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COMMON CLASSROOM LIBRARY MISTAKES (AND HOW TO FIX THEM) – PART 2: BOOKS BETWEEN, EPISODE #10
Having a vibrant collection of books on hand for children to choose from is so crucial to fostering a love of reading. And more and more teachers, like I did, are discovering just how important it is to have a classroom library. And although today’s discussion is angled more toward teachers, there’s lots to take away for parents, librarians, or anyone who wants to get books into kids’ hands. In our last episode, we discussed six common mistakes that can happen when you are building a classroom library. And today we are discussing 6 more pitfalls – and again – every single one is a mistake that I have made. So – I’m only throwing myself under the bus! If you missed that episode please scroll back through your feed to find episode #9, but I’ll give a brief recap:
#1 – Not getting rid of old books.
#2 – Not having an easy check-out system.
#3 – Not changing how books are displayed
#4 – Not having enough non-fiction
#5 – Not having a clear organizational system
#6 – Not having student input into what books are included in the library
So now, we’ll jump back in!
#7 – Not having the second book in a series
There are few things more frustrating as a reader than finishing a book on a cliffhanger and having to WAIT to get your hands on that second book. There’s also no more exciting thing than that anticipation! But… if you want readers to delve deeply into a series or make a connection with an author, it helps to have some of the next books available. I think that’s especially important when a more picky reader finally finds a series that they like. You really want to keep that momentum going and get them into that next book quickly before their enthusiasm wanes or they forget parts of the plot. I’m not saying you have to have EVERY single book in a series, but at least the first few of popular ones like Warriors, Dork Diaries, or the Percy Jackson series are good to have on hand.
#8 – Not having enough diversity
This is so, so important. And always has been, but finally there’s more attention being paid to this issue now. I started to ask myself, Does my classroom library reflect not only the students in my school but also the wider world? Will they find characters like themselves in those pages? And will they be the main character and not just the sidekick. Diversity can take so many forms: race, ethnicity, gender, family structure, religious views, gender identity, and disability (which is such a broad term but encompasses so many things from physical and cognitive disabilities to addiction). Campaigns like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and websites like disabilityinkidlit.com help keep the conversation going and provide resources and recommendations. One enlightening thing you can do with your students is to have THEM analyze the diversity in the classroom library. There’s a phenomenal blog post from Jess at Crawling Out of the Classroom with complete instructions and downloadable tally sheets you can use to make this really easy if you want to give it a try. I’ll put a link in the shownotes for you but I am definitely doing that this year. I think it will be eye-opening for me, and eye-opening for my students.
#9 – Not having anything other than books
I’ll say up front that I am still working on fixing this one. But some of the teachers I know with the most inspiring classroom libraries also make sure they include some up-to-date magazines, audio books, or travel brochures. I wish I could remember where I heard it or read about it, but one teacher or librarian collects sports car brochures that they nab from dealerships for their kids to read. How cool is that?
#10 – Not having a variety of levels
As I have mentioned on a previous episode – don’t dis the picture books! Picture books, easier Chapter Books, more challenging higher level MG – all should have a home in well-stocked classroom library. It embarasses me to admit, but when I used to buy books for my class, I would envision the typical on-grade-level reader and mainly get books targeted there. Now, I’m really trying to expand that out and also book talk more picture books and short chapter books so kids realize reading all kinds of books is okay.
#11 – Not taking care of the books
This is another lesson that took me WAY too long to learn. I would just get a book from the store or Scholastic, pop my name inside, and simply put it on the shelf and hope for the best. And you never want to get mad at a kid for accidentally wrecking a book or getting it dirty – I mean – heck – many of my books have chocolate smears or stains from spaghetti sauce. But – it’s worth some time and a bit of money to protect the investment of the books. So, teach kids how to care for books – using a bookmark, not bending corners of pages, and being gentle with them. One thing I do now is cover all the new books I get with clear contact paper. I always have a couple rolls on standby near my dining room table so whenever I have a spare minute I can toss aside the tablecloth and cover a few books.
#12 – Not having anything new
Up until last year, I would never purchase a new release – hardcovers are expensive! And sometimes you don’t know if they’re going to like it or not! But I have come to change my mind. Having a fresh new book that first week or even first day it’s released – it’s exciting! You’re in on the buzz about that book! Some of my students last spring were actually counting down the days to Kwame Alexander’s release of Booked because they loved The Crossover so much. And when I brought that book in the DAY it was available and cracked open the pages and we smelled the fresh new book smell – every kid in class signed up to get that book. Having new books also gets students paying attention to the work of their favorite authors and they’re on lookout themselves for new releases. I see some teachers even post a book release calendar in their classroom to boost that excitement. I am totally stealing that idea! Plus, it signals to kids that books aren’t old, dusty, unchanging things. There are fresh, new exciting books being born into the world every Tuesday.
