Simply the Best: Honoring the year in children’s and YA books is a moment to savor | From the Editor

It’s a constant, Best Books, an annual ritual that nevertheless inspires us anew, lending a welcome element of anticipation, delight, and discovery at year’s end.

It’s a constant, Best Books, an annual ritual that nevertheless inspires us anew, lending a welcome element of anticipation, delight, and discovery at year’s end.

There’s the import of these selections, to be sure, within the industry and among librarians, who make collection development decisions based on SLJ’s recommendations. So the lead up to the announcement of Best Books—including an intense, months-long decision process—is focused on deciding which titles starred throughout the year will make the cut. Yet in the end, it all feels more like a celebration than a competition.

In gratitude for their work on this project and throughout the year, a shout out for our ­worthy ­reviews team: Shelley M. Diaz, reviews ­editor; ­Kimberly Fakih, senior editor, picture books; Amanda ­Mastrull, editor, YA & audiobooks; Andrew Eliopulos, editor, graphic novels; Ashleigh Williams, associate editor, chapter books & middle grade; and Florence ­Simmons, ­associate editor. And big ups to Josephine Marc-Anthony, our stalwart and ever-chipper designer, who shoulders production of SLJ’s reviews in each issue (and that’s a lot of reviews).
Thank you.

After a tumultuous year and a wealth of great books, I asked the editors: What struck you about this particular Best Books season?

Diaz, who has had a long tenure with the process, having participated in Best Books since 2012 and stepping into the lead reviews editor role in September 2020, responds. “I understand especially this year how important it is to have most of our decisions being led by our librarian reviewers, reviewers we trust so much,” she says.

“Most importantly, because they are working with kids, they’re in the library. They are facing their own challenges. So their word at the end of the day, I value it even more than our editorial point of view because, they’re the ones that hand [the books] to the readers we are trying to serve.”

Simmons noted the use of poetry for teaching "histories that we may not have heard much about or that we do know but in a new way," she says. "Erica Martin's And We Rise talks about the Civil Rights movement using concrete poetry. Joseph Bruchac's Voices of the People shares biographies of Native Americans, some of whom are well-known, and others may be new to many people."  

"For the graphic novels section, one thing that stood out was the unique challenge of comparing books across age groups and categories, to say nothing of the different genres," says Eliopulos. He notes the number of strong early reader comics this year and  a mix of sci-fi/fantasy and realism, fiction and nonfiction, historical and contemporary on our list. "And even one book (Jason Shiga's Leviathan) that functions like a game, with readers able to choose from branching paths that will have them flipping all through the book to unlock all its secrets. So it's a hard category to narrow down! And I think our longer-than-average list (22 titles) reflects this explosion in popularity and possibilities."

Helping kids discover their voice and themselves

This year, 22 reviewers participated on Best Book committees invited by the editors, who managed the process for the respective categories and led lengthy discussions online. These weren’t your average ­­two- to three-hour Zoom meetings, according to Fakih.

“I don’t know,” she says, “you feel like the whole country is going to hell in a hand basket and then you have these conversations among smart, well-read, educated people and you feel like all the sharp edges have gone away, and you just have compassion, intelligence, and understanding in one room, discussing books about the next generation for the next generation for readers.”

When it comes to standout themes, Diaz cites the works that concern identity and “kids finding their voice, whatever voice that might be,” she says. It could be a picture book where a child discovers how to be a friend, or a graphic novel where a child discovers the roots of their family and where they belong in that family.

Books can help kids discover who they are. And that’s what censors fear, says Diaz. “When kids find out who they are, maybe that person they discover doesn’t fit into a box that society wants for them. So you close off access to these books, you close off ­access to these identities [and kids’ true selves]. ­Control the content and they can control who they are.”

Yet in the end they find the content, I say. “They do,” responds Diaz, “and it’s because of librarians.”


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Kathy Ishizuka

Kathy Ishizuka is editor in chief of School Library Journal.

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