The question you were afraid to ask: how do I know which books are good?


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If you’re my soulmate/long-lost twin/time-traveling clone,* you probably got into youth librarianship because of a deep love of young adult literature. So the question, “What books should I get?” isn’t even one you’re asking. Of course you know what to get. How could you not know? You just… know. What books shouldn’t you get is more like it! There’s Shannon Hale and John Green and Madeleine George and Ursula K. LeGuin and Sherman Alexie and J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket and Rainbow Rowell and Maggie Stiefvater and THAT IS NOT EVEN GETTING INTO THE NONFICTION and while you’re rhapsodizing over there, I’m going to talk to these nice people about resources they can use to find really great books for their students.

*If the last, can we start sharing work duties? That would be excellent!

  1. Librarians as resources
    1. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) list-serve. Absolutely sign up for this—not only will you get e-mails about resources, great books, activities, booklists and more, but you have the opportunity to be in conversation with YA librarians all across the country.
    2. Follow YA librarians on Twitter! Great accounts to know: @YALSA, @SLJournal, @aasl, @jenniferlagarde, @GwynethJones, and @plemmonsa, to name just a few of my favorite library Twitter gurus out of a great, great many. Librarians are wonderfully active on social media—follow the hashtag #librarylife to find more.

The more you participate in—or are even just lurking on—the conversation, the greater your awareness of trends, titles and beloved books will be.

  1. Lists to look out for:
    1. YALSA’s annual “Best of the Year” and “Best of the Best” book and media award lists:
    2. The Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) booklists:
  2. Review publications and websites
    1. The Horn Book: this publication is pure gold, publishing quality reviews of quality books for children and young adults.
    2. Booklist: review publication of the ALA. Requires account for full access:
    3. School Library Journal, the world’s largest reviewer of books and multimedia for youth and teens:
    4. Kirkus Reviews:
    5. & honestly? Seems pretty basic, but I love Goodreads. Reviews and lists are user-created (rather than written by professionals), so take with a grain of salt, but their UI is really friendly, and they have a wealth of information:
  3. Awards
    1. All of the following awards are given to books of merit for young people. A librarian worth her salt will at least be aware of these lists, if not have the winners in her library:
      1. Michael L. Printz Award
      2. Margaret A. Edwards Award
      3. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
      4. Pura Belpre Award: for Latino literature for children and young adults
      5. Coretta Scott King Award: from the ALA, this award recognizes “outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values” (
      6. Stonewall Book Award—Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children and Young Adults’ Literature Award: sponsored by the ALA’s LGBT Round Table
      7. Tayshas—this is an honorary YA booklist sponsored by the Texas Library Association’s (TxLA) Young Adult Round Table (with unfortunate acronym YART). Not in Texas? Check with your state library association and see what they offer!
  1. Your community
    1. This sounds terribly obvious, but: if you want to know what your students want to read, ask them. Before beginning the project I wrote a simple Google Survey and had the math teacher administer it for me. Each student was asked the following:
      1. If you could add anything to the library, what would it be?
      2. How many books do you read per week?
      3. Which genres do you most like to read?

And that was that. I generated a huge list of desired titles, authors, series and nonfiction topics. In addition, I had a sense of who my community was and what they wanted.

One of the best pieces of librarianship advice I’ve ever received is to keep a wishlist. As you look through these lists, take notes! This will guide you in your purchasing ventures. Also, in the rare event that you come into a financial windfall, such as your principal chucking money at you at the end of the fiscal year (or a lovely and unexpected donation!), you’ll want to be ready to say, decisively, “Yes, I want these titles,” before that money gets snapped up by the football team.

Did I miss anything? Share your favorite resources or library Twitter handles below:


How to get books #1: the outreach e-mail

I was lucky in beginning this project because of my community resources. I had a space and an administration excited to work with me, for one. Additionally, because I’m a graduate student, I had connections in three graduate departments passionate about books: English, creative writing, and the library school.

