‘All powerful work is deeply personal’: Building this year’s Best Books for Young Readers list

January 27, 2022
Rabani and Sibylla headshots

Rabani Garg and Sibylla Shekerdjiska-Benatova 

Rabani Garg and Sibylla Shekerdjiska-Benatova like to share an anecdote about Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, the Penn GSE professor and children’s literature expert who started the Best Books for Young Readers list in 2015.

“Ebony said something once that has been like a guiding light for me,” says Sibylla. “She said, ‘All powerful work is deeply personal.’ And it’s true. You can make it professional, but it usually is rooted in your personal experiences, interests, and passions.”

And she was right: For Rabani and Sibylla, who guided this year’s Best Books for Young Readers list, this powerful work — reaching underserved readers, letting them know their experience matters and introducing them to a world of literature which speaks directly to it — is deeply personal.

Rabani, a Ph.D. student in Penn GSE’s Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division, and Sibylla, a student in Penn GSE’s Reading/Writing/Literacy master’s program, have each come to this passion project in their own way.

Becoming Involved

Rabani came to Penn in 2016 and became a member of Thomas’s Humanizing Stories research team — the team behind the effort to review and compile the books for each year’s list.

“It was Dr. Ebony Thomas’ research and scholarship on children’s and young adult literature and media that first led me to Penn GSE,” Rabani recalls. “I had been working in India in the field of children literature — in publishing and with libraries. I joined the master’s program in Reading, Writing, and Literacy with Dr. Thomas as my advisor. Humanizing Stories was the first research project that I worked on at Penn GSE.”

Meanwhile, Sibylla came to Penn in 2000 as a member of the Rare Book and Manuscripts Department of Penn Libraries. In 2014 she founded A Book A Day, a West Philadelphia nonprofit that seeks out “new and intriguing” books on music, art history, poetry, or street art for young readers. She joined the Best Books for Young Readers project after Garg reached out with an invite.

“When Rabani asked if I’d like to help, I said yes before she even finished the sentence,” says Sibylla. “It’s an incredible honor to be able to contribute something to a list that consistently, throughout the years, is making a change in diversifying the collections of teachers across the US.”

Building the List

The Best Books for Young Readers list quickly earned a reputation for championing works of courage, loss, kindness, devastation, euphoria, and strength from authors, illustrators, and publishers outside of the mainstream.

“When we look at a book for the list, we’re trying to be mindful of whose story is being told and who’s telling it,” says Rabani. “That forms the backbone of the list — thinking deeply about issues of representation and diversity in ways that go beyond just labels.”

Compiling a list like that doesn’t come easy, and the effort typically starts right at the beginning of the year. By November, Rabani says, they have anywhere from 100 to 150 books they’ve either read, had recommended to them, or come across in another way.

Whittling the list down past that can be complicated. Some of it comes down to showcasing those books which have escaped the mainstream — those published by indie outlets, or which never got enough advertising. Some of it comes down to reaching out to their trusted communities, people they can reach out and talk to about the books they love on topics they don’t necessarily know much about.

Rabani noted the spotlight being shined on social justice and racial inequity has also — consciously and subconsciously — played a significant role in the past few iterations of the list, including this year’s.

“We’ve tried to draw upon that and include books that are about strength but also joy,” she says. “This year in particular, we have a lot more books that are nonfiction or creative non-fiction. I don’t know if that was intentional, so much as just one of the ways we’ve been thinking about everything.”

And finally, some of it’s just personal.

“We’re always asking ourselves, ‘What are the books I’ve read that stood out to me?’” says Sibylla. “The books I’d love for others to be able to access?”

Their Personal Favorites

Both Rabani and Sibylla laugh when asked about their favorite book on the list. For people dedicated to poring through so many books about so many diverse topics, picking any one out of that deluge can be quite the task. Still, they do have their picks — and each is deeply personal.

Rabani’s favorite on the list is “Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir,” by Farah Bashir. It is an account of the author’s adolescence in Srinagar, Kashmir in the 1990s, growing up amid a territorial conflict that impacts everybody and everything. Rabani, who is from India, notes that while she isn’t from Kashmir, she has memories from the time she lived there as a child and has many friends from the region who have often shared similar stories.

“This book, a memoir, tells an important story of girlhood — of growing up in a conflict zone,” she says. “The writing is at once beautiful and heart-wrenching. It is also about strength and resilience. Many stories written about conflict zones that I’ve read have often focused on boys. It feels unexplored, experiencing girlhood in an area of conflict.”

Sibylla picked two: “The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain,” by Eugene Yelchin, and “The Longest Letsgoboy,” written by Derick Wilder and illustrated by Cátia Chien. The former, a story about the author’s childhood in Cold War Russia, spoke to Sibylla, who herself lived under a communist regime. The latter, a story about love and loss as told by a little girl’s aging dog going for one last wonderful walk, hit hard for her because of her own recent experience with loss.

“That book came to me at a difficult time,” Sibylla says of “The Longest Letsgoboy.” “I had just lost a relative to COVID-19. The book unlocked and helped me express my emotions. It helped me cry. I feel a deep, personal connection to that book.”

The Future of the Best Books for Young Readers List

Going forward, Rabani and Sibylla would like to continue the influx of international books being brought onto the list.

“There’s interesting, important work being done outside the US, and I’d like for us to continue to showcase that,” says Rabani. “Several of the books in this year’s list, while available here, weren’t published in the US. That’s a start.”

Rabani noted they’d also like to get more voices into the creation of the list itself. Right now, the list relies on a small core team of individuals. They’d like to see more input from students, teachers, and parents.

Sibylla added increased focus may be trained on the different ways young readers learn. For example, some students may be more visual learners. Some may find certain fonts less legible, making a given book intimidating or unnecessarily difficult. Increased diversity on this front would benefit everybody, she says.

For both Rabani and Sibylla, thinking about the future of the list is exciting because just being involved with it is so rewarding.

“It’s incredibly validating to be a part of this process,” says Rabani. “I was at a conference last month and introduced myself to somebody, and this professor I’d never met before said, ‘Oh, you’re the person who does the best books list!’ It was wonderful to be associated with the list like that. It’s such an important part of my life, being part of this team that’s so intentional about the work we’re doing.”

“It’s humbling to be asked to join the team, because it’s an honor, but it’s also a huge responsibility — and a great joy,” says Sibylla. “I hope to bring my identity and the joy I experienced every time I read a book to increase visibility and access to outstanding new publications.”