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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 01/24/2012

How to choose the best books for kids and teens

Yesterday, the American Library Association announced this year’s winners of the country’s most prestigious awards in children’s and young adult literature. (The list of winners is here)

Today, I’m posting my interview with Mary Fellows, president of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the ALA.

We discussed how the winning books were chosen, trends in young people’s literature and how parents can choose quality books for their kids.

(Full disclosure: My daughters’ birthdays are coming up so I had an ulterior motive in seeking this advice.)

Here’s our edited Q&A:


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What themes have you seen emerging in recent children’s literature?

I think we’re seeing more books set in dystopian societies, where children struggle to be moral in a world that rewards amorality. We’re also seeing more quality nonfiction — wonderful biographies, history and science books.

How do you think these themes reflect cultural changes as a whole?

Children of today are more knowledgeable about society’s problems than kids of a generation ago. They see more news programs and encounter news on the Internet. Television talk shows plumb family problems. Adults are more open about addictions and issues in their conversations, and kids overhear them.

In terms of nonfiction, information has become a hot commodity with the Internet. I read recently that children don’t have to wonder anymore — they can look up a question on the Internet in seconds. Of course, not all kids have easy access to the Internet, and the answer they find may or may not be accurate. That’s why the top-notch nonfiction being published today for children is such a boost to learning.

Speaking of cultural changes, why are children reading less and why should we be concerned about it?

I think the surveys show that kids are reading fewer books. Rather than books, kids are reading more magazines, Web sites and e-mails. The concern with kids reading fewer books is that they will be less practiced in reading deeply, reflecting, analyzing complex textual information and thinking critically.

What can parents do to encourage more reading?

Parents are powerful models for their children in reading as in everything else. If a child sees a parent reading and enjoying the activity, the child wants to do it. Parents can also make sure that the family visits the public library regularly, and can work with the librarian to help their child find books to read for fun.

Having lots of books and other reading material in the house will encourage kids to think of reading when they’re feeling bored.

Reading books together is a powerful motivator, and can still be enjoyed long after children are able to read on their own.

Listening to books in the car is another way to immerse kids in literature. Listen to the first title in a popular series, read the second one aloud together, and encourage your child to read the third one on his own.

Who chose this year’s winners?

The books are thoroughly examined and discussed by each award committee, which makes the final decision. These committees are made up entirely of members of the Association for Library Service to Children — mainly public librarians, school librarians and children’s literature professors. A new committee is constituted for each award each year.

What makes certain books stand out as particularly excellent?

With picture books, it’s a seamless marriage of illustrations with the book’s theme. Informational books, eligible for the Sibert Award, must combine factual information with an engaging visual presentation, excellent organization, clear language and helpful supporting materials to stand out. With fiction, a book stands above others when the language is distinctive, the setting is sensory, characters seem like people we might encounter, and the plot is believable and deftly spun out.

How do the judges evaluate which books best connect with young readers?

The award committee members are encouraged to use the many books under consideration with children during the year, so they’ll bring that knowledge to the discussion. However, the awards are not book popularity contests. Committees choose the winner based on certain criteria.

Also, not every award winner is appropriate for every child. The awards cover a range of ages, so a Newbery award winner that’s written for grades sixth through eighth may not be appropriate for your 9-year old, no matter how good a reader she is. The award seal does not override parental judgment about the books that best fit their family’s values and the developmental level of their child.

What can parents look for in a book store or library when they are choosing a book for their child? There are so many choices; it’s hard to know which books will become treasured.

First, the parent can ask the librarian or bookstore staff for help. Librarians are trained to help kids find books that they will love. Reading books that they want to, just for fun, is what motivates kids to read more. We’re lucky to live in a time where there are thousands of book choices available for kids. Parents can help their child make good selections by having a conversation about what the child likes. Stories about magic? Sports stories? No stories, just the facts? Sometimes it’s a process to help a child discover what she likes. At its best, that’s a collaboration between the child, the parent, and a knowledgeable children’s librarian.

Now, a question for readers: What are your favorite books for your children and how did you discover them?

Related Content:

Walter Dean Myers, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, on raising readers

Katherine Paterson discusses the longevity of paper books and the best of young adult fiction

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 01/24/2012

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