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Heavy Medal: It’s Never Been About Predicting the Winner

Post by Julie Corsaro
Posted October 15, 2012 in Kids & Book News, Readers' Advisory News

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The chair of the 2008 Newbery Award Committee, Nina Lindsay facilitates Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog at School Library Journal. Supervising Librarian for Children’s Services at the Oakland Public Library, she also runs an annual live Mock Newbery discussion at the library.

JC: When did you start Heavy Medal?
NL: Heavy Medal is actually the third incarnation of a Mock Newbery blog that began as “Nina’s Newbery.” When I was a member of the Newbery committee in 2003, I organized a Mock Newbery discussion group in Oakland, California. Then in 2006, my library colleague Sharon McKellar and I alternately used Newbery blogs as a way to keep track of our Mock discussions. It was the early days of blogging and it turned out to be a great way to communicate with people who wanted to participate in our live discussions and also to keep tabs on what people were saying about possible Newbery contenders throughout the year.

When [former Editor-in-Chief] Brian Kenney was flushing out the role of blogs at School Library Journal, he invited us to join the blog roll there. In 2008, Heavy Medal went out to a national audience helping us to finally achieve our mission of facilitating a wide discussion from a great diversity of perspectives.

JC: Do you and Sharon still facilitate Heavy Medal?
NL: Sharon and I worked together the first year, but then she took some time off to travel the world. As a result, I invited [school media specialist] Jonathan Hunt to come on board. I think he and I make a great pair because we agree on a lot of the basics but disagree on a lot of the intricacies. There are times when we strongly agree about books, but sometimes we vehemently disagree, which makes for great discussions. Nina Lindsay

JC: Do you have discussion guidelines for the blog?
NL: When people are discussing titles, we always keep the Newbery Medal terms and criteria very much in mind. I find it interesting when people hash out all the ins and outs of why they like or dislike a book. When this happens, Jonathan and I will eventually enter the discussion to say, “But if we only apply the Newbery lens, how do we feel about the book?” I think this helps everyone understand what the Newbery Award is -- and is not -- about. It’s about literary quality, not popularity. It’s about writing, not illustration, except when it detracts from the book. As far as more general guidelines go, I don’t think we have any. Jonathan and I do vet commenters the first time they post, but after that, they can come into the discussion whenever they want.

JC: Is this also the situation with your Mock Newbery discussions at the library?
NL: When we have our annual live Mock Newbery at the library, we use the discussion guidelines of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- it’s where I went to library school and first participated in mock award discussions. Among other things, the CCBC guidelines help ensure that everything that can be appreciated about a book is on the table before it can be criticized. I think this “positives before negatives” approach is really helpful, especially in discussions where people don’t know one another. But I also think that in situations where the participants are comfortable with each other, you don’t have to be as strict.

JC: I’ve found the “positives first” approach to be helpful in getting everyone at the table involved.
NL: I think it can depend on the personalities. While I don’t have any problem opening my mouth during a discussion, some people do, and some need quiet time before entering a discussion. I understand that it can also be very easy for negative comments to pile up. When this happens, it can feel like the end of a discussion when it should just be the beginning. I think the CCBC guidelines have some other really good suggestions, like the need to keep from sharing personal anecdotes, as well as the need to not summarize the book because everyone participating in the discussion should have read it.

JC: Do you make the same assumption about reading for participants on the blog?
NL: While I would like to assume that blog commenters who evaluate the books have read them, it doesn’t always happen that way. On a few occasions, we have discovered halfway through a conversation that a commenter that made a full-fledged critique didn’t actually read the book or had read only part of it. Jonathan and I then come in to remind everyone about the ground rules. (I guess we have a few guidelines, after all!). Unless it would be really bad not to do it, we don’t post spoiler alerts either.

JC: Is there a set list of discussion books for the blog?
NL: While there is no set list, the books we discuss on the blog are very much driven by Jonathan’s and my personal tastes. Over time, some of our regular commenters have gotten a sense of the kind of books that we tend to like and dislike. One best-selling title that has gotten a lot of early buzz this year is R.J. Palacio’s Wonder (Random House, 2012), which is about a middle school boy with severe facial disfigurement. On the first day of this year’s discussion in early September, a little conversation got going about whether people like Wonder for its message [Newbery is not for “didactic content”] or its literary value. One commenter said that she was sure that Jonathan and I were going to tear the book apart! (We’ll see.) But since we’re also book critics, we do try to discuss all the titles that are being talked about as serious contenders.

