Why You Need a Vibrant Classroom Library: Books Between, Episode 2

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Episode Transcript:

Today’s subject is more teacher focused, but if you’re coming from the point of view of a parent or librarian, there’s still a lot to take away from today’s topic. On the last episode we talked about making sure kids have lots of time to read every day. Having a VIBRANT classroom library (or home library if you’re a parent) is a huge step in the right direction to accomplishing that.

So what is a VIBRANT classroom library? It’s updated, fresh, and full of diverse books. And it’s a library with lots of activity. And I’ll tell you – I DID NOT have a vibrant classroom library when I first started teaching. It’s getting closer now, but I’m still working on it.

Why do you need a vibrant classroom library? There are many, many reasons – but I’ll share with you 8 main things from the research I’ve done.

#1 – Kids need access to TONS of books to really make gains as readers and develop that love of reading.

The American Library Association recommends about 300 books while Fountas & Pinnell puts the number between 300 and 600. I also recently noticed that the new Teachers College Reading and Writing Project is offering Classroom Libraries for sale that are curated by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues. The libraries listed for grades 3-7 are about 500-700 titles each. And, by the way, those ready-made classroom libraries will cost you between $4,000 – $6,000. I have no idea what they’re like, but if you are interested – I’ll drop a link in the show notes for you. I think they’ll be available this September and if you get one, I’d love to know what you think about it.

#2 – A great classroom library is a tremendous support to your reading instruction.

If you do Reading Workshop, most independent student reading centers around books they have selected for themselves. It’s really crucial to have lots of options, in lots of genres, at lots of levels right on hand. Plus – having two or more copies of those really HOT reads is also a great idea for partner reading and book clubs.  That’s really something I wish I had known earlier. That if I had two copies of say, The One and Only Ivan – kids would pair up and read it together.  To quote Lucy Calkins, Kids who have access to great books become readers. There is simply nothing that makes teaching reading easier, that gets kids reading with tremendous volume, or that lifts reading skills higher than a collection of truly fabulous books.”  Well said.

#3 – Classroom libraries are an amazing way to support writing instruction.

With hundreds of books right in the room, students have access to incredibly helpful mentor texts. They are surrounded by inspiration for their own poetry, narratives, nonfiction pieces, biographies, and memoirs. My writing conferences this year were so much more effective when I would pull a book off the shelf to show a student how to convey emotion through dialogue in their short stories, or how to write interesting subheadings for their research report – and they could see an expert example right in front of them.

#4 – With a classroom library, you can be more responsive to your students needs – above and beyond what the school or community library can offer.

For example, I teach in a K-5 building which means that my students are really familiar with the what’s offered at the school library. And our librarian, Tina, is fantastic with adding interesting new titles every year, but she has 6 grades to budget for and I can just focus on ONE class – and offer some higher level middle grade books that might not make sense for her to order for a K-5 library.

#5 – You can’t assume students can get books anywhere else.

A lucky few of my students are able to walk to their local library and have parents with both the money and the inclination to get books.  At school, students maybe have library time once a week. And often that block of library time is spent doing other things than browsing for books – we often work really closely with our librarian to get in content area teaching, research, learning about technology – all really important things, but sometimes – despite our best efforts – our book browsing time gets short changed. So having a huge supply of books available right in the classroom takes care of some of the problem of access.

#6 – A classroom library gets books into kids’ hands QUICKLY.

They don’t have to wait to get to the library or Barnes & Noble. Sometimes, there’s a huge wait list for a hot new title at the school library. I just saw a fantastic quote about that recently on Twitter, @KyleneBeers said “What’s the best thing to give struggling readers when they’ve finished a book? Another book. Not a test. Not a slice of pizza.” And having lots of options for them right in your room will really help build that reading momentum.

#7 – A vibrant and active classroom library becomes the heart of your classroom and the center of your community together.

In the morning, at dismissal – and all throughout the day – it opens up opportunities for natural conversation around books, quick book recommendations among everyone, and I have been amazed at the level of conversation and engagement around books that has happened once I made a decision to make our classroom library the core of our room.

#8 – “If you build it, they WILL read it.”

