As summer school looms on the horizon, teachers are busy preparing reading lists for their courses. While I can imagine groans from some students, they may not realize how fortunate they are.
Depending on the class, students could be handed half a dozen titles to read. On the other hand, Goleta Supervising Librarian Allison Gray has a reading list for 2013 of at least 1,500 books allotted to her by the American Library Association (ALA).
“It was a great surprise and a huge honor,” says Gray, to be among the 11 librarians around the country appointed to the ALA Notable Children’s Book Committee. These professionals are entrusted with drawing up the first draft of a list from which all ALA librarians will choose the new books they offer their young clients, up to age 14.
With this power comes great responsibility—requiring great dignity. Not!
“When I got the phone call in my office, I screamed very loudly,” Gray recalls. “Fortunately,” she laughs, “the library was not yet open, but my staff came running.”
It took at least two days for the shock to wear off. Then she realized that by accepting the assignment she had effectively eliminated her social life for the rest of the year. That is how long she estimates it could take to read and evaluate the hundreds of new books for children and teens that publishers will likely send each librarian on the notable books committee.
The New York native “loves books,” but must read everything and write brief reviews of books she recommends to other committee members. Together they decide on up to 75 titles they judge should have the ALA seal of approval. The categories cover fiction and nonfiction, and range from picture books to poetry to biography.
Gray decided to seek a wider swath of opinion than solely her own, informed as it is (for years, before moving to Goleta, she served on Long Island as a librarian for children’s and adults’ collections). Last April, she organized the Goleta Children’s and Teen Book Evaluation Group, which now numbers 85 members. Readers are still welcome, she adds.
The Goleta readers group covers a range of ages, and Gray has a short-response questionnaire to elicit what they think of the books they choose. After three weeks, the reader returns the book and questionnaire and takes another, if he or she wishes. There is no quota.
Some of the eight or 10 questions can be answered with simple check marks. Of the open-ended questions, the most useful to Gray are the ones that ask what the best and the worst things are about the story.
She relies on the volunteers’ reviews as feedback to “try to understand why they have a different response to a book than I do,” she explains. Additionally, Gray plans on donating many of the reviewed books to the Goleta Library; this approach helps her keep a finger on the pulse of local reading interests.
Gathering a wide net of opinions can also be humbling. Gray admits that if her positive evaluation of a work is countered by a solid wall of negative feelings, that “might make me think twice about nominating something to the committee.”
The time required for such a layered analysis may be why most of her fellow ALA committee members do not use readers to help shape their opinions, but it feels right to Gray. She suggests that growing up and starting a library career in the small towns of the Hamptons honed her awareness to local sensitivities.
Since she has a two-year appointment to the Notable Children’s Book Committee, Gray expects the paper deluge to begin anew next February. If this year’s broad-based review system turns out satisfactorily, Goletans may again be summoned to indirectly serve the nation’s library system.