Jonda C. McNair, professor in Clemson’s College of Education, had just come off of a rewarding—and educational—stint on the 2019 Randolph Caldecott Award Selection Committee, and as the semester wound down she found out she had been appointed to another, similarly prestigious position.
McNair will serve as chair of the 2021 John Newbery Medal Award Selection Committee. The Association for Library Service to Children awards the Newbery Medal annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. She says using a word like “shock” about the news would be an understatement.
“I could not believe it,” McNair says. “I was at a children’s literature conference and happened to check my email. I’m still floored and humbled by this appointment. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so of course I said ‘yes!’”
McNair has long admired and respected many titles that have been honored by the Newbery committee, and she specifically cites “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred Taylor, “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White and “The Crossover” by Kwame Alexander as examples.
McNair says she will approach her role as chair on the committee as the facilitator of book selections published in 2020 that make the most distinguished contribution to writing for children. Although she will be reading the books alongside other committee members, she understands chairs act as organizers of the process who oftentimes maintain a more neutral role. She has already reached out to previous chairs of the committee to get their advice.
While her exact approach to being chair is far from fully defined at this point, she already feels confident in the criteria she will use in book selections. The association’s criteria indicate that books are to be individually distinct and stand out in terms of excellence in quality. She said that while the Caldecott Committee deals exclusively with picture books, the field is much wider for the Newbery Medal.
“The Newbery is given for writing; it can go to titles across many genres such as fiction, poetry and nonfiction as well as a variety of formats including novels, picture books and graphic novels,” McNair says. “The entire committee will have to keep in mind that there are many titles that should be considered for the Newbery Award.”
One previous Newbery Medal committee chair told McNair that the best advice he had for her was to make room for hundreds of books—even if this means packing up books that are currently on her shelf.
Jamie Naidoo, the Foster-EBSCO Endowed Professor at the University of Alabama School of Library and Information Studies, serves as 2018-2019 president of the Association for Library Service to Children. Naidoo selected McNair as chair of the 2021 Newbery Award Selection Committee, and says she was a natural choice given her academic career and knowledge of children’s books.
“I admire Dr. McNair’s work and know she’ll bring great energy and expertise to the position,” Naidoo says. “Her leadership skills are impeccable, and she was one of the first names I thought of when it came time to make the decisions for chair appointments.”
Dr. McNair specializes in literature intended for youth with an emphasis on books written by and about African Americans. She is serving as a coeditor of Language Arts, the journal of the Elementary Section of the National Council of Teachers of English. Her work has appeared in journals such as Review of Educational Research, The Reading Teacher, Young Children, the Journal of Negro Education, and Children’s Literature in Education.
McNair is an active member of numerous professional organizations including the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Library Association, and the International Literacy Association, formerly known as the International Reading Association. McNair serves as a faculty advisor for the Clemson University IRA Student Council. She is a former elementary school teacher of students in grades K-2.
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