Talking Books with 7th and 8th Graders

Every year, the School Services team at my library curates a list of 10 leisure reading recommendations targeted at the 7th and 8th grade readers in our district. This involves an immense amount of reading. I scan reviews for this age group and when I find something promising, I read the book cover to cover before it goes on the list. We dedicate this time and effort for a few reasons:

  1. Content. For individual RA with these young teens, we often recommend books with swear words, sexy times, and violence – since we know who’s doing the reading, and we know whether or not they can handle it. But when we’re making a list for the 1,000+ 7th and 8th graders in the district? We need to keep it gentle, because we can’t estimate sensitivity levels for all those students. We want a list for everyone, not just for the mature readers.
  2. Quality. You would not believe some of the trashy turds that Kirkus has given starred reviews to; you can’t always trust the reviews. Reading every book guarantees a list with quality we can be proud of.
  3. Presentation Depth. When I visit junior high schools with these books, I get a whole class period (about 45 minutes) to talk about them. If I’ve read them, I have a heck of a lot more to say than if I’ve just skimmed reviews.
  4. Variety. Reading a full book gives you a sense of what that book is: adventure, mystery, realistic, horror. But beyond genre, you also know which books have a romantic subplot; which ones have immigrant characters; which ones are set in your home state; which ones have a high explosion:text ratio. Armed with that info, you can balance the list so there truly is something for every reader.

As you’ll see in this year’s list, we stick to new titles – books that were published in the last 3-5 years. In my eyes, the newer, the better! We steer clear of Caudill nominees (since my library is in Illinois, all the students get plenty of exposure and incentive to read those books without our help) and most other major award winners – unless of course those winners are announced after our list is finalized and printed. Here’s the list for 2017 – I’m so proud of it. I love these books and I’m so excited to give them to our readers!

  • The Blackthorn Key, by Kevin Sands
  • The Great White Shark Scientist, by Sy Montgomery
  • The Art of Secrets, by James Klise
  • Samurai Rising, by Pamela S. Turner
  • The Reader, by Traci Chee (personal favorite!)
  • March: Book One, by John Lewis
  • Ghost, by Jason Reynolds
  • The Inquisitor’s Tale, or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, by Adam Gidwitz
  • The Impossible Rescue, by Martin W. Sandler
  • The Nameless City, by Faith Erin Hicks

Storytime Night Light

This is a surprisingly affordable craft for ages 2-6 with a functional & impressive end result. This particular design grew out of my own brain, but it is definitely a cousin of the google/pinterest search for “luminary crafts.”

Picture1

Supply List:

  • Mod Podge glue
  • Foam brushes
  • Print outs of appropriately-sized book covers (4 per child)
  • Battery-powered tea lights
  • Hard plastic dessert cups

Instructions for kiddos and adults:

  1. Cut out the pictures of the book covers you are using
  2. One at a time, wipe a thin layer of mod podge onto the back of each book cover, and press it onto the outside surfaces of the plastic cup (make sure to get the edges and corners!)
  3. Once all four sides are covered, wipe a thin layer of mod podge over the top of the pictures  to make them shiny & protect them
  4. Place a tea light inside

For me, this project worked out to about $1 per child attending, and was well worth it – grown ups were very impressed by the end result of the craft project! It’s educational, functional, age-appropriate, and unexpected: a real winner, from my experience.

2018 Caudill Award Nominees

This was my first year as a member of the RCYRBA evaluators committee. Here are the books we chose, narrowed down from hundreds of nominations put forward by students, librarians, and teachers throughout Illinois:

  1. Roller Girl
  2. Full Cicada Moon
  3. Goodbye Stranger
  4. Last in a Long Line of Rebels
  5. Listen, Slowly
  6. Awkward
  7. Drowned City
  8. I Will Always Write Back
  9. Hour of the Bees
  10. A Night Divided
  11. I Am Princess X
  12. The Boy on the Wooden Box
  13. The Seventh Most Important Thing
  14. Beneath
  15. The Bitter Side of Sweet
  16. Fuzzy Mud
  17. Book Scavenger
  18. House Arrest
  19. All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook
  20. Orbiting Jupiter

I’ve listed them roughly in order of my own personal preference – Roller Girl and Full Cicada Moon were my absolute favorites!

It’s a genuine thrill to be a part of this committee, and it’s a responsibility I take very seriously. 4th-8th graders all over the state of Illinois will read these books, and I tried really really hard to influence the rest of the committee to give those kids a list worthy of their time and effort.

The lack of diversity on the list is my biggest disappointment, and by that I mean diversity of all kinds: not just the race of the main character, but their religion and socioeconomic status. The race and religion of the author. The length of the book, and the difficulty of it. The genre. The format. The style. For the most part, these books are racially white realistic fiction, and that bums me out – but this is a list that depends 100% on nominations, so I’m doing what I can to push for a more diverse nomination pool for next year’s list. If you are a student, teacher, school librarian, or public librarian working or living in the state of Illinois, let me know! I can help you nominate some books!

SmARTful Kids: Rainbow Jars

Newsletter description: SmARTful Kids, ages 2-3 with an adult: Play, draw, investigate, and explore new art styles and media in this process-oriented art class for Twos and Threes. Grown ups and kids should dress for a mess! Explore the way colors mix and combine and bring home your own Rainbow Jar, a soothing toy that keeps little hands occupied during quiet time.