My hope is that you won’t make the many mistakes I did when first starting to gather titles for a classroom library and that your collection will start off in a much better place. Now, already, I am sure there are things I have missed, so please let me know. You can tag me on Twitter or Instagram or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll share some of your thoughts and ideas in an upcoming episode!
Three Novels with Surprising Twists
In this segment, I share with you three books centered around a theme and discuss three things to love about each book. This week I’m sharing three novels with shocking plot twists: The Children of Exile, Be Light Like a Bird, and The Inquisitor’s Tale. These three books are very different – one is science fiction, one is contemporary fiction, and one is historical fiction. But all three had my jaw dropping at some point in the book.
Children of Exile
by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
The first book I want to share with you today is Children of Exile by Margaret Peterson Haddix. You may be familiar with her previous book Among the Hidden, which is the first novel in her Shadow Children series. Children of Exile is the first of what I am told will be a trilogy. It’s about 12 year old Rosi, who is being raised with her little brother in a small, structured, safe Utopian community called Fredtown. Due to some mysterious event in the past, Rosi and all the other children in her community were taken away from their home and their biological parents as infants and are now being raised by adults called “Freds”. Rosi and her estranged friend Edwy are the two oldest kids and are expected to look out for all the younger children. But that task gets incredibly difficult when abruptly they are sent back home to a world that is anything but safe, structured, and nurturing. So here are three things to love about The Children of Exile:
- Fredtown – I am not sure what it says about me, but I wanted to go live in Fredtown. There is order, reasonable rules, gentle parenting, and I particularly liked the guidelines around consent and power. Children are taught to ask permission before touching or tickling and they learn that it is immoral to overpower those that are younger or weaker than you. I would totally sign up to go live in Fredtown! And they memorize founding principles that are secular and based on the best human philosophies. For example, one of their principles is “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And another is “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Which has you wondering… how did sayings from Martin Luther King, Jr, and Nelson Mandela find their way into this society?
- Big Themes – There is so much good stuff packed into these 43 chapters. This would make an excellent book club selection. There’s so much to talk about: racism, prejudice, human extinction, sacrifice, acceptance, religious tolerance, and how a common enemy can bring people together in ways you wouldn’t expect.
- The Cliffhangers – Haddix is a master at getting you to turn the page! Just a sampling, here’s the last line of Chapter 6: “Then someone grabbed my shoulder.” (Ahhh!) And later, at the end of Chapter 19: “…sneak out and meet me. There’s something I have to show you.” And I defy you to get to page 266 and stop reading! At that point, you are IN IT until the end.
The Children of Exile is unputdownable and will have you reeling in those final chapters. It’s kind of like The City of Ember with a twist of The Twilight Zone and a great science fiction title to offer your middle grade readers.
Be Light Like a Bird
by Monika Schröder
Capstone Young Readers
The second novel I want to talk about is a quieter book but the narrative builds to this moment of surprise that suddenly has you rethinking every character interaction that came before. Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schröder is the story of Wren, a 12 year-old girl whose life is unraveling after her father suddenly dies in a plane crash. Her mother, instead of comforting her only child, is angry and decides to rip the girl away from her home and take her in the car across the country looking for a new start. They finally end up in Michigan where Wren makes unexpected friends, finds a cause to get behind, and slowly learns the truth about her mother’s erratic behavior. Here are three reasons to love about Be Light Like a Bird:
1. How well the author gets that school setting.You can tell that Schröder has experience as a librarian and teacher in the descriptions of classroom life and interactions between the kids. Just as one example, there is a scene where Wren’s new teacher announces “Our next assignment will be a partner project.” And let me read to you what happens next:
Everyone in the class quickly sought to make eye contact with their prefered partner. I looked over to Carrie, but her eyes were locked onto Victoria’s.
“I will assign the partners,” Mrs. Peters said as she handed out the papers.
Last week partners had been assigned randomly, with the help of the sticks of doom – Popsicle sticks that had our names written on them in black marker. Mrs. Peters would close her eyes and pull out two sticks, then read the names aloud, and that was that. It seemed fair to me. At least chance determined whom you had to work with. But this time, Mrs. Peters announced that we’d be working with someone at our table. As she went around the room assigning team partners, I held my breath and squeezed my thumbs inside my fists, hoping for a miracle.
I think every kid, parent, teacher, and librarian can recognize and relate to that scene.
2. How nature brings the characters together. One of the reasons that I really connected to Wren was that she’s a bird watcher – something I don’t do as much now, but just like Wren – I had a bird book by my side and recorded the date, location, and time of my bird sightings. (Personally, I was never very good at it. One day I spent 10 minutes looking at a pinecone through my binoculars trying to figure out what rare sparrow I was seeing my backyard.) Wren’s new birdwatching spot is Pete’s Pond – a quiet, calming place for her. Until it’s threatened and that it the catalyst which finally gets her to start connecting with other people and attempt to save it.
