Every year, Chicago Public Library launches our Best of the Best lists - books picked specifically for Chicagoans by our librarians. These lists are always exciting to read through, and this year, in celebration of our 150th anniversary, we're taking a look behind the scenes of the making of the Kids lists.
The Best of the Best Kids Committee has tackled the mountainous task of choosing the best kids' books every year for decades. Staff on the committee spend all year reading as many books as they can, and then discussing with their committee members which ones stand out enough to make one of several categories:
- Board Books: For kids from birth to preschool
- Picture Books: For kids from birth to third grade
- Fiction for Younger Readers: For kids in kindergarten through third grade
- Informational Books for Younger Readers: For kids in kindergarten through third grade
- Libros en español: Para niños desde el nacimiento hasta el tercer grado
- Fiction for Older Readers: For kids in third through eighth grade
- Informational Books for Older Readers: For kids in third through eighth grade
Let's meet some committee members and see what they have to say about working on this important task.
What kind of work does the committee do?
While the entire committee is currently comprised of 40 staff members, members spend all year reading books in their specific category, then meet monthly to discuss the details of each book, all in the attempt to narrow down their options. Members also host an annual event for librarians and teachers where they book talk (briefly describe a book) to help attendees learn more about each one in the previous year's lists.
Given how many books each committee member reads each year, they each have different methods for ensuring they are prepared for their monthly discussions.
Jesse Hotaling, a BOTB committee member since 2021, says, "I read piles and piles of picture books and board books, and fiction for younger readers. I read published reviews of the books, I sometimes use them in programs and sometimes read them to my own kids at home to get multiple takes on them."
Evelyn Keolian, who has been a member since 2020, notes that staying on top of new books is key as well: "The bulk of the work is all of the reading and keeping an eye out for any books that we think should be considered by the committee. We critically evaluate each book based on established criteria."
Mary Gen Davies, a committee member since 2021 notes, "besides the very obvious answer of reading books on the selection list, I do try to take detailed notes on every book, listing its pros and cons so I’m prepared for our discussions."
Evelina Armstrong, a committee member since 2022, says that she likes "to learn not just about the story but the author as well. I want to know why they may have chosen to tell a certain story for younger readers."
Cristina Camargo has been an official committee member since 2017, though she has participated in various capacities since 2007. Camargo notes that due to her work serving on the committee, her reading habits have changed: "I love seeing all the new and amazing books being released for children every year. Previously I only read adult books but the majority of what I read now is for kids."
What motivates you to participate in the committee?
While a lot of work goes into the committee, members find the work fulfilling for various reasons.
Cristina Camargo: "My love for books is why I ended up working for CPL... in 2020 Libros en español was added to BOTB for kids and as a bilingual person, I value seeing books published in Spanish being included on the list."
Shilo Jefferson, who has been on the committee since 2006, says participating is helpful for work at CPL: "My love of books, especially children's books, is why I became a librarian and being on BOTB helps me to make sure that the best books are put into the hands of Chicago kids."
Mary Othic, a member on the committee since 2022, says: "It is not easy for everyone to learn to read, and I think that it is important that we strive to find the best books for this group. They are not only beginning to read but also developing their love of libraries and books."
Liv Hanson, who has led the committees since 2016, captures the essence of what was echoed by many of her fellow committee members: "There's a kind of magic in reading the right book at the right time. Can you remember a book that made you feel seen, that took you somewhere new, or that transformed you? Can you remember the first stories you read all by yourself or the ones you shared with a loved one time and again? We get to be the ones to hand those to kids. And we get to share and discuss them with each other."
Alexa Hamilton, a committee member since 2013, writes: "We want to help kids find the best books that reflect living in an urban, multicultural environment, and are also innovative and really high quality."
What is your favorite part of the committee process?
Evelina Armstrong says, "I am always open to my mind being changed on any given title [during monthly discussions] but there are moments where I get the luxury to change a committee member’s mind and those moments are ones I really enjoy."
Jesse Hotaling sums up one of her favorite parts of being on the committee this way: "Nerding out about children's books with other children's book nerds is my jam."
"My favorite part is the discussion of the books with the other librarians on the committee. Even though things can sometimes get heated, it's fun to see everyone's passion for the books," says Shilo Jefferson.
Why are the BOTB lists important for parents and teachers?
Jesse Hotaling: "We have a unique mission and a unique perspective when it comes to making these lists for the parents, teachers and kids of Chicago... We want kids to see themselves in the pages of these books and also see into the worlds of others... It's hard to articulate, but our lists have a certain flavor that is uniquely CPL and I'm proud to be a part of that!"
Tamela Chambers, on the committee since 2019, notes: "I think these lists are important because they cover a wide range of topics and are excellent resources for helping kids build empathy, reflect their lived experiences and provide the opportunity to learn something new."
Megan McFarlane has been on the committee since 2022 and serves on the Board and Picture Book and Informational Books for Younger Readers committees. She says, "Nothing beats the feeling of seeing a child see themselves represented in the stories we share."
CPL's Best of the Best Kids Committee members picked their favorite titles over the years.
Thanks for learning more about our Best of the Best Kids committee! Keep the reading fun going by visiting chipublib.org/summer, make sure join our 150th anniversary celebrations, and of course stay tuned for this year's Best of the Best when the lists are released in November.