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The top children’s writer? This local librarian knew in advance

WWU librarian, English professor share their favorite children's and teen books of 2016

Listen as an English professor and a librarian at Western Washington University discuss their favorite children's and teen books of the past year, as well as a few titles for young readers that adults will find fascinating.
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Listen as an English professor and a librarian at Western Washington University discuss their favorite children's and teen books of the past year, as well as a few titles for young readers that adults will find fascinating.

Monday morning, experts in children’s literature will name the genre’s top writers and illustrators from last year, and once again a Whatcom County librarian is among those making the choice.

Thom Barthelmess, youth services manager for the Whatcom County Library System, headed the selection committee for the John Newbery Medal, the top honor in the field of children’s writing.

Barthelmess joined the Whatcom County libraries in July 2015 from Dominican University in suburban Chicago, where he was curator of Butler Children’s Literature Center and taught some of America’s future librarians.

As head of the selection panel, Barthelmess gets to call the Newbery Medal winner at 5 a.m. Pacific time.

“This was an incredibly strong year in publishing for young people,” Barthelmess said in a phone interview Thursday from Atlanta, where the American Library Association is having its annual conference to announce not only the Newbery awards, but also other top prizes for children and teens. Honors such as the Caldecott Medal and Printz Award can promise a sharp increase in sales for a writer or illustrator.

“I’ve heard over and over, ‘Wow, this is a really good year,’ ” he said. “In some ways, we couldn’t go wrong.”

Previous winners have included “The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle” (1923); “A Wrinkle in Time” (1963); “The Giver” (1994); “The Tale of Desperaux” (2004); and last year’s winner, a picture book called “Last Stop on Market Street.” In addition, notable books can be awarded a Newbery Honor – and sometimes several such “honor” books are cited by the committee.

Although Barthelmess couldn’t name his favorite books of the past year, he offered some insight into the selection process. He said the winner must meet a range of literary criteria, and not just be a great story.

“Being the chair of the Newbery committee means I get to both do the reading and recommending, but I also got to manage the process,” Barthelmess said. “I tried to create a culture of listening, so that we could put 15 different perspectives together into a deeper and richer experience.”

Committee members met several times during the past year to discuss their favorite works, and Barthelmess said he made sure that everyone’s voice was heard. As the selections narrowed, members were asked to pick their top three books, ranked in order.

“It was all kind of fun and really instructive,” he said. “At the beginning I asked everybody to bring in a book that they love that didn’t win the Newbery. They didn’t win, but we still love them and they still have meaning and we still recommend them to readers.

He also had some fun with his Newbery panel job, conducting a mock Newbery selection process with folks in the Whatcom County libraries. Their winner? He wasn’t giving any hints.

Barthelmess adds to the rich tradition in children’s literature for Bellingham, which is home to the annual Children’s Literature Conference at Western Washington University, featuring top writers and illustrators for children.

WWU has a children’s library – the Children’s Literature Interdisciplinary Collection – that is open to the public. WWU English professor Nancy Johnson and CLIC librarian Sylvia Tag have been members of the Newbery committee in the past.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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