Shady Side Academy teacher to help judge best adolescent novels

Tawnya Panizzi
| Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

You can't be a teacher of readers unless you are a person who reads, according to Shady Side Academy teacher Sara Kajder.

Kajder, an English teacher, loves nothing more than a good page-turner — and that's a good thing because she won a spot on the Walden Award Committee, an intimate group that determines what it thinks is the nation's next best adolescent novel.

Winners are designated with a notation on the back cover of subsequent printings.

Kajder is charged with reading up to 200 books this year in order to cast her vote.

“My children will tell you they don't see me without a book in hand,” said Kajder, a Forest Hills resident. “Just as I preach to them, I want to fill in any gap time with a good book.”

The middle school teacher was one of three nationwide chosen to serve on the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award Committee.

She joins three college professors, three librarians and one chairperson in selecting the top young-adult book for 2014 and 2015.

The committee is put together by the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, known as ALAN, of the National Council of Teachers of English.

The Walden Award aims to exemplify literary excellence and widespread appeal.

“We're looking for books that can move the teens with which we work,” Kajder said. “We want books that advance the values we want to see the kids embracing.”

Its namesake author was among the very first to embrace the notion of young-adult literature.

“It is in order to honor her that I'm a part of group ALAN,” Kajder said.

With the submission deadline looming, Kajder said, there already are 200 titles in the running.

“The UPS man just keeps coming,” she said, laughing.

Aimed at teens in the seventh through eleventh grades, the books are fiction and ideally stand-alone novels, although they can be part of a series. The book had to have been published within the last year.

“There are absolutely ones that stand out already and that I root for publishers to send so my class can read,” Kajder said.

The selection committee splits into thirds and does the same with the massive stack of applications. Each group reads upward of about 70 books before the haggling begins. Members push forward their standouts and whittle the “short list” to about 75.

“Then we all read those, cover to cover, and we narrow it again,” Kajder said.

So it goes until a winner is chosen.

She expects the debate to get contentious as the list fades away.

“You have scholars that have a wealth of knowledge, and everyone has what they consider to be notions of literary excellence,” she said. “It's forced me to think about what I consider excellent.”

Previous awards have gone to “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green and “Shine” by Lauren Myracle.

Her committee work so far has benefited her classroom work, Kajder said. She has been able to glean from the list ideal books to put in the hands of her students.

“To give the right child the right book, that's what we as teachers are supposed to be able to do,” she said.

“Many of my students loved the John Green book. They would tell you I was like that before, suggesting books, but now it's amplified.”

Tawnya Panizzi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-782-2121, ext. 2 or

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