The list-serves for these departments were my first resource for soliciting book donations. While I didn’t have access to the mailing lists for all three, I was able to get in touch with people who did, and the word rippled out from there.

The e-mail was simple, and looked like this:

Dear [whomever],

Planning to move this summer? Going through a major literary destash? Don’t haul your books to Half Price–help build a library at my school!

I teach English part-time at a tiny, wacky private school out by Dripping Springs called Skybridge Academy. It’s a very small alternative school for grades 6-12. The principal’s given me permission to try to scrap together a working school library. So I’d love to collect donated books!

Our fledgling library would especially love fiction and nonfiction for grades 6-12, but would be thrilled with anything–please get in touch, and I’ll take your old books of your hands.



[my title/degree + graduation year]

It worked well, for these reasons: it’s short, it’s personable, it appeals to the reader’s interest, and I’m not asking for money.* In fact, I’m offering to do work for the reader. To have someone save you the trouble of a trip to Goodwill, and get to feel like you contributed to a cause you believe in (kids reading books)? Beautiful.

(*I never asked for money. Astoundingly, someone once offered some, but I—gratefully—declined it. It felt complicated.)

I’ll give you one guess who responded the best (and this adorable picture to look at while you do).


Or you could just look at this all day. No one would blame you. (image credit:

Or you could just look at this all day. No one would blame you. (image credit:

Librarians. Overwhelmingly, I was flooded with enthusiastic responses from librarians. It’s great fun to speculate about these patterns (the PhDs in the English department receiving the e-mail in the dead of night and clutching their beloved books to their chests in a panic—to part from literature? Nay, never!), but goodness, the library school students and alumni were all over this project. Free books from conferences. Bags of books. Trunkloads of books. Always with caveats and apologies—“I don’t know if these are a good fit for your students”—but also with a readiness and heaps of excitement for the project.

The Skybrary's first donation!

The Skybrary’s first donation! Thanks, Lauren!

This passion was echoed by everyone I reached out to. There’s something irresistibly infectious about a DIY school library. Even if they didn’t have books, people offered money, ideas, help processing and event-planning, and just plain enthusiasm. “What a great project!” became the refrain of my (honestly, already pretty great) summer.

If you aren’t in a library science program, reach out anyway. If there’s no library program at your local university, try the English department. Consider school and public libraries, PTAs, churches and synagogues, high school English teachers. Not everyone may have books for you, and some may even be legally prohibited from donating (city and state governments may have strict guidelines regulating the disposal of resources), but the world is filled with people who

  1. love public service and
  2. love books and
  3. have too many of the latter that they’d love to share in service of the former.

Brainstorm folks who would be nuts about libraries. Represent yourself simply and honestly. “I’m an aspiring librarian, and I’m seeking used books to start a library at XX School.” Let them see your passion, and they’ll respond in kind.

How to DIY a library: the ingredients

You know those cooking blogs, where the author’s like, the first time I ever heard the term crème brulee, I was a college freshman and it was raining. And then after the description of blogger’s divorce and a joke somebody told on the subway, there are 80 moodily-lit photographs of whisks, and of the blogger’s hands holding eggs, and it takes so long to find the actual recipe that you nearly die of hunger?

Let’s not do that.

Here’s what I used to make the library, what it cost, and how it worked:

getting started

Stuff I already had:

The school made two spaces available to me: the English classroom and the history classroom. I used both. (Both will continue to operate as classrooms, but are now filled with books.)

Donated by students’ families.

Several hundred books
A mixed collection of the director’s personal books and books she purchased for the school, donations from families, and materials left in the English classroom by various teachers over the years.

A laptop with internet capability to run the catalog
A staff member’s retired laptop; she was glad to give it a new home.

Passion and energy
Heck yeah.



Stuff I bought*:

*Note: I’m not receiving payment of any kind for listing these products, nor is this necessarily a whole-hearted endorsement; this list is simply what I used and how it worked—or didn’t–for me.

