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Grassroots Kid-Lit Award Faces New Challenges
When Grinnell College Russian language and literature Professor Kelly Herold began blogging about children’s literature three years ago, she had no idea that she was about to help create a grassroots literary sensation.
“I was interested in blogging and I read blogs in many different areas,” Herold said. “I’m a big fan of academic blogs and I considered starting one of those, but realized it would be a complaining blog instead of something more targeted. So, I thought, ‘Oh! I’ll start a children’s book blog.’ There were only a couple of us out there at that time.”
One of the posts on her blog, Big A little a, lamented the fact that there was no awards program for children’s books that combined book/author popularity and literary value. The idea of having an award contest that wasn’t as lofty as the existing Newbery Award and a step above the recently defunct Quills caught the attention of many. Another children’s literature blogger, Anne Boles Levy, read the post and left a comment indicating that she thought the two women could develop such an award. Herold and Levy, having never met face-to-face, began planning what would eventually become the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards (Cybils).
Now in its second year, the Cybils unveiled its 2007 winners on Feb. 14. There were eight categories in 2007: picture books, non-fiction picture books, middle-grade fiction, poetry, young adult fiction, non-fiction (young adult and middle-grade), fantasy/science fiction and graphic novels. The award recognizes both literary merit and “kid appeal.”
Books considered for Cybils are nominated by the public at large. Works are not limited to large publishing houses and the group even accepts books that have been self-published. Once the nomination deadline has come, roughly 90 literature bloggers, divided into the eight genres, set to work reading all the nominated books. Following their review, the Cybils posts short lists on Jan. 1. Books on the short list are then reviewed a second time to determine the award winner. The reviewers are children’s literature bloggers who represent parents, home-schoolers, authors, illustrators, librarians and even teens.
“We’ve noticed a big surge in both participation and attention in conjunction with this year’s awards,” Herold said. “There are more people following the awards. Publishers are starting to list the awards when their books have won them. Because this is a grassroots movement and a newly established award, we’ve been surprised by how quickly they’ve been accepted by the industry.”
During the Cybils’ first nomination process in 2006, more than 480 books were nominated and reviewed. When nominations ended last fall for the 2007 contest, the total number of nominated books had grown by 25 percent. Herold admits that the logistical aspects alone have, at times, been a little overwhelming.
“We’re going to have to — unfortunately — probably have to professionalize things a little bit. We’re going to have to probably incorporate and become a nonprofit entity,” she said. “In the end, Anne and I are just two people, and we had an incident this year where there was a possibility there could be legal action against one of our panelists. We don’t want that to happen to anyone just because they blogged about something an author didn’t agree with. It looks like we’re going to have to take some steps to protect ourselves.”
Because the Cybils have limited financial resources, incorporating could pose a threat to the awards.
“We are the only awards process I know of that doesn’t require any sort of entry fee,” Herold said. “So, we really run on a shoestring budget. We send a small gift to the actual authors and illustrators who win the awards — those are paid for by the small commissions and ad sales on the site. We definitely run on recognition more than money.”
When it comes to the Cybils, recognition is definitely a two-way street. Not only are publishers reaping the rewards of having their books reviewed and discussed in passionate online communities, but the awards themselves are gaining notoriety.
“We’ve found that parents, teachers and librarians use our lists,” Herold said. “Even though we name a winner, the short lists seem to be most popular. On those, there is a range of five to eight books per category. People like to chose several of the books on those lists or all of the books on those lists for their kids, their grandkids or their library and classroom. Those lists are often used as purchasing lists.”
One of the award panelists has followed sales on Amazon to determine if the awards were having any impact on the marketplace.
“There definitely are related sales jumps associated with the winning titles,” Herold said. “But, beyond the marketplace, I find the Cybils to be really indicative of what blogging can be. Anne and I started this after never having met each other, because of our similar tastes — something we found out about online. We have since met and she turned out to be the same in person as she is in text. That’s something I find interesting about the blogging community: Anytime I travel now for conferences or for work-related reasons, I always get to meet one of these people from all over the country. I haven’t yet once been surprised by their real-life person.”