Q&A: Karin Snelson Tells Us What It Takes To Select the Best Children's Book of the Year

This former Amazon.com book editor Snelson has been reading nonstop for the past year, narrowing hun

Occupation: Children’s lit specialist and Newbery Medal committee member

Book reviewing process:
“It’s a physical system; I make piles.”

Words to live by:
“Falling in love with a book is like falling in love with a person; in the end, the faults don’t matter if they’re slight.”

Favorite Newbery winners: Criss Cross (2006), From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1968) and A Wrinkle in Time (1963)

For Karin Snelson, being young at heart is a job requirement. The former Amazon.com children’s book editor has written, edited and reviewed countless books for youth and served two years on the American Library Association’s Notable Children’s Books Committee. In 2009, she was one of 15 people chosen nationally to serve on the 2011 selection panel for the Newbery Medal, which honors the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” (fiction, nonfiction and poetry for readers up through age 14). Snelson has been reading nonstop for the past year, narrowing hundreds of 2010 titles to the seven nominations she’s allowed. The winner will be announced on January 10.

SM: Are adults the best judges of children’s literature?
KS: [What’s] interesting about children’s literature is that adults are creating it, adults are buying it, adults are reviewing it, but I think that makes perfect sense. It takes a long time to become a critical reader. If you’re a professional in the field, you have more perspective—you know if something’s the eighth book on Paul Revere or the 16th book of haiku about sparrows. It could still be wonderful and fresh for a child…but I want to be surprised in some way, by something that’s original.

SM: Do you try to put yourself in a child’s mind-set when reading?
KS: I don’t have to work very hard to put myself in a child’s mind-set, for better or worse. Excellent writing sweeps you off your feet—you get pulled into a story and you cease to be a critical reader—you become a 10-year-old.
SM: Have you noticed a theme across this year’s titles?    
KS: There’s a huge range, everything from the Cuban missile crisis to hamsters to polio to Stonehenge. War is a big theme. Pluto not being a planet has been referenced in a sidelong way in many books. I’ve noticed many books about autism and Asperger’s and people with disabilities...themes of empathy.

SM: That sounds pretty serious.
KS: To say that children’s books should be happy or shouldn’t deal with serious subjects is silly. One of my favorite children’s books growing up was Where the Red Fern Grows, which was so sad but memorable. But I don’t think books should be like cod liver oil, either. The worst children’s books start with a message—you can smell that a mile away.

For Snelson’s tips on writing children’s books, visit seattlemag.com and search “children’s books”

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