March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Behind the Scenes with SLJ’s “Best” Cover

To accompany its annual Best Books, School Library Journal (SLJ) commissions luminaries in the field of children’s book illustration to create our December cover, all on the theme of stars.

Contributors have ranged from Christopher Myers, Brian Selznick, and Kevin Henkes to Yuyi Morales, Maurice Sendak, and Melissa Sweet. This year, Patrick McDonnell, who wrote and illustrated Thank You and Good Night (Little, Brown), did the honors in a SLJ tradition that began in 1998.

And the illustrator is…

To select the cover artist, the book review editors create a short list derived from that year’s Best Books. Across a year of reviewing, however, the editors have been known to exclaim, “this person would do a great cover!” says Luann Toth, SLJ’s managing editor, book review.

But things get serious come the fall, when they winnow a short list to only two or three artists whose work was tapped among the year’s best. It says, essentially, “This is what we are loving,” says Toth.

The editors confer with SLJ creative director Mark Tuchman for final selection in a process that’s “a highlight of his year,” he says.

“Once we decide on the artist, it’s an open-ended assignment,” says Tuchman. “The only stipulation is the idea of stars factors in in some way, and the cover serves to herald the year’s best books list.”

Stars shine bright

It’s always a fun surprise, from process to result. But one experience stands out for Tuchman: working with Maurice Sendak on the 2011 cover. “We had to submit a proposal through his editor, Michael Di Capua,” says Tuchman, and there were other hoops. “We fell on our butts,” when Sendak said yes.

The legendary Sendak—who transformed children’s literature with his 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are and who wrote and illustrated other classics, including In the Night Kitchen—was 83. He had decided to return to doing some assignments, says Tuchman. “We came along at the right time.”

When Sendak called, “he was so kind and down to earth,” says Tuchman. After delivering the final work, Sendak said to Tuchman via voice message, “I wanted to see if you liked the art and if you didn’t, I will commit hara-kiri,” with the same dry wit that endeared Sendak to a broader audience during his January 2012 appearances on “The Colbert Report.”

“I really hope that this helps you as you build your career,” replied Tuchman, who had Sendak’s original watercolor sitting on his desk. Sendak thanked him for his “kindness, sense of humor, and professionalism,” Tuchman recalls.

“And yes, this should help my career,” added Sendak.

Kathy Ishizuka About Kathy Ishizuka

Kathy Ishizuka ( on Twitter) is the Executive Editor of  School Library Journal.



  1. Laura Harrison says:

    These covers are stunning. Are they available for purchase?