A Behind-The-Scenes Look Into Judging A Children’s Book Award

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Margaret Kingsbury

Contributing Editor

Margaret Kingsbury grew up in a house so crammed with books she couldn’t open a closet door without a book stack tumbling, and she’s brought that same decorative energy to her adult life. Margaret has an MA in English with a concentration in writing and has worked as a bookseller and adjunct English professor. She’s currently a freelance writer and editor, and in addition to Book Riot, her pieces have appeared in School Library Journal, BuzzFeed News, The Lily, Parents,, and more. She particularly loves children’s books, fantasy, science fiction, horror, graphic novels, and any books with disabled characters. You can read more about her bookish and parenting shenanigans in Book Riot’s twice-weekly The Kids Are All Right newsletter. You can also follow her kidlit bookstagram account @BabyLibrarians, or on Twitter @AReaderlyMom.

Six book packages have arrived today, the dining room table has towering book piles on it preventing anyone from actually eating there, and the bookshelves are so full that I’ve begun to pile books on top of them. What is this? Wrapping presents? Starting a library? Nope, I’m a judge for the 2021 Bookstagang Awards, a children’s picture and board book award list judged by kid lit Bookstagrammers. This is my first year as a judge, and while I thought I had made enough space to hold all the books, I severely underestimated the number of books I would receive. Publishers have submitted almost 400 children’s books as I’m writing this, and there are still a couple more weeks left for books to arrive.

Table with stacks of children books

For the first time, I’m a judge for a book award. Achievement unlocked!

The Bookstagang Awards began three years ago as an offshoot of a group founded by Alessandra Requena, who’s on Instagram as @readwithriver. She started the Bookstagang, originally called the Read with River Book Club, as a means “to create a community that fostered genuine friendships. I think that often the contacts we make on social media can be fleeting and superficial, unless we find ways to work together and collaborate.” I was invited to join the Bookstagang earlier this year, and it’s honestly one of the best communities I’ve ever been a member of. It’s so much fun to have a group to support one another and bounce ideas off of. But then came the idea of having awards. “The awards were a way for me to take that fledgling group that I had assembled and work together on something meaningful as a team,” Ale told me. “I had noticed there weren’t any awards currently existing on social media that involved an objective and statistically significant scoring system.” Thus the Bookstagang Awards was born, with Kelly @inclusivestorytime and Corrie @thetinyactivists creating scoring spreadsheets and helping with logistics.

Here’s how it works. Each year, Ale, Corrie, and Kelly choose judges from the larger Bookstagang group. I applied and was selected to become one of 15 judges for this year’s awards. I was a little nervous about applying because I have a full plate right now, but I just really love the idea of being part of a book award, and I’m so glad I did because it’s been such an incredible experience. In addition to myself @BabyLibrarians, Ale, Corrie, and Kelly, judges include Sara @bookoholicmom, Kallan @houstonlibraryfinds, Megan @ihaveabook4that, Hanna @myliteracyspace, Johanna @jojos_book_club, Elizabeth @thekidlitmama, Ash @ashspeedteaches, Bonnie @bonniemonier, Jenna @kidlitbrain, Elaina @kidlitismagic, and Neeti @booksgrowminds

We’re a very diverse group and we range in size and style, but we all cover children’s books. The group’s diversity has been an essential component to the judging process, with members pointing out problematic books and seeking out a range of diverse voices and asking publishers for specific books that embrace a diverse identity when they’re not submitted. For instance, I brought up a book with a problematic characterization of disability and we discussed it as a group. (I’ve written about disability representation in children’s books for Book Riot several times.) Another member pointed out a problematic story using Inuit culture from a non-Inuit writer. These conversations are essential to creating a fair and inclusive judging system.

“Being able to talk to the other judges about books helps me see perspectives I may have never thought about before,” Neeti @booksgrowminds told me. “Bookstagang has helped me look at children’s books with a more critical eye and that’s important.”

