SLJ Reviews Explained: Our editors field questions on grade levels and how ‘stars’ are made

Alongside a national rise in censorship, we've received queries about our review process. For readers experiencing a challenge to a book or anticipating one, SLJ reviews editor Shelley Diaz and a panel covered the ins and outs of what we do.  

School Library Journal (SLJ) reviews thousands of books and other materials for children and teens each year. The concise 250-word evaluations, written by a volunteer corps of professional ­librarians and edited by our team, inform the field.

That work is central here, and we take it seriously, given the role of SLJ reviews in guiding librarians in making purchasing decisions and overall collection development. All while keeping in mind the end user: young readers.

But you don’t have to take our word for it. Beyond the weight our appraisals carry in the industry, one glance at recent news media and you’ll see SLJ reviews. They’re everywhere of late, cited by both defenders of challenged books and those seeking to remove them from school and library shelves around the country.

While lamenting the fact that “something we do to help librarians make decisions is being used against them,” Shelley Diaz, SLJ reviews editor, remains focused on serving our audience. 

Alongside a national rise in censorship are the increasing queries she’s received from readers asking how we assign grade levels within our assessment of books and why certain titles are designated with a coveted SLJ “star.” These individuals may be experiencing a challenge to a book or anticipating one, surmises Diaz. So she organized a February 1 gathering of fellow reviewers and staff in an online, recorded dialogue to shed light on SLJ’s process of reviewing. 

“Are there rubrics or guidelines for deciding whether a book is designated middle grade or young adult?” Diaz posed a reader question to the panel.

“When it comes to any sort of grade level determination, particularly middle school versus YA, it’s really more art than science,” replied Kiera Parrott, Darien (CT) Public Library director and former reviews director of SLJ and Library Journal. “There’s not a checklist or tally; we’re not counting the number of swear words [in a book].”

And we don’t rely on the publisher’s recommendation on the back of the book or in flap copy. That’s composed by the marketing department whose job it is to sell to the widest possible audience, says Parrott, and it may not jibe with the evaluation of a librarian reviewer who works with kids and teens.

“Middle grade is really difficult,” adds Ashley ­Leffel, a librarian in Frisco (TX) ISD, “because you’re going from third or fourth grade all the way up to eighth grade.” And the reviews have to do so much—you have to convey a bit of the plot, some analysis, “and give a sense of what it’s like to read this book,” says Mahnaz Dar, SLJ senior editor, who moves to Kirkus Reviews this month.

The group also addressed perspective and the critical discipline that reviewers apply to check any personal bias while evaluating a work. And each review undergoes the editorial process before publication.

As for starred reviews, that designation indicates a go-to purchase for librarians, something reviewers and editors are keenly aware of. “Giving a book a star is giving it the ultimate seal of approval,” says Dar.

Seeing this presentation (below), the professionalism and rigor that comes with reviewing is the overarching takeaway. Contrast that with the chaos wrought by the would-be censors, many of whom haven’t even read the title(s) in question and aren’t ashamed to admit it.

So how would we advise readers? “Librarians should use the resources they have, do what you were called to do, and provide the best materials for children, for the curriculum, and for your community,” says Diaz. And have an airtight policy for both ­collection development and deselection. “Then you can really defend your decisions.”


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Kathy Ishizuka

Kathy Ishizuka is editor in chief of School Library Journal.

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