John Scott has gone where few children's librarians have gone before — to Boston to judge the 2016 competition for the Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious awards given for children's literature.
"It's a high honor," said Scott, 47, of Idlewylde, lower school librarian at Friends School, in Baltimore, for the past 11 years. He was one of 15 librarians and teachers chosen from around the country, and the only one from Maryland, to judge this year's Newbery Medal competition, which is sponsored annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. "To engage in that professional experience is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Actually, Scott has judged a leading children's literature award twice. In 2010, he served on the panel that judged the Caldecott Medal competition.
"He's kind of a rock star in the library world," said Tracy Thompson, Friends' middle school librarian, who was so impressed that she took it upon herself to publicize Scott's achievements. "It's a really big deal."
Scott, one of 58,000 librarians around the country who are members of the American Library Association, didn't look like a rock star in an interview on Jan. 21. Wearing a green sweater and corduroy pants, he was sitting in a rocking chair in a corner of the lower school library, reading to kindergartners from a book he chose from his stuffed shelves, called "Emmanuel's Dream," about a West African boy with a deformed leg who became a cyclist and rode 400 miles across Ghana in 2001 to spread the message that his disability should not be taken as inability.
Scott would have chosen to read the class "Finding Winnie," this year's Caldecott winner, but the kindergartners shouted that they had already heard that one.
He didn't have to read them the 2016 Newbery Medal winner, the picture book "Last Stop on Market Street," written by Matt De La Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson. The book, about a boy whose social consciousness is raised when his grandmother takes him on a bus ride to work at a soup kitchen, is already widely popular at Friends School, and most of its copies are checked out because everyone at school knows that Scott helped choose it as the Newbery Medal winner, and they cheered madly when they watched the awards presentation on a live webcast earlier this month.
Scott said he read an estimated 500 children's books for the competition — many of them from the Towson Library, which is near his house — based on reviews, submissions by publishers for consideration, and recommendations from other judges.
"I gave up a lot of activities with my family," he said. "I gave up a lot of sleep."
A passionate discussion
Books were judged on their interpretation of themes or concepts, their presentation of information, their clarity, accuracy and organization, their characters and settings, and the appropriateness of their style of writing, among other factors, Scott said, reading from a cheat sheet that he still keeps on the cover of his iPad.
Under the complex judging rules, the winning book had to receive a majority of first-place votes, among other criteria. It was chosen from hundreds of children's books that the judges, from New York to Iowa to California, spent the past year reading after getting their initial training in Chicago. Last month, they gathered in Boston over two days to pick a winner. Scott likened it to judging a dog show.
"You have to go from Best of Breed to Best of Show," he said. "There was passionate discussion. It took multiple rounds of voting. It wasn't like a book club, where some people come for the wine and crackers. Everyone brought different perspectives."
Some judges drilled down to thoughts about the structure of books and came up with analyses that Scott hadn't even thought about when he read a particular book.
"Where was I?" he thought.
One of the keys to the judging committee's success was "trusting the process," Scott said, adding that he learned a lot about book analysis and how he can help students do their own analysis, to deepen their understanding of what constitutes "good" for a book.
He declined to say whether his was one of the first-place votes that "Last Stop on Market Street" received, citing confidentiality rules.
"But I can tell you that I really liked this book, and I supported it as soon as I read it," he said.
That said, there were others he loved, too. "Even the ones that didn't win will be deep in my soul," he said.
This year's award is unusual for its content. "It is not conventional for the Newbery [winner] to be a picture book," Scott said. But he said that in a mere 177 words throughout a 32-page book, the author, De La Pena, imparted themes of community, simplicity and sincerity that draw in children and fit Friends School's Quaker philosophy.
To prove his point, Scott read several passages from "Last Stop on Market Street," including one in which the young boy, CJ, and his grandmother, Nana, ride the bus through a rundown neighborhood with crumbling streets and broken doors.
"How come it's always so dirty over here?" CJ asks.
"Sometimes, when you're surrounded by dirt, CJ, you're a better witness for what's beautiful," Nana answers.
"Nana encourages him to find beauty in the world, and that's a powerful message," Scott said. He said he has read the book to kindergartners and fifth-graders alike. "They love it," he said. "They love the messages."
Having a children's literature judge in its midst has helped Friends School attract authors such as last year's Newbery Medal winner, Kwame Alexander, author of "The Crossover," who visited the middle school in November.
And for Thompson, the middle school librarian, having Scott on the staff raises the school's profile.
"We don't promote him enough," she said. "If I had a child looking for schools in the area, that would turn my head."
It's a heady time for Scott.
"For a children's librarian, this is as good as it gets," he said.
Unless, of course, you're Laura Amy Schlitz, a librarian at Park School and an author herself, who won the 2008 Newbery Medal for "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!" and the 2016 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, for "The Hired Girl."
"I'd love to have that gift," said Scott, who has no aspirations to write a book, at least for now. "I feel that my role is appreciating and highlighting the accomplishments of those who have that gift."
When the 2016 Newbery Medal is awarded officially at the annual conference and banquet of the Association for Library Service to Children on June 26, in Orlando, Scott will be there. Beyond that, he doesn't know whether he will have another moment in the limelight as a judge.
Under the judging rules, "I'm not banned for life," he said, "but I have to wait four years."