A Quest for Literary Gold
Naperville librarian helps choose the Newbery-winning best children’s book of the year
When she was a child, Emily Mroczek’s local library branch was inside Joliet’s mall. Reading there while her mom shopped was one of her favorite things to do, but Mroczek never imagined the twist coming in her own story: getting to help choose the winner of one of children’s books highest honor — the Newbery award.
Some people have never heard of it. But kids know, says Mroczek. All she has to say is “the big gold medal” for children to find the winners, each stamped with Newbery’s easily recognized gold emblem on its cover. A Naperville resident and librarian at Naper Boulevard Library since 2016, Mroczek was a member of the national committee that selected the recently announced best addition to children’s literature for 2019.
“Children’s book authors can look to the award winners, see the best of the best, and ask themselves how they can learn from that book,” says Mroczek, the first Naperville public librarian to serve on the committee.
As a member of the Association of Library Service to Children (a division of the American Library Association), Mroczek had checked off several “committee preference” boxes. She was surprised and thrilled to be the youngest selected — she was 27 when notified in 2017 — among representatives from various geographic locations and of all races and ages to create a balanced committee.
The task was challenging. Throughout 2018, the same year she married, boxes and boxes of books arrived at the Naperville Public Library for her to read because, of course, you can’t judge a book by its cover.
“You try to consider them all — sometimes that’s looking at a summary or flipping through. If a committee member suggests a book, everyone else is supposed to read those. Everyone can nominate seven, so the most would be 105.”
With 1,000-plus books published for children last year, there were “way more than a dozen” that Mroczek really liked. “You’re not allowed to talk about it. You can show people the books, but you can’t give your opinion. That’s hard, because I love to talk!”
The 15 committee members — writers, professors, publishers, consultants and librarians — met at various ALA meetings throughout the country. Reading happens on the members’ own time. Books aren’t discussed until the final three-day meeting, when debate continues for 14 hours a day in a room where members also eat their meals.
“It’s nuts. You get different perspectives — something might be problematic or awesome that you didn’t think about. You’re looking into the books through the minds of 15 people.”
Every nominated book gets discussed. Then there’s a vote. Though members each had books they became invested in, once the decision is made, “we all get behind it.”
The selection brought relief and pride.“The feeling of being part of something that will be around so long is really great,” says Mroczek, whose first child was born five days before that marathon session. The pressure of delving so deeply into each book helped Mroczek better understand why a book is good or not: characters, setting, plot, theme — and another element, perhaps more important.
“For children, a book has to be something they can see themselves in, what they can relate to. Books are an amazing place children go to for guidance and support — you are introduced to worlds you didn’t understand or explore before.”
Some lessons, Mroczek had to try to un-learn.“It got to be hard, when just reading for myself, to not think critically and to just escape into a book. The joke is, being on the committee could ruin reading for you!”
Back in those simple and enjoyable mall days, Mroczek knew she wanted to be a librarian. After a short detour into journalism, she became a children’s librarian. “It was the right fit — it goes with my personality,” says Mroczek, “In this community, kids have good support, but they still need the support they find in books.”
But with so many books, how can a kid and/or parent find the best ones?
Mroczek’s unsurprising answer: Go to the library! “Libraries are such an amazing resource. Librarians have master’s degrees, they are so knowledgable. There’s so much out there, it can be overwhelming — but every city has a local library with a children’s librarian and they’re so willing to help.
“People say to me, ‘you’re busy!’ But no — this is my job, this is awesome. We will find your child a book.”
Big gold medal optional.Edit Module