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Robin Adelson - Executive Director of the CBC and Every Child a Reader, Part 2

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Robin Adelson - Executive Director of the CBC and Every Child a Reader, Part 2

A lot of book jobs are, understandably, inextricably connected to books themselves: writing them, editing them, designing them, publicizing them, selling them...the list goes on. But some book jobs take a step back, and instead focus on promoting literacy and reading itself.

As the Executive Director of the children's book trade association Children's Book Council (CBC) and the nonprofit Every Child a Reader, Robin Adelson has one (well, two) of those jobs. At the CBC, she acts as the face of the children's book publishing industry and makes sure that she addresses publishing professionals' needs and interests. At Every Child a Reader, she works every day to fulfill the organization's mission to "instill a lifelong love of reading in children," 

After heading up the CBC and Every Child a Reader for eight years, Robin is leaving both organizations at the end of 2014. She will surely be missed, and at Teenreads, we wanted to make sure to talk to her about her unique roles in the book world before she left.

Below, find the second part of our interview, where Robin talks about some of the biggest CBC and Every Child a Reader initiatives --- including the Children's Choice Book Awards, the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and the CBC Diversity Committee --- and what's to come in 2015! If you missed it, read Part 1 of the interview here and look out for Part 3 on Tuesday, December 30th!


TRC: Can you tell me more about the Children’s Choice Book Awards? Can you tell me how those came about and what’s unique about them?

RA: I love the awards and I love talking about the awards! I think when we first created them it was very much with Children’s Book Week on the brain. We wanted to turn Children’s Book Week into something big and thought, “What are things that could be celebrated during Children’s Book Week?

So I think we came about the awards backwards --- we wanted something that would culminate during Children’s Book Week and be interactive for kids.We wanted kids engaged and we wanted kids excited about reading --- we wanted that to be what Children’s Book Week was recognizing and celebrating.

So what would that be? Let’s go back two months. Well, what if we started a program? So we looked around because at the time, there was no book awards program where children of all ages were doing the voting. There were some state awards programs where children did the voting and then there were some programs where there was one age group that did the voting, but there was no program that sort of ran the gamut and covered all ages --- young kids through teens. And we decided, “Here’s an opportunity!” There are so many awards in books, and we certainly didn’t want to just create another award that becomes irrelevant or is repetitive. No reason to do that and no reason to compete with something that’s already out there. But if we could find that one thing that wasn’t yet done, why not do that?

So we decided this was the thing to focus on! We were already working with the National Reading Association --- and have been since 1975 --- on a program called Children’s Choices. It has five team leaders that represent different parts of the country and are each responsible for about 2,500 kids. Publishers submit titles for consideration, and those titles then get shipped to the team leaders who bring them into the different schools.

Then, kids pick up whatever books appeal to them, so they’ll be looking at covers, titles,  maybe author recognition and perhaps the summary of the book on the back. Kids decide what they want to read and then rate every book that they read. The pool of children participating goes from kindergarten to sixth grade and is split into three age groups --- kindergarten to second grade, third to fourth and fifth to sixth. So since 1975, we’ve been getting all the ratings from kids and using that to produce the Children’s Choices Reading List.

So we said, “Let’s start this with something we already have.” And that way for those categories, the finalists have actually been selected by kids.  So Children’s Choice Book Awards started with the Children’s Choices Reading List --- we took the top five ranked books in each of those categories and they became the finalists.

The books that are being submitted to those lists are often pretty obscure titles and aren’t carried by all of the retailers, but we decided that in order to turn this into something big and recognizable, we needed retail involvement. So, we created an Illustrator of the Year and an Author of the Year category, where the finalists came from the bestseller lists. And it worked --- in that first year, Barnes and Noble said, “OK, we’re going to promote this program. We can use these bestselling, commercial success titles to elevate the titles nobody’s ever heard of.”

By the second year we realized we really needed to have a YA category as well. And we turned to our friends at Teenreads.com and said “Would you be interested in working on this with us and creating a contest? Teens can take a look at the books that you guys have covered over the year, with room for write-in candidates, and vote.”

So, the Teen Book of the Year works in the same way as the Book of the Year in the younger categories in that the finalists are selected by teens themselves. And we have been doing that ever since. The first year of the awards was 2008, and 2009 was the first year we added teens.

