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Books that make the grade

A group of 20 discriminating librarians carefully selects the Sunshine State Young Readers list.

By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published October 27, 2005


All an author of children's fiction needs to do to get a book on the annual Sunshine State Young Readers Award list is impress 20 librarians. Impress them enough, that is, to make the cut when they choose 25 books from a field of about 300.

Six children's authors appearing at the Festival of Reading this year are in that select group. Betty Birney, Carl Hiaasen, Lee Kochenderfer, Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Vivian Vande Velde have each had one book on the list; Adrian Fogelin has scored two.

Fogelin lives in Tallahassee, and her two Sunshine State books, Anna Casey's Place in the World (2003-04) and Crossing Jordan (2002-03), are both set there.

"I like being identified as a Florida author," she says.

"Most states have lists like this, but some are active, some are not. One of my books got on the list in Pennsylvania, and when I mentioned it to someone there, they said, "We have a list?'

"With Sunshine State Young Readers, you know your book is guaranteed to be read by a large number of children." Nancy Teger says, "It's an honor for the authors to be chosen." Teger, a program specialist for library media services at the Florida Department of Education, oversees the statewide program.

"The authors tell us these awards mean more to them because they come from the children who read the books."

The Sunshine State Young Readers Award program, designed to encourage students in grades 3 through 8 to read independently, was founded in 1983 and is co-sponsored by the state Department of Education and the Florida Association for Media in Education.

Each year, librarians in Florida schools nominate books for the list, based on their own reading and input from kids and teachers.

The books must be fiction first published within the four years preceding nomination, worthy of an award, appropriate for young readers and written by an author who is a U.S. citizen or resident.

"And they have to be books kids will really want to read," Teger says.

She and a committee of 19 librarians appointed by the Department of Education and the Florida Association for Media in Education read all the nominated books. They choose 15 books for grades 3 through 5 and 15 for grades 6 through 8; five "crossover" books are on both lists.

The crossover books, Teger says, are designed to encourage younger kids to read at a higher level and to give a comfort zone to middle school readers who may be struggling.

She says the committee works hard to ensure many different genres, reading levels and interests are represented. They also usually avoid books that are already very popular.

"Like the Lemony Snicket books, you don't need to tell kids to read those," she says. "We try to steer them to things they might not read otherwise."

They're steering a lot of youngsters. Last year, 61 of the state's school districts participated in the program. After the recent Florida Association for Media in Education conference for school librarians, Teger says, "Hopefully, we'll have all 67."

In the 2004-05 school year, students at more than 1,200 public and private schools chose books from the lists, as did a number of home-schooled children. Schools use a variety of incentives to get kids interested in reading the books, ranging from bookmarks and buttons to pizza parties.

Any student who reads at least three books from the list gets to vote for the book of the year. Last year, more than 90,000 children voted.

Usually, two books are chosen, one from each list. But the 2004-05 winner for both lists was one of the crossover books, the futuristic The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau.

Louis Sachar's Holes won for both age groups in the 2002-03 voting. Those books appealed to kids across the age spectrum, Teger says, because they are "just great stories. They're original literature that just spoke to the students."

Fogelin says, "One of the things I like about the program is that it really looks for books that appeal to a wide audience.

"We need the ground-breaking books, like the Newbery winners. But we also need the books that feel comfortable and familiar to kids."

Fogelin says she gets lots of e-mails from her readers, many of whom write that they first read her books because of Sunshine State Young Readers lists, but then go on to read others.

"It's great, because Anna Casey and Crossing Jordan were the first two books in a series," she says. "They're set in the same neighborhood, with the same kids, but each one has a different narrator."

My Brother's Hero and her new book, The Big Nothing, are the others in the series.

For authors and publishers, having a book named to the list means sales as well as recognition. Participating school libraries want the books on their shelves, and kids who read them may buy other books by the writers.

Mimi Schroeder is publicity manager for Peachtree Publishers in Atlanta, which publishes Fogelin's books and many others for young readers.

"Adrian is a resident of Florida, so it means so much to her personally" to be on the Sunshine State list, Schroeder says. "Her books are set in Florida, so it's a very emotional sort of thing."

But whether or not an author has personal ties to a locale, making such lists is a goal, Schroeder says. "We sell to the retail market, but we also sell to the educators market, and for them that sort of endorsement is essential."

The Sunshine State list is just one of many similar programs. In addition to state and local school reading lists, there are national and regional awards and lists keyed to ethnic, religious and other groups.

Getting their titles on those lists is important to publishers. At Peachtree, Schroeder says, a full-time staffer researches the lists and awards and makes sure books are properly submitted for consideration.

Teger says that although she knows publishers covet a position on the list, the nominating librarians and the selection committee aren't swayed by publicity campaigns. "That kind of thing is very much nipped in the bud.

"That's why the nominations come through the school librarians. They've read the books, and they know what appeals to their students."

Fogelin spends a lot of time doing writing workshops in schools and libraries, and she says she's impressed that Florida "makes such an effort not just to institute the list but to use it in a huge number of schools."

When she visits schools around the state, she says, books from the Sunshine State Young Readers Award list are racked and labeled separately, so kids can get to them easily.

"It's no mystery. It gets the kids who don't want to put their nose in a book into reading."

-- For information about the Sunshine State Young Readers Award program, go to www.firn.edu/doe/instmat/ssyrap.htm

AT A GLANCE

Adrian Fogelin, author of The Big Nothing, appears at 10 a.m. in the Florida Center for Teachers 118. Carl Hiaasen, author of Flush, appears at 1:45 p.m. in the USF Campus Activities Center.