A barcode reader: $23
I chose this ESKY USB Barcode Reader and it works beautifully. It’s very plug-and-play: you plug it into a USB port and go. The instructions are extraordinarily minimal, which may be frustrating (the enclosed instruction booklet is literally just a series of different barcodes, which you interact with by scanning them—for example, to raise or lower the scanner’s volume). Additionally, my reader came missing a few of the pieces of the stand. The vendor claimed to be shipping us a new one, but it has yet to be seen. Overall, though, a solid product.

Cataloging software: Readerware, books-only database: $40
There is a lot of free and open source cataloging software available for the tech-savvy among us (see this great list compiled by “The Creative Librarian” here). However, I felt a little tentative—just switching from one browser to another sometimes feels like a spacewalk to me. Also, I was afraid of passing anything too complicated on to a predecessor when this project wrapped up. I still didn’t have thousands of dollars for a license for a large-scale catalog program, but I also didn’t need one: the Skybrary can hold about 1500 books, tops. So I looked instead into software for small libraries and stumbled across some great advice from Goodreads users who were curating their own collections. After playing with a few free trials, I settled on Readerware.
What I like: that $40 fee is one-time only, not annual. Unless the software undergoes a major upgrade, you won’t have to pay another dime (as the program is only on version 3.8, it seems like major upgrades are relatively few and far between). It’s a low-impact program and requires little in the way of processing power, meaning you can run it off an older laptop and avoid shelling out lots of money for a fancy check-out station. Their website is filled with useful tutorials, and their support is active and helpful. Finally, Readerware allows you to copy-catalog from a variety of publicly available databases, such as the Library of Congress and Amazon, and its interface is pretty user-friendly. If you’ve got an ISBN or are able to find the item on Amazon, you’re golden.
Downsides: The records that the program imports in aren’t always complete; often, most notably, they lack Dewey call numbers. I felt like the cost and overall quality of the product more than made up for it. If you’re curious, you can try it 30 days for free and see if it works for you.

Spine labels (100 sheets of 50 labels): $12.99
I used these and made my own spine label template (which I’m happy to share–leave a comment below & I’ll send it your way). They print easily and are self-adhesive, but have a plain paper finish—you’ll definitely want to use a clear spine label protector if you want them to last for more than a week. They can also be a little fussy about sticking to cloth-bound books. The label protector will help with this, too.

Spine label protectors (250/box, 5 boxes): $130
I use Demco Clear Glossy Label Protectors size 1.5″x2″, and they work like a dream. I also bought a handful of color-tinted ones (same size, one box each) for genre-labeling.

Clear labels: $11.84/box * 5 boxes = $60
Colored labels: $14/box * 5 = $70

Display easels (20 for $1.25 each): with shipping, $30.40
I got these because they were the cheapest results turned up by Google Shopping. They are, as reflected by the price, cheap.  The depth of the tray in the front is very shallow, best suited for books 180 pages and thinner. I also felt the angle of recline was too high, leaving my books leaning back like your grandpa in a La-Z-Boy. Fortunately, they’re pretty easy to bend (due to cheapness), and you can prop thicker books into them without fearing for the lives of the people below. Overall, if you can afford it, I’d get something a little nicer, but if you’re in a budget pinch, these’ll do ya just fine. (Note: if you buy in quantities other than multiples of 20, they charge a $10 fee for breaking the lot.)

A library stamp: $10
I ordered this one. It’s inexpensive, self-inking and customizable, and I love the font options. However, it also hasn’t arrived, so I can’t tell you much more than that. Give yourself a long lead time on this product, or be willing (as I am) to start school without a nifty little stamp on your books.


The books:
Because I acquired books a number of ways, and because they are (for obvious reasons) of major interest to budding librarians, I’m giving them their own category.

