I put on my teacher hat last night and talked to my friend CJ over at his vlog, Real Rap With the Reynolds, primarily about getting kids into reading. One of the questions we were asked at the end of the livestream was how does one know what good YA books are out there. This is a great question–one to which the answer could be useful to teachers, parents, or readers themselves. As I said in the vlog, when kids tell me they hate reading, most of the time I think they mean that they hate reading the types of books usually assigned in school. But I believe there are books out there for every type of kid, now more than ever, and as an English teacher, I try to keep on top of what’s out so I never miss an opportunity to connect a kid with a book they might enjoy. I also believe in the transformative power of the written word, so I think making such a connection can be more important than anything I might teach in class.
With that said, my instinct is to make a list of all my favs. However, it’s probably more helpful to teach someone to fish. So, instead of a list of books, here’s a list of ways you can keep up with what’s coming out in children’s literature:
- Pay attention to bestseller lists. These are not the be-all-end-all, but they’re an easy starting point for tracking what’s selling/what kids are reading these days. Personally, I keep an eye on the YA sections of the NY Times and Indiebound lists.
- Pay attention to award winners. For a multitude of reasons, there are some amazing books (which tend to be more “literary”) that never hit the above lists. For that reason, check out award winners. The National Book Award has categories for children’s lit, and the Newbery, Printz, and Caldecott are probably the most well-known of awards for children’s lit. But it’s a fact the selection committees often overlook books by/about marginalized people, so don’t sleep on the Coretta Scott King awards (African American), the Pura Belpré awards (Latino/a), the Lambda and Stonewall awards (LGBTQIA+), or the APALA awards (Asian/Pacific American). Of course, there are many other book awards out there, so if you have a specific community in mind, a quick Google search can help you find awards organizations geared towards those specific communities.
- Follow your (or your students’) favorite authors on social media. Many authors post about books they’re reading or that they’ve really enjoyed, so this is an easy way to have new books cross your path with little effort.
- Keep track of hashtags like #WNDB (We Need Diverse Books) or #ownvoices. People will often use these to highlight books by marginalized authors that may be getting overlooked by bestseller lists and awards committees. Also, We Need Diverse Books recently launched a new app, Our Story, which is a great curated resource for discovering books about specific marginalized communities.
- Find a book blogger, book tuber, book tumblr ,or #bookstagram account that you like. There are a lot of book enthusiasts out there on all social media platforms, but once you find someone who seems to jive with the kind of books you’re looking for on a platform you feel comfortable using, this can be a fantastic stand-in for a real life friend feeding you recommendations.
- Check end-of-year lists. A quick Google search for “Best YA books 2017” or something like that can be another easy way to discover new books that might be overlooked in other realms. Again, there are a lot of lists like that out there, so look for someone who seems to share your (or your kids’) tastes. My caution with this is that just because a book isn’t appearing on these lists doesn’t mean it wasn’t great (or vice versa)–I think sometimes people build their own lists by searching such lists, creating the whole mirror-reflecting-another-mirror kind of effect.
- Talk to your school’s librarian. I tend to overlook this because I haven’t worked at a school with a library for almost a decade, but librarians are obviously people who have dedicated their lives to books, so they tend to have deep knowledge of what’s current and relevant to the community. If your school doesn’t have a librarian, most public libraries or bookstores will have someone who’s responsible for ordering the children’s books, so make them your bestie.
- Convince your school to subscribe to a children’s literature review publication. The Horn Book and School Library Journal are great resources that offer short reviews of upcoming books for kids, while other publications like Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus offer reviews across all categories/age ranges. Whichever one you subscribe to, I’d recommend keeping a hard copy of the latest issue in the teacher’s lounge for all to peruse.
- Attend book events. Certain bookstores and libraries often host author events, book clubs, panels, etc., so see if there are any near you that do so. If so, sign up for their newsletter so you know what they’ve got going on (Pro-tip: Usually the independent bookstores host the best events). Also, find book festivals that occur in your area. Beyond meeting and hearing from authors you already know, festivals are great places to discover new books and to connect with like-minded people. If you find any such events, be sure to share them with your students.
Keep in mind that “good” is subjective. The most important thing, in my opinion as a teacher, is to know your kids’ interest and keep an eye out for books to put in their hands.
Obviously, there are A TON of books in the world. You don’t need to do all of the above–I’d find some manageable combination of a handful. Also, you certainly don’t need to read every single book you come across. Most of the time, it’s enough to go to a kid and be like, “Hey, I saw this book the other day that I think you might like. I haven’t read it yet, but you might enjoy it because I know you’re into ___.” I’d also say that it’s important for all teachers and parents to have some knowledge of what’s out there. English teachers tend to prefer fiction, so math/science/history/art/etc. teachers who have a finger on the pulse of nonfiction offerings can play a vital role in a kid’s reading life, as well.
If there are any methods you use for staying current with children’s literature that I missed, feel free to include it in the comments below!