Middle Grade Committee Offers Inside Look at Best Books

Members of the middle grade Best Books committee share their discussions, considerations, and process for the selection of the titles for the anticipated end-of-the-year list.

The middle grade committee from left: Emily Beasley, Kristin Brynsvold, Kristyn Dorfman, Monisha Blair, Ashleigh Williams.

It starts with the Stars. Then there’s a spreadsheet with annotations, Zoom meetings, Google chat, an evolving list, and lots and lots of reading.

SLJ’s Best Books is the most eagerly awaited issue of the year. It is a keeper that influences collections across the country. And it comes together through months of hard work and careful consideration by each committee and the SLJ Reviews team.

The middle grade Best Books committee is made up of four SLJ reviewers—Emily Beasley, Monisha Blair, Kristin Brynsvold, Kristyn Dorfman—and Ashleigh ­Williams, SLJ associate editor, chapter books and middle grade.

“Working with the middle grade Best Books committee is always the highlight of my year,” says Williams. “The high quality of our list is entirely due to their thoughtfulness, discernment, and immense dedication to cultivating a diverse collection of the strongest titles in the genre.”

Some members read all year with an eye toward the end-of-the-year list, but things really picked up in August.

Williams assembled an initial list of SLJ’s starred middle grade titles of 2023. Then the group met on Zoom to discuss. Some books were dropped. Others were added if one committee member had read something not on the list they felt was worthy of consideration.

This was the first of three Zoom meetings. Brynsvold, librarian at ­Tuckahoe Elementary School in ­Arlington, VA, who was on the committee for the second year, calls them “the only meetings I really look forward to.”

“It’s almost like a literary society where you get to talk about all of these books—what’s good about them or what’s not working,” she says. “It’s a ­really cool thing to get to do. And I love getting to be really on top of what’s going on in middle grade books right now.”

After the first meeting, reading continued and the conversation moved to a Google chat group until the next Zoom discussion.

With some books it’s easy. Everyone agrees it needs to be on the list. Other titles merit more of a discussion, says Beasley, a children and family services public librarian in Nebraska in her third year on the committee.

The discussions, of course, are where it gets interesting—and educational.

“I’ve grown so much in this committee, because I always read through my lens, then hearing someone else say, ‘Well, this part was really awesome. I think this is important.’ And I didn’t even think about it from that perspective.… Several years ago, when I would first read a book, I would just be like, ‘Oh, I feel happy about this book at the end.’ And now I’ve really changed to ‘OK, let’s look at this objectively—was it well written? Was it unique?’ Maybe I didn’t even love it, maybe I was mad at the story, but was it still good?”

Good is not necessarily good enough. Committee members must decide what makes something rise to the level of Best Books.

“A big thing that I learned was thinking about the books in terms of not just what’s a good book, but what’s a book that’s kind of special and unique that people are hopefully going to be able to look at the Best Books list a year or [more] later and say, ‘Oh, yeah, that book really held up and stuck around’?” says Brynsvold. “It was a different way to think about the books I was reading and the way they would impact people than what I always do as a librarian.”

Brynsvold is looking for that book that brings something fresh and new.

“We read so many books as librarians—sometimes you read a book and it is really good, but it’s not necessarily distinct from all the others in its genre.”

Every book on the list has at least two readers. There are the committee conversations. Then there must be consensus.

“No book is ever on our list unless we all feel good about it,” says Beasley. “Ashleigh’s really good about that: We keep talking or we take it off the list.”

The end result must be representative in a multitude of ways—of genre, identity, race, religion, and culture. But no book makes the list just because it checks a box. And no author makes the cut because of their status or previous work.

Every title must meet the Best Books bar and properly speak to the age group. For middle grade, that can be particularly challenging.

“We definitely tried to make sure that there was a range,” says Dorfman, lower and middle school librarian at Friends Academy in New York, who was on the committee for the first time. “In middle grade, even within the ages, their reading skills or interests are also varied. You want to encompass all of that. That makes it difficult, but it also makes it so interesting and fun, because you’re thinking about the interests of anyone from a fourth grader to seventh.”

Dorfman enjoyed the process and benefited from it professionally, too, she says.

The experience has made her a better school librarian, she says, because it required her to read books and from genres like fantasy that she might not have normally. She also discovered authors she didn’t previously read.

“That allows me in my professional life to recommend and talk about titles with students that I might not necessarily have had that connection with.”

The final list features 26 titles.

“Everyone I talked to said the same thing,” says Dorfman. “They’re proud of the list, but they wanted a few more books on there.”

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