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How do we pick the winners?

Posted by Susan on July 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Awards
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In 1980, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund held a national competition to solicit entries for the design of the Vietnam Memorial. Any U.S. citizen 18 years of age or older was eligible to enter and 1,421 entries were recieved. The names were taken off the entries and replaced with numbers. A 21 year old college student by the name of Maya Lin won the contest with her design, beating out many famed and more experienced architects.

Every time I hear that story, I'm inspired by the fairness of the contest and the level playing field it offered to every participant. I realize this is a Utopian and completely impractical fantasy, but picture for a moment if the Newbery and Caldecott awards were judged that way. What if the committees didn't know the names of the publishers, authors or illustrators of the books under consideration?

Keep in mind that committees can only focus on the eligible books for the current year. If David Wiesner or Marcia Brown have an eligible book, it's irrelevant to the discussion that these illustrators have already three Caldecott medals. And it's irrelevant what the illustrator's race, age or gender is, because the only thing that matters is the book itself.

But is it really possible for anyone (no matter how hard they try) to be completely unbiased? What would the results look like if the awards were truly "blind" like the Vietnam Memorial competition? Such a thing is probably not physically possible, but wouldn't it be interesting if it were?

Usually, I answer my own questions. But, as Roger Sutton mentioned in his recent Horn Book editorial, I think a topic like this merits a good discussion. What are your thoughts about how these two major awards are chosen?

If you're unfamiliar with the process, you can find the Caldecott Medal criteria here, and the Newbery Medal criteria here.


Faith writes...

I think this is a good idea, though it would make it harder for the judges. Maybe it should be tried for three years and then reconsidered.

Pam writes...

Well, it would be impossible in that the judges would have to be sealed off from all contact with the children's book world so they didn't hear anything about the books. (Actually, given the press kidslit gets that may not be that hard.) And if they were familiar with books, they'd be able to guess some of the writers and artists by style anyway.

But assuming that they could do it, would it help? Partially, in that they wouldn't be predisposed to expect certain things from certain authors. My problem with the Newbery and Caldecott is less about awarding certain authors and illustrators, and more the types of books that get featured.

Susan writes...

Pam covers the main issues: the fact that the committee would have to be sequestered and the reality that the committee members are informed enough to recognize familiar authors and illustrators without other identification. I do think that crossing off author, illustrator and publisher information would then confine conversations and discussions to the work itself, but having never served on any of the committees, that might already be the case. The people I know who have served or will be serving on these committees are exceptionally qualified to do so and I believe they strive to be fair.

Jacqueline Jules writes...

I love the way the design for the Vietnam Memorial was chosen, too. If only book awards could be judged the same way. But as a practical matter, it is too difficult. The Newbery and Caldecott judges are all children's literature experts who often encounter the entries in libraries and bookstores long before they choose the winner.

I think that's why it is a good thing that many new awards have emerged in recent years. Awards that allow other members of the book community to have a voice, such as the Cybils and the state reading awards.

malissa writes...

a week ago i was at the vietnam memorial. the great story is maya lin turned in her design for her architecture design class and got a B! after she won the competition she learned that her professor who gave her a B had also entered the contest! great story!

i agree with your thoughts!

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