Going into 2015 we will be changing the way the finalists are determined for the illustrator and author awards. We realized a couple of years ago that we didn’t need the bestseller lists and the commercial success in the same way that we did in the beginning --- the program really has caught on. It’s been seven years, and over a million kids vote every year now. The program is recognized in schools and libraries and plenty of bookstores. So, we didn’t need that same angle, and this is such a great way to promote the work that so many brilliant people are producing.

We’re still working out some of the details [at the time of this interview], but I think we have established for the author category that instead of having an author of the year, we’re going to create Debut Author Awards. So we will probably have two different age groups --- we’re still working on that --- and one of them will be a YA author award. The debut author and illustrator finalists will be selected by selection committees, no longer by bestseller lists.

TRC: What do you like so much about the awards?

RA: The whole idea behind them was to get kids really excited about books. You have to give kids a choice and you have to give them a voice and hear what it is that they want to read, hear what it is that excites a young reader.  Whether it’s a five-year-old reader or a 15- or 18-year-old reader, what is it that’s getting that person excited? This program gives those readers a chance to say, “This is what does it for me.”

By creating a list of finalists and winners, other people are able to see what kids their age are reading and excited about. All the adults in the world could say “You should be reading this book,” but if I’m 13, I don’t really care what the adults are saying. I’d much rather hear what the other 13-year-olds are saying. So this program does that, and this is consistent with Every Child a Reader’s mission of instilling a lifelong love of reading in children. Kids like to vote! Kids like you to know what it is they like. And in this case, when I say kids, I mean kids and teens. Although my children tell me I’m not allowed to call teens “teens,” so, young people like to vote. Young adults!

TRC: Every Child a Reader also started the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature program. How did that come about?

RA: That program came about because I came here in September 2006 and two weeks after I got here, Colleen Venable, who now works at Workman Publishing, came into my office and said, “You know, the UK has a Children’s Laureate. And in this country, they’ve just announced that there’s going to be a Children’s Poet Laureate. Don’t you think we should have a Children’s Book Laureate here?” And I had been here for two weeks and was like, “Yeah! Why don’t we?” And she said “I don’t know. People have talked about it but it’s never happened.”

And so that was one of the first things that I did here. I called a few people that I had met early on from a few different publishing houses and I said “Alright, I really like this idea. I want to run with this and create something. Who do I call?” And one person said, “Well, why don’t you start with the Library of Congress? There’s a man by the name of John Cole who runs the Center for the Bookat the Library of Congress. Ask him to partner on this with you.

And in October, I sent John Cole an email, and he emailed me back and said, “Yes, I’ve heard people talk about this idea before, and I’m not so sure about it.” And I emailed him back and said, “We really need to talk about this, because we’re willing to run this and we’re willing to fundraise for it, but we need a good partner and here’s why I think you should do it.”  And he called me and said, “Let’s just do this!”

And it’s easily been one of the best partnerships that this office has had with anybody. 

TRC: So what is your role and what is The Library of Congress’s role in the program?

RA: It is officially a Library of Congress post, and that’s important to give it the kind of recognition that it needs. We, together with the Center for the Book and the Library of Congress, together facilitate the selection committee meeting which is held every two years, to select the incoming National Ambassador. From that meeting we generate a shortlist of five names in order of preference.

We bring the list with the recommended first name to the Librarian of Congress, and it’s up to the Librarian of Congress to make the final decision.  We raise the funds to run the program. We work with the National Ambassador. We take in all of the appearance requests and create the schedule, promote the schedule, promote the Ambassador and promote the program. It has a presence on the Library of Congress website.

TRC: How does the selection committee choose who would be a good candidate for the National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature?

RA: We have a whole selection procedure manual for our selection committees with criteria, and they know that this is not intended to be a lifetime achievement award. It is an award, it is intended to be an honor, but it is pretty demanding. We expect a lot from our Ambassadors.  We’re looking for somebody who has a wide body of work, preferably hitting a few different age groups, but it’s certainly not required. It has to be somebody residing in the US.

