I’ll never read or write nonfiction picture books the same way again.

We on the Cybils nominations committee for nonfiction picture books all but wrapped up our work yesterday when we broke a five-way tie for the fifth and final place on the shortlist. The shortlist will be revealed to the world and submitted to our judges on New Year’s Day.

It was a joy to work with Anastasia, Camille, Deb, and Susan on narrowing the 40-plus nominees down to those five standout titles. Emphasis on “joy,” but also on “work,” as those titles were standouts among standouts. If you were to read only the titles that came in places 6-10 in our voting, you’d think that 2006 had been a stellar year for picture book nonfiction.

It’s been more than two months since Kelly first approached me about participating in the Cybils, and without a doubt the highlight for me has been the past eight days. That’s when the nominations committee began to discuss, debate, and deliberate each of the 14 titles that survived an initial vote.

I re-read and re-re-read books that I thought I knew well already, examining them more closely than I’d ever looked at a picture book, discerning what made them so appealing (if not to myself, then to other committee members) while also seeking out potentially disqualifying (though often nitpicky) flaws. With four other people doing the same, and all of us in the habit of expressing ourselves, we wound up with a lot to think and talk about. I loved it.

I’ll leave you with just a few of the qualities we considered in evaluating these books (and which I expect will form a mental checklist for my own work and my reading of others’ for a long time to come):

  • Age-appropriateness
  • Availability of source notes
  • Obviousness of research
  • Reliance on back matter for providing key information
  • Readability of font and design
  • Art that overshadows the text
  • Levels of accessibility
  • Fictionalizing
  • Earnestness
  • Self-indulgence
  • Simplicity
  • Oversimplification
  • Originality
  • Relevance
  • Narrative format
  • Emotion
  • Cutesiness
  • Breadth
  • Density
  • Usefulness in a classroom
  • Usefulness as conversation starter
  • Ripeness for reading aloud
  • Potential as a gateway to other books
  • Humor