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Behind the scenes of judging the Minnesota Book Awards

OK, so it’s not the Pulitzers, or even the National Book Awards.

Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat
Award for Children’s Literature: “Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat” by Lynne Jonell

OK, so it’s not the Pulitzers, or even the National Book Awards. But for local book lovers, the Minnesota Book Awards are even better, because we can be a part of the process that recognizes the best regional writers with this coveted yearly award (winners listed below this post).

Any reader can vote in the Reader’s Choice category or put on party clothes to attend the awards ceremonies (if you can score tickets — this year’s event, held Saturday night at the Fitzgerald in St. Paul, sold out). And especially avid readers might even have a shot at becoming a judge.

Lani Jordan, one of the “lay readers” in a crowd of librarians and booksellers, served as a volunteer judge for the first time this year. To eliminate the risk of conflicts of interest, authors and people from the publishing world don’t typically serve as judges.

Jordan, a veteran book-club member, occasional poet, corporate communications writer, and author of a highly anticipated and irreverent family Christmas newsletter, was referred for the spot by a friend. And here’s how seriously local writers take the award: I can’t tell you which category she helped judge, because in the past years, a few sore-loser authors have taken their woe and disappointment straight to the judges.

So many choices

“It was a wonderful experience, really well-organized and thoughtfully done,” says Jordan, who had no problem reading the four nominated books in the month allotted before the judging process began. “Minnesota has such a strong reputation for its solid writing community. We have a lot of nationally known authors, and the screening process to come up with the nominees is very rigorous. I was expecting to see quality in my category, and I wasn’t surprised by the high level of quality. It was a difficult choice.”

Award for Poetry: "Willow Room, Green Door" by Deborah Keenan
Award for Poetry: “Willow Room, Green Door” by Deborah Keenan

An odd number of judges, plus a facilitator, spent an afternoon in a room engaged in deep discussion about the contenders, eventually reaching a consensus and a winner. Jordan has performed jury duty before, and found the process somewhat similar, “except we weren’t finding somebody guilty, we were finding someone superior. But it’s the same kind of give and take that you see in any serious decision-making process. When you are making these decisions, you need to go into it with realization that you are making a decision that will impact someone’s life.”

Last year, St. Paul librarian Marcus Lowry was a first-round judge, reading 45 books. This year, his second year as a judge, he read in a specific category. He says local writers are of national caliber, and he sees library patrons giving Minnesota authors heavy rotation. “I read hundreds of books a year, and our writers are every bit as good as national writers. Oh, yeah, definitely,” he says, noting that many Minnesota writers are nationally known.

His top pick wasn’t the ultimate winner in the category. “It was the least favorite book of the other judges, actually, and my least favorite was another judge’s favorite. So we had some healthy discussion. We had to reach a middle ground. In the end, everyone really liked the winner we chose, but there was more passion for some of the other books.”

Voting easier for one category

No one has to argue or agree in the Reader’s Choice category; it’s a simple voting process, which takes place online at the website of the Pioneer Press, one of the sponsors. Last year, 2,900 votes were cast (the winner was Matthew Sanford’s “Waking” from the Memoir category), and this year a stunning 7,029 readers logged on to vote, ultimately picking Jill Kalz’s “Farmer Cap,” from the Children’s category.

The Readers’ Choice Award: "Farmer Cap" by Jill Kalz
The Readers’ Choice Award: “Farmer Cap” by Jill Kalz

Readers can choose from any of the 32 finalist books, and like any good election, this was a nail-biter. Stu Wilson, an organizer of the event and vice president of operations for the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, said, “As the voting progressed, by the third week, three books emerged as frontrunners, and the winner was not clear until the final vote was cast. The three books all ended up within a 100-200 votes of each other, and the lead changed a couple of times in the last week. That is pretty much what happened last year, too.”

So which books were those other two, oh-so-close contenders? Wilson won’t say. “Just so none of the finalists feel bad, we’ve decided to only release the name of the winner, and not the order or voting numbers for the other books.”

Ah, Minnesota writers: nationally talented, colossally sensitive.

2008 winners

Award for Children’s Literature: Lynne Jonel, “Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat,” published by Henry Holt and Co.

Award for General Nonfiction: Charles Baxter, “The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot,” published by Graywolf Press.

Award for Genre Fiction: William Kent Krueger, “Thunder Bay,” published by Atria Books/Simon & Schuster.

Award for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction: Patricia Hampl, “The Florist’s Daughter,” published by Harcourt.

Award for Minnesota: Doug Hoverson, “Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota,” published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Award for Novel and Short Story: Wang Ping, “The Last Communist Virgin,” published by Coffee House Press.

Award for Poetry: Deborah Keenan, “Willow Room, Green Door,” published by Milkweed Editions.

Award for Young Adult Literature:
Will Weaver, “Defect,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The Readers’ Choice Award:
Jill Kalz, “Farmer Cap,” published by Picture Window Books.