My Trip to the ALA Midwinter Meeting

~post by Ellen

This past January, over 10,000 librarians, publishers, and book-industry people met for the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia. If you want to read about the conference in more detail, you can do so here, but I’m going to tell you about my ALA Midwinter 2014.

I’m not sure how many Midwinter conferences I’ve attended over the years. Maybe ten, twelve? I used to attend as an exhibitor, but for the past few I’ve been lucky to be an attendee who can simply enjoy the conference, not have to work it. It makes for a very different experience.

In my opinion, the best thing about Midwinter is talking to people and getting a chance to look at the new and upcoming books. Unlike the ALA Annual Conference at the end of June, Midwinter is about the books, where Annual is about the authors/illustrators. Very few authors attend Midwinter, but Annual is afloat in them.

In a nutshell, Midwinter is when our nation’s librarians meet to conduct committee meetings, talk about procedures, policies, and standards, and for children’s librarians, it is when the big awards are announced. More about that later. My interests revolve around children’s and teen literature, so that is what I focused on during my visit to the conference.

Friday kicked off with the Exhibitor Round Table & Booklist Author Forum which highlighted nonfiction for children. I listened in as Tonya Bolden, Brian Floca (the 2014 Caldecott Medalist. More on this later.), Kadir Nelson, Steve Sheinkin, and Melissa Sweet talked about their experiences writing and illustrating nonfiction. They covered their process for creating a book, how they research, how to make nonfiction interesting, and avoiding plagiarism, to which Sheinkin said that sometimes a phrase will sound so good to him that he’ll ask, “That’s well said, did I say that?” and then he’ll have to go make sure he didn’t accidentally copy something from his research. All five authors were united in their desire to keep asking questions, staying curious, and being “in character” while they are writing. They like to immerse themselves in their subject and they likened the research process to a scavenger hunt. Nelson said of his process that he “writes it first with words, then writes with pictures. But when you get it, like you know, you struck gold.” The discussion was expertly moderated by Booklist’s Ilene Cooper and the large audience was inspired and amused by these talented writers and artists.

After the forum, most people made their way to the opening of the exhibit hall. The opening of the exhibits is accompanied by local culture, in this case a Mummers band, and free refreshments and wine. Friday night exhibits is a quick, mad dash event. Exhibits are only open 90 minutes and most people use the time to grab up the ARCs that publishers have so carefully and artfully stacked, and perhaps give a quick hello to publishing friends. I stayed out of the stampede but still enjoyed myself for about 30 minutes just getting the lay of the land.

Saturday was the real first day for me at the exhibits. I visited the exhibitor booths of all the major children’s publishers. I took my time reading their new and upcoming books, talking to their marketing reps, congratulating them on a great year, and making a wish-list of books to read.

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A few things that caught my eye:

Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light
Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems by Paul B. Janeczko
This Is a Moose by Richard T. Morris, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry by Peter Sis
Food Trucks! by Mark Todd

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert
Following Papa’s Song by Gianna Marino
Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
The 14th Goldfish by Jennifer Holm
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

In the afternoon, I attended the teen discussion session of the Best Fiction for Young Adults (BFYA). During this time, actual teenagers get to give their opinions about books on the BFYA committee’s discussion list. The teens are always from a relatively local school and have been well-supplied by their librarians all year with new books. They come prepared with their comments and need no urging to step up to the microphone. Many publishers also attend this session because it has a reputation for being somewhat entertaining. The opinions shared by the teens run the gamut from deep and insightful, to humourous, raving, and extreme displeasure. Some of the more entertaining sound bites from this year:

“I learned a lot from this book, but not necessarily what my parents want me to know.”

“too many slang words I’ve never heard.” (this was not a good thing)

“ehhhh, it’s okay.”

“Scares me like The Shining.”

“Teachers are people too. That was important.”

“Hopefully the next in the series will be shorter.”

“really beautiful in a gritty way”

“Language was spot on.”

“I really understood this book.”

“She really wants to kill her father – which I really liked.” (this was quickly followed by the teen laughing)

“Made me think about life.”

“I reread this. Twice.”

“I didn’t do any homework that night I read it.”

“I want to buy this book flowers and chocolate because I love it.”

While I have only captured the pithiest statements by these astute teens, they backed up each of these statements with why they felt this way. Tough critics, teens. At times the audience would audibly wince at a particularly harsh but honest statement. I watched many editors and marketing people squirm.

The teen opinions are shared in front of the all-adult BFYA committee. They are taking note of what the teens say, and include it as they consider the final list of recommended books. If you are looking for great YA books, try something from the 2014 list.

I skipped Sunday in order to have a little fun visiting Philadelphia.

But I was up bright and early on Monday. This is the BIG day in children’s books for it is the morning that about 18 awards are bestowed. All weekend there was a buzz in the exhibit hall as people gathered in small groups to quietly speculate about what might win. Publishers are nervous and excited. It is hard for most publishers and authors and illustrators to sleep on Sunday night. I didn’t sleep either. By the time 8AM Monday rolls around, the winners have been notified and the publishers know if anything they published has won an award or not. But for the rest of us not in this exclusive group, we have to sit excitedly and wait for the ALA Youth Media Press Conference.

This room holds 800 people and every seat was taken. There was an overflow room with a video feed next door.
This room holds 800 people and every seat was taken. There was an overflow room with a video feed next door.

The oldest and most well-known awards in children’s literature, the John Newbery Medal and Randolph Caldecott Medal are the most talked about and anticipated. When the winners are announced, the audience goes wild cheering and applauding. Actually, the audience applauds and cheers during all 18 award announcements, but are arguably the most amped for the Newbery and Caldecott.

It takes about one hour to announce all the awards to the world. As I exited the room, I was handed a hot-off-the-press edition of ALA Cognotes, the daily conference publication, featuring all the awards. For a complete list of the awards, click here.


After a quick turn through the exhibits to extend my congratulations or condolences, and to say goodbye to friends, I headed to the Amtrak station bound for New York City. More on this later.

So that does it for Midwinter this year. Everyone will meet up again this June at ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas to celebrate the awards, but I don’t think I’ll be there. I know they will have fun, drink lots of celebratory drinks, greet each other with hugs and smiles, and of course, talk about the books that they love.

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