About the Awards


Zena Sutherland Awards for Excellence in Children's Literature

The Zena Sutherland Awards for Children’s Literature have been given yearly since 1995. The awards began when former librarian Donna Schatt, art teacher Philip Matsikas, and computer teacher Karen Putman responded to student dissatisfaction with the picture-book awards judged by adults. The awards allow Lower School and Middle School students to become critics in the spirit of Ms. Zena Sutherland.

How were these awards determined?


Lab librarians Mary Ogilvie, Irene Fahrenwald, Lee McLain, Cynthia Oakes and Jamelle St. Clair make the annual trip to the Center for Children’s Books, now at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. (The Center previously resided at the University of Chicago within the Graduate Library School.) Having already consulted many book reviews and several children’s literature experts, the librarians now spend hours reading and studying this year’s new picture books and come up with a list of approximately 15-20 titles for the student Sutherland Committee.


Sixth grade students volunteer to serve on the Sutherland Committee, supervised by Middle School librarians Cynthia Oakes and Jamelle St. Clair. The committee meets for weeks to discuss the titles. In their discussions, the students consider everything from the author’s choice of words to the way in which the illustrations reveal the story. No detail is too small to be scrutinized, and the discussions often become heated and intense. Their goal is to narrow the list to five books that third, fourth, and fifth graders will vote on for Best Text, Best Illustrations, and Best Overall.

Winter and Spring

The librarians present the five books to third, fourth, and fifth graders. These students also become sophisticated book critics, as they first determine the criteria to use when reviewing picture books and then evaluate each of the five books. Often the students also discuss the books in their classrooms.

Members of the Sutherland Committee visit third and fourth grade classrooms, making presentations on the five books and answering student questions. During these presentations, younger students benefit from the Committee’s hard work, as sixth graders highlight unique features of each book. Sixth graders reveal how hard they worked to select a diverse set of books, both in terms of genre and author’s background. Committee members also make a presentation to fifth and sixth grade teachers.

Third grade students make voting posters in their computer class, using KidPix. In a new project starting in ’09, fourth graders will create book “trailers” using Flip cameras and video software.


Third, fourth, and fifth graders vote for Best Text, Best Illustrations, and Best Overall.

The Sutherland Awards Assembly (April or May)

In a ceremony run by students, the current year’s winners are announced, usually by one of the previous year’s winners. The author or illustrator receives a framed poster of his or her book, made by fifth graders in their visual arts class, and makes a presentation about his or her own work.

This article was adapted from one written by Susan Fine for a Lab School newsletter, Lab Directions, in Spring 2007.