What do you get when you put three ferociously smart, opinionated people together to talk about books? You get hours (and I do mean hours, spread over three days) of grueling, stimulating book discussion, lots of disagreement—and one incredible shortlist, the details of which you can read about here.

The three judges on the Young Readers’ Literature panel were Dr. Claudette Shackelford McLinn, a librarian and educator; Linda Sue Park, author of the Newbery Medal–winning A Single Shard; and John Edward Peters, a librarian and a long-standing Kirkus critic. Over the past several months, they read some 450 children’s and teen books starred by Kirkus over the past year and sifted through them for those titles they felt had, as Peters expressed it, “that presidential quality.”

For me, as an eavesdropper, it was especially gratifying to see what each judge brought to the process. McLinn made sure the actual children for whom the books are meant were remembered at every step of the way. Park provided fascinating insights into the craft of writing. And Peters supplied incredibly detailed textual analysis. Exactly as they were meant to work when we first conceptualized the panels.

The judges all agreed that this was a spectacular year for picture books, so spectacular that they grumbled at having to confine their choices to two, and certainly the two that emerged are glorious. Likewise, they commented on the joyous variety among books for middle-grade readers—perhaps because it’s a category that’s been overlooked in favor of the more lucrative teen market, the overall quality among them was very high. Finding “that presidential quality” in the teen books was the greatest challenge, even though there were many on offer. A stellar dystopian is still a dystopian, but still there were many that stood out.

Getting these six to one will be another arduous discussion, but whichever book the judges pick, it will be a great one. —V.S.

Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.