Judging the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults

The 2018 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults celebrated and promoted some outstanding new books for young people. It was a privilege and a pleasure to be the Convening Judge for the Awards this year.

Graphic showing book covers of the 2018 winners of the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, with #NZCYA
Image: Used with permission from New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults

Becoming a judge

This year, for the first time, rather than 'shoulder-tapping' potential judges, applications were sought from people interested in being a judge. The Book Awards Trust then selected a panel of judges and appointed the Convenor. With encouragement and support from the National Library I applied, believing that it would be challenging and rewarding in equal measure, and so it was!

The judging process

The first boxes of books for judging started arriving in December, and January to March saw plenty of reading and re-reading while forming and revising longlists. April and May included some face-to-face judges’ meetings, with plenty of discussion and decision-making. The focus in June and July was on writing citations and content for publicity material.

As a judge, I had to read beyond my usual personal preferences and read more critically and thoughtfully. There was pleasure in discovering new authors and having lots of bookish conversations with my wonderful fellow judges. There was also agony in having to pick just a shortlist and then a winner by reaching a consensus as a team, even if it meant relinquishing a personal favourite or leaving worthy nominations behind.

The Awards ceremony

Shortlists were announced in June and Award winners announced at the gala evening at Te Papa in Wellington in early August.

This was a fabulous celebration of writing, illustrating, and publishing of books for young New Zealanders, with over 250 people attending. They included authors and illustrators, book designers and editors, agents and publishers, librarians and teachers, booksellers and reviewers, the Sapling and Storylines, along with families, friends, and supporters.

Student input

It was fascinating to observe students engage with and evaluate all the nominations against the Awards' judging criteria and more informally:

  • what appealed and spoke to their interests and concerns
  • what surprised or charmed, and
  • the titles that created personal connections.

All of these responses were factored into the judges’ deliberations. As a result, there are discussions underway as to how to formally incorporate student input into the judging process and the Book Awards in the future.

This year’s books

Here are some observations about books submitted this year:

  • There was an increase in the number of titles submitted from previous years in most categories.
  • There were fewer books in te reo submitted for the Te Kura Pounamu Award. There is a plea from kura for more senior fiction in te reo.
  • There were a burgeoning number of self-published titles with all the freedom that allows, but sometimes lacking the advantages of traditional publishing processes like editorial input, book design, and production.
  • This year received the first ebook-only fiction nominations.
  • Some great junior fiction deftly included augmented reality.
  • The non-fiction category was very strong this year. It was also one of the most difficult shortlists to finalise, with many impressive entries across all levels.

The capacity of fiction to develop empathy was also a notable aspect with a number of titles at both junior and senior level, exploring powerful themes around mental health and grief, well-being and resilience, 'making hearts large through story' as Kate Di Camillo puts it.

Two nom de plumes and two awards for one person

Surprisingly, and a first for the Awards, an author won both the:

  • Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction, writing as Bren MacDibble
  • Copyright Licensing NZ Award for Young Adult Fiction, writing as Cally Black.

Bren uses a pseudonym to separate her children's books from titles aimed at an older readership.

Esther Casey tweet screenshot showing a display of books
Esther Casey, a teacher librarian at Sylvia Park School, created student interest and suspense in the Awards shortlist through book sharing and discussion, reading aloud, displays in the library, and a voting process.

Spread the word

Now the fanfare is over, it’s time to get hold of the Award books, read and share them, add them to library or home collections, explore and enjoy them in classrooms, or at bedtime story read-alouds. Winners should also be talked about at book clubs, explored to find 'the story behind the story', and put on Christmas or birthday present lists.

We must make the most of these books. They offer children, in the words of Rudine Sims Bishop, mirrors to see and recognise themselves, and windows to discover the wider world.

Please do consider sharing your enthusiasm for, and expertise in, children’s and YA literature and apply to be a judge. I thoroughly recommend the experience!

Read more

  • NZ Book Awards Trust — the 2018 winners.
  • The Sapling — there's a wealth of information on the Sapling’s website covering the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Search the site for 'Book Awards' to bring up the various articles, reviews, interviews, and sample chapters.

By Jeannie Skinner

Jeannie is a Facilitator in the National Capability Services team with Services to Schools.

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