things. I had plenty of time!

Well, this year I think we’ve got a few more of the longer children’s books to consider, but whatever the reason, I should have worked on this sooner. Our short reviews of the eligible books are due this coming Monday, and I have 9 more books to finish.

Now, two of the books (one fiction and one nonfiction) are almost done. All of them are pretty short. Especially compared to the young adult books I was reading for the Morris.

During my Newbery reading, I learned that I can read a children’s novel at the rate of approximately 100 pages per hour. During my Morris reading, I learned that for young adult novels, it’s more like 60 pages per hour. Using those figures, I estimate that it will take me 21 hours to finish the 9 books. And I’ve got 3 days, so it just means 7 hours per day.

Besides, this kind of marathon reading is exactly what I do when I tackle a 48-Hour Book Challenge!

Last July, I got 18 hours of reading done in 48 hours. So surely I can do 21 hours in 72.

The difference, though, is that I usually add to my time by listening to audiobooks while I prepare food or do other necessary tasks. But I don’t have any of these mathical books on audio. So that’s going to make it trickier. I also am hoping I can still go for walks on Saturday and Monday, go to church on Sunday, and do things like laundry and other weekend chores – but again, won’t be able to count listening while I do them. I also want to have my daily devotional time, which I count as reading for the 48-Hour Book Challenge, but can’t for this. I will only count reading for the Mathical Book Prize, plus writing short reviews.

I had planned to get started tonight — but it’s already past midnight, and I need to go to bed! And that happened because I did my usual chore of paying bills on Friday night and cooked dinner and then thought I could just post a review before I started the reading, and one thing led to another and now it’s late.

So this is my challenge. Can I read for approximately 21 hours on this long weekend and finish reading 9 children’s and young adult books and write short reviews? I’m going to try!

Happy Reading!

Selection Adventures – The William C. Morris Award

This year, I’ve had the privilege of serving on the committee to select the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. This award is given to the best YA debut book of the year, published between November 1, 2022, and October 31, 2023.

I’m happy to say that at least two committee members read (or read the beginning of) every one of the over two hundred eligible books. When I say “read the beginning of” — we were allowed to stop when we were sure the book would not be a finalist, usually at least fifty pages in. We have chosen our five Finalists, and they will be announced soon. The one winner will be chosen from among those and announced at the Youth Media Awards on January 22, 2024.

One note: When we say “debut book,” it has to be the author’s (and illustrator’s, if there is one) very first book published. If it’s their “YA debut” but not their actual debut, it’s not eligible. So that eliminated some books we got sent.

When I was on the 2019 Newbery Committee, I blogged a lot about the process. I haven’t done that as much for the Morris Award. Maybe I’m getting used to award committees?

It was a different experience from the Newbery. That year, I had really set aside much of my life to focus on the Newbery reading. This year, not as much. But although the Newbery books were shorter, about three times as many books were eligible, so that was necessary.

My stats for the Morris year:
Publishers sent me 136 books.
I read 126 books (or parts of books).
That added up to 20,843 pages read plus 150 hours of listening.

Of course, I can never tell how close some books came that ended up not getting chosen as Finalists. After our Finalists get announced, I plan to start posting reviews of many of the other lovely debut books I got to read this year. As always, I want to commend the authors, whether they won an award or not. And start spreading the word about these great books!

And when you find out which ones are our Finalists, get your hands on them and read them — you’re in for a treat!

Be a Cybils Judge!

It’s that time of year! Time to apply to be a Cybils judge!

What are the Cybils Awards? Well, the award started as Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards – it was a way of spreading the word about wonderful books of high literary quality but also strong kid appeal — exactly the kind of books bloggers love to rave about, in fact.

Lately, more people are spreading the word about books online in other ways — Instagram, Twitter/X, Substack, Goodreads, TikTok, or some other way. So the name has been changed to the Children’s and Young Adult Book Lovers’ Literary Awards. Anyone who posts about books online is welcome to apply to be a judge.

