Sunday Afternoon Visits: Pirates, Book Reviewing, and Blog Angst Flu
Children's Literacy Round-Up: September 21

Popularity in Blogging and Book Awards

I've just finished my latest Kidlitosphere roundup, but I decided to pull out one item into its own post, because I have a few things that I'd like to say.

Not to be missed (and soon to have many comments, if I'm not mistaken) is a new post by Colleen Mondor from Chasing Ray about popularity contests and their echoes back to high school. Colleen says: "Informed choice is important. But in most popularity contests that is not what happens... Popularity contests are about having your friends win and you like your friends, you think they are good people, you want them to be winners. You vote for your friends no matter what."

I've been giving "best of" and "favorites" lists a bit of thought this week, in light of Book Blogger Appreciation Week. Even before I didn't win in my nominated category (KidLit, and yes, of course that's probably influenced my thinking a bit, but I don't think very much), I expressed my reluctance to list "my favorite blogs that weren't shortlisted for BBAW" (as I discussed here). I've always been unwilling to list my favorite five blogs for this or that blog award meme. And I think that Colleen hit upon the reason for my discomfort in these areas. I don't want to judge and pick favorites between my friends. I want to have left popularity quests behind in high school (though I enjoy reading about such things, from time to time, for the safe distance of adulthood).

I don't want to declare people as in or out because I like them or don't like them. I don't want to tell you "these are my 10 favorite blogs", and then not be able to include an 11th that's just as important to me. I don't want to pick between #3 and #13 in the first place, because my mind doesn't work that way. I don't think it worked that way for me even when I was in high school. (Though I may have blocked a lot out.)

What I want to do with my Kidlitosphere Roundup posts (Sunday Afternoon Visits, etc.) is point out some of the many bloggers around the Kidlitosphere who are writing interesting things. I'm not going to say "You should read Colleen's blog. She's my favorite in sub-category XYZ". I'm going to say "Colleen wrote a post about this, which I thought was really interesting. If you think that topic sounds interesting, you should click through." And then if you like it, and you want to add Colleen to your reader, you should go for it. I want to focus on the good things about people's blogs, with as little divisiveness as possible.

Even when I review books, I don't rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, or whatever. I like to talk about each book, what I liked about it, what I thought could have been done better, how it compares to the author's other books, etc. I have a personal set of six things that I look for when I'm evaluating each book, and I'll usually discuss how the book works in those areas. But I won't give the book a grade or a star ranking. I understand that this makes it a bit more difficult for readers. You can't skim to the bottom of my review to see if I gave the book an A before you read the review. You have to take the things that I say about the book as your guide, and decide if something in there sparks you, personally, to want to read the book. But I think in the long run that relatively detailed thoughts about a range of books are more useful than a list that just says "I like these five titles."

Mind you, I'm not saying that there isn't a place for book award processes, like the Cybils. If you have a set of criteria, and panelists who are selected to avoid any bias (as we do with the Cybils), I think that's a completely different thing from a popularity contest, or one person's arbitrary ranking. Let me elaborate.

Cybils2009-150px The Cybils Awards were started as an attempt to find a balance between literary awards based primarily on quality of writing, which don't directly take kid-friendliness into account, and popularity/vote-based awards, which don't directly take quality of writing into account. I think that the Cybils team (and yes, I have been on the organizing committee since the first year) has found a pretty nice balance.

Anyone can nominate titles (one title per person per category). Then two sets of judging take place. In the first round, nominating panels for each of nine categories winnow the list of nominated titles from many (sometimes more than 100) down to five to seven shortlist titles. Then a separate panel for each category chooses a winner from the shortlists. More than 100 panelists are involved each year, in addition to a few other organizers like myself.

Panelists are selected from volunteers who actively blog about children's and young adult literature (you can read the call for volunteers here). Most volunteers indicate a first and second choice by category, and indicate whether they prefer first round or second round judging. While the process of assigning judges to panels happens behind closed doors (it's quite a logistical challenge, taking 100 people, each with multiple preferences, and grouping them into some 18 panels), the lists of the panelists in each category are public. (This year's lists of panelists will be available soon).

This year, I'm not organizing a category, though I have in the past. I have, however, been following the discussions by which people are being assigned to panels. I can tell you that the category organizers (you can read about them on the Cybils blog) are working hard to ensure that everyone named to a panel has a clear and current understanding of literature within that genre (graphic novels, poetry, etc.). They're also working to ensure that the panels are as balanced as possible (newer people vs. old hands, male vs. female perspectives, etc.). They're ensuring that no conflicts of interest crop up. We wouldn't, for example, put an author on a panel where that person has an eligible title. Tanita Davis won't be judging in Young Adult Fiction. Sara Lewis Holmes won't be judging in Middle Grade Fiction. And so on. In one case, we had an author's spouse work with us to ensure that he wouldn't be in a position of judging his wife's book. You get the idea. Occasionally, category organizers will approach someone who hasn't volunteered and invite them to join a panel. Usually this happens in the interest of getting more specialized expertise for a particular category, such as Graphic Novels, or in the interest of making a particular panel more balanced. Really, it's all about making the panels balanced, experienced, and as objective as possible. 

Anyone who wants to understand the people judging in a particular category can go and read the panelists' blogs (again, the lists of panelists will be available soon). The criteria used for judging the books will also be made public, as will the full lists of nominated titles. Anne Levy and Kelly Herold, who founded the Cybils, have been very careful all along the way to make the process as transparent as possible. It's because of that transparency, and the carefully derived mix of popular nominations with formal judging, that the process works so well. (Though we have, of course, worked out a few kinks along the way.)

My personal feeling is that the most valuable thing for non-participants that comes out of the Cybils process each year is not the list of winners. It's the set of five to seven short list titles in each of nine categories. There are many new books published for children and young adults every year. Having a set of experts, people who live and breathe children's literature year-round, weed through hundreds of nominated titles, to identify the ones that best meet the award's criteria (of being well-written AND kid-friendly), well, that's a real gift. But I don't really care which books WIN. (Which is why I'm not a judge this year, either - I'm just evangelizing for the Cybils in general.)

And so, in the coming weeks and months, you'll see me link to many blogs. But you won't see me participate in any memes where I have to list my favorite bloggers. You'll see me talk about and promote the Cybils. But you won't see me add star ratings to my reviews. You'll see me nominate titles for the 2009 Cybils. But you won't see me casting votes in anything that seems like a popularity-based book contest. I'm following Colleen's example, and leaving those behind me. Most of this is the way that I've always been operating. But I feel like my viewpoint on all this has crystallized a bit. I appreciate having had the chance this week to think about it all. And I hope that you'll all stay tuned for Cybils nominations on October 1st.

Thanks for listening! I'll be interested in reading your feedback, here and/or at Chasing Ray.