Wednesday, January 9, 2019

What I Learned as a CYBILS Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction Panelist

When people ask me for book recommendations, I often refer them to the CYBILS lists. I love CYBIL's commitment to not just literary merit, but kid appeal, too! 

For five (nonconsecutive) years now, I have enjoyed serving as a CYBILS Judge. Four of those years I helped with the Poetry category – 3 times as a round 1 panelist, and once for round 2.

Side-note: I really prefer being a panelist for round 1, in which the task is to narrow the large field to 5-7 finalists. I can recognize excellence and fight for favorite titles. It's much harder for me to settle on just one “the best” title, esp. in Poetry when the finalists might include a picture book of poems for the very young and also a sophisticated YA novel. How to compare? I do NOT envy the panel who must decide!

This year I decided to try the Nonfiction category, and boy, did I learn a lot! It was an honor to serve with such passionate readers and educators. I'm grateful for the experience. I'll be illustrating this post with a few of the book covers of our finalists (complete list here). 

Here's what I learned:

No Errors Allowed. While I may be able to overlook a typo or two and the occasional misalignment of text-to-photos, other panelists were not. And, wow, if there was a factual error – well, forget it! (A great example of why these things are best decided by committee and not by an individual. :) These are informational books, so #1, the information must be correct.

Packaging & Design Can Help or Hurt. I like books that consider all the elements of color and texture and information, so that reading them is an experience

However, sometimes publishers can get too slick with this and try too hard to impress us. And then any content that isn't just right really stands out as a flaw. This happened with a favorite book this year! 

Which means, authors/illustrators, it's important to carefully consider each element of a book. Do not include extraneous stuff, just because it's cute or because you can. Make sure each element matters and is necessary. Better to err on the side of less than to get to frill-y. 

Similarly, readability in terms of font color standing out from background page color was a make-or-break issue. Publishers, if you want to improve your awards numbers, be sure the design of the book makes the words easy to read!

Back Matter Matters. So many times a panelist would put forth a beautiful book only for it to be shot down by other panelists because that book didn't have back matter. And not just any back matter would do. Panelists especially wanted to see sources. Where did the author get the information? Where can especially curious readers go next to learn even more about the subject? 

Sometimes, as it happened this year, a book without back matter keeps rising to the top. It was a big deal for the panel to put this book through without back matter.

"Different" is Important! As long as it's not too different. We read so many wonderful books! Many were about expected, well-covered subjects with proven kid appeal. But no matter how good, it was just impossible to get the enthusiasm and support from the panel for subject matter that felt too well-trod. The panel wanted to see fresh, new topics, or popular topics addressed in new and diverse ways. 

On the other hand, there were several titles I fell in love with because they'd never been done before. (One in particular I will totally blog about later.) But ultimately it was decided that these books had too narrow a focus. There were concerns about every-kid appeal. Sigh.

Sharing passion for a particular book is a joyous thing! And how awesome is it when the stars align for a beloved title?! Truly, there is nothing more beautiful than sharing book-love with other passionate readers. And ultimately that's what these awards are about: not finding “the best book,” but all of us involved hoping to share our book-love with the world. Yes, it's subjective. But it's also universal, isn't it?


  1. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this process, Irene. I think I'm like you -- winnowing down to finalists would be possible for me, but picking just one would be too harrowing!

  2. I loved your perspective on this! I bounce back and forth between nonfiction and poetry. This year I did poetry and there was lots of discussion about comparing YA novels in verse with primary grade poetry collections. Your panel has selected lots of titles that I can't wait to read.

  3. This is a great read for me as a librarian...and as a non-fiction poetry writer. Thank you so much for these reflections.

  4. I enjoyed the different parts you considered, Irene. Since I read so many nf picture books, and share them. I will keep these ideas when writing a review. Last year there were many wonderful ones. I admire the committee for narrowing it down to a few. Thank you!

  5. O how I appreciate this thoughtful article, Irene. Your take on ins & outs of non-fiction -for0 kids books is fascinating & close to my heart. I am going to recommend this to Group Blog, so be prepared for a request to run it with us there, as a guest. Happy New Year! And happy new year to Miss Agnes, too. Can't wait to meet your pal Fancy !!!




Your thoughts?