A "Serious Responsibility:" Four SLJ Reviewers Talk Process, Selecting Stars

Four of SLJ's approximately 500 reviewers discuss the process and responsibility of reviewing books and awarding stars.

Heidi DeChief, Teacher Librarian
International School of Brussels, Brussels, Belgium
Categories reviewed: picture books, early readers, nonfiction

A group of approximately 500 practicing or recently retired school, public, and academic librarians from across the United States, as well as Canada, Zambia, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Belgium—along with some children’s literature academics and the SLJ Reviews editors—comprise arguably the most invaluable part of the  School Library Journal team. They are SLJ's reviewers.

In conjunction with our July Stars Issue, SLJ spoke to a few of the reviewers who are part of that collection of contributors who writes the roughly 5,000 reviews published per year. They each have their own process for reviewing a title, but all come to the practice from a common thread: Having used SLJ reviews for their own collection development over the years, they know what is expected and what librarians need from a review.

"School Library Journal was and remains the go-to place for how I'm going to do a good chunk of my collection development,” says John Scott, an elementary school librarian in Baltimore, MD, who has been reading the magazine’s reviews for about 30 years and reviewed books for SLJ for at least seven. He likes that the reviews are written by his library peers and appreciates the formatthe concise nature of the write-ups, which includes the most-needed information and the invaluable verdict, which offers a fast, go-to assessment when time is short.

John Scott, School librarian
Powhatan Elementary School, Baltimore, MD
Categories reviewed: picture books, early chapter books, nonfiction

Like Scott, Heidi DeChief was reading SLJ’s reviews long before writing them and is also particularly focused on the verdicts.

“I've always found the reviews quite spot on, and I especially like the addition of that verdict at the end,” says DeChief, who dispatches her reviews from Belgium, where she is the librarian at the International School of Brussels. “I can read that first, and if it interests me, then I'll go back and read the whole entire thing.”

Becoming part of the community of reviewers is important to this group of professionals.

“Being able to review books feeds a little bit of my soul,” says Monisha Blair, a middle school librarian in Virginia. “I get to write about something that I care about and I'm passionate about, and it makes me a more with-it librarian, better able to serve my school community.”

As SLJ reviewers, they serve far beyond their own school communities, which they all take to heart.

“I take the responsibility of creating those [reviews] very seriously,” says Scott.

And there is nothing more serious than a star.

Monisha Blair, Head librarian
Key Middle School, Springfield, VA
Categories reviewed: picture books, chapter books, middle grade, YA, graphic novels

“Most books I read are good books, and I can see an audience for most books,” says Scott. “But those stars—it's just a shortcut to excellence. So being part of that guiding system is a pretty serious responsibility.”

There is no checklist to achieve the prestigious ranking. It is more art than science; as much a feeling as anything else.

“I generally will read the books that I'm reviewing and then sit on them for a few days or a week,” says Blair. “If [one] stays with me, it gets a star. It's this quality where your brain keeps chewing on it. The characters are resonance. The story is lasting. It's one that you immediately go, ‘Oh, I can't wait to put this in a kid's hand. I know who this book belongs in the hands of.' It's that quality for me that says ‘Oh, this deserves a star.’”

Rebecca Jung, who has reviewed for other publications in the past, hasn’t given a book a star in her year reviewing for SLJ. She knows what she's looking for, though.

“The formula that I have in my mind, and what I've used prior to SLJ, is based on me having kind of a visceral reaction,” she says. “A book makes me cry or laugh out loud—to me, that's a stellar book. Or if I'm so engaged with the characters and the world that I miss them when I'm done reading or if my brain continues to play out scenes from the book. Or if I feel like I just want to run out and tell people about it when I'm done.”

Rebecca Jung
Teen services and adult reference librarian Belvedere Tiburon Library, Tiburon, CA
Categories reviewed: Graphic novels for teens, YA, teen poetry and novels in verse, fantasy

DeChief awarded a star to a forthcoming title, a book translated from Spanish called Lucky Me. She says that when it comes to picture books, she’s looking for an excellent marriage of pictures and text, a title she feels would be award-worthy. In the end, though, it’s more instinct than anything else.

“I can't even describe it to you,” she says. “You get this feeling of overwhelming impact that this book will stay with me long after I read it.”

Scott reads books he is assigned to review with past titles and award winners in mind.

"Having read School Library Journal for 30 years, I think about the other books that have gotten stars," he says. "When you're on an award committee, you're looking at the stars, so I think is this book award-worthy? Does this book stand out? Does this book give something to modern collections, school or public, that is really just, 'wow.' [Is it] something I could hand this to almost anybody and say, 'This is a book worth reading.’”

Under the time constraints of librarian positions, the reviewers know firsthand that sometimes stars are all librarians have time to see.

“As a selector, when I'm reading reviews, sometimes I only have time to read the starred reviews,” says Jung. “So when I'm going through looking at how am I going to spend my book budget, there might be great books that are close to a star, but I might not have time to read those reviews. I might select only the starred reviews. So, yeah, it holds a lot of weight.”

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