Once the judges were chosen, we coordinated about who had contacts at what publisher, and we were each assigned about five publishers to contact to ask what books they’d like to submit to the Bookstagang Awards. The first year the group emailed 92 publishers, but only 20 chose to participate. The second year saw 52 publishers participating, and this year looks to be even higher.

It felt like only days after we began contacting publishers books began to arrive. At first, I read through each book as they came in and set them in their designated areas. But soon the number of books coming in the mail got out of hand, especially after I took a short vacation. I arrived home from a week at the beach to about 30 book packages, and I haven’t been able to catch up since! I spend 45 minutes a night reading through and scoring books. I set aside my favorites to take pictures of and post to Instagram, like below!

The scoring system is surprisingly simple. Each book is rated 1–10, with ten denoting “Favorite Book EVER!” and 1 as “Offensive garbage.” So far, I’ve rated four books as a 10 and only one book as a 1 (though admittedly I have several 2–3 ratings). My average is probably around a 6. Once everyone has finished scoring, Ale, Corrie, and Kelly will tally the scores, and the best books in eight categories will be chosen and announced on Instagram December 3. I’ve linked to the results below! The categories are: best board books, most innovative nonfiction, future classics, best illustration, best read aloud, best history books, best foodie books, and conversation starters. My favorite categories are best read aloud, conversation starters, and future classics.

While it might seem like the best part of being a judge is the plethora of new books publishers send me, it’s not. The best part, and what surprised me the most about being a judge, is the supportive group. We chat about everything from sick kids to funny books to offensive direct messages we receive to what we should be charging for promotions on our accounts. This group of kid lit enthusiasts has become an integral part of my day and has taught me so much about how to be a better reader and a better Bookstagrammer.

When I asked the rest of the judges what their favorite part of being a judge was, everyone agreed it was being part of this group. As Kelly @inclusivestorytime said,

“I love working on this more than anything. From year one it felt like we were forging a path and bringing more credibility to book reviewers on Instagram. I feel like we are just starting to see the value that publishers are putting into our work and effort. Working with a tight-knit group like this has forged some of the most beautiful friendships of my adult life, and opened my mind tremendously — I am forever thankful for the opposing viewpoints and for the support I have gotten from this group. I am a better reviewer and a more critical thinker because of it.”

Another unexpected perk of being a judge is finding gems I never would’ve read otherwise. Hanna of @myliteracyspace noted the same: “I love receiving books that I haven’t requested. Some of them I may have seen the cover for and thought meh, not for me. Then when I actually read them they have turned out to be really excellent books.”

I usually don’t read a lot of picture book nonfiction, but this has forced me to read tons, so I’ve learned a lot of things, like how snails, even though they’re hermaphrodites, prefer to reproduce with a partner (thanks to The Snail with the Right Heart).

But let’s be real, all these books are a great perk too. I plan to donate many of them when the judging is over to three classrooms I have teacher connections with and neighborhood little free libraries. There’s also a rural town close to where I grew up that recently had a devastating flood, and I’m going to see if there’s a way for me to donate books to families or schools in that area.

“Being a mother of very young children,” Ale noted, “it seems like every little job you do gets undone before you can enjoy it. Doing this award every year, watching it grow, watching other people get something out of it is immensely satisfying because it feels like this thing in my life that I can do, where I have an impact on things beyond my little bubble, and I enjoy that very much.”

Not all awards are judged by hazy, unknown critics who feel far removed from the daily act of reading to a child. Sometimes they’re the people you see on Instagram every day, trying to make the children’s book community a fairer, better place. We probably have multiple stains on our shirts, look semi-exhausted, and get interrupted dozens of times while writing book reviews. But we also read A LOT of children’s books and have extensive discussions about those children’s books. We have good taste is what I’m saying!

And The Winners Are…

Here are the 80 winners, 10 books in each of the 8 categories! Scroll through to check out all the winners. You can also see the winners on founder Alessandra Requena’s website. I could not be happier with how the list turned out! So many fantastic children’s books were published this year. I’m glad I’m able to help readers to them by participating in a contest like this.