A BIG ELECTION IS SET tomorrow at Whittier Elementary School in Frederick. And later in the spring at Jessup Elementary, in Anne Arundel County, and at dozens of other schools across Maryland.
About 40,000 Maryland kids are expected to cast their ballots in libraries and classrooms for the 1999-2000 Black-Eyed Susan Book Awards, a contest sponsored by the state's school librarians, known these days as media specialists.
The plebiscite, in its ninth year, is all about books, and the issues in the campaign are the things kids look for in literature: intriguing plots, adventure, mystery, mysticism, humor and "coolness," an ineffable quality known only to the young.
The Black-Eyed Susans are entirely voluntary. Schools don't have to participate, and many don't. No Education Department bureaucrat is creating red tape. Rules are few, and even the students, teachers and media specialists who nominate the books do so voluntarily, giving up a Sunday afternoon each month.
"It's a contest only for kids," says Mary Hackman, a retired Baltimore County librarian who calls herself the Black-Eyed Susans' "producer." Except to ensure children qualify to vote by reading a set number of books, Hackman says, "adults try to stay out of it. Most of the lobbying for individual books comes from the kids."
I got lobbied one afternoon last week at Jessup Elementary, where four third-graders reviewed the picture books nominated this year. Fifteen are on the list, and qualified voters must read -- or have had read to them -- eight.
Matthew Whitmer, Crystal Thomas and Claire Blume, all 8 years old, hadn't quite qualified, but they had agreed tentatively on a winner, "Ghost of Sifty-Sifty Sam," by Angela Medaris.
"It's exciting," said Crystal. "In the end it shows how people can help each other, how somebody can make somebody not mean and "
"Happy?" Matthew finished the sentence.
"Yeah, happy," said Crystal.
Andrew Fuentes, 9, had his winner, "Weave of Words," by Robert San Souci, about a boy who wins the girl of his dreams by learning how to write and weave. "In the beginning," said Andrew, "he was as dumb as a bone -- like first-graders are."
At Jessup and other schools, teachers are reading the picture book nominees to children in all grades, while upper-level teachers are reading aloud books nominated in the "chapter book" category for older kids. (The contest also has middle school and high school categories.)
"That makes it a slow process," said media specialist Carole Perry, "but the encouraging thing is that children, having had a book read to them, will often come to the library and check it out to read on their own. Children don't mind repetition. In fact, they love it."
Voting at Jessup concludes April 15, and statewide results will be announced in late spring.
Whittier Elementary is a 2-year-old school serving a new subdivision on the outskirts of Frederick. Its media specialist, Tina Austin, took a different approach to the Black-Eyed Susans. She blocked out a weekend at home and recorded all 15 entries while focusing a video camera on the books as she turned pages.
Each afternoon before dismissal, she presented a book on one of Whittier's three closed-circuit television channels, so everyone in the school could view it. The vote is scheduled for tomorrow.
"The kids think all of this is pretty exciting," Austin said. "If I mention that kids in the same grade in, say, Ocean City are voting on the same set of books, they think that's really neat."
It's impossible to predict winners, but Perry, the Jessup librarian, said the idea isn't to run a horse race. (Another Maryland Black-Eyed Susan is a horse race.) "The idea is to promote good literature."
Winning authors get a luncheon sponsored by the Maryland Educational Media Organization and a silver tray. An award won't do for a children's book what a review by Oprah Winfrey will do for an adult novel. But Hackman said the producers of children's books are thrilled to earn an award "because it's given by the people who count -- those who read the books."
These picture books were nominated for the 1999-2000 Black-Eyed Susan Book Awards. Authors are listed first. A single name is both author and illustrator. "Antarctic Antics" has two illustrators.
"Boss of the Plains: The Hat That Won the West" -- Laurie Carlson/Holly Meade.
"Grandpa's Teeth" -- Rod Clement.
"A Night at the Fair" -- Donald Crews.
"Scrambled States of America" -- Laurie Keller.
"The Seven Gods of Luck" -- David Kudler/Linda Finch.
"Black Cowboy" -- Julius Lester/Jerry Pickney.
"The Wolf Is Coming" -- Elizabeth MacDonald/Ken Brown.
"Ghost of Sifty-Sifty Sam" -- Angela Medaris/Jacqueline Rogers.
"The Giant Carrot" -- Jan Peck/Barry Root.
"Thank You, Mr. Falker" -- Patricia Polacco.
"Sassy Gracie" -- James Sage/Pierre Pratt.
"Weave of Words" -- Robert San Souci/Raul Colon.
"A Bad Case of the Stripes" -- David Shannon.
"Antarctic Antics: A Book of Penguin Poems" -- Judy Sierra/Jose Aruego/Ariane Dewey.
"Something Beautiful" -- Sharon Dennis Wyeth/Chris K. Soentpiet.