Choosing the Reading Gladiators Books

One of the questions we are frequently asked, is how do you choose the books for Reading Gladiators,? We have been asked by children, by teachers and by publishers. So here’s a quick overview of the process.

It takes the Just Imagine team a year to select the books for Reading Gladiators. In fact we have already started reading and narrowing down our selections for the 2019 programme.

So what are we looking for? We choose 8 books for each Reading Gladiator programme – 24 books in total. Initially, we review submissions and consider books suggested by members of the Just Imagine team. We start by searching for high quality, age appropriate books, which we think will encourage children to be more adventurous in their reading. Although we do occasionally include a well-known book, such as Floella Benjamin’s Coming to England or Frank Cottrell Boyce’s The Unforgotten Coat, most of the titles  will be relatively recent, or less well-known books which we think shouldn’t be missed. Writers like Sonya Hartnett or Kate di Camillo are very well-known in their own countries but are less familiar to teachers in the UK, in spite of the fact that they are major award winners. Part of our mission is to get these books into more classrooms. The children are never far from our thoughts,  above all we want the Gladiators to be enthralled by their new discoveries, so potential appeal is an important consideration. However, we resist any temptation to go for quick wins; as educators we want to show young readers the infinite possibilities of reading, rather than the limitations of a supermarket shelf.

There are lots of superb offerings for us to choose from. We seek out books that have something to say, but say it in interesting ways. To narrow down our options we look more closely at the language. We are excited by rich vocabulary, distinctive style and a convincing voice, free from cliche and a love of finding exactly the right word to express an idea or sentiment. Some writers, like Sonya Hartnett, use an extensive vocabulary, which will help broaden children’s lexical repertoires.  Sometimes books will be simply written but have great depth, as Carol Ann Duffy, one of this year’s selected writers puts it, ‘I like to use simple words in a complicated way’.

Fiction will have a strong narrative and rich thematic possibilities, to invite reflection and discussion.

We always include a visual text, and so we give attention to visual language (shape, colour line, scale, media, metaphor, intertexuality etc). This year’s choices include Isabel Minsos Martins and Bernard Carvalho’s Don’t Cross the Line and Barroux Line of Fire, both superbly translated into English from other languages.

As the list starts to narrow down, we have conversations about the shape of the year. What do we think makes a good starting point and where could we be by the end of the year? What does the journey look like? How do the books connect with each other? Just as a good anthologist thinks carefully about the placing of one poem next to another, we also think about the juxtaposition of books, the rhythm and the pacing across the year.

At this point we are very close to choosing the final 8 books. There’s a further review to make sure we have achieved a balance: a book featuring one dead parent is fine, but three in a row can be a bit overwhelming!

Eventually we pin down our choices, but there’s one final step. We need to make sure the books are in print and that sufficient quantities will be available at the right time. Sometimes the books have to be printed especially for us, and that takes  time and planning.

A year on from our initial review meetings, we are ready to send the books out into schools, where we hope the Gladiators and their teachers will enjoy them as much as we did.

If that seems like a lot of work, it is. But it’s a team effort. And if you enjoy reading as much as we do, it most certainly is not a chore.