How Do We Find Such Great Readings?
We here at the Great Books Foundation are often asked how we select our texts for our student anthologies, and the answer is complicated, or at least multi-faceted. There are practical restraints around what texts work for our program: they have to be short enough that they can be read in one sitting, and they have to fit the appropriate lexile level—some texts can stretch students’ reading skills but still need to be accessible—and editors have to be able to secure permissions to use the piece. The selections also need to be rich in meaning, so that they can be returned to and discussed over the course of a week. Luckily, our editors are willing to roll up their sleeves and dig in and read—a lot!
Editors start by looking for quality children’s literature, including short stories, folktales, poetry, personal essays, or contemporary realistic fiction. Whatever the genre, truly magnificent literature often includes excellent writing, with rich language, challenging vocabulary, deep and multilayered meanings, symbolism and imagery. Of course, a text also needs to engage readers on multiple levels, asking them to think critically about the text and how it relates to the world in which we live. We want students riveted, caught up in the text, and, yes, even entertained. But that’s not all.
The Great Books Foundation believes readers should see themselves reflected in our selections, but also see beyond themselves into the wide breadth of diversity around them, so Junior Great Books® texts must provide various viewpoints and windows to the world. To that end, our editors look for texts from a wide array of authors, from different backgrounds and cultures, with main characters who represent different walks of life and identities. The rich diversity within the texts of JGB has become a hallmark that supports and enlivens Shared Inquiry™ discussions and fosters collaborative communities.
A good starting point for our editors is to begin searching curated lists for young readers created by trusted organizations such as the American Library Association, We Need Diverse Books, and School Library Journal. We also scour lists of Newbery award winners, various state book lists, Pura Belpré nominees, and more. There are so many quality texts written for children today. But finding a selection that fits into a Junior Great Books anthology for students is not simply a task of finding “quality literature.” It’s more specific than that.
Most importantly, each text needs to spark Shared Inquiry discussion.
How can we make sure that a selection does that? How can we be certain that a text can indeed stand up to the inquiry of Junior Great Books teachers and students, springboarding them into a rich and vibrant discussion?
We sift through our lists of quality children’s literature and look for stories where questions of meaning are not tied up in a nice, neat bow. That is sometimes a daunting task. These texts must spawn multiple deep and highly discussable focus questions—questions that dig deep into the characters, plot, and themes of the piece. A selection, at its core, has to hold some room for interpretation, which allows for the creation of interpretive questions that have more than one answer, and students’ answers need to be able to be supported by evidence within the text. Some stories are extremely well written and can support speculation about the texts, but those don’t work well for a Shared Inquiry discussion. It can be tempting, but not fruitful, for readers to speculate on what might be happening outside of a story, or hypothesize about what an author might have meant by a certain line. But readers should return to a selection for evidence in answering questions about a text. This feature of all our selections is key to lively, nuanced discussions. Civil discourse at its best.
For instance, the story “Those Shoes” by Maribeth Boelts is character-driven, contains excellent writing, and hooks young readers in. But more than that, there are discussable points, issues that children feel deeply about, and there is textual evidence to support multiple viewpoints. If you look at some of the example interpretive questions—“Why does Jeremy give Antonio his shoes, even though he said he wasn’t going to?” or “Why does Jeremy smile at the end of the story?”—you see that these questions direct students to think about the heart of the story and its themes, with several possible pathways to different answers, and students can support their viewpoints by pointing to sentences and dialogue within the text itself.
Once Great Books editors have found a promising text, we bring that selection for review, along with possible discussion questions. (The question-writing process is, in itself, an art form!) The selection team reads the text beforehand, and then we discuss the pros and cons of the piece at the meeting, often tweaking questions, brainstorming different ideas, and taking in each other’s thoughts. It is a collaborative sifting process, in which many pieces don’t make it through to the next round, usually because there isn’t enough heft to a story, or enough to interpret.
Sometimes, these decisions can be difficult. So, we often hold mock Shared Inquiry discussions to determine if a piece truly can sustain inquiry throughout an interpretive discussion. Sometimes we ask other members of the Great Books staff to attempt writing more specific focus questions, in order to truly get at the best interpretive elements of a text. It is often a lengthy and arduous process to ensure that each selection that is included in our JGB anthology has the qualities necessary to support a Shared Inquiry discussion, which is to say, that it supports interpretation and close reading under the Shared Inquiry microscope.
The best selections are the ones that are so rich and fruitful that once they are brought for review, the questions blossom quickly, with more and more ideas and discussion topics starting to sprout up. That is when the editors know they are on to something really good. It’s that goosebumps, chill-up-the-spine moment—“Ah, this one will truly work!”—that we are looking for. Those selections are the ones that make it into our anthologies, into your classrooms, to be read and discussed, dissected, and appreciated—and many of them are kept in your students’ hearts and minds well beyond their time in the classroom.
At the start of her career, Gina taught both middle-school language arts and college English, where she learned the true, incomparable value of a lively, thoughtful, text-centered classroom discussion. Now, she has worked in educational publishing for many years, and as the production editor at Great Books, she is passionate about Shared Inquiry and how it can enrich students’ literacy, their social and emotional intelligence, and their critical thinking.