I know that sounds simplistic and maybe a little silly, but just the fact of having hundred of appealing books surrounded your students will absolutely make it more likely that they’ll read them.   

I’ll end our segment with one last quote from Lucy Calkins:

“The truth is, the kind of readers that you build will grow to match the libraries that you build.”

The Top Three Books My Students Raved About Last Year

Aside from cuddling with two purring new kittens – this is one of my favorite things to do – share book recommendations!  These three titles this week are highly vetted by 24 rather picky 5th graders.  

Auggie & Me
by R.J. Palacio
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers

Their first favorite book of the year was Auggie & Me by R.J. Palacio. – companion book to Wonder. Last year Wonder was our first read aloud, and my students fell in love with August & Via & Jack & Summer & Miranda. The first August section I read out loud and then switched to the Audiobook version – which is phenomenal. (If you know a kid who liked Wonder, point them in the direction of audiobook – the actors’ performances of the different characters will be a treat for them to listen to.)

After we finished Wonder in late September, I pulled out my one lone copy of Auggie & Me and there was practically a stampede to sign up for it. Essentially, it’s three “extra” chapters – one from Julian (the “bad guy” in Wonder), one from Christopher (August’s best friend who moved away), and then one from Charlotte (the “goody-toes-shoes” who was part of Auggie’s welcoming committee).  

Three things my students (and I ) loved about Auggie & Me:

  1. The Julian chapter got you inside the head of an unlikeable character. We were all dying to know what his excuses would be for his bullying, and even if we didn’t come away loving him, you at least understand a bit more where he was coming from. Also – a big chunk of this chapter is Julian’s visit to France with his grandmother where she lets him do something that is ILLEGAL in the United States. And THAT was the talk of my room for a MONTH.
  2. The Christopher Chapter (called “Pluto”) all takes place during one day.  with some flashbacks that reveal a lot about Auggie’s condition when he was a little kid – and also the day his family got Daisy.
  3. The Charlotte Chapter (called “Shingaling”) was fun because you get to see what’s going on with the girls at Beecher Prep during the events of Wonder. It’s the chapter that ties the least to August, but this one was actually my favorite. And my students thought the Venn diagrams were really clever, too.

If you have a child who liked Wonder – absolutely hook them up with Auggie & Me.

The Honest Truth
by Victoria Jamieson
Scholastic Press

The second book that really picked up a TON of momentum in my classroom last year was Dan Gemeinhart’s The Honest Truth. I booktalked it in September and by November I needed to buy another copy to keep up with demand. The Honest Truth is about 12 year old Mark who has been battling cancer for years and isn’t getting any better. So in the face of more hospital visits and more crying from his parents, he decides to run away with his dog, Beau, to do something big with his life, something he always wanted to do – climb Mount Rainier. He stows his dog in a duffle bag, grabs his camera and his journal and sets off on adventures through bus stations, diners, dark streets full of danger, and finally the mountain itself.

Three things my students and I found particularly powerful about The Honest Truth:

  1. The haiku. Throughout the novel, Mark writes haiku in his journal and uses them to communicate with his best friend, Jessie.
  2. Jessie’s dilemma. The only person who knows where Mark went is his best friend, Jessie. And she has to decide whether to honor his wish to be left alone, or to tell his parents. We had some DEEP conversations about that choice.
  3. The cover. There is something really masterful about the cover art. It’s a brilliant blue background with a jagged black gash down the middle with a silhouette of a dog on the left and a silhouette of a boy on the right. A big shout out to Nina Goffi who designed the cover. More than most books, kids were examining it and really trying to decipher how the story related to the images.  

One tiny tip when recommending The Honest Truth – when you hand this book to a kid, tell them how to pronounce the dog’s name, which is spelled B-E-A-U.  ALL my students were saying “BEE-U” – clearly “Beau” is not a name they see very often up here in Central New York.  

The Honest Truth is a great book for kids who’d like an intense, emotional, adventure story with a dash of Hatchet and a bit of The Fault in Our Stars.  It’s truly excellent.