It has to be somebody who is personable and charming and who likes to speak --- somebody who is able to connect in person with children. And you know, people write books --- it’s a lot to expect that somebody who writes a good book will necessarily be able to put on a show. And we don’t expect that everybody be able to do that, but some people really excel and the connections that they’re able to make with children are just inspiring. And we have certainly seen that.

Our ambassadors have been Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson, Walter Dean Myers and now Kate DiCamillo, and each one of them has brought their own magic to every audience they greet. It’s been unbelievable to watch each one of them in action.

They have need charisma and that extra indefinable something else. Humor is great but it’s not required. I don’t think people ever realized how funny Katherine Paterson could be, and how funny Walter Dean Meyers was. But they’re certainly superstars. Ideally the National Ambassador will always be a superstar who is just gifted at connecting in person.

TRC: I know each ambassador has a specific platform. Is that something they come up with on their own, or does Every Child a Reader help?

RA:They come up with it in consultation with us. Each one serves for a two-year term and has a platform, and we work with them to develop the platform. It’s important to us that it be something that they are genuinely and deeply passionate about. It’s a message that is important to them to convey. So, we’ll work with them on the wording. We pour over a lot of the things that they’ve written and speeches they’ve given in the past to help them narrow the focus a little bit. As an example, Kate DiCamillo’s is "Stories Connect Us."

TRC: The CBC has a Diversity Committee. Can you tell me more about it?

RA: Part of what I love about the diversity committee is its genesis. We always tell members that  “we’re the trade association. We’re as good as our members will allow us to be. And we’re as responsive as our members allow us to be based on what it is they’re telling us. If they don’t share their interests with us, we can’t address them, and if they don’t share their needs with us, we can’t address them.

At the CBC Annual Meeting in September of 2011, Alvina Ling, an Editor at Little, Brown, approached me and let me know that she and a few editors from different houses had been meeting for years and talking about diversity in books, but they felt like they had taken their conversations as far as they could go --- they wanted to do something. They wanted action, and wanted to know if there any way the CBC might be interested or could help them bring this to the next step.

And at the CBC, we had been thinking about diversity in books for a long time at that point. Now it’s such a hot topic, but in 2011 people weren’t talking about diversity the way they are now. And we had been thinking about it and weren’t quite sure how to get something started and what it should be. With Alvina, it was one of those “light bulb going off” moments. I said, “Yeah, actually, let’s bring your group in to be the first CBC Diversity Committee, and let’s together define what the CBC Diversity Initiative should be, and grow it from there.”

And in the beginning, the mission of the committee was really to get the conversation on the forefront, and over the evolution of time, that conversation is certainly at the forefront. And it’s very exciting that it’s at the forefront! So now CBC Diversity has now moved off of discussion. Now the mission is action. We don’t need to keep talking in circles anymore. We now all recognize that there’s a lot of work to be done so that books and the publishing industry better reflect and represent the face of the world that we’re living in.

So CBC Diversity has a fantastic Tumblr blog at CBCDiversity.com, which is an amazing resource. Posts go up regularly, and they’re written by committee members (and the committee changes every year), authors who share their own experiences and different editors and agents, who share their experiences as well. There are posts from booksellers.

We’ve always tried from the beginning to make CBC Diversity an inclusive experience --- not just in the diversity sense, but even in bringing all the different interested parties together. When anybody has the diversity discussion on their own, it’s just too easy to point fingers. Either it’s the publishers’ fault or the booksellers’ fault or librarians just aren’t caring enough because they make their own selections.

It doesn’t help to have anybody pointing fingers. We all need to work at this together. It’s often not the case that there was any intentional lapse, it’s just that people are evolving and growing and becoming more sensitive to so many different issues.

Our tagline for CBC Diversity is “it’s complicated.” We do blog discussions every few months under the heading “It’s Complicated!” And there will be an “It’s Complicated!” series focusing on authentic voices, an “It’s Complicated!” series focusing on book covers --- different things where we get different people with different perspectives to chime in and share their stories. It’s been so interesting.

On the Tumblr, CBC Diversity also has “Diversity 101,” which I think is one of the greatest resources out there because it taps into all of the different stereotypes and tropes that people could fall into --- and often do --- in books that half the time they don’t even realize.  And it’s really an eye-opening experience. Each one of us knows different issues and each one of us tries to be sensitive about so many things, but if you don’t know where to apply your sensitivity, it’s so easy to offend somebody that you never intended to. So “Diversity 101” is a great resource, especially for editors, and probably for everybody else too, but it’s hands-on for them.

