Finding a book exciting and interesting enough to captivate both 5th and 6th graders, boys and girls, with a wide variety of interests and reading levels, is no easy feat. The book needed to be short enough not to frustrate readers working on their skills, but challenging enough for even our best readers to push themselves. It needed to be fast-paced and action packed enough to interest middle-grade male readers, with the character-driven and three-dimensional characters that middle-grade female readers crave. Mission impossible? Not with an author like Kwame Alexander. Alexander’s sizzling second free-verse book, Booked, was the perfect fit. From School Library Journal:
Twelve-year-old Nick loves soccer, and he and his best friend Coby have big plans for winning the Dr. Pepper Dallas Cup, the renowned world youth soccer tournament, even though they will be playing on opposing teams. Besides the big game, Nick has a lot of other things on his mind. For one thing, his mother wants to move away to pursue her dream of training race horses, and his linguistics professor father is pressuring him to improve his vocabulary by reading the dictionary. Throw in the twin eighth-grade tyrants who relentlessly want to pound him and weekly lessons at Miss Quattlebaum’s School of Ballroom Dance & Etiquette, and his life at Langston Hughes Magnet School of the Arts is pretty hectic. But school is also where “the Mac” can be found, Langston’s resident rapping, dragonfly-loving, red mohawk-wearing librarian and Nick’s favorite adult. And then there’s April, Nick’s current crush. Newbery-winning poet Alexander once again brings to life a novel in verse that equally captures the rapid-fire excitement of a soccer match and the palpable pain of a young boy whose family is falling apart. Peppered throughout are useful and amusing vocabulary words as well as wise-cracking yet sage life lessons from a beloved librarian. Authentic characters and amusing situations abound, making this story one that will be welcomed by readers of all levels. VERDICT Another winning goal for Alexander and middle school readers alike.-Carol Connor, Cincinnati Public Schools, OHα(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Once our book was chosen, the planning could begin! I announced our book choice to 5th and 6th graders last month using this fun Animoto video. I placed lists in the library and in the middle school commons where students could sign up to participate and watched as the numbers went up… and up… and up. A total of 60 students signed up to join our discussion. I sent an e-vite to parents filling them in on our plans and reached out to our special guest, former St. Anne’s-Belfield School librarian Karen Gray. One month of planning, lots of team meetings, and about a zillion plan drafts later, it was finally time.
When students arrived, they were greeted with choices. A dry-erase board pointed participants to different stations, each marked with a cone. Three indoor stations and one outdoor station meant that no activity was too crowded, and that students had a selection of activities to choose from. Kinesthetic learners could head outside for trivia with Mr. Passmore – for each correct answer, they could take a shot at the goal with Mr. Passmore as the goalie.
Visual learners could join Ms. Stevens on the library steps, where they could add their thoughts via words or doodles to our word cloud, made to look like a replica of the one that Alexander included on the book’s cover. Some additions to the art piece were single words like verbose, confidence, and ballin’. Other writers stepped up their game to include some Kwame Alexander-like rhymes like “Can’t nobody stop you, can’t nobody cop you” and “Mr. Mac, Mr. Mac, cool as mac’n’cheese.” I love the way this piece of group art turned out! You can stop by any time to see it on display on the wall outside of the library.
Learners that prefer more quiet time to process and think, love to write, or choose to work independently could head over to meet Ms. Canova and Mrs. Gray near the library tables. Each table was covered with butcher paper and featured a discussion question plus materials for written student responses. My favorite responses included the rhyming verses about why students loved each character (in the picture, you can see the wheels turning on what to rhyme with “Mr. Mac”) and the thoughtful answers to a question about whether teachers or students should be responsible for choosing in-class reading materials. (“Teachers should help students to choose the right books because sometimes students aren’t responsible enough with their reading choices,” one response stated. Another responded, “Kids should read what they like because teachers mean well, but they choose books that are sometimes boring and then we don’t want to read.”)
In the final station, readers could look through all of the other texts mentioned throughout Booked‘s pages by visiting the Quiet Room. Main character Nick, not a reader by choice, joins a book club to impress a girl. He’s surprised to find that he is actually enjoying the books – and when he’s asked to choose the club’s next text, he puts together a stellar list of middle-grade fiction. At this station, students could browse and check out Nick’s favorite titles, a perfect way to segue students into their next great read.
After working their way through the stations, students broke into small groups and ate lunch while participating in a traditional book club discussion, each lead by a faculty member. Students were asked questions about characters, themes, and plot points throughout the book. They discussed tough topics like bullying, divorce, racism, competition, and pressure to constantly achieve. They discussed the quirky and unbelievably cool Mr. Mac (#librariangoals), the competition between Nick and his best friend Coby Lee, and how it must have felt for Nick to find out that his parents were divorcing. Some groups were inspired by the book to share their thoughts in free form, hip-hop like verse. Many of our faculty “coaches” for the discussion took me aside to tell me how passionate their group was about the book – how deeply they connected with the characters and how much they identified with the conflicts that Nick faced in the book.
It is always a treat to set aside time to celebrate books that make us think and laugh and help us grow. Kwame Alexander’s books manage to feature nonstop action as well as empathy and character development – not an easy feat. At the end of our meeting, students signed two soccer balls; one to keep in the library as a keepsake, and another to give to author Kwame Alexander as a token of how much his book meant to us.
A BIG thank you goes out to all of the students that brought their a-game by reading the book, giving up their break and lunch time, and showing up ready for great discussion. An even BIGGER thank you to all of the wonderful faculty members who volunteered their time, without whom this event wouldn’t have been possible.
Learn more about author Kwame Alexander, one of my personal favorites, here.
Psst… did you know that Kwame Alexander will be visiting Charlottesville in March 2017 for the Virginia Festival of the Book? And that we’ll be hosting him here at St. Anne’s-Belfield School? Find out more about this amazing event.