The Crossover
by Kwame Alexander
Houghton Mifflin

The Crossover is the final book that my students RAVED about last year. And actually, Kwame Alexander’s book did not start off popular in my class. I don’t know if I botched the booktalk or if it got tucked in the back of a bin – but NO ONE in my class read it in September or October so I ended up hunting down one of my students from the year before who I really thought it would resonate with – Ty.  Ty is an incredibly talented athlete, with confidence, and an all-around popular kid. I knew he’d love this story of trash-talking twin brothers Josh and JB and their basketball exploits – if he was willing to give a novel written in verse a shot. But – I’ll be honest with you – I am not totally sure he ended up reading the book. He had it for two months and walked into my class to return it with lots of great things to say. And Ty’s endorsement was enough to get the rest of my class kick-started into reading the book and passing it back and forth.  I can’t claim ANY credit for The Crossover’s popularity in my class – it was all Ty. There are WAY more than three amazing things about The Crossover, but here’s what stood out to me:

  1. The humor – the poems are funny, fast, and smart. And a tiny bit subversive. Like, just a twinge.
  2. The language is playful and fun – full of powerful metaphors, alliteration, and all kinds of great wordplay. An example: When Josh complains to his dad that his brother, JB, is acting spacey around a girl and wearing cologne to school, their father says “talking to your brother right now would be like pushing water uphill with a rake” Brilliant! And oh so true about teen love.  The Crossover is FULL of compelling and clever phrases like this. The title alone can lead to hours of discussion. This is the type of book definitely worth a reread.
  3. Their Dad’s 10 Basketball Rules! They are SO good – one after the other. A favorite of mine – Basketball Rule #3 “Never let anyone lower your goals. Others’ expectations of you are determined by their limitations of life. The sky is your limit, sons. Always shoot for the sun and you will shine.”

As I said, The Crossover took four months to catch on in my class, but when it did – it was unstoppable! In fact, in was the 2016 Champion of our March Book Madness Tournament, beating out 15 other titles for the win.

The Crossover, The Honest Truth and Auggie & Me are three incredible books – and great recommendations for middle grade readers.

Q & A

Our final segment today is a Question & Answer time.


So here I have a recent question from a friend of mine whose son is about 12 years old. And he really loves horror type stuff and she’d like to give him some Stephen King – eventually – but she’s worried about the content of those adult books and is looking for something similar but more age-appropriate.


Absolutely – I have some great recommendations! And my youngest is the same way – she also likes darker, more macabre reads.

Suggestion #1 – Clive Barker’s Thief of Always – he will LOVE it. And be introduced to a fantastic author with lots to offer as he gets older. Thief of Always is book about a kid named Harvey Swick who is dealing with the doldrums of February (my LEAST favorite month) – and he gets tempted away to visit Mr. Hood’s Holiday House. A place where the best of each season plays out every day – spring, summer, Halloween, Christmas. Until – Harvey starts to notice the cracks in the illusion and he realizes that he’s STUCK and can’t get home.

It’s wonderful with beautifully creepy chapter illustrations – and it has an incredibly well-done book trailer online that I’ll link to in the show notes.

Suggestion #2 – Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.  This book has one of the most spine-tingling opening lines:  “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife”  *Shudder*  It’s also available as a graphic novel as well. And if he isn’t put off by a female protagonist then Gaiman’s Coraline is also amazing – and a decent movie adaption as well. I’ve found over the last few years that my guy readers and more and more willing to give books a shot that have a female lead so it’s good to see some growth in that area.

My third suggestion for kids who are looking for something that’s kind of dark and a little horror would be – Jonathon Auxier’s The Night Gardiner – It’s scary, with beautiful language, deep – and just a tad gruesome. Definitely get it!

Those are my three suggestions – Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and Jonathon Auxier’s The Night Gardiner.

Thank You

Alright – that’s it for the Q&A section this week. If you have a question about how to connect middle grade readers to books they’ll love or and idea about a topic we should cover on a future episode, please email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get a full transcript of this show, and all the other episodes, at our website – BooksBetween.com with links to every book and video I mentioned today. And, if you like the show, please subscribe on iTunes or tell a friend!

About the Author

Corrina Allen

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Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York. She hosts Books Between, a bi-weekly podcast to help teachers, librarians, and parents connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love. You can connect with Corrina on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.

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