CBCDiversity also links to the diversity bookshelf on Goodreads. It’s never been assessed for its quality --- it’s a strictly quantitative list. It’s got a few thousand books listed, each one tagged for whatever topic it covers. If it covers some multicultural issue or background, it’s recognized in the tag, or if it’s gender related or sexuality related --- everything is up there. So if you’re looking for a book that has some specific components covered, it’s a great place to start and see that there actually are a lot of books out there that people don’t realize. Not that there are enough, but I think there’s a lot more than people realize.

The committee also goes into schools and participates in job fairs.A big part of our approach of diversity is that we do need to change the face, or we would like to change the face, of the publishing industry so that nobody feels that they are the only one representing whatever their background or lifestyle is. We meet with classes, we’ve done several virtual job fairs (which we love doing) and we run panels so that we can just expose different issues that come up that people need to deal with. We’ve had marketing and publicity panels and sales panels speaking about actually selling and combating that myth that diverse books don’t sell, which I think people are stopping --- I haven’t heard that one as much as I used to hear it.

A few times a year, we also run what we call “Diversity Dialogues” and we invite people from our CBC member publishers to what’s really a safe haven space.  It’s always a group of about 30 people and it gives people a chance to talk about some of the obstacles they’re facing, some of their success stories and how they got from A to B. They’ve been vibrant, interesting discussions, and really heartfelt. People care. It’s been a great reminder about what makes this industry different and so special. There are so many people that want to make a difference, whether it’s because of their own experience or just because they recognize that we live in a pretty interesting country in interesting times and everybody’s voice needs to be heard, and that children should be able to see themselves in the books that they read.

TRC: You’re leaving CBC and Every Child a Reader at the end of 2014, but are there any things that are starting now that you’re particularly excited about for the future?

RA: We’re just launching the Math list. The first list will be announced in April, and I’m very excited about that. I think too many kids are terrified of math and if you can read a really good book that has a math sequence or math concept within the story, it becomes so much less frightening. It’s like learning a new language. I think it could ultimately be an extremely helpful thing, as we’re all trying to promote more science and math.

Also, I would very much like to see the creation of a mentoring program started with the CBC, and I think that will happen --- I know there are members of the staff here who are very excited about working on something like that. So, it’s unfortunately something that I will not have the chance to shepherd through, but I think it’s extremely important and I would love to see that happen.

And on the Every Child a Reader side, we are planning to launch a new program in 2015 in honor of our third National Ambassador Walter Dean Myers, who passed away earlier this year. In Walter’s honor, we’re creating the Dialogic Reading Program, which was something that he cared very much about and which he had been very involved in the planning of. It’s a program that teaches parents and caregivers how to read interactively with their children.

TRC: You mentioned a mentoring program; who would be doing the mentoring, and who would be mentored?

RA: We’re hoping to be able to join mid- to executive-level publishing professionals at different CBC houses with entry-level people. Part of what we’ve envisioned --- and again, this will be up to somebody new to figure out  --- is that your mentor doesn’t have to be somebody in your publishing  house.  You can be mentored by somebody else at a different publishing house who, if they signed on to mentor, may be required to see you or speak to you twice in the course of the year and who you would have open communication with.

We’ve heard from a lot of people that mentorship is not a part of publishing the way it used to be.People tell me that a lot of editors started off as editorial assistants to someone, and they would transcribe a memo to some other editor or to somebody in sales or to an author, with comments to the author. The Editorial Assistant would learn how to edit by transcribing those notes and writing those letters, and eventually they’d be able to do that themselves with authors. Since editors do that with their own computers, now, there isn’t the same kind of mentoring that there used to be. And people are so busy; nobody’s really holding anybody’s hand. And not that people need day-to-day handholding, but you do need the comfort and the nurturing kind of environment that lets you know there’s somebody to turn to if you have questions. In the case of a woman who is pregnant, what if you’re not comfortable figuring out which questions to ask your superior?  Wouldn’t it help to have a mentor from somewhere else who could maybe give you a little bit of guidance?