This summer, I challenged myself to read 30 books. Between the making and the biking, I was ready to do what I challenge my students to do – practice, work toward becoming a better reader, and find the joy in discovering a new story.
The challenge was important to me on multiple levels. After a school year, I can feel frustrated and tired, and forget the reason that I wanted to become a librarian in the first place. After ten months of squeezing in a chapter or two between staff meetings and dinner with my husband, I was eager to spend time immersed in literature again. And this year, I am faced with a brand new challenge: serving as the librarian for a K-8 school, a far cry from the pre-k -4 patrons that I have grown accustomed to. I had a lot to learn and not much time to do it.
Its easy, in the world of assignments and standardized testing, to lose sight of what really matters. Educators have so much to teach and so little time to do it – it seems like a bonus when students are actually engaged and excited in what they are reading. I wanted this challenge to not only make me a stronger reader, but to also give me an opportunity to walk in the tiny, glittery shoes of my patrons. When I developed this challenge for myself, I added some details – half of the books could come from recommendations, curated lists from sources like GoodReads, and my own personal interest; the other half would have to come from assigned reading lists that outline what a middle school reader “should” read. I wanted to experience the summer like a student, reading from a mandatory list and then being able to read for pleasure when I was finished.
My results probably won’t shock you. What I found has been proven, time and time again. But as a teacher, this summer was a priceless reminder of what motivates my readers. It reminded me what can help to stir that passion inside of them; that passion that makes them stay up holding a flashlight beneath the covers far after bedtime. It also reminded me what can drive a student to say the phrase that breaks the heart of teachers everywhere: “I hate reading.”
Many of the books on my summer reading list were fantastic. They made me laugh, made me cry, and blew my mind. They hurt my heart, healed it, and broke it again. I found myself shocked to suddenly have finished the last sentence on the last page swinging in the hammock in my backyard and wiping away audiobook-inspired tears between sets at the gym. I had the kinds of experiences that ushered me gently from the burnout and frustration that pile up by June back to the invigorated, passionate reader of my past. These were wonderful moments.
But other titles felt like toiling away at hard labor. I’d plant myself on the couch next to a cup of tea, and make myself a deal: 150 pages and I can go do something fun. When you love a book, 150 pages can go by in a flash. When you’re not interested, it can feel like days. What was that noise? I should probably go check it out. Is the cat breathing funny? He definitely needs me to take a break and spend some time with him. Uh oh, my tea’s cold. Better go reheat it…for an hour. As an avid reader who has always considered reading an escape, I was shocked. Do I hate reading? What is happening here? Is this what we are doing to our students?
And, if I’m being totally honest… I cheated. I am an adult that doesn’t have to answer to a teacher or a grade, and I took advantage of that. There were about 15 books that I started and then quit because I didn’t enjoy them. Sometimes the plot didn’t grab me, sometimes I didn’t enjoy the writing style, sometimes the audiobook narrator made me want to pull my hair out. Whatever the reason, I gave myself the luxury of respecting my tastes and putting down a book that I didn’t enjoy to get another one that I thought I might like better. This simple act – the ability to trust my own judgement and made decisions based on what I do and do not like – made a huge difference. And yet, so many of us do not give this to the children that we serve.
I am a librarian. I have a strong bias here – I have built a career and a life around my belief that children should love what they read and read what they love. But the importance of student choice has been proven hundreds of times by impartial sources: you can read about it here, here, here, or 549,000 other places on the internet. I especially love this article from the National Council of Teachers of English, which cites the top five reasons to give students choice in their reading materials:
Choice empowers students.
Valuing student choices values the student.
Choice leads to real and meaningful conversations.
Choice helps establish and deepen relationships.
Choice leads to independence.
Bonus: Choice changes the reading life of the teacher.
As a skilled and inherently driven adult reader, I struggled to make it through a list of required texts. I often felt discouraged, bored, or resentful of the “assignment”. Step into those aforementioned tiny, glittery shoes and imagine a still learning, sometimes frustrated or challenged reader, attempting to squeeze these hours in after basketball practice or a full day of kindergarten without a nap. Assigned texts should and will always be required by your school – reading together in class is a rich and important experience. But giving your student a choice in what they read during independent reading or outside of the classroom can be the small difference between “Can I go read?” and “I hate reading” as a child; and that creates a myriad of difference as that child grows into an adult.
Below, find the reviews on all of the books that I read this summer (minus a few still in the works). You can follow along with me in real-time as I read, review, and do all things library on my Instagram: fitzbetweentheshelves.
