We've all seen the movie librarian with a shh finger on the ready for patrons who forget to whisper. Libraries are supposed to be havens of study, research and reflection (that is, quiet study, research and reflection). But that's not all that's going on with Alpha DeLap and her middle school students in St. Thomas School's (STS) Mock Newbery Club.
When DeLap, one of STS's librarians and media specialists, walks in pulling a dolly piled high with boxes of new books, Mock Newbery Club students flock to her.
"Last year, I was getting all of these books, and they'd come running over. The fun of seeing the kids," DeLap says between bursts of laughter, "it was so exciting!"
DeLap was one of 14 people appointed to the Newbery Award Selection Committee. Established in 1922, the Newbery Medal is a prestigious literary award given annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. DeLap calls it the equivalent of the Academy Awards. It is the type of award that puts you in the company of Beverly Cleary and Neil Gaiman.
For DeLap, who has been a school librarian for eight years, serving on the Newbery Award Committee was a bucket-list item.
"My mentor, Eliza Dresang, was a professor at the University of Washington, and she served on almost every book award committee that the American Library Association runs," she says. "She always talked about the privilege and honor of being on these book award committees. I knew that I would love to have the opportunity to contribute my own thoughts."
Serving on the committee is a two-year commitment. DeLap spent last year learning the ropes from that year's committee members. This is her final year on the committee. She and her co-members will be making the selections themselves.
DeLap estimates that she's been reading 20 hours a week since January and will mostly fit over 1,000 books into those early morning and late-night hours. It's time that will also benefit her students.
"I continue to get better at evaluating books, and I feel like that really helps my students," she says. "I teach stand-alone library classes, but I am also embedded in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade Humanities classes, where I focus really closely on the development of independent reading practices. There is a direct relationship between the work I've been doing for the Newbery and what I'm able to teach my students. I'm learning and sharing my process."
Discretion is essential to serving on the committee. But sometimes it's hard for DeLap to keep things under wraps.
"I'm a big social media person," she says. "It's a big part of my process, in terms of readers' advisory. I'm usually tweeting and Bookstagramming. Social media is a great way to reach a lot of my middle school students, and I can't do any of that for the entire time I'm on the committee."
The Mock Newbery Club is one way she can continue to share her enthusiasm for books with her students.
"Last year's self-selecting group of students went through the process of developing their own understandings of what was distinctive," DeLap says. "They developed their own sense of how they were going to have their conversations. It was so great to see them come into their own and feel confident with their own analysis."
Because she's on the committee, the process is a little different this year. But the enthusiasm and commitment of the students remain.
"I've been surprised by their level of sophistication, of their analysis of different plot details and character construction," says DeLap. The club is made up of fifth through eighth graders, but the bulk of this year's club are fifth graders. "To be 10 years old and to be talking about the uniqueness of a narrative and then to reference other recent books," says Delap, "for me, that's just wonderful and very exciting!"
An important take-away for both the Newbery Award Committee and the Mock Newbery Club is that it's not about your favorite book winning.
"It's about coming together as a community and selecting something together," says DeLap. "It's about all of us sharing and making that into an artifact that is meaningful to everybody."
DeLap usually livestreams the awards ceremony to celebrate the selections along with students and other book lovers. This year, though, DeLap won't be watching in the STS library. She'll be in Chicago with the rest of the Newbery Award Committee celebrating a distinctive book, as well as the culmination of two years' worth of hard work, learning and sharing.
And if her students spot her on the livestream, you can be assured that the library will be filled with cheers.