I’ll get more into the nitty-gritty of soliciting donations in my post on outreach e-mails/letters, but briefly: I solicited donations from the library, English and creative writing graduate programs of my university, from the library school alumni, and from Skybridge Academy families.( I did not ask for, or accept, monetary donations.) As you’ll see later, the bulk of our new collection materials came from donations.

Thrift Stores
Confession: I’m a true thrift store junkie. Every time I was in a thrift shop with friends this summer, I blew through the book section and nabbed all of the good-quality books of interest to my school’s age group. Most thrift stores sell books for between 25 cents and $2 a pop—if you’ve got a small book-buying budget, this will help your collection grow a lot for very little.

Recycled Reads
This is, unfortunately for the rest of the world, unique to Austin, Texas. The Austin Public Library, rather than hosting an annual, chaotic, crammed-in-a-church-basement book sale, runs a beautifully curated used book store that’s open year round. The staff is awesome and innovative and runs knitting groups and craft workshops and (most importantly for the purposes of local teachers and librarians) SELLS ALL YOUTH MATERIALS FOR 50 CENTS APIECE. The Skybrary’s graphic novel section went from zero to existent with just fifteen dollars. (Every time I go in there I gush at the cashiers about how great they are, and bless them, they just look mildly embarrassed and tell me my total.) Look into your community’s used book stores and other options—you might be surprised by what you find.

I attended the annual Texas Library Association conference this year and walked out with heaps of free, beautiful books, many of them signed. Again, this isn’t an option for everyone. If you can’t go, see if you know someone who does—it’s easy to get into a book-grabbing frenzy on the exhibit hall floor, only to come down later with the free-stuff equivalent of buyer’s regret. If you know librarians or teachers who have recently been to a conference, they may be happy to offload extra books on you (especially a few months later, when they’ve finally quit pretending that they’re going to read them all).

used book shopping

TOTAL SPENT ON BOOKS: $73.50 (not counting the conference, which I attended for school)

TOTAL START-UP COSTS: $319.90, leaving me $180.10 for book purchases the rest of the year. (Which, with my thrifty book-sourcing, will go a very long way–and, as I’ve more than doubled the original library’s holdings, can be minimal and neatly spaced out throughout the next semesters.)

That’s it! Questions? Something to share? Leave a comment below!

It was raining. The whisk was lonely.

It was raining. The whisk was lonely.

Creating a library on a shoestring budget (or: how to DIY your socks off)

One day, when I was 22, I decided I was going to make my own soap. I was doing a summer internship as a wilderness ranger with the Forest Service, climbing fire towers and learning botany in the field and generally doing all sorts of things that seemed unlikely or impossible. I drove into the nearest town with my laptop, found a handy how-to guide, tentatively whipped up my first batch, and blew my world wide open.
No, not with a chemical explosion (though lye is dangerous; be careful)*. Blew it open with possibility—what couldn’t I make? What couldn’t I do? On golden afternoons home from wilderness spikes, I made bagels, jam, paper, books. I taught myself to whittle old Appalachian toys. Something lost in the 21st-century devaluing of the (traditionally women’s) work in the kitchen and home is the miraculous power of making things with your own hands. For me, it felt like everything had shifted sideways—did I need to buy anything ever again? How had I been tricked into thinking that it was necessary to have someone else make my soap in the first place?
If DIY, thriftiness and craftiness also run deep in your veins, you’re absolutely in the right place. Roll up your sleeves and get cracking! If creating a library on a small budget seems a little more challenging to you, run through the list below. (This Skybrarian recommends a clipboard & freshly sharpened pencil for added confidence, and/or for stabbing naysayers in the eye.)


