Sunday, January 07, 2007

Swimming Through Awards

Ordinarily, I'm not crazy about awards. They seem so arbitrary, and they tend to single out one writer's work over another's, reducing the writing process to nothing more than the equivalent of swimming a race, or, worse, a popularity contest.

So, it was with some reluctance that I joined the poetry nominating committee for the 2006 Cybils, a new award created to honor the popularity and literary merit of children's books published this past year.

I was hesitant to sign on because, as I say, I don't believe writing is a competitive activity. It's unfair, I think, to deem one writer's work "better" than another's since writing is a process, and each writer is unique and has to find a way to swim deeply into his or her own heart. If there's a competition at all, it's each writer with himself: how honestly and deeply has he dived to discover his own truth?

But, despite these reservations, I accepted the invitation anyway. Why? Well, I guess because I felt working on such a committee might prove enjoyable. Not only would participating on the committee give me a chance to meet other people interested in reading and writing, I hoped it might introduce me to the work of authors who I hadn't yet discovered.

Either way, I figured I might learn something new about writing by discussing the nominated books and studying the entries. And, of course, deep down, I harbored the hope that our work might bring the books of deserving writers to the attention of a wider audience.

And I must say, now that our job is done, the past few weeks proved to be quite remarkable as members of the poetry committee shared insights with each other into the nominated titles and came up with a short list of favorites for the judges.

Imagine, if you will, the four of us--Sylvia in Texas at Poetry for Children (, Becky at Farm School in Alberta, Canada (, Eisha in Massachusetts at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (, Elaine at Blue Rose Girls, also in Massachusetts (, and me in Florida at Wordswimmer, along with Susan Thomsen in Connecticut at Chicken Spaghetti ( cheering us on as administrator of the committee --coming together, online, from different parts of the world with different perspectives about what makes a book compelling.

It didn't take long before we were responding to each other's daily e-mails the way we might respond to greetings from friendly neighbors down the street. Each time a book arrived from a publisher--or, on some days, multiple books--we'd shout out our delight, only to be joined a few hours (or days) later by another panelist shouting that she'd received her books, too.

Some of us were shy at first about revealing favorites. But by the end of the evaluating process each of us managed to explain in convincing ways why we felt strongly about some books but not others.

Not surprisingly, the process required that we go back again and again after hearing another panelist's observations to review a book that we might have unintentionally overlooked or discarded. Take a look at this. No, take a look at this!

In the end, if one of our favorites didn't make the short-list, at least we could be comforted knowing the book had received the kind of close reading that it deserved.

Sifting through our favorites and debating the merits of each work, I tried my best to avoid ranking titles based on a system of good, better, or best, which was, admittedly, my own pet peeve.

Instead, I focused on what each author attempted to do, then studied each poet's work in an effort to evaluate my response. Again and again, I asked myself how the author had helped me see or hear or feel something about life or the human condition that I might have missed without his or her help. And did the poet's voice have that magical quality to transform words into song in the reader's ear and imagination?

By the end of the nominating deadline, we had almost thirty books to review... a far cry from the downpour of books in other categories (111 submitted for the fiction picture book award alone), but, still, a good amount. Publisher after publisher sent review copies via UPS, FedEx, or Priority Mail so we would have them by the December 31st deadline. (These review copies proved essential since most of us on the panel failed to find the nominated books in our local libraries or bookstores "because poetry books don't sell," I was told by one bookseller, and, sadly, by a librarian, too.)

With boxes of books arriving at my door every day, I felt like a child again on his birthday. And as I reviewed each title, I was amazed at the variety of experiences, the different perspectives and sensibilities that each poet brought to the page.

Some brought humor and history (Tour America by Diane Siebert), while others brought whimsy (Doug Florian's Handsprings), or love of nature (Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow by Joyce Sidman), an acute ear for music (Jazz by Walter Dean Myers), or an eye for color (A Yellow Elephant by Julie Larios).

Some poets loved pirates (J. Patrick Lewis's Blackbeard: The Pirate King), others adored monster stories (Adam Rex's Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich). Still others loved bugs (Hey There, Stink Bug! by Leslie Bulion), while others collected classic poems in new and interesting ways (The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, compiled and illustrated by Jackie Morris).

Each of these books--as well many others nominated for the award in poetry--filled me with delight, and, as I opened book after book to begin reading yet another poem, I felt turning the pages as if each poet was a special friend extending a hand to invite me into a world that I hadn't known existed before.

If I was one of the judges, I'd recommend awarding every poet a prize. Surely each writer is worthy of recognition, not only for their work on the nominated titles, but for their life-long love of words, their stubborn desire day after day to craft these words into phrases and stanzas that sing, and their pursuit of a craft that often receives little recognition (and even less financial reward).

Even though the judges, by necessity, will end up ranking the books of poetry--good, better, best--I hope they won't forget the process that each poet engaged in--some for years--to make his or her poems so compelling. In the end, it's this mysterious process of putting words on paper ... and not giving up before getting those words exactly right... that offers any writer the deepest, most gratifying reward of all, I think.

Many thanks to my fellow panelists who made the process of reading poetry these past few weeks such a delight... and to the co-founders and organizers of the Cybil Awards--Anne Boles Levy at Book Buds ( and Kelly Herold at Big A little a (, out of thin air, it seems, have created something rare and beautiful: a new way for all of us who love children's books to share our passion.

For more information about the 2006 Cybils Award, visit


Becky said...

I generally don't like the idea of awards, either, Bruce, but I was tempted onto the panel by the idea of being forced out of my comfort zone to read some books and poetry I might not otherwise consider, and to take a closer look at why I consider some of the stuff I consider (!). It was definitely an educational and enjoyable experience, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what the judges do in each category -- especially ours -- with the top five.

Jen Robinson said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments about the Cybils process. As a judge (albeit in another category), I'll try to keep your points in mind. And I certainly agree with you about the kudos for Anne and Kelly. Amazing stuff!

John said...

I can envy you that feeling of being delivered a new package(s) of treasures day after day, each one potentially ready to sweep you off your feet. It probably makes you nervous, too, that you'll be tempted to neglect your own daily writing over the next month or so. Still, there's a lot to learn from reading and evaluating those successful authors.

The contest thing is a little bit daunting to a writer, since it depends a lot on the subjectivity struck between the writer's work and just a handful of nominating people and the judges. Still, in the case of an unpublished work entered in a contest, I think the evaluators might give the work a fairer reading than some associate editors at publisher's houses, reading from those piles of unsolicited Ms. I guess I'll have to compete every which way I can.

Kelly said...


What a beautiful post. Seriously.