March 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Behind the Best: Or what it takes for 65 books to become SLJ’s top titles of the year | Editorial

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Instagram pic of Best Books print outFirst, consider the numbers. Some 37,000 children’s and YA books have been published in 2012, according to Bowker. SLJ reviewed more than 6,500 of them—thanks to our corp of 300 active reviewers in the field. Of these titles, 289 earned stars. And here, in the final presentation, are the 65 that were selected as SLJ’s Best Books of 2012.

How they get identified is not a math problem, of course. Passions run high. There’s a talented team behind this list, packed with smarts and tremendous heart. Led by SLJ book review editor Trevelyn Jones, a 30-year veteran, they take this task very seriously.

This comes as no surprise. As a former Library Journal book review editor and once serial member of the National Book Critics Circle board, I know well the intensity of this type of decision-making. But this is my first round of Best at SLJ, so I turned to the experts.

It all begins with the books that are starred throughout the year. “We loved them to start,” says Jones, so there’s drama inherent in the process of eliminating beloved titles. As that long list gets winnowed, Jones, for one, is guided by mixed demands. “I want the important books, and I don’t want things to get lost,” she says. “But I don’t want shelf-sitters and chair-kickers and only books that librarians will appreciate.”

So Jones looks for language and presentation that will wow a child, and nonfiction that’s both exciting and inspiring. In picture books, her test is “read it again.” A combination of story and images that deepen and reveal more and more increases a book’s chances of being named a Best, says Jones.

Managing editor Luann Toth always reads a picture book aloud, and she thinks about how it’ll be used in programming. Will it, she asks, referring to her toddler nephew, “get the Asher seal of approval?” Otherwise, she looks for a strong voice that continues to resonate through a year of intense book reading. “The voice is the thing that reels me back,” she says, and proves a book’s staying power.

Editorial assistant Mahnaz Dar also seeks that resonant quality. “It comes down to the emotional power of a book,” says Dar, a recent graduate of Pratt Institute. “Maybe it’s a character that just really feels real, or an image in a picture book that you can’t get out of your mind.”

“The picture books are all over the place—I mean that in the best way possible,” says associate editor Chelsey Philpot. “It’s great that publishers are pushing the boundaries and experimenting, including humorous elements that adults will appreciate.”

Philpot knows she’s got a best book in hand when she wants to “throw a tantrum” if it looks like it’ll get removed by others. When it comes to fiction, her tantrum books are the ones that “make you sigh when it’s over.”

It’s a little less personal but no less professional for Shelley Diaz, an assistant editor on the book review team who’s currently pursuing her MLIS with a Children’s and YA certificate at Queens College. She favors books that strike the right balance between having genuine kid appeal and being something a librarian would love. For picture books, she also looks for “a story that a kid wants to read again and again.”

How story plays out in a book’s whole package is on associate editor Marlene Charnizon’s mind. In picture books, she wants “a sense that everything is working together—the layout, the text, and the images,” she says. “There’s a visceral comfort that is right.”

Curriculum Connections editor Daryl Grabarek, who specializes in nonfiction, looks for an important story or a new one. But, as with every SLJ editor, quality writing is key. “At the end, when I am looking at all of these books,” says Grabarek, “the writing just shines.”

Happy reading.

Rebecca T. Miller's Signature

Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.