Conference Corner – 2012 Morris Seminar – Panel Discussion and More

I’m awfully behind on posting notes from conferences. And there’s definitely added value if I share what I’ve learned. So – I’ve decided to attempt a weekly feature – Conference Corner – to share what I’ve learned at conferences. It will be awhile before I catch up, especially since I’m going to ALA Annual Conference next month, and I still haven’t finished talking about the Morris Seminar, ALA Midwinter Meeting, and PLA Biennial Conference.

One of the highlights of the Morris Seminar, a one-day seminar offered by ALSC to train people to be on book evaluation committees, was when we got into groups and practiced what we’d learned with books we’d read ahead of time. Here’s a picture of part of the group I was with. You can at least tell we were all having fun!

After lunch, we listened to a Panel Discussion featuring past committee chairs from some different ALSC Award committees: Martha Walker, from the Pura Belpre committee; Julie Roach, from the Geisel committee; Mary Burkey, from the Odyssey committee; Rita Auerbach, from the Caldecott committee; and Cyndi Richey, from the Newbery committee.

I took down some rather haphazard notes about the different committees. Below are some of the things they said.

Geisel: You’re evaluating text and pictures together. The illustrations need to work for someone just learning to read. One committee member adopted a classroom to try out the books.

Notable Committees: These are open committee meetings. Everyone’s equal when you walk through the door. You can learn about book evaluation by listening to these committees.

Audiobook evaluation: Assume the book is good. Now look at the narrator and the story. You’re evaluating production quality.

Here are some things to consider about the narrator of an audiobook:

Was the narrator authentic and genuine to time, character, etc?
Does meaning come through?
Is voice consistent?
Are accents correct?
“He said” “she said” should be dropped.
Don’t want a “fake voice.” You shouldn’t perceive that someone’s reading into a microphone.
Also think about the production quality. Don’t let a story you love blind you to the way it’s carried out.
Recommended book: Listening to Learn: Audiobooks Supporting Literacy, by Sharon Grover.

I took lots of notes about the Caldecott committee:

Rita Auerbach said she had less influence when she was the chair than when she was a regular committee member.

The function of the chair is to keep things going smoothly.

To be a good Caldecott committee member:

Participate in the discussion.
Read and respond on time.
Respect other members and couch concerns as questions.
Be willing to be cut off.
Don’t make up your mind in advance.
You can have an opinion, but at least be open to making your opinion change.

Picture books are difficult to discuss. Cultivate the vocabulary for talking about art.

Believe that artists, like authors, make decisions.

Think about the impact.

When discussing, don’t go through the book page by page. Use post-its to mark what you want to talk about.

Remember: There is room for interpretation.

“Most distinguished American picture book” does not necessarily have the most distinguished art.

How to prepare:
Read the books suggested in the manual, such as Picture This: How Pictures Work, by Molly Bang, and Show and Tell: Exploring the Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration, by Dilys Evans

Your basic premise is that the illustrator has done everything deliberately. How does it impact the book?

What do you see? How does it make you feel?

You can consider text, design, and everything else that goes into the book.

Notes about the Newbery Committee:

Being on the committee builds mutual respect and trust between the members.

Look at the role models in your life and seek out opinions.

You will not remember what you read. Definitely take notes!

Best advice: Keep an open mind.

You’ll look at Suggestions and Nominations.

“Read while you eat. That’s called ‘reating.’”

This will be your most professionally satisfying experience because everyone’s read the same books.

To get prepared, attend a Notable Books discussion.

You can’t even have an appearance of a breach of confidentiality or conflict of interest.

Be on the lookout for other critical discussions. (This is why I’ve joined Capitol Choices.)

This is a literary award for literature for a child audience.

Recommended: Books by Lee Gutkind on creative nonfiction, From Cover to Cover, by K. T. Horning

It’s so important to listen! And listen without frowning.

Being in a committee will help you to use and hone your skills. You’ll use them for a lifetime.

2012 Morris Seminar – “How Book Discussion Works”

The second session of the 2012 William Morris Seminar was a talk given by Nina Lindsay, a moderator of the Heavy Medal blog, and a past committee chair. She was talking about the actual book discussion process.

She assured us that you will need to take notes, maybe as simple as the one she uses the first time through a book: A dog ear on the top if there was something good on that page; a dog ear on the bottom if something negative. Then she looks back later to see if she can still find it.

Some book discussion groups you’ll be in are more about getting to know one another, but in award committees, it’s about the book.

It’s expected that you’ll wander off-track, but the committee chair will bring you back to the book. (We then paused to tell each other some personal story about one of the books – like how we met the author’s brother’s cousin, or how something said in the book reminded you of your ex-husband. This kept these things out of the book discussion time.)

*Look at each book for what it is, not for what it isn’t.

