Dr. Bickmore and Guest Contributor, Mark Letcher, Look at ALAN’s Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award
When Steve approached me to write about the experience of serving on the Walden committee, I thought of some questions I had when I first heard of the award, and applied to be on the committee. I felt those same questions, with answers, might be helpful to those who don’t know about the award itself, and might be interested in how the process works.
What is this award? First, let’s look at the basics. The Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award is presented annually to a young adult book “that exemplifies literary excellence, widespread appeal, and a positive approach to life.” More on these tricky criteria later. To read more about Walden herself and her work, check out this guide to her papers collection at the University of Oregon.
Who picks it? Every year, the Walden committee is comprised of 11 ALAN members (1 chair, 1 past-chair, 3 classroom teachers, 3 librarians, and 3 university professors). Committee members serve from 2-3 years, and are rotated off, so that there are always new members each year.
How many books are considered for the award? In each of the last two years, between 250-300 books have arrived at my door. The committee is formed in September, and books start arriving soon thereafter. It’s important to note that the committee does not receive copies of every YA book published each year; the publishing houses determine which books they want to submit for award consideration. Committee members can also suggest books, if they have not already been submitted.
Do you actually read all of those books? No, not even close. Once the committee members are selected, smaller reading groups are formed. This allows us to “divide and conquer” all the books that come in, because let’s face it, we all have other jobs that keep us busy. Each group is assigned titles and reading deadlines by the chair, and we “talk” about our books via email. We also establish a private group on Goodreads, so that we can easily manage larger discussions of books in the later rounds. If a group decides that a book meets the award criteria, and should move forward, that book moves on to Round 2. We try to narrow down the books as much as we can in this first round, based on the criteria.
There’s a Round 2? There are as many rounds as are needed, until the committee can agree on finalists and an eventual winner. After the initial reading and winnowing down of all titles by the small groups, the committee is left with a number of books that the groups feel are deserving of a wider read, and could qualify for the award (we had about 40 left this year, as an example). In Round 2, everyone on the committee reads all of the remaining titles, and there is more discussion and voting. We talk and vote, and talk and vote some more, until we arrive at a slate of finalists. Then, we vote on which finalist should actually receive the award. Each year, there is room for 1 winning title, and up to 4 honor books.
What are the discussions like? Friendly, respectful, and open. The people on this committee love YAL, and are giving up a ton of their own time to serve, so they take this process incredibly seriously. I’ve never met some of my fellow committee members in person, but I feel I know them very well, by reading and talking about books with them. In terms of our discussions, think about the conversations we have with our own students: we don’t allow them to simply state whether they like or don’t like a book - they have to offer reasons why. On Walden, we do the same thing, and our “why’s” have to stick closely to the award criteria. I’ve had many books I love not make it out of Round 1, simply because the groups reading them didn’t feel they met the criteria. This is much more than picking which books we all love. Opinions may change, and a book that I liked earlier in the process may not seem as strong, once it’s stacked up against other high-quality titles.
So back to the award criteria. Why are they so tricky? Like all good criteria, the Walden’s are both specific and vague enough to invite interpretation. Many of our online discussions focus on the nature of the criteria; every reader is different, so we all may read the criteria slightly differently. Being on Walden has forced me, in the best way, to closely examine how I read, and how I articulate what I look for in an “excellent” book. I’ve also become more comfortable expressing my opinion on a book, sticking to it, and backing it up with specific elements. This committee is always comprised of passionate, smart readers, all of whom want the best possible titles to represent ALAN and Amelia Walden. I’ve been satisfied and disappointed with votes throughout my time on Walden, but I always know that every book has received a thorough analysis, fair discussion, and that the finalists have survived intense scrutiny and multiple close readings.
I’m sold. How do I apply? Look to the ALAN website for the call for applications. You’ll need to prepare a letter, outlining your experience with YAL and committee work. You also must be an ALAN member in good standing. The call for applications goes out in late summer, once that year’s committee has made its final selections. I wasn’t selected the first couple of times I applied, so keep throwing your name out there. If you are selected, know that hard, rewarding work awaits. Being on Walden has made me a better reader and teacher of YAL, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
Mark Letcher is an Assistant Professor of English Education at Purdue University Calumet, where he teaches courses in adolescent and intermediate literacy methods, young adult literature, and content-area reading. He has been a regular attendee of the ALAN workshop since 2004, and is currently a member of the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award committee and the ALAN Board of Directors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and @m_letcher on Twitter.
Thanks Again, Mark
Steve T. Bickmore