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
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Minecraft Mania

big tree house

the challenge was “20 minutes to build a tree house,” grades 3-5.

Specs: Max registration of 20 participants (with a waitlist of 5). Two sessions for grades 3-5 and one for grades 6-8. We do this combination of three classes as often as possible based on the library’s schedule and the availability of the room/computers, which is usually 2 times per quarter.

Techs: We use Minecraft EDU software and the Lab computers (a set of laptops purchased by the library for program use). Each participant gets their own laptop and joins a shared Minecraft world (server) that is exclusive to the program.

Recs: You cannot run a Minecraft program ‘cold.’ The kids who sign up will eat you alive. You must spend significant time playing on your own first; an absolute minimum of 5 hours will give you enough familiarity with controls, materials, and situations to get by, but keep in mind that many of the kids who sign up will have been spending all of their allotted daily screen time on this for months, even years, and they will know more than you. The more you play, the better this program will go. If you don’t have five hours of off-desk time to spend in-game, give up this dream, or give it to someone who does.

As much as they may beg you, do not let them run wild for the whole session in PVP. It’s a waste of your valuable time and expensive resources. Create a curriculum for your Minecraft program that is worth the energy and expense required to present it to the public. Pick a STEAM objective to focus on and let your curriculum flow from that starting point:

  • Science: Set up a world where the children will act as scientific explorers of an uncharted world. Like real scientists, they need to Survive the elements, Discover new things about the environment, and Record their findings.
  • Technology: ComputerCraftEDU
  • Engineering: Build roller coasters, obstacle courses, or complex labyrinths using redstone.
  • Art: Challenge them to create pixel art or work together on a group build.
  • Math: Use a timer and do speed challenges – 5 minutes to build a symmetrical 4-sided pyramid; 10 minutes to build a circle; 15 minutes to build a sundial. Or, challenge them to make an in-game graph to represent data that you provide (or better yet, data they gather themselves). Don’t forget that Minecraft uses an X/Y/Z grid to create coordinates for every block: an easy, built-right-in math concept that you can use.

If you are struggling to generate ideas on your own, my favorite curriculum planning resource is the MinecraftEDU World Library. Even if you don’t have the EDU version of the game, you can still browse these user-created worlds for ideas that you can use in your own programs.

I hosted a similar program on a much smaller budget at my previous library. You can read about it here.

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_front-cover1

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!