Doing the ALA Midwinter Boogie Woogie

This year's ALA Midwinter Conference was in Denver in January—it was cold, it was snowing. There were lots of books and lots of chatter and excitement about books.

There aren’t too many book shows more exciting for Cinco Puntos in terms of buzz and anticipation than the American Library Association’s Mid-Winter conference. The ALA’s Annual Conference is of course a big shebang but its it’s the Mid-Winter ALA, which specializes in children’s and young adult books where Cinco Puntos gets more attention. At Midwinter, publishers and writers alike wait with knotted stomachs to see if their books will win any of the prestigious prizes or land on any of the important “BEST OF…” lists celebrating the best in the previous year’s children and young adult books--the Caldecott, the Newbery, the Notable Books for Children, the Best Books for Young Adults, the Coretta Scott King Award and the Pura Belpre, and the two newcomers American Indian Youth Award and the Ten Best Graphic Novels. (See note at bottom.)

Why are these prizes important to publishers and to writers? That’s simple—panels of well-respected librarians have blessed these books with exemplary prestige and the result is sales. Lots of sales. Libraries and library systems throughout the country buy all the winners, they buy all the honorable mentions, and they buy all the books on all the lists. All the wholesalers like Baker & Taylor, Follett and Ingram immediately are making orders and sending out email newsletters announcing the winners. All of this flurry of excitement feeds book store sales and educational sales. Publishers are going back to press to press to take advantage of the expected sales. So winning an award means a lot in terms of financial stability for publishers and authors. Especially for an independent publisher (aka small publisher) like Cinco Puntos. Even being considered for an important prize starts a buzz about a book that results in sales. In January 2006 Benjamin Saenz’ YA novel Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood was being talked about for the Printz. It had its champions among influential librarians, and they were making themselves heard. It was time, these librarians were saying, that a Latino was awarded the prize for a novel about growing up Latino. And it was clearly a powerful book. We kept hearing rumors up until the final day before the announcements. We were disappointed, but even though it didn’t make it to the list of honor books, it was awarded a prominent place on the Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults, which was the first of many such recognitions. We sold many copies of Sammy and Juliana in the next year, and we sold the paperback rights to Harper-Collins and the audio rights to Random House.

Besides, the book deserved the attention, and Ben deserved the recognition.

The ALA Midwinter is Big!

I can’t remember exactly the first time Cinco Puntos went to an ALA. We probably didn’t buy a booth because they’re expensive (close to $1,500) but we may have signed up for a badge with our distributor Consortium, and just walked the aisles, so to speak, taking it all in. And it is so much to take in. A book fair the size of the ALA fills a hall a little less in size than two football fields (97,333 square feet). In that hall are publishers as big as Random House, as mid-size as Algonquin, as small as the lady on the last aisle selling her first book. Everyone is all smiles, everyone is pitching. Sometimes they’re selling books, sometimes they’re giving them away. There are free posters, pens and pencils, rulers and yo-yos and lots of bowls of chocolate. There are catalogs and book bags. There are the big hardware and software suppliers with huge screens and colorful director’s chairs set up in front where groups of librarians can come rest for a minute and learn about the publisher’s newest look-up tool. There are vendors who sell digital content, vendors who sell library furniture, ones who sell t-shirts that say things like, “What Happens in the Library, Stays in the Library” or “I’m the Librarian Your Mother Warned You About,” vendors who sell jewelry and padded inserts for your shoes or luggage with wheels. There are library schools looking to find homes for their students or to recruit new students. And the aisles are full of librarians, who, as a group, are thorough, dedicated to detail, interested in asking questions, and really excited when an author is signing books.

Librarians don’t do drive-by browsing. They stop, they look, they talk. Which is what makes the ALA such a great show.

Youme at the Booth

This year we brought Youme Landowne with us to Denver. Her first children’s book--Selavi: A Haitian Story of Hope--testified to the power of library awards. It was a ALA Notable Book for 2005, received a place on the very prestigious Texas Bluebonnet Master List awarded by the Texas Library Association and won the Jane Addams Peace Award. This year Youme came to the Denver as the co-author of CPP's first graphic novel, Pitch Black, which she created in collaboration with Anthony Horton. Youme is a natural in a booth. She never quits smiling, she loves to tell people about her books. She is the sort of person who ventures with an open heart into places and situations that most people avoid, which is the context and backdrop of her first graphic novel, Pitch Black. It had been nominated to be discussed by three different award committees: Best Books for Young Adults; Reluctant Reader Quick Picks; and Great Graphic novels. If a publisher wants these books to be considered, they need to send a copy to the committee’s chair and to the ALA office in Chicago. But if they really want to make things easier for the committees, then you send a copy to each of the librarians on the committee. And some of these committees are large with up to 16 members. But it’s money well spent because librarians, even timid librarians, are talkers—“big-mouths” we call them with admiration. If they like a book, they’ll tell everyone they meet. Part of being a publisher is sending out over a hundred copies of a title to award committees. These are the folks you want looking at your books.