It must be hard for a young writer to follow a smash hit first novel. So I was rooting for Rebecca Stead when I started Goodbye Stranger – but the cheering didn't last long. This vague and disorienting story brushes over lots of issues without actually dealing with any of them, including heavy hitters like sexting and bullying, each of which deserve to be written about with more care. The characters left me wanting, and I was confused by plot lines that never seemed to take off. If you're searching for a satisfying take on middle school friendships, say goodbye to this one. #bookreview #ireadya #disappointed
If you're still wiping away tears from Shiloh and Winn Dixie, then you might need a break before picking up A Dog Called Homeless. This book had me 😭💔😔 in the middle of the airport. Unique characters, a beautiful plot, and an artful climax made this a wonderful – albeit emotional – read. Four paws up 🐾🐾 #bookreview #childrensbook #uglycry #dog
Tru and Nelle are quirky, interesting characters, but this story based on the real-life friendship between Truman Capote and Nel Harper went on about three discs too long. Too cutesy for older readers but much too long for their younger siblings, the unique friendship at the heart of Tru and Nelle doesn't shine through all of the extra text. Bonus points for the eclectic, melancholy interpretation of Truman Capote as a little boy. #bookreview #trumancapote #audiobook #childrensbook
Eerie historical fiction (or just plain fiction? I'm not sure) that takes the reader back to the Cuban Missile Crisis – and drops the 💣. I loved Fallout's juxtaposition as it flashes between Scott's innocent, childlike worries before the bomb, and the terrifying, complicated days that follow in the fallout shelter. Dark and bleak, this book might be too much for sensitive middle grade readers – but worth the shivers if they're up for it. #ireadya #bookreview #fiction #history
What an odd book. Public School Superhero has all the right components: graphic novel sections, slang-filled teen dialogue, child-appropriate battles of social justice and morality. But the truth of the book is blaring throughout…this is an old white guy trying really hard to write like an African American teen. The awkward result left me craving something genuine. #bookreview #summerreading #awkward #ireadya
Fairy Tale comics were all the rage with my older elementary students, so this was a natural next step. Or, it should have been. Maybe I don't know my fables as well as most, but over half of this book left me 🤔 Different fables and different artists every couple of pages meant I just never connected. Skip this one in favor of its more popular Fairy Tale counterpart. #bookreview #graphicnovel #ireadya #fables
Amber is part Mexican, part Japanese, and all mixed up. This cute story wasn't anything special, but I loved that Amber's culture was a part of her character – without being the only defining thing about her. A good #weneeddiversebooks selection, Amber won me over with her sassy humor and diary-like drawings. A good branch out for Wimpy Kid and Dork Diary lovers. #bookreview #summerreading #ireadya #backtoschool
It's magic when a book can take you inside the mind of a child that feels so fiercely but can't verbally express those feelings. In the wake of a terrible accident, Trent has so much potential – and so much anger. The guilt and shame, joy and hope are so vivid and moving. I loved this peek into the heart of a student struggling with an unfair world; a child facing very adult problems. A great reminder that what adults know about childrens' thoughts is often just a snippet of the full story. #bookreview #ireadya #summerreading
One school, two factions, and a huge fairy tale rivalry. A great premise, but the plot – and the point – get lost in a wordy, confusing mess. I think the author meant to showcase intelligence, kindness, and heart outranking beauty and selfishness; but with all of the forced plot twists and long descriptions of clothing and physical attributes, I got the total opposite. Bummer. #bookreview #fairytale #ireadya #summerreading
With a blockbuster movie coming out later this year and about a million recommendations, I had high expectations for this creepy looking novel. But somewhere between the the jungle of unnecessary adverbs and the audiobook narrator's horrific range of accents, I'd had enough. Having only made it to disc 3, I guess I'll never found out what made Miss Peregrine and all of those children so extraordinary. #bookreview #audiobook #youngadult #ireadya
Loved this story of a tween finding and embracing her quirky, tomboy self through roller derby. Roller Girl was funny, empowering, and left me feeling inspired. Boy-crazy ballerina or badass roller babe, this story shows that self confidence and hard work will get you anywhere you want to go. But roller skates might help you get there faster 😜 Anyone have any blue hair dye?? #bookreview #rollerderby #ireadya #summerreading
Illegal's 15-year-old heroine Nora is stronger and braver than I can even comprehend. Although not always easy to stomach, this book shows a side of immigration that you won't find on the evening news, and reminds readers that there are human beings behind these political buzzwords. Eye opening, heart wrenching, and mind changing; a great book for teen readers to broaden their horizons and better understand the world outside of their personal experience. #bookreview #ireadya #youngadultbooks
Toto, I don't think we're on Market Street anymore. The first book of this series from @mattdelapena has natural disasters, biological warfare, romance, espionage… you name it. With all of that packed into one novel, The Living is fast paced and exciting. Not suggested for beach reading, though – I had tsunami nightmares 😳 #summerreading #beach #bookreview #ireadya
Difficult, emotional, and important. All American Boys was unique to me for two reasons: first, the African American teen victim of police brutality survives and gets to tell his own story; second, the obligatory ignorant white witness communicates his struggle as he transforms. I bled, cried, and evolved along with Rashad and Quinn. Parents and teachers, read this one along with your teen – the opportunities for discussion and growth are endless. #bookreview #ireadya #summerreading
My Kindle is great for traveling, but it's not so great for graphic novels. I'm not sure if it was the forced black and white format or the fact that I was a band geek in high school, not a drama nerd; but whatever the issue, I didn't really get it. No standing O for this one. #bookreview #ireadya #summerreading
So many children's authors write as if kids don't 'get it': sweet, simple, shallow. But Kate DiCamillo knows that young readers understand far more than most give them credit for. They feel loss, grief, fear; joy, hope, the bonds of friendship. In Raymie's case, perhaps with more strength than the rest of us. Another must-read to add to the DiCamillo pile. #bookreview #childrensbook #summerreading
Oh guys. I'm a mess. I loved this book so much, I don't know what to do with myself now that it's over. Doug is an underdog that you root for, fall in love with, and miss terribly after the final page. One of the best books I've read this year. (Bonus: Audiobook narrator is excellent.) #bookreview #ireadya #ilovethisbook
This Side of Home was complex and wonderful and difficult and so, so beautiful. Maya and Nikki are identical twins working towards high school graduation, but issues like gentrification of their neighborhood, cultural tensions at school and interracial dating blur all of the lines between black and white, right and wrong. It made me laugh, made me tear up, and made me think – the trifecta, as far as I'm concerned. 😍 #ireadya #youngadult #bookreview