A Few Thoughts on Being a Cybils Judge

Since I have to zip my lip on the Cybils YA titles I’m judging until the contest is over, I thought I’d do a quick post on what it’s like to be a judge for a book award contest. I might have done this before (honestly? I can’t remember). But something has changed in the way I evaluate books as a judge. What I’ve noticed is, the way I read and think about these titles has changed since I’ve been published myself.

The biggest change I’ve noticed is, I’m more likely to count it against a book if it seems to me that a problem could have been dealt with in the editing process. I’m not just talking about typos (although those annoy me, it really isn’t fair to hold them against the story, if that part is strong). I’m talking more about inconsistencies, pacing issues, things that are left out or unexplained, stylistic indulgences or other things that could have been stripped out before the final version. These are all things that I notice a lot more while I’m reading, having been through the editing process multiple times myself. It takes a very particular type of book to make it past my barriers and enable to me to just get lost in it.

And I guess now that’s what I’m looking for: those books that don’t boot me out of the story for one reason or another. I realize part of that is personal resonance–for a story that resonates with me, or characters that resonate with me, I’m less likely to get tripped up by details. And of course a story that resonates with one person isn’t necessarily going to resonate with another person. But that feeling of being lost in a book can happen even when I’m very conscious that I don’t relate strongly to the character or the setting or whatever.* That’s when I know a book has been really well crafted.

* I’ve also noticed the opposite can happen: I can relate to the
characters or the story but I’m not getting lost in it because of the
style or some other issue that brings me out of my immersive state.

When I’m reading a book for judging purposes, therefore, I try to be very conscious of WHY I don’t like something–if it’s because I don’t agree with a stylistic choice, for instance, because it’s not one I would have made, versus whether I think something just wasn’t well done. Or if it’s just not the kind of genre I would naturally gravitate towards. That one is more difficult for me to move past, because genres have conventions of their own, and while I tend to read fairly widely, there are a few types of stories I just don’t have a strong interest in, and so it’s hard to judge them because the very things I dislike about them may be the things fans LOVE about them.

(Side note: While I may actually BE a judgmental person when it comes to certain types of books, it does NOT mean that other people shouldn’t be reading whatever the hell they like to read just because I think something is crappy.)

When I’m judging, then, I have to be very honest with myself and about myself as well as about the books. Only then can I be open to the judging criteria the way I need to be. It’s a very different process from winnowing down titles in Round 1, which I’ve also done in the past. In fact, being on Round 2 for a while has kind of made me miss Round 1, and the ability to be eclectic and broad rather than specific and choosy.

For those of you who have been on Cybils or other award committees, what do you find yourself getting tripped up by? Do you prefer creating shortlists or picking winners? I’m curious.

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  1. I definitely prefer Round 1. Choosing a set of "best" rather than One Best of the Best is easier for one thing. And you're right that the wide-ranging reading and choosing and discussing lots of kinds of books is something I would miss if I went back to Round 2.

  2. Sherry, thanks for weighing in! I look forward to having the time in future years (I hope!) to go back to Round 1, although it tends to be grueling in SFF and YA. I did enjoy Round 1 in graphic novels quite a lot.

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