There are two rounds of judging. The first round, you get to read lots and lots of books from October to December. As a panel, you choose seven books to be the finalists for your category. The second round judges read the finalists in January to February and choose one winner for their category. So if you don’t have as much time to give to it, choose the second round.

Something distinctive about the Cybils is that they have fourteen categories, covering fiction, speculative fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and graphic novels for all age levels from birth to young adult. So you won’t have to read everything published, and you’ll get to focus on one category. Another nice thing is that, unlike ALA award committees, you are allowed and even encouraged to post online about the books you read (not giving away how you’ll vote, of course). The Cybils regularly posts reviews from the judges, all supporting each other’s online presence.

But let me talk about my experience with the Cybils.

I don’t know what it is about book awards, but I wanted to be involved from the moment I realized I was part of the group that awards the Newbery Medal. But soon after that, I heard about the Cybils Awards. They sounded perfect! I’d already been posting reviews on my website for ten years, and listing my Sonderbooks Stand-outs, and this was a limited, less intimidating way to try to judge for a book award. I applied to be a judge as soon as I got the chance after I found out about it in 2010 — but my application was not accepted.

Of course I applied again the next year — and was not accepted.

But third time’s the charm — and I was a Middle Grade Speculative Fiction panelist in 2012 and have been involved with the Cybils ever since. I think the third year they didn’t select me, to give someone else a chance — and then one person backed out, so they asked me to step in after all. I have done both first round and second round, and have done Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, Picture Books, Young Adult Speculative Fiction, and Young Adult Fiction. My only break was two years when I was serving on the 2019 Newbery Medal Committee. This year, I’m serving on the Morris Award Committee, so I have to bow out from judging the Cybils, but I’m still serving as category chair for YA Speculative Fiction, so I still want to help round up panelists.

But all that is the what. Let me try to talk about the why.

It’s hard for me to explain why I love award committees so much. I’ve got the bug, and I really do. A big part of it is permission:

When I am on an award committee, I know that what I *should* be doing is sitting around and reading. I am not lazy when I do what I love to do. I am doing what I should do.

Now, if that doesn’t sound wonderful to you, then Award Committee Reading may not be your thing. For me, it’s a delight. And then later comes the joy of pointing others to wonderful books and giving those authors the attention and recognition they deserve.

All told, the Cybils is a fantastic way to dip your toe into the waters of book award committees. At most, you’re reading for three months, in a limited category. You can choose a category with shorter books, or do second round judging if time is going to be a problem. But you will still get to enjoy reading wonderful books and then discussing them with a fabulous group of people who give them the same thoughtful attention you have.

Applications are open until September 8th. Get yours in today and help us find this year’s stars!

Beware AI-produced Children’s Books!

For a year now, I’ve had my dream job – selecting children’s and young adult books for a large public library system with 22 branches.

I think I do a good job balancing critical reviews with popularity and patron requests and the need for a broad collection.

One day, someone requested that we get more books for kids about pets that weren’t only about dogs and cats. That’s something we can always use, but there’s not a lot published. So I looked in our vendor database.

Some titles we already had. Some were quite a few years old. Many were not in stock with our vendor. But I found some books that looked promising.

One book I ordered was called Rabbits: Children’s Animal Fact Book, by publisher Bold Kids. It didn’t have any reviews, and it was only available in paperback. But paperback meant it wasn’t too expensive, and a fact book about rabbits was what I needed, after all. How bad could it be? I put it on my order.

I completely forgot about it. Sometimes when I order short nonfiction books, I’m not sure if it belongs with the children’s nonfiction or with the picture books, and then I put a note on the book – Show to Sondy – to figure out where it belongs when I have the book in front of me. But this book was clearly nonfiction, so it could make it to the library shelves with no more input from me.

