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

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!

This Month(s) in School Services


To promote the 2015 SRC, my library pulled out all the stops. Hundreds of work hours went into the promotional video (which is a triumph – the rain of rubber duckies makes me giggle every time). Throughout May, we trotted out to all the schools in our district and presented an assembly to every student in grades K-4.

6 librarians | 3 cities | 14 assemblies | 5 schools | 2276 students

programming: sometimes you're Ariel, sometimes you're Eric.

programming: sometimes you’re Ariel, sometimes you’re Eric.

What I learned: I have a very casual approach to presentations – even those in front of large audiences. I am comfortable with ad libbing and going off-script. Over-rehearsing bores me. I should do programs with other extemporaneous presenters, not with the more rigidly scripted and shy librarians. When you’re doing presentations, know your style and own it! And more importantly, communicate that knowledge to your co-presenters. I had 6 people in my group, but most libraries will only have one school liaison, maybe two. If you’re stuck presenting with someone who has a different style, talk about it beforehand so that you can reach a compromise that pleases both of you.


SRC launch: 6/6

SRC Kickoff Party: 6/14 Hundreds of people came to our free concert / free ice cream / free craft party. It was a crazy, but 100% satisfying day. We love seeing this many happy patrons!

School loans ongoing: A few designated teachers of summer school classes and preschools still receive teacher loans during the summer, so we are still pulling books and prepping loan totes.

SRC: Something for everyone!

Booktalk This: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

SteelheartAn edge-of-your seat thrill ride, this novel is as close as you can get to a summer blockbuster between the covers of a book.

There isn’t much subtlety – ok fine. There isn’t any subtlety in this book. But we’re talking about Junior High book talks in this series, so are you looking for subtlety? Gods, I hope not. David, our hero, is ‘just an ordinary dude.’ He’s made it through his teen years in dystopian Chicago as an orphan; his father was murdered by the villain Steelheart when David was a child. This is a universe very similar to that of X-Men, where some individuals, seemingly at random, have unique superpowers (or a combination of them). Instead of mutants, Sanderson gives us Epics. While mutants offer a powerful parallel to the real world struggles of marginalized groups like homosexuals and persons with disabilities, Sanderson’s Epics are a lot more simple: all Epics are Evil. Period. David joins up with a rebel group of Epic-hunters to dole out vigilante justice against the monster that killed his father (and thousands of others).

Highlights for booktalks:

  • This is a readalike for comics like X-Men, the Avengers, and Batman. If you love any of those comics or their big-screen adaptations, this book will feel very familiar to you.
  • Non-stop action with a lot of thrills. This is definitely not for the faint of heart!

Recommended for grades 7 and up.


Booktalk This: Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Greenglass HouseGreenglass House by Kate Milford

An absorbing cozy mystery with a POC lead and a maelstrom of secrets to uncover. Greenglass House is a hotel for smugglers, and over the years its seen violence, crime, and tragedy. When a large group of unexpected guests turn up in the dead of winter, all with secretive ties to each other and the history of the house, Milo knows that investigating them and their secrets will take a lot of courage.

Greenglass House creates a mesmerizing spell from the very first page. The sense of place is palpable as Milford spins a web of mysterious interactions, hints, and paths to discovery. Milo, the adopted Chinese son of American parents, explores not just the mystery at hand, but also his self-confidence as an adopted child. He does so with the help of Meddy (the hotel cook’s daughter) and a role playing game that lets him inhabit a character of his own invention, one with the confidence and charisma he thinks are beyond his reach (spoiler alert! They were inside him all along).


Highlights for booktalks:

  • Like every good mystery, this one has a few twists you’ll never see coming.
  • Milo’s Chinese heritage makes him feel like a fish out of water, even though he loves his parents very much. Maybe you’ve had an experience where you felt happy and sad about the same thing at the same time.
  • For fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society, Holes, and The Westing Game.

Recommended for grades 5-8.

Booktalk This: Audacity by Melanie Crowder


Audacity by Melanie Crowder

An outstanding historical fiction novel in verse based on the early life of Clara Lemlich Shevelson, an activist most famous for organizing the Uprising of the 20,000 which led to widespread reform in the garment industry.

Audacity is in free verse, with a strong and often thrilling narrative thread. As a result, the poems feel incisive, exciting, and purposeful. You fly through them, anxious to see what happens next, and get snared once in a while by the beauty of the words. Crowder punctuates the narrative poems with occasional lyric ones where Clara reflects on her life, her situation, and her surroundings.

Teenage Clara is a recent immigrant to the USA and cherishes the ambition to become a doctor. Her parents force her to find work instead, so Clara ends up in the hellish world of New York’s garment industry circa 1905. The work is difficult, dangerous, and low-paying; the factory bosses are cruel and abusive. When Clara protests their behavior, she’s fired on the spot. When she goes to English classes after work, her parents are furious, claiming that girls don’t need education. When she implores other factory girls to join with her and protest their hellish work environment, they ignore her.

Clara defies them all, over and over again, until she’s achieved the impossible: a massive walkout of 20,000 workers that leads to widespread reform of the industry.

Highlights for booktalks:

  • Clara was a real person: you can read more about her in Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet
  • Have you ever felt like the school day stretched out and out until it lasted forever? In the factories where Clara had to work, bosses would change the time on the clocks so that the workers had to stay late.
  • Free verse poetry shows Clara’s internal monologue and the way she’s thinking, so it’s very easy to identify with her even though your lives are very different. Also, since the whole book is in poems, you can finish it very quickly!

Recommended for grades 7 and up.

7th and 8th Grade School Visits: April 2015

The plan: visit every junior high school in the library district (which covers three cities), giving 45 minute presentations to every English Language Arts classroom in 7th and 8th grades

The presentation: 2-4 minute booktalks on ten Fiction / Nonfiction titles

The goal: remind students that they are welcome at the library and promote new for-fun reading material to them

Total number of students reached this month: approximately 1,100

Me planning for this month:

emma stone screaming hermione potions

Me at the end of this month:

george michael face first emma stone alcohol

The bookshelf at the end of all the booktalks:

Very nearly empty! of about 75 books purchased (6-10 copies of each book plus audio when available), only SEVEN are still on the shelf today, April 27 – and we have one more visit left tomorrow! the books are so picked over that the Monarch award shelf is spilling over onto it.

confetti made of win

The books, about which I have many opinions that range from ‘yeah it’s good’ to ‘GREAT GOOGLY MOOGLY THIS IS MY FAVORITE BOOK OF ALL TIME’:

  1. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
  2. Chernobyl’s Wild Kingdom by Rebecca L. Johnson
  3. Skink – No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen
  4. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt by David A. Adler
  5. Greenglass House by Kate Milford
  6. The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin
  7. Audacity by Melanie Crowder
  8. The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb
  9. The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud
  10. Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Recommend these or give as gifts to the junior high kids in your life. They will eat them up!