I asked Betty Carter—one among many great librarians we know and a lady who has been on many award committees and writes for Horn Book—how many books these committee members receive and if she could tell us a little bit about how a book is nominated for an award. She replied:

For “list” committees, the number of books received each year varies. Notables, for example, with an age level running from birth to age 14, receives over 1,000 books every year. BBYA, even with an age level of 11 to 18, receives just a little less than that. Each one of the award committees works a little differently. Typically committee members nominate books. But if the book is nominated by a librarian not on the committee (someone in the field), then someone from the committee has to second the nomination. Members from the ALA Notables committee nominate books several times throughout the year. Each committee member reads all of the nominated books. A book then must receive 6 (out of 9) positive votes in order to be discussed by the committees at the Annual and Mid-Winter meetings, and then considered to be put on the list.

Many of these discussions that Betty mentioned are open to the public. Some, like the Caldecott, the Newbery and the Printz award are closed. But if you ever want to learn something about books and about how different people see them and read them, going to listen to these discussions is a pretty amazing experience, even if they’re discussing a book you’ve written or published.

Flies on the Wall

Youme and I decided to go hear two different book discussions. One was the discussion by teen readers of the books nominated for Best Books for Young Adults. These are local teenager readers brought in from nearby schools for this very popular event. The large auditorium was packed with librarians and teenagers. At the front were two microphones. A big screen on one side of the auditorium projected the book jacket of the book being discussed. The kids had two hours and over 200 books to discuss. The audience had a long list of all the titles that had been nominated. The discussions went page by page, each participant bringing up a book he or she liked or didn’t like and giving the reasons why. I watched many of the librarians in the audience taking notes. These kids’ opinions were important to them! Pitch Black was mentioned by two different readers, and both liked the book very much. I saw Youme wiping away tears. This is a big moment for an author to actually hear her audience tell her about her own book.

Later that day we went to the much smaller (in a small conference room in an adjacent hotel) but still public discussion of the Great Graphic Novels for Young Adults Committee. We stayed for the whole two hours. Youme listened to the librarians and sketched the faces of everyone on the committee. The discussions go in alphabetical order. If the committee has already discussed a book before and already made a decision about it (to put it on or off the list), then they move on, but if a book has not yet been discussed or if there is still a sense that the discussion hasn’t been thorough enough, then the committee will discuss it. And these discussions are very very thorough.

It has been our experience that librarians who serve young adults are a special breed—very eager to get kids readings, more than willing to do what it takes to capture their interest, and rabid readers of young adult literature themselves. So what these particular librarians brought to the discussion was not only their own opinions and the wide reading that went behind these opinions, but also the opinions and observations of the teenagers they served.

This question was asked frequently: Is it a great book, a notable book? Sometimes a book was not the favorite of one or two committee members, but they were able to factor in their own dislike and balance that with the opinions of other committee members. There was one book not much liked by most of the committee, but testimony was given about how popular that particular book was with the kids—it flew off the shelves. They couldn’t ignore what the kids were saying about the book. Another book that wasn’t quite a hit with one of the female members had been part of a favorite series much loved by one of the men on the committee.

And so it went, back and forth, back and forth. Youme and I were, of course, wishing we could hear them talk about Pitch Black, but as luck would have it, they ended at their appointed hour, right before Pitch Black came up for discussion. Fortunately for all of us, Pitch Black was named one of the Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Young Adults in 2008. Such great news, especially after hearing the committee discussions. What an honor!

You Never Know

This year a friend from El Paso, a lawyer named Bobby Maddox who is writing books for kids but hasn’t yet been published, asked me how he could get some insight into the world of books. I invited him to come up to Denver to the Mid-Winter ALA. If you want to see the world of books, that will give you a taste, all right!

Here’s what Bobby wrote me when he got home:

From the minute I entered the exhibition hall and saw the scores of exhibitors, I felt overwhelmed, to say the least—and exhausted, for that matter. It took me one whole day just to browse and get a general feel for what is out there and for who publishers what. I found myself comforted by the fact that there is not just one accepted style of children’s book, that there is room in this vast world for many different styles, including (I hope) my own.

After seeing Bobby Maddox so exhausted at day’s end and weighed down with tons of books and catalogs, I remembered an ALA many years before when I’d seen our good friend Luis Alberto Urrea and his wife Cindy sitting down, their backs against one of the show walls, just needing a place to rest because they’d either bought or been given too many books and the show’s immensity had undone them. But at the 2009 Mid-Winter, Luis was a keynote speaker at one of the luncheons along with another old El Paso friend Abraham Verghese. Both are bringing out new books—Luis’ Into the Beautiful North and Abe’s Cutting for Stone. If Luis can go from one overwhelmed author to a keynote speaker, it might happen to you, Bobby Maddox. Glad you got to come.

NOTE: The complexity (political, cultural, historic--evolving with each passing year) of choosing each of the book is mind-boggling. For a great back and forth discussion of one award in particular--the Coretta Scott King Award--check out the post on Esme Raj Codell’s website here.

--Lee Byrd


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