February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Best Is Yet to Come: Spread the word—our top picks of the year are here | Editorial

Rick_editorial_v2.1(Original Import)Call me clueless. I’ve worked at SLJ for more than a decade, and I still have no idea how our review staff comes up with its best books list. From the outside looking in, it’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. It’s like electing a new pope or trying to anticipate Lindsay Lohan’s next move—something that defies an easy explanation.

What I can tell you is that when Trev Jones, our book review editor, arrived at SLJ in 1982, she and one other colleague waded through about 2,500 titles before they could piece together our best books list. Little did they know how good they had it.

This year, our tiny and overtaxed review team slogged through a record 6,216 titles, before whittling down that colossus to 65 stellar choices that are guaranteed to appeal to children and teens. (As Trev says, “We don’t want to stick libraries with stuff that’s going to sit there.”) If you’re doing the math, only roughly one book in 100 is fit for our list. Frank Purdue’s chickens have nothing on us.

But just thinking about this annual ordeal makes me exhausted.

Now don’t get me wrong, when it comes to “best of the year” lists, I’m an animal. I can’t wait to ferret out the year’s best albums or the most fabulous chicken pot pies (which apparently come from Cape Cod) or the coolest cities to visit (Tangier, anyone?). And let’s face it, “best of” lists are a great way to catch up on things that many of us were too darn busy to notice. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we’re featuring, for the first time, our own top 10 choices for the year’s best apps, graphic novels, DVDs, and tech trends. Still, I can’t help but wonder, do these labor-intensive lists—and in particular, our best books list—add anything substantive to the lives of those we serve?

Many years ago, I stumbled across a report that made my heart sink. Evidently, few of our nation’s teachers can name a single children’s book that’s been published in the last five years. When I recently asked a friend if that’s true, she told me she’d asked a roomful of educators to name a kids’ book (other than one by Rick Riordan, Jeff Kinney, J. K. Rowling, or Stephenie Meyer) that had been published in the last decade. Out of 70 people, only three had a clue. Maybe I’m naïve, but I was shocked. I mean, if teachers—who are constantly surrounded by children, books, and learning—can’t point to any new titles, then who can?

There’s no easy way to say this: most folks don’t have an inkling of what’s going on with children’s books, and as a result, even the best titles often don’t reach the young audiences they’re created for. Oh, sure, today’s kids can always turn to the old favorites, timeless titles by legends like Robert McCloskey, S. E. Hinton, and Maurice Sendak, who, we’re thrilled to say, illustrated our cover this month. But I can’t help thinking that children’s interior lives will be that much poorer without modern masterpieces like Chris Raschka’s A Ball for Daisy or Tim Wynne-Jones’s Blink & Caution—stories that offer digital-age kids pleasure, comfort, and courage in uniquely 21st-century ways.

Where does this leave those of you who work with young people? Well, it puts you in the perfect place to change the world. After all, who knows more about children’s books than dedicated school and public librarians? Start by checking out our “Best Books” feature. But don’t stop there: the American Library Association, Booklist, the Horn Book, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly also offer worthwhile lists. Now comes the hard part: go forth and shamelessly talk up some of those fabulous finds to anyone within earshot. Knock yourself out. Don’t be shy. Because the terrifying truth is that without your strong support, many of these great new books—the best the year has to offer—will never be known, let alone read, and ultimately, the real losers will be the kids we care most about.

Like my old boss used to say, “No pressure or anything.”

Rick Margolis
Executive editor

Rick Margolis About Rick Margolis

Rick Margolis was executive editor for SLJ.