Reading through a fire hose

It’s 1:15 on a Thursday afternoon when I get the email message saying “your package has been delivered.” Curious, I click the link because I have no memory of ordering anything (no surprise there – I have ordered and then immediately forgotten about any number of items over the past two years). I see that the package is from Random House and now I wonder, with a mix of excitement and trepidation: how big is the box?

This year I am once again serving on a YALSA book selection committee. The first time – my first year on Best Fiction for Young Adults (BFYA)  – I was so excited that I didn’t give much thought to the work that lay ahead. I had applied many times without being selected and I didn’t look past the joy of that initial committee welcome letter. Each committee year after that I looked forward to the books and conversations but worried about the workload, as I knew how much time I would spend trying to read a book (or five) in a day, and how much physical space would be taken up by piles of books (the photo above shows my dining room table at one point). This year’s Alex Award committee assignment is particularly rewarding as I have finally gotten on the committee that I’ve applied to every year for fifteen years in a row, but I know the workload will again be demanding.

So why do I do this? And why do I think you should apply to participate on an awards committee of some type at least once in your career?

You’ll develop your reading and review skills

Our Morris Award announcement at the 2017 Youth Media Awards ceremony

Nothing in my earlier years as a librarian – or a reader –  prepared me for the reality of reading 386 books in a year, or being able to have informed conversations about the 99 titles that ended up on the 2014 BFYA list. During that year I developed my note-taking skills, learned to pay closer attention to character development and story arcs, and finally began paying proper attention to diversity in publishing and in the telling of stories. And I learned to read FAST! When you’re reading more titles than there are days in the year, an enjoyable book that takes multiple days to complete means some Saturdays spent in a chair getting through five books. But the reality is that there are plenty of books that fall in the “ok but not best” category that can be set aside after scanning the requisite first 50 pages. I was fortunate to have a committee chair who provided a template for keeping track of characters, storylines, age levels, and starred reviews which helped with the process of reading, remembering and discussing so many titles. I still use a similar template to track the books I read.

You’ll build professional connections

One of the lasting joys from my years on YALSA committees is the connections I’ve made with librarians from around the country. We bump into each other at conferences, stay connected via social media, celebrate each other’s life achievements years after our committee responsibilities ended. Committee members also meet authors and publishers! Being on an award committee means receiving many invitations to publisher parties and meet-the-author events. The Morris committee hosts a dinner with the finalists prior to the award announcement, so we all had the chance to talk with each author and receive a signed copy of their book.  Committee members develop a cadre of people to call on for professional guidance, plus there is the fun of having shared a memorable year that had a meaningful impact on teen reading.

You’ll receive so many free books!

The carpet of books in my den

Some committees lead to more book deliveries than others, but all of them come with many boxes of books, and they all need to go somewhere! In 2013 I didn’t have an office at school and we had no empty shelves, so I had about 850 advance copies (ARCs) and new publications tagged and organized on the floor of our den at home. A narrow path led to the couch so we could watch television but the room was largely unusable. After the school library was remodeled in 2017 I was able to store most of the committee books in my office. The good news is that all of those books are free additions to the library collection! I keep the books we can use and put everything else out for students to take. ARCs are recycled, and any unclaimed hardcover books are donated to the public library. Depending on the year and the committee this adds 100-200 books to our collection – truly a gift. The 2014 BFYA committee was where I first learned about NetGalley and Edelweiss – these are sites where librarians and reviewers can access pre-publication copies of books. Being a librarian increases one’s likelihood of being approved for advance titles; my title request has never been denied while serving on a book award committee.

You’ll help increase the visibility of the school library

It’s easy to think of ALA committees as belonging to the public library world. But often a school library is the only library a student has access to, which makes our voice as school librarians an important one! Independent schools often have less visibility and representation on awards committees than public schools and public libraries, and other committee members may have had little exposure to the needs and interests of an independent school, so by participating on a committee you are broadening the viewpoint of those other participants. Being on a state or national committee is also a good way to show the school administration that the library occupies an important place in the school and in the larger world. Several times I’ve heard an administrator say “this will increase the visibility of the school” when I tell them that I’m on an award committee. It might not be my first concern but I understand that thinking. And it is a small point of pride to see my school listed next to my name on a YALSA roster.

You’ll make a contribution to the profession

I have appreciated having the opportunity to do something that will last beyond the immediate school year. In schools our students stay for a few years and then move on, but on a book committee there is the opportunity to bring attention to an author that might otherwise not have been noticed, or to curate a recommended reading list of books that reflects a broad spectrum of experiences for readers to select from. Choices that are made by award committees influence libraries’ purchasing decisions, and indirectly, the publishing industry at large. And thanks to the permanence of internet documents, I can look back at the lists from previous committees, revisit the titles we chose and remember the fun we had spending hours at a time talking and arguing about books.

Hanging out with Jeff Zentner, winner of the 2017 Morris Award

There’s no doubt that being on a book list or award committee is a lot of work, and not everyone has the space in their lives to fit in yet another responsibility. But if you can’t participate now I encourage you to give it a try *sometime.* There are many options to choose from, from local area awards, to state award lists, to ALA committees across all age groups. To join the award committee fun, begin by doing some research about various awards, then contact a committee chair and ask about that committee’s work. When you’re ready, submit a volunteer form and cross your fingers. You’ll have the chance to encourage reading, you’ll make some new friends, and you might be lucky enough to meet the next popular YA author!

Committees I’ve participated on: 2011 Reader’s Choice, 2014 BFYA, 2017 Morris Award, 2019 BFYA, & 2023 Alex Award.

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