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

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.

Storytime To Go: a baby present

Addi’s binder

A pal of mine has a daughter, Addi, who just celebrated her first birthday. I wanted to give a handmade gift that would reinforce early literacy techniques and that Addi would love playing with. My first idea was to make a quiet book, but it proved too difficult and took too much time. What I came up with instead was easy to make and quite affordable: a Storytime To Go binder!

I bought a zip-around trapper keeper and a set of six zip pouches from Amazon for about $20 total. From the craft store, I bought a stack of $0.49 felt sheets, some soft blue and black flannel, and pieces of 8.5×11 foam board. I wrapped one board in black and one board in blue flannel: this involved some trial and error, and neither piece is perfect, but they should hold up ok for a little while at least. I used an ordinary glue stick as an adhesive, since the fabric adhesive I bought for that purpose turned out to have some VERY frightening warning labels that I hadn’t noticed at the store.

Inside the binder

Inside the binder

Each zipper pouch contains the felt pieces for a song/rhyme/game and a printout (glued to cardstock for durability) of any necessary lyrics/instructions. The pouches:

  1. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (various sizes and colors of felt stars)
  2. Little Mouse (classic)
  3. Five Little Baseballs (this family are big-time baseball fans, so I made up a baseball rhyme for them to enjoy)
  4. Shapes (with ECRR2 techniques to help the parents use free play as a learning opportunity)
  5. Bonus: a ‘page’ with a rainbow of zippers sewn to a piece of stiff felt. I tied long ribbons onto the zippers for her to grab and pull.

Five Little Baseballs

Zipper Pulls

Zipper Pulls

Addi absolutely loves her gift and her parents were thrilled by it as well! She started playing with it as soon as her mom unwrapped it, and I’ve heard from her mom that she’s played with it every day since. Mission: accomplished!