A few weeks later, I got a somewhat incoherent note from a cataloger about this book. While I was looking over the record and trying to form an answer, she came to my cubicle almost speechless and showed me this book, along with another: Northern Lights: A Book Filled with Facts for Children, also by Bold Kids.

Reader, when I looked at those books, I was filled with deep shame for having selected them. But wait! I discovered that one of our other selectors had ordered the Northern Lights book, so I felt a lot better that I wasn’t the only one who fell for them.

Let me explain.

The book starts out extremely repetitive and very poorly worded. There’s no logical progression between sentences, and some sentences repeat on later pages, except often with contradictory information or in a slightly different form. It’s got stock photo images and clip art text pages.

Here’s the page that first convinced me we couldn’t put these books on library shelves:

A rabbit has a male and female counterpart. A male rabbit is called a buck. The two types of rabbits have different characteristics. A doe is a baby rabbit, while a buck is a mother. All types of rabbits live underground, except for the cottontail, and their habitats are often called warrens.

Later, I read on. One spread has the same exact text on two facing pages. But the place where it got so bad it’s hilarious was the final spread:

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of feeding a rabbit, you’ve probably wondered how they reproduce. The answer is simple: they live in the wild! Despite being cute and cutesy, rabbits are also very smart.

They can even make their own clothes, and they can even walk around. And they’re not only adorable, but they’re also very useful to us as pets and can help you out with gardening.

[Don’t you wonder how animals reproduce when you feed them? And now you know how to improve your garden – just get a rabbit to help you! I’m thinking they put public domain Beatrix Potter books into the A.I.?]

Northern Lights was equally bad, though not quite as laugh-out-loud funny. Except maybe the spread that says twice that Northern Lights can be seen in Florida. Or the part that says you can hear the sounds they make. “The sound of the lights is like a rainbow.”

I wasn’t completely convinced that Artificial Intelligence would do such a bad job of “writing” a children’s book. But I tweeted about this book. The outstanding author of math books for children, Christopher Danielson, responded. We had a very amusing conversation about it, and he asked Chat GPT to write a couple of children’s books. The quality was very similar to these, so now I’m convinced.

But when I looked at our vendor’s website, Bold Kids has more than 500 children’s nonfiction titles. With one notable title being Sheeps: Children’s Book Filled With Facts (full credit to Christopher Danielson for spotting that one). What should have been a giveaway is that they are non-returnable, which is code for Print-on-Demand. So this “publisher” isn’t really investing money into making the books, just had AI produce the texts and didn’t check. They get printed when someone purchases one.

Let me note that while our vendor Ingram carries more than 500 of the Bold Kids titles, as does our ebook platform Overdrive, another vendor Baker & Taylor doesn’t carry any of them. (Good for them!) But Amazon carries them, as do many other websites selling books to the general public. So this is a general warning to beware.

Of course, this means that in the future I won’t purchase any more books from Bold Kids. But I also am going to be more wary than ever of books that don’t have professional reviews. I was already leery of self-published books, and this example has not helped at all. A friend who’s a writer told me that many publishers and agents are closing submissions because of a flood of AI-generated manuscripts.

And another problem is that partly these are bad because they were trained on what’s out there on the internet. (I assume.) Published authors are wise to be wary of publishers wanting to train AI on their writing.

In the meantime, I offer my experience as a cautionary tale for your amusement. Artificial Intelligence is not yet capable of writing good children’s books, anyway.

Oh, and one final note. I was trying to decide what category to file this post under, and I decided it’s time for a new one, which I’ll call Selection Adventures. I thought it could cover things from my Selector job — but also my experiences on various award selection committees. When I was on the Newbery Selection Committee, I posted about the experience. But I’m currently on the Morris Award Committee to find the best Young Adult Debut book of 2023, and the Mathical Book Prize selection committee, and a CYBILS Award category chair, and a member of Capitol Choices — and I should write up some posts about them. (Award selection is so much fun!) So that’s the new category, and I’m hoping to add to it in the future.