We always go over positive comments first. Small things that are good about it are still important to bring up.

When you bring up difficulties, use questions. Would she really feel that way in that situation?

Book discussion is not the time for a summary.

No personal anecdotes!

Compare with other books on the discussion list, but only those books.

There’s no single correct response.

Talk with each other, don’t just give a speech.

When you’re on an award committee, it helps the Midwinter discussion to go well if you’ve practiced book discussion all year long.

Also practice writing about books.

Overused words that don’t tell anything: love, cute, nice, good, sweet, lovely, perfect, unique, incredible, beautiful, wonderful, delightful, powerful, thoughtful, charming, appealing, fascinating, compelling.

(Then we practiced discussing a book without using any of those words. It was not easy!)

Commonly misused words: Simplistic, random, impressionistic, expressionistic.

No book is random. It may seem haphazard.

Impressionistic and expressionistic refer to a specific type of art.

When discussing a book, use the criteria for the award at hand. This doesn’t devalue other ways of looking at the book, but it is different.

The voting process only works if the discussion has worked.

Listen to others as even-handedly as possible.

The hope is that you only have to vote once.

You need to trust other committee members.

Enter the discussion knowing what you think, but be ready to be persuaded.

A final quote from Connie Rockman: We’re all in this because it’s FUN!

2012 Morris Seminar – The Alchemy of Book Evaluation

This year I got to be a part of the William Morris Seminar. The purpose is to train new people to be part of book and media evaluation committees for ALSC, the Association for Library Service to Children. This is the group that awards the Newbery, Caldecott, Geisel, Siebert, Odyssey, and other medals. The seminar was made possible from a grant by William Morris, and is an invitational seminar presented every two years. I applied each of the three times it has been offered, and this time was selected to participate.

Part of the thrill was getting to meet and talk with a group of 30 people as excited about Book Evaluation as I am. Just like me, these people got excited talking about the strengths and weaknesses of children’s books published last year.

Our speakers were people who have served on multiple committees, and who have recently chaired committees. They have lots of knowledge of the process and lots of experience with making a good discussion happen.

The first speaker of the morning was Vicky Smith talking about “The Alchemy of Book Evaluation.” I’ll give some of my notes from her talk.

She said when you’re assigned to a book evaluation committee, first, you need to evaluate yourself. Because, after all, “Text is context.”

She did say that, as a former English major, she is hyperaware of the Intentional Fallacy – the false idea that anyone can know what the author originally intended.

You should know the sort of reader you are: Fast or slow? Easily distracted or easily submerged in a book? Do you read for language, character, plot, or theme? What books did you love when you were 12 years old?

When you’re on an ALSC committee, you have to transcend the reader you are. For example, if you’re a plot-driven reader, you’re good at seeing how the plot works – but you need to overcome that.

Do you have biases? Your biases can help illuminate a book, but also blind you.

What do you know? Use your expertise without Hubris. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Beware of Hubris!

Know what you don’t know and be open to the book. Understand your context. The book you are evaluating was not written for you. You are not evaluating the book for personal pleasure reading.

Understand who the book is for. Some books are specifically gender-skewed, ability-skewed, etc. You just need to understand who it’s directed for.

Books may not be literarily spectacular, but still important.

Who is the book for? What is the book for?

Is joy and fun any less important than big deep messages?

Why are you evaluating this book? Your committee’s charge is important.

You need to get over wanting a book you can use with your kids.

Greet the book on its own terms. Think about: What does this book do, as opposed to: What doesn’t it do?

Every book deserves the most open mind possible.

What does this book do? What doesn’t it do? That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Remember that “offensive” has a million different definitions. What, in particular, do you think is offensive?

Does the book do what it does with integrity? If there are stereotypes, is that a bad thing?

Pay attention to your reactions to the book.

Don’t go into your encounter with the book looking for flaws. If you do find a flaw, you’re obligated to check. (Find an expert.)

Everybody has a different opinion of what is a fatal flaw. Why is it there? Is it really a flaw?

Book Evaluation is hugely relative. We can’t apply standards that give the same result every time.


That was the first talk we got to listen to. It made us eager to begin! We’d all read a list of books for small group discussion later.

This talk was interesting to me because it did point out to me that a Book Evaluation committee is very different than what I am trying to do on my blog. On my blog, I’m giving my own reaction to the book. But in a committee, you’re looking at a book as children’s literature. You want to observe your own reactions, but you’re trying to evaluate the underlying quality of the book for its true audience.

However, even though this isn’t what I’m trying to do on my blog, this is all very good advice for Readers’ Advisory on my job. It’s good to know a book’s strengths so I can figure out who would enjoy the book. Readers’ Advisory is also not about what I like or don’t like; it’s about finding the right book for the reader in front of you at this particular time.