1. What resources do I already have?
a. The quickest and most heartening question to ask when budget-building feels daunting. When I started, I had a space to work in, some donated shelves, several hundred used books, a laptop, and a supportive administration. (Also, time, passion, and some great podcasts for the hours spent affixing spine labels to books.)
2. Do I really need it?
a. Look to your mission statement, your institution’s mission statement, and your community needs. It would be amazing to have a state-of-the-art 3-D printer and gleaming modern furniture. But those are (really shiny) icing on the cake. Start with the cake. If you want a reading culture, get books. If you want to build literacy, brainstorm lessons and programs. Get to the essentials first. Don’t be afraid to start with the basics; those are (to mix metaphors dreadfully) going to be the foundation for everything else.
b. Consider your scope. It’s easy to think “I need to do X because I see other libraries doing X.” But: do you need an inter-library loan system if you’re not connected to any other libraries? Do you need a cataloging system that works on mobile devices if most of your population lacks mobile devices? Do your research, be smart, and be specific.
3. Can I get it cheaply, used or free?
a. Books: Definitely. Reach out to your community for book donations (see entry on effectively soliciting donations), or run a book drive. Go to thrift stores and used bookshops. Keep your eye out for your library system’s book sales—most systems do this annually, if not more often. Make sure to have a collection development policy in place, as well as a sense of what to buy—just because a book is cheap or free doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your collection, and your students won’t want to use a library filled with musty copies of The Bridges of Madison County.
b. Software and programs: Do you need software with expensive licenses, or can you find freeware that will serve the same purpose? Lots of folks have compiled great lists of free or inexpensive library software—poke around a bit before deciding how to allocate your software budget.
4. Can I make it myself?
a. Avery, Demco, and other suppliers of printable labels are happy to sell you templates for printing on those labels. With a word processing program and a bit of time and patience, you can easily make your own. (I did—I’ll link it on the Resources page.)
b. What else can you DIY? Bookends, shelf labels, cool and crafty displays. Bonus: if you’re in a school, consider engaging the students in your DIY endeavors. The more involved your students are in the creation of the library, the more they feel that the library is their space—increasing their enthusiasm for and use of the library. It’s an all-around win.

You’ve got your space, your mission, and a go-getter attitude. Next up: which materials I decided were necessary, what worked, and what it all cost.

Honey, let's go make a lye-brary!

Honey, let’s go make a lye-brary!

*Always add your lye to water, not vice versa. Just… always.

Forward, for glory! Writing a library mission statement

If you ask the average person on the street what the first thing is that you need to make a library, four out of five will say, “books.” (The fifth will be watching Vines of cats trying to land on slippery surfaces and will be too distracted to answer.) (This person needs to work on their information literacy—which we will cover in a later entry—and also their social skills, which their mother should have covered for them before they got out of diapers.) But lo, my would-be librarian chums! “Books” makes a very fine bookshelf. A library has a mission.

As you develop your collection, consider: what are your goals? To what silent drumbeat does your program march? You’ve decided you want to get kids books. But why? What greater cause?

This is the number one thing that I love about the librarian profession: there is a greater cause. It’s easy for the Muggles to simplify the role of the librarian to “the lady who checks out books and says ‘shh.’”* Dear public, I will let you in on a secret: if your librarian is worth her salt, she is a crusader. She is not getting you books. She is promoting your informational literacy and sallying forth in defense of your intellectual freedom. She is defending your right to know anything that you want to know and to be able to do anything that you want to do.** Beneath that cardigan sweater beats a heart that is fiercely, relentlessly dedicated to the service of making mankind as great and smart and able as it possibly can be. (And we don’t say shh anymore, either.)

Obviously a stunt double; real librarians scorn such impractical footwear. (image credit:
Obviously a stunt double; real librarians scorn such impractical footwear. (image credit:

And so! Your library has a mission. Of course it does. You are creating an institution of education, or entertainment, or empowerment, or some combination of the three simply by being in a position of giving information to other humans. This is all about determining how you will shape it.


When Prometheus brought fire to humanity, his intention could have been for people to cook, or to create elaborate circus arts, or to set each other on fire. Did he have a mission statement? No, and he was chained to a rock with vultures shredding his intestines for all eternity. Don’t be like Prometheus. (image credit:

Your mission statement can be as humble or glorious as you choose. But if you’re bringing information to young people, do us all a favor and shoot for glory.

