Connecticut Student Readers Help Pick Nominees for the Nutmeg Book Award

May 21, 2015

The idea behind the award is to provide a list of appropriate books that can be counted on by teachers, librarians, and parents.

May is a big month for the Nutmegs — Connecticut’s children’s book award. This year’s winners were just announced, the result of votes from kids across the state. Some students also have a say in which books are nominated. 

When Anna Cannata’s English teacher directed her class to a Nutmeg Award website, Cannata eyed a small blurb at the bottom of the page. It invited kids to apply to be Nutmeg Student Readers. Cannata had never been a big “joiner” before, but this invitation grabbed her.

‘‘So I went home and I asked my mom -- I said, ‘Mom, is it okay if I apply for this Nutmeg Committee?’" Cannata said. "And she said, ‘What’s that? I don’t know what that is.’ And I said, ‘It’s the committee that selects the books for the Nutmeg award.’ And my mom said,’ Oh, you want to do that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah I want to do that!’”

Cannata is a Wethersfield high school student. To call her a voracious reader probably understates it. Her mother put a stop to purchasing any more books, at least until Cannata cleans out some of the hundreds in her room.

So Cannata was well-qualified when the Nutmegs gave her a spot on a nominating committee. Her assignment: read 90 novels over eight months. That’s a lot of reading, especially on top of school work.

“There was always a constant weight on your shoulders,” Cannata said. “‘Oh, I need to be reading, I need to finish this book by the end of this week.’ There was always that there, but it never really felt like a burden.”

Also not a burden: speaking up at the committee meetings, where Cannata and the two other student readers were out-numbered by adults four to one. She loved the meetings because of how different they were from normal life.

“My friends make fun of me. They call me a nerd for loving reading,” Cannata said. But every person on the committee loved reading as much as Cannata does.

Plowing through those 90 novels taught Cannata a thing or two: she was capable of liking a sports book, for example. She also discovered a new way to read.

When she was just reading for pleasure, she never thought, “Oh, how will someone else look at this? Will someone else like this? Am I the only one that’s going to like this book?”

To answer those questions, Cannata learned to ask other ones: about character development, plot and setting.

The chair of Cannata's nominating committee, Kelley Gile of Cheshire Public Library, said she and the other adults on the committee — all librarians — rely heavily on the students. Once, Gile recalled, a student reader asked the committee to nominate a book he loved, but no one else had ranked in their top ten. He argued passionately.

“So we did [nominate it]," Giles said. "We ignored the numbers -- ignored everything else; ignored the librarians, because we had this young man who felt very strongly about it. And it turned out to be one of the more popular books for the kids that following year.”

And popularity is key. The idea behind the Nutmegs is to provide a list of vetted, age-appropriate books that can be counted on by teachers, librarians, and parents.

This is a job Kirsten Appell takes very seriously. She’s a home-schooler from Collinsville who was also on Giles’s committee. She loved the experience.

Still, Appell wishes the committee had established a higher bar for the quality of writing.

“It was a little bit of shock,” Appell said. “I was hoping there would be at least a little bit more, ‘Oh, if this book is really terribly written maybe we shouldn’t include it,.’ And I think that if there were really blatant mistakes or anything, then I think we would have kicked it out. But for the most part we were really lenient with literature.”

Whoa. Sounds like she has a future as a book critic!

But maybe the best books really do rise to the top. Dana Helming, a teen librarian in West Hartford who’s never sat on a Nutmeg selection committee, seems to think so.

“They do try and pick authors who exceed most of teen literature, which sometimes can be classified as -- I don’t know -- paperback mumbo-jumbo,” Helming said, laughing.

The committee’s nominations for next year’s awards are now public. Cannata and Appell's duties are over; kids across Connecticut are reading the books they picked.

Meanwhile, Appell is glad to get back to the authors she’s missed most: Shakespeare and Dickens.

This report was originally published at New England Public Radio.