This was a stellar event. I hosted 2 sessions, each with about 25 children (plus their adults and siblings). The focus of this series (other librarians here do sessions for 0-14 months and 15 – 23 months) is process-based artwork, so I led into our craft with a very short storytime:

Rainbow Jar

I bought a couple gigantic bags of pom-poms and clear plastic 8oz juice bottles from Amazon. I printed out these “rainbow jar” tags and set out all the supplies they needed: scissors, hole punches, pom-poms, and ribbons. These are the instructional handouts I gave to the adults. It was a huge success: kids really love these jars. It’s sometimes the simplest things that make the biggest impact!

Write Away

Easy, Free, and Rewarding: I love this program so much. Here’s a newsletter description:

“Stretch the imagination in this creative writing workshop! Launch your writing with themed story starters and fun activities.”

And a typical event outline, which I modify to be age appropriate for two different sessions:

Grades 3-4  //  Grades 5-8

  • Warm Up Activity
    • Choose something quick and fun that doesn’t require a ton of critical thinking.
    • This is a good spot for activities that introduce new vocabulary words.
  • Writing Challenge
    • Don’t make these static: never say something as basic as “write a story about BLANK.” The kids will be more engaged and successful if you lead an activity that guides them toward creativity, rather than an assignment that demands creativity upfront.
    • With grades 3-4, I usually do something that involves a picture book; I read, and they munch on snacks and listen, and they extend the story somehow.
    • With grades 5-8, I use an activity that draws on something they already know about, like dystopias or emojis or fanfiction.
  • Snack Break
    • Brain Food: cookies, pretzels, water. You know the drill.
  • Writing Challenge 2
    • Same guidelines as above, but this is a distinct second activity. Here are some that I’ve done:
      • Hang up emoji in a random order: they write one sentence of a story per emoji.
      • Read a picture book out loud, but don’t show them the cover or the pictures. They draw the cover.
      • Read a picture book out loud, but stop 75% of the way through. They write the ending.
      • Write the story of the day you were born: for an extra challenge, don’t use these words – baby, hospital, mother, father.
  • Sharing
    • Don’t force it, but always offer. Some kids like to share.

I don’t have a particular resource to recommend for designing the writing challenges and warm ups: the ones I’ve used have been my own invention, influenced strongly by my own experience as a writer, journaler, and reader. “Writing prompts” is a rich and varied google search, and as good a place as any to start out.

When you lead this program, and you’re giving the students time to write, it’s very important that you write along with them. Sit there, at the front of the room, visible to all, and do the challenge along with them. Offer to share what you wrote. Be prepared to jump up and help them when they get stuck. And be flexible – this isn’t school! If they’re stressed out, change the script so they’re having fun instead. The learning will follow!

Books That Rock: Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

Book-cover_Absolutely-AlmostWhat you need to tell readers: This is a realistic story for readers who liked Wonder & Counting By 7s. The main character loves donuts, comics, and his friends.

Main character: Albie, boy, age 11. Average intelligence, superhuman good friend.

#WNDB: Albie is mixed race – his father is white and his mother (and briefly present grandfather) are Korean.

Page Count: 288 (hardcover)

Recommend it to: Teachers, parents, and librarians especially. Also recommend to children grade 3-7 who like realistic stories about empathy and bullying and fiction with characters you want to know.

Booktalk This: Handbook For Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

HandbookFor-hc-c-stickerAn admirably sophisticated castle fantasy starring a disabled main character with a lot of action, magic, and charm. Handbook for Dragon Slayers is more nuanced in depicting the realities of castle life than most other middle grade castle fantasies, which made it easy to love. Many things are still given a simple treatment appropriate for the audience, but GRRM fans like me will wonder where all the men-at-arms are and why they don’t do anything to protect anyone, ever. Also the kingdom of Alder Brook is too small to swallow some of the plot points; it’s only about the size of Rhode Island, is home to dragons the size of horses and bigger (much bigger), and yet the princess has never seen one before? An animal that size has enormous hunting grounds I guarantee it, and if the castle estate of Alder Brook (where Mathilda lives) actually has 2,000 acres of farmland then yeah I would bet fighting off a hunting dragon or two is a common occurrence. And if you’re a tiny kingdom with a distinctive princess who uses a crutch, said princess can’t go incognito just by giving a fake name! “Oh I’m a noblewoman who’s got the exact same physical appearance and foot condition as the lost princess, but my name is totally not Mathilda, and no this nobleman and maid are not at all the same ones who were last seen helping the princess escape! They’re just a different nobleman and maid I swear we are different people LOL can we get a room in the stable next to our magical horses? And also don’t tell anyone about us? kthx” just… come on.

But. If you go into this book expecting that level of verisimilitude you’re going to have a bad time. If instead you go into it looking for a unique fantasy story of personal growth, friendship, and adventure in a mystical version of feudal Germany with an above-average representation of castle life, you’re going to be really happy. If you go into it looking for a story about a disabled person having an adventure and not being “fixed” and not having her disability define her personality, you’re going to have a great time.