In creating my mission statement for the Skybrary, I focused on a few of the school’s founding principles: literacy, education, and love of learning. It’s a school library, so I want its collection and activities to work powerfully in conjunction with the courses offered—to use that (exhausted, but true) 2000s-era buzzword, to promote synergy with the school curriculum. So, education had to be first and foremost in the mission.

I also want the library to help students be better at navigating the sea of information in which they are, increasingly, wading all of the time. It’s not productive to wring our hands about “kids these days and the internet”—as providers of information, it’s our duty to help them powerfully and effectively sort the good information from the misleading. So “information literacy” went into the mission-mix.

Finally—and I understand that different institutions have different goals here—I want to create a culture in which reading is fun, vibrant and gorgeous. This betrays my inner-child librarian more than any other topic discussed here today: I’ve always loved reading; I think it makes people smarter and more articulate, allows them to explore their real world and their emotional landscape in a safe space, and gives them the language to connect with others over what they encounter there. So a rich reading culture was an integral part of the mission statement as well. (And this, as you’ll see in the collection development policy, means a library containing lots of fun and entertaining books—if a child learns to love reading by reading graphic novels, they may be, someday, intrinsically motivated to pick up those celebrated classics that you once couldn’t have paid them to read.)

Finally, who is your library supporting? Is it just the students? If not, who else? The faculty? The parents? The broader community? Consider what this looks like for you. Because of our space (limited) and our location (pretty rural, with no real walk-up community access), the Skybrary supports primarily the students, but also, where it can, the teachers (including resources on teaching and professional development).

And so, after all of that hand-waving and general high-falutin’, I bring you, dear ones, the mission of the Skybrary:

The mission of the Skybridge Academy Library is to support the education, build information literacy, and promote a vibrant reading culture for the students and staff of Skybridge Academy.

Simple, right? Short, sweet, says everything I want to say in a sentence. Some mission statements run longer (there are great examples compiled here), but that’s not necessary, especially if you’ve got other supporting documentation (library philosophy, collection development policy, etc).

Coming up with your own mission? Consider the mission and goals of your school or institution. Let me know what you include, and be glorious.

*If we are lucky, perhaps also “sexy librarian.” Not because objectification is particularly lucky, but because whew, at least we get the multidimensionality of more than one stereotype. What do dentists ever get? I ask you.

** Don’t even get me started on how archivists make history

Meet the School: Skybridge Academy

Skybridge Academy is a small, liberal arts private school nestled in the hill country outside of Austin, Texas. The student body is composed of roughly 50 students from grades 6-12, with a staff of eleven. Meant to serve as a respite from public education, the school day is filled with beauty, creativity, intellectual engagement and play. The class sizes are small. There are no grades.

stop motion student

Full disclosure: I worked as an English teacher and the codirector of the language arts department at Skybridge for two years before stepping down to pursue my MLIS full-time.* In that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes and developments in the school, pushing it in really exciting directions. We added a school farm, a theater program, a Maker class. Like in many start-ups, the last few years (the school has been open for four) have been a steady learning process—what the school needs, what it doesn’t need, what can make it great. And now, at the beginning of year five, one of those somethings is a library.

The full—quite long–vision statement of the school can be found here. It espouses “taking initiative,” “high levels of literacy” and “student-centered learning.” Obviously, fertile ground for a library program. Obviously, also, traits to consider in crafting the Skybrary’s mission statement, a task easier said than done, and which I’ll tackle (in surely the least enthralling cliffhanger ever) in tomorrow’s post.

skybridge logo

*I feel obliged to add here that I received no payment for this project, working purely for course credit from the university. Additionally, I still teach a handful of creative writing electives at the school. Having a shared professional history with the staff and administration granted us a wonderful working relationship this summer, but having been an English teach in a school is definitely not a requisite for starting a library. You can build these relationships through your work and passion as you plan and create your library.