3. How well the author understands grief and represents it as this cloud that hovers over Wren. There’s a scene where Wren is sitting in her father’s old car and inhaling the scent that is tied so intensely with her happy memories of him. When she starts a new school, she doesn’t tell anyone that her father recently died – not because she wants to forget it, but because she doesn’t want to be defined by that and also other people’s reactions are hard to deal with. And the importance of a friend who will simply let you cry by their side.
Be Light Like a Bird is about family and friendship and grief. And ultimately – grief over what we had that was lost, but also grief over what we thought we had. It’s a beautiful book.
The Inquisitor’s Tale
by Adam Gidwitz; Hatem Aly (Illustrator)
Dutton Books for Young Readers
Our final book featuring an abundance of surprising twists is The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz. I have been texting, tweeting, and talking about this book so much in the past month that when I type the letter I into my phone, it automatically suggests “Inquisitor” as the first option. This novel is a medieval adventure story about three magical children (and a dog) who are pursued by various agents of the Inquisition. The first is a young girl named Jeanne (sort of like a young Joan of Arc) who has fits and sees visions. Then we meet the talkative and tall monk-in-training, William – an eleven year old whose unusual dark skin is likely the result of a relationship between his crusading father and a North African woman. Since this is 1242 France, his appearance and supernatural strength immediately have people seeing him as dangerously different. And finally, there’s little Jacob – a wise Jewish boy reeling from the recent death of his parents and just starting to realize his powers to heal others. Eventually all three are both hailed and condemned as saints and have to outwit and outrun their pursuers. The story is so gorgeously detailed and interconnected that any description I give you of this novel is NOT going to do it justice. You just have to get it and read it yourself. The fact is there are so so many big and little things I loved about this book, but I have committed to limiting myself to three.
- I have to start with the illustrations. Just like many real medieval texts had illuminations in the margins, The Inquisitor’s Tale includes dozens and dozens of intricate sketches by Hatem Aly. There is so much to explore there but I think what is most fascinating is the note at the beginning of the novel explaining that the drawings might actually contradict or question the text.
- That profound mix of humor, philosophy, and yes – savagery. There are gross jokes galore in this book. And I love how that is mixed in with deep philosophical and religious discussions between the children. At one point, Jacob asks that eternal question: Why would a good God let bad things happen? This is a book about saints and at some point it dawns on the children that most saints are martyred. In high school, I worked evenings in the rectory (the office) at St. Cecelia’s church and during down times, I would read this dusty old copy of Lives of the Saints. And the stories in there were appallingly gruesome – and this novel doesn’t really shy away from the awfulness of that. But, it does give some hope that people with intensely different beliefs might still find a way to work together and be friends.
- The character twists! I don’t want to say too much and ruin it, so I’m really holding a lot back here, but all throughout this book, you meet the most vile, nastiest characters and then suddenly… it flips and one of the narrators helps you see their point of view. And even if they’ve still DONE terrible things, you have more empathy for them. Then you realize that one of the key characters that have been telling you this story – You. Can’t. Trust. Ahhhh! I LOVED it – this book had me gleefully yelling at the pages.
The Inquisitor’s Tale would make a fantastic read aloud, and I’ve heard the audio version is phenomenal. I think this novel is probably best suited for upper middle grade readers about ages 10-14 but I am sure any teen or adult who likes an historical adventure with some awesome fart jokes thrown in is going to really love it!
The Inquisitor’s Tale, Be Light Like a Bird, and The Children of Exile are three terrific middle grade books with twists you will love.
Q & A
Our third and final segment this week is Question & Answer time.
Last week we had our first round of parent-teacher conferences, and the reading specialist and I were asked the following question: “I keep buying my son tons of books. He seems excited about reading them, but then he rarely finishes. What can I do?”
So here were our suggestions. My thought was to help them build some momentum in the book by reading it with them to start off. So, you might read aloud the first few chapters together – maybe alternating who is reading it out loud. Then, make a plan where you each read the next chapter on your own and meet up to chat about it in a couple days. Then you might increase that to two chapters or three or pull back if they are getting confused.
My colleague, Kelly, recommended finding books with shorter chapters. It’s easier to stay focused when the reading chunks are smaller.
And we both agreed that helping kids understand that every book has a slow part is important. But, if you can shepherd them through that part, it does pick up again.
Okay that’s it for the Q&A section this week. If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or an idea about a topic we should cover, I really would love to hear from you. You can email me at email@example.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.
Thank you so much for sharing your time with me this week. You can get a full transcript of this show with links to every book and resource I talked about today by going to BooksBetween.com/10 which will take you to our home at All the Wonders where you can discover other wonderful kidlit resources. And, if you are liking the show, please help us out by sharing on social media or leaving a rating on iTunes or Stitcher.
Thanks and see you in two weeks! Bye!