A Conversation With Librarian Peter Blenski, Newbery Award Committee Member
Meet Peter Blenski, the Youth Services Librarian at Hartland Public Library. Peter makes reading and learning fun for Hartland kids, even dressing as an astronaut and making his own Elephant & Piggie videos.
Peter is also passionate about children’s literature. This year, he was one of 15 librarians to serve on the Newbery Award Selection Committee. The Committee is tasked with bestowing the Newbery Award on “the most distinguished contributions to American literature for children.” This year’s winner was announced on January 24, 2022: The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera. This year also marks the Newbery Award’s 100th anniversary.
This week, we pulled Peter aside to tell us what it was like to be on the Newbery Award Committee. This conversation with Peter is like revisiting every magical moment you ever had with books as a kid. He is a wonderful example of why children’s librarians matter to our communities and our kids. Settle in, because you’re in for a treat!
First of all, congratulations on being part of this historic event! So tell us: how did you get on the Newbery committee? A reading obstacle course? Super-secret handshakes?
I wish! In order to get on, you have to be a member of the ALA (American Library Association) and the ALSC (Association for Library Service of Children.) From there you can volunteer for a bunch of different committees, like the Newbery Selection Committee. Right now, half the committee is appointed, and the other half is elected by ALSC members. I was elected, but it’s not like running for office. You just get your name out there by doing book reviews or blogs, and see if other members connect with you.
Walk us through the process of selecting the Newbery-winning book. How does it work? How long does it take?
So you read. A lot. Most of my nights and weekends last year were spent just reading, especially towards the end of the year. At the beginning of every month, you add books that you liked to a large “Suggestion List” that the whole committee could see. You could also see other people suggestions, and pick and choose what you would read next based on these recommendations. Then at the end of the year, we all formally nominated seven books. These books would then be considered for the award, so everyone had to read them.
What surprised me was that, as a committee, we never talked about books outside of meetings. We only talked about our books twice the whole year. Once was at the end of the year during our formal meeting to decide a winner, and the other time was over summer to PRACTICE having that formal meeting. This last meeting is so important that we had to practice having it! That final meeting was pretty intense and magical; some of the best librarians from different backgrounds and places, debating all these great books for long hours. I really had to step up my game to try and keep up to their level of insight. After all the books are discussed, we start voting on what we think has risen above the rest.
How many books did you end up reading?
We’re not allowed to say the exact number. The committee likes to keep deliberations secret, to focus on what won the award and not what almost or could have won the award. Let’s just say I read THIIIIIIS many *stretches out arms as wide as he can*
What kinds of criteria are you looking for in a Newbery winner?
The ALA has some set criteria already in place that we all looked at. Things like excellence in character development, plot, setting, and style. Those criteria really helped guide our conversation. But you’re also looking for how relatable a book is going to be to kids. And if it has that magical element that none of the other books have that sets it apart from all those other great books.
What was the best part of being on the Newbery committee?
I’m now forever connected to a book in a way I never experienced. I write reviews for “School Library Journal” and “Booklist,” and every once and awhile I run across a book I reviewed, and it instantly reconnects me to the time I read it. Being on the committee feels like that x100. Good books connect to you, and whenever you’re able to turn around and connect that book to someone else…well it’s an amazing feeling. It’s why we do what we do. Whether it’s the Newbery Award, this huge spotlight that has the potential to connect one book to thousands, or it’s just you recommending a book to one kiddo in your library. Amazing all the same.
What do you love best about children’s literature? Why is it important?
I love how concise they can be. Some books say more in 100 pages than others can in a thousand. But I also love how children’s literature is evolving–there’s a new energy and focus on different backgrounds, formats, and styles. There’s starting to be books for every kid now. That’s amazing. It’s so important that every kid is represented–to see themselves and to also learn about and see others.
Thank you so much for your time and your effort to share your love of children’s literature, Peter. Not only with the kiddos who come to the Hartland Public Library but with kids all over the country through your work with the Newbery Committee!