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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Alan Bailey's Reflection Upon the Coretta Scott King Jury Experience

For more than 20 years, I have read and promoted winners of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, and after reading the last word of each extraordinary title, I close the book, look at the cover, and think to myself, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be on the Coretta Scott King (CSK) jury and choose the winning titles?” My opportunity of a lifetime came in January 2008 when I was notified by the chair of the CSK Book Awards Committee that I had been elected to serve on the 2009 jury. I was floored, but the feeling was amazing.

Amazement turned into excitement as the first titles to be considered for awards arrived in February. Weekly, one or more titles would arrive, and I was simply awed by the quality and array of works being published thanks to such talented writers and illustrators. As months passed and more and more books arrived (one week, I received twelve YA novels within three days) excitement morphed into concern. When am I going to find time to evaluate and review all of these books? How will the jury ever choose winners from this wide range of titles? The more I read, the more I realized how easy exceptional works of literature are distinguishable from “good reads.” By December, more than 100 titles had been reviewed and evaluated, and at the close of the nomination period, 40 titles remained on the jury’s consideration list for 2009 CSK Book Awards.

Closed jury deliberations began at 1 pm on Friday, January 23, 2009. As we introduced ourselves and shared our passions for children’s literature, feelings of amazement, excitement, and concern were joined by anxiety. Seven jurors with varied literary backgrounds from across the United States have fifteen hours to select three awards from forty titles – is it possible? Combine a well-organized and experienced jury chair, six knowledgeable jurors with a unified purpose, and a clear set of selection criteria, and the answer is yes! As each of the forty titles was brought to the table for discussion, we kept several essential questions in mind: Is the work outstanding? Does it inspire and educate readers? Will it honor the legacy of Mrs. Coretta Scott King? Titles receiving positive responses to all three of these questions remained on the table. Late Saturday night, when all discussions had ceased, final votes were cast and tabulated, and winning seals were affixed to book jackets, I went back to my hotel room exhausted, but confident that the best books nominated for the 2009 CSK awards had been selected.

The Youth Media Awards Press Conference was held on Monday, January 26th – what a rousing way to celebrate a year’s worth of comprehensive reading and fifteen hours of intense deliberations. The jury members called the award winning authors and illustrators to congratulate them prior to the international announcement. Each jury member was given the opportunity to call an award winner. Most were successful, but unfortunately, I was unable to reach my assigned winner – the telephone numbers listed on the contact sheet were either disconnected or temporarily out of service. Unbeknown to me, my moment of disbelief was caught on film.

The official press conference began at 7:45 am. As the procession, representing jury members of all the children’s award committees, was led down a staircase into the grand ballroom, the moment was reminiscent of Oscar night. The media, librarians, publishers, and others lined both sides of the staircase waving, applauding, taking pictures, and shaking hands, when possible. Many whispered, “Congratulations,” in my ear while others murmured, “Come on, tell me who won the award.”

Without a doubt, serving on the jury of the 2009 Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee was the highlight of my professional career, and it was hard to believe there were more thrills ahead. Award winning authors and illustrators were honored today, July 14, 2009, at the annual CSK Awards Breakfast during ALA Annual Conference in Chicago. In addition to recognizing the 2009 award recipients, CSK celebrates its 40th anniversary, a monumental milestone sure to be treasured by all attendees. To learn more about the awards breakfast or view highlights from the press conference, visit the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee website.

--Alan R. Bailey

Editor's note: Alan R. Bailey, Assistant Professor & Education Curriculum Librarian at J.Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, can be reached at baileya@ecu.edu. We are grateful to him for sharing his experiences with us.

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