JC: What about in-person discussions at the library?
NL: Jonathan and I do take advantage of the blog to come up with a set list of 8-10 titles that we think will make for fruitful discussion at the library. (One of the things I like best about the blog is how opinions -- Jonathan’s and mine included -- change as we take part in the discussions.) We usually have 4-5 titles that we feel are strong contenders and must be on our shortlist. We then try to round out the list, demonstrating how broadly the Newbery criteria can be applied to various styles, genres, etc. by searching for informational books, poetry, shorter books and the kind of outlying genre fiction that often gets overlooked.

In the same way that the real Newbery Committee always has at least one person who can champion a book on their [internal] shortlist, Jonathan or I must be able to do the same for each of our ten books. (There’s a good reason the Newbery committee has 15 members!) For a lot of our library participants, this is their first Mock Newbery, so we are also modeling Newbery style discussion.

JC: Is there voting on the blog or during the live Mock Newbery?
NL: Our library group has always voted, and we also started doing polling on the blog a few years ago. While it’s been ten years since I started doing a Mock Newbery, we’ve been off base most times with our favorites, with a few notable exceptions. In 2010, we did well when the selections of the library group aligned pretty much with the winner and several of the honor books. We’ve also been excited when we’ve championed a book that was a sleeper and it ended up on the winner’s podium. This happened with Joyce Sidman’s 2011 Newbery Honor Book, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night (Houghton Mifflin, 2010), which also won in our live discussion. While another 2011 Newbery Honor Book, Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer (HarperCollins, 2010), won our online poll, neither Jonathan nor I finished reading the winner, Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest (Random House, 2010), until after the awards announcements! I think there are actually better forums for voting such as Goodreads, which has a Mock Newbery Group where participants can vote to determine which book is discussed each month, and a Newbery list each year purely for voting on titles.

"I'd try to figure out why so many readers were out to lunch!"

JC: Who participates in “Heavy Medal?”
NL: I think we have a widely cast net of participants that look forward to award season in much the same way that many people look forward to Christmas and birthdays. Most of our commenters are from a variety of professions whose work involves children’s books. They use the blog not only to develop a list of discussion titles, but also to get their students excited about the award. While I think a bunch of librarians getting together in a room in January to argue about books isn’t that exciting for most kids, a discussion happening online in even as antiquated a place as a blog can make the award feel more relevant. In fact, the commenters I enjoy the most are those who are doing mock discussions with kids.

We also have participants whose day jobs have absolutely nothing to do with children’s literature but who appreciate the opportunity to take part in an online Mock Newbery discussion. If you’re like most people who don’t have time in the day to read widely, it’s also nice to be able to dip into a place like Heavy Medal to get a sense of some titles you might want to read when you do have the available bandwidth.

JC: Do you think members of the actual Committee should read Heavy Medal and other blogs and reviews?
NL: Thinking back to when I was a Newbery Committee member in 2003, I found blogs and reviews most helpful for refining my own opinions, and for practicing arguments about the books. If there was a book I felt passionately about, I went looking for all the negative comments about it, so I could see if I had any blind spots. If the same negative comment kept coming up, I knew the chances were good I would hear it at the discussion table and so I prepared a response beforehand. Vice versa, if there was a title that I knew other people were excited about that I didn’t particularly like, I’d look for positive reviews so I could put myself in the mind of the ideal reader for the book. If that didn’t work, I’d try to figure out why so many people were out to lunch!

I hope that members of the Newbery Committee read Heavy Medal because I trust them to know more than anybody else how limited the range of the discussions on Heavy Medal can be. We do a fraction of the reading the committee members do and our discussions often stray from the Newbery guidelines before we refocus them.

JC: Is there anything you would like to add?
NL: While I love that the blog has evolved (participation has grown and we have done some polling recently), I have two concerns: 1) that people put too much value on what Jonathan and I say, and 2) that they use the blog to try to predict the winner of the award. The blog has never been about guessing the winner, and there’s no way it could ever happen because the work of the Newbery Committee is confidential.

Since the blog runs from September through January, the idea is to get people thinking about the award as the season ramps up and also to get in the mood to accept and appreciate whatever wins by trusting the committee process we have mimicked just a bit. I do understand the message most people generate from Mock discussions is “Did my favorite book win?” or “Whose book won?” But the message we really want to generate is: “Literature for children can be of the same quality as literature for adults and deserves the same kind of scrutiny and the same kind of acclaim.”