Behind the scenes with the judges of the NZ Book Awards for Children & Young Adults

Read about our guest author Crissi Blair's experience of being a judge and convenor for the 2019 New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. Crissi writes...

At last the news is out and we can shout from the treetops about how great our NZ books for children and young adults are, and the mighty winners, announced in a special ceremony in the extraordinary place that is Te Marae at Te Papa in Wellington.

The last ten months, these awards have been top of my list of things to do. A towering stack of 164 books were on my TBR list with a very definite deadline to finish them by early April, followed by much re-reading and writing about the best.

Poster showing winning books for the 2019 New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults

This time, a convenor

This was my second year as an awards judge, having been on the panel led by Jeannie Skinner for the 2018 awards. I was surprised and thrilled to be asked to act as Convenor of Judges for the English language panel for 2019. There hadn’t been the carry-over for the panel for quite a few years, but it has proved to be very beneficial to have someone with previous experience to guide the judges through the process.

I found it quite a different experience as convenor. I was much more aware of ensuring the other judges had all the information they needed and dealing with any confusion over process, criteria etc., than being preoccupied about my own opinions. I was also responsible for ensuring that we could all come to an agreement about our choices while ensuring everyone’s voice was heard.

2019's judging panel

The judging panel had a wide range of experience in the world of children’s books — two with bookseller experience, two writers of books for children and YA, three reviewers and commentators, two librarians, two with te reo Māori skills, three editors, two teachers. All in, there were five people: Simie Simpson, Jane Arthur, Raymond Huber, Tania Roxborogh, and myself. The diversity gave us many points of view to approach the books from.

The judging process

We followed the process, begun in 2018, to include children and young adults in our judging process, taking a category of books into schools we had available to each of us locally.

But it’s not as simple as asking the students to read and tell us what they like. I found it to be a process of educating the students before they were able to provide useful feedback about the books. We have criteria to apply to our judging, which to us librarians might seem like common sense. But my students needed to learn to think about things like:

  • what age a book is aimed at
  • are the characters fully formed, and
  • will readers see themselves in the books they are reading?

I learned as much from the instinctive responses I saw in my students as they chose the books, and how deeply they then engaged with them, as I did from the reviews that my students wrote. There is one line from a review that has particularly stayed with me about 'Things in the Sea are Touching Me' by Linda Jane Keegan and Minky Stapleton:

This book just made me so heckerdoodle happy!

The shortlist

I loved keeping my school students on tenterhooks about who was going to win, and have had a competition running for them to guess who was going to win. I had my own collection of shortlisted books on display, and am impressed that the students respected how important they were to me. We have copies in the library with reserve lists and constant recommendations from one person to another.

Fabulous displays and a successful reading challenge

As I’ve visited libraries in schools and communities in the month since the shortlists came out, I’ve seen fabulous displays everywhere promoting the books. In many of those places, the Hell Reading Challenge has been underway too, reaching into high schools this year for the first time.

My own school, Rangeview Intermediate School in West Auckland, has run the challenge every year since 2016, with increases in participation every year. This year, some of our English teachers have included the challenge as part of their literacy programme, leading to amazing numbers of books being read — 29 pizza wheels (seven books each) for my top reader so far.

Now testing is being done, we are getting real evidence of how this programme has impacted on those students’ reading. Not everyone reads novels but to see someone, who previously was reluctant to read a book at all, making their way through a stack of picture and non-fiction books in the period they spend in the library is pretty terrific, and it’s making a difference.

Optimistic — with some concerns

It’s an amazing thing to have read nearly everything published for New Zealand children and young adults over a two-year period.

I feel optimistic for the state of our literature for young readers, however there are still concerns. There are a lot of books being published that have errors or have been poorly edited or designed. Covers can be very poor particularly, but not exclusively, in the self-published arena. Please authors — spend the money on a good editor and a book designer who will ensure your book is professional in every way.

An experience to recommend

This is definitely an experience I’d recommend to any of you who think you have the background and knowledge to apply. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a big learning experience and total thrill to see the look on the faces of the readers and the creators of the amazing finalists and winners.

If you want a reading list for the near future, make sure you take in this year’s amazing crop.

By Crissi Blair

Our guest author, Crissi Blair, is the School Librarian at Rangeview Intermediate in Auckland. She was a judge for 2018 and Convenor of Judges for the 2019 NZ Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. She also reviews for 'Family Times' and is NZ Coordinator, writer, and reviewer for 'Magpies' magazine.

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Bridget Schaumann August 15th at 3:44PM

This was so interesting. Thanks for writing this Crissi, your knowledge and insight is fantastic. I recommend to all those who are keen children's book advocates, to apply to be a judge, you will have a fantastic experience and gain so many skills being part of the judging team. It is such a great opportunity and aren't we lucky to have so many fantastic authors writing and illustrating for our kids (and for us as well!).

Ethel Colohan Alfriston College August 15th at 3:57PM

Hi Crissi - delighted to hear that Dog Runner won a prize. The book was part of our Readers Cup Challenge 2019 - East/South Auckland.
I really enjoyed the book. It was beautifully written and the characters well developed.
Ethel - LNS Leader Alfriston College

Lucas Remmerswaal August 17th at 2:08PM

Thank you Chrissie! Fabulous view into the process of a judge, and convenor of judges...