Learning how to set aside my personal reading prejudices and taste may have been one of the most important critical reading skills I developed while on the Newbery Committee and while serving on the NCTE Notable Books in the Language Arts Committee. Sharon McKellar thoughtfully considers this issue in “Just Not My Thing.” She writes:
I’m thinking about this especially in light of all the conversation surrounding the Anita Silvey article. It has made me think about my own bias in reading, but also the ways in which I put those biases aside when it comes to reviewing a book and especially in terms of considering a book for a Mock Newbery short list or in a Mock Newbery discussion. I can tell excellence outside of my own personal preferences. And even beyond that, when I finally get to the end of a book that has been a challenging read to me (either because it’s a challenging book or because it is outside of the realm of what I usually gobble down) it’s a pretty instantaneous sense of, “Wow. That was an excellent book!”. And on top of that, I most certainly think about its audience – children – and how it would work for them. Not ALL of them. But any of them.
In a way, I think a book like that, for me, gets almost a more fair shot because it breaks through my preconceived notions and touches me anyhow. And this makes me start to think about how and why it was distinguished. A book that I know I’m going to love, I can read through so quickly I have to really remember to pause and look for its nuances.
I definitely found myself admiring books that I did not naturally gravitate to as I considered them within the context of the two committees’ criteria. I may even have ended up nominating them! The only Mock Newbery I’ve done was last year at my school when I was ON the actual committee so I can’t say I’ve had the experiences Sharon has had. But now, post-Newbery, I am reading very differently than I did before. I suspect that may be true for others on such a committee.
One of my biggest worries as a member of the Newbery Committee was that I might have to support winning books that I disliked. I’m happy to say that did not happen! Were there other eligible books that I also loved? Yes. Were there certain eligible books that spoke to me more than others because of personal taste? Absolutely. Am I going any further with this line of thought? No.
Some of the informants in the Silvey article and others who have weighed in on it since have suggested that personal taste played a role in recent unpopular Newbery decisions. Based on my own experience on the committee I would say that it is highly unlikely. If Sharon who hasn’t yet served on the Committee is able to set aside her personal biases when considering excellence believe me, the Committee members can do so too. In fact, I’d suspect anyone on such a committee can do so. I know it was true as I considered books for the NCTE committee as well as when I did so for Newbery. Serving on such a committee is such an honor; you want to justify those who put you there. You want to justify those who think these awards mean something. You want to do it for the industry, for the writers, the editors, the readers (young and old), and for everyone who cares about books for children. You want to do your best to find the arguably best of the year. Given the many hundreds of people on book award committees, I would be naive if I didn’t think it was conceivable that there has been the occasional person who put personal tastes and agendas first (as some of the stories about awards suggest); however, I am optimistic enough to think that a rarity.