January industry interview: Teen Librarian Toolbox’s Amanda MacGregor

For our 2024 blog series, we’re highlighting industry professionals to find out more about their time in the book world. Follow along for insight on what catches a reviewer’s interest, things to avoid when pitching a media outlet, what librarians are searching for and more. 

Today, we’re chatting with Amanda MacGregor, who currently works in an elementary library. You can find her blogging at the School Library Journal-networked blog Teen Librarian Toolbox, writing reviews and the occasional feature article for SLJ, and on Twitter @CiteSomething. She lives outside of St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband, their high school senior, and two quirky rescue chiweenies.

As someone who hears about A LOT of books, what makes one stand out to you?

I love when I see a plot or characters unlike others I’ve read. I read more than 250 middle grade and YA books in 2023 and reading at that clip makes many of the stories kind of become a blur, but I just love it when something sticks with me because it was so unusual or powerful.

What makes your job easier?

As far as reviewing books, getting things as far in advance as possible really helps. Some months I get 30-40 books to consider for Teen Librarian Toolbox. I read in order of publication date (it just keeps my life more organized) and often if something shows up well past its publication date, I’ve long moved on to even newer books. The same goes for scheduling guest posts–hit us up EARLY. We love to share authors’ voices and stories on TLT, but already have more than 100 guest posts scheduled for 2024. Life moves quickly! 

What’s the most memorable (or maybe funniest) pitch that’s ever come your way?

Right now I’m paying closest attention to books that address climate change, mental health issues, and diverse, intersectional identities. As I sift through the daily emails, I’m most interested in books that are reflecting teens’ current experiences and concerns. Those stand out to me.

Did you always know you wanted to be involved in the book world?

I was a huge reader from little on up. I was an English and Women’s Studies major in college and always studied in the YA/kids section of the college library. I’d pick those books up for my “fun reading” between assignments. Then, after graduate school in Boston at Simmons University’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, it solidified that I’d spend the next 20 years (and counting) working in bookstores and libraries and writing about books.

What is your most recommended book and why?

That’s a big question. If I go back to my childhood, I’d say anything Ramona Quimby-related is still a favorite and I’m delighted whenever any modern children pick them up at school. As a pretty quiet kid afraid of making mistakes or getting in trouble, I admired Ramona’s intensity and her ability to get through mishaps. 

I’m always telling people to read Patrick Ness’s 2015 book The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which has a great premise and excellent messages about mental health. A 2023 standout is The Labors of Hercules Beal by Gary D. Schmidt. Intense emotions, amazing characters, and a great hook (a grieving kid has to recreate the labors of Hercules as part of a school project).

What is a book that surprised you recently?

I absolutely loved Byron Graves’s Rez Ball. Set on the Red Lake Nation Reservation, in Minnesota, it follows a teenage boy and his basketball team as they work toward state tournament dreams. The characters were phenomenal, the setting is not one we see enough of in YA, and as a person with absolutely zero interest in sports, I found myself wishing I could watch the games he describes. The fact that it made me want to watch basketball (and made me a little nostalgic for high school–a nearly impossible task!) was definitely a surprise! 

What is your favorite part about working in the book community?

I am so grateful for all I get to learn from those around me and from all the books I read. And I’m happy to get to go work in a library every day and share my love of reading with kids.