Nobody knows the books kids love better than someone who’s surrounded by lots and lots of kids and lots and lots of wonderful books, which is exactly how I’d describe elementary and middle school librarian and author Louise P. Simone. What’s more, Louise is on the homestretch of her doctorate, on fantasy literature for children and young adults.
Today I’m delighted to welcome Louise to From The Mixed-Up Files! Let’s get down to business, Louise. How do your students select great books- cover design, word of mouth, reading the first page or a random interior page, other?
In my experience the cover has a lot to do with which books go out and which don’t. Since I updated our copies of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Series, which had 1970s era covers (the books were still in great shape, by the way, despite being loved by hundreds of students over the 35 years the library housed them), the books have been in almost constant circulation. Same thing with the Box Car series. So much for not judging a book by its cover…
But just as important is another child/classmate’s recommendation. I can stand there talking up a book until I’m blue in the face, and get blank stares, until another student who I have managed to entice to read the story steps in to second my recommendation. Many kids are happy to take my word for the story’s worth, but when a friend recommends one, it’s gold. I suppose the last thing a potential reader looks at is the jacket copy or the back cover’s description. It has to be intriguing and come almost to spoiling the story. Of course every publisher and writer knows the importance of a hook…I’m here to tell you they really, really work.
What surprises you about your students’ selections?
I must admit I take a great deal of time finding a book to meet my students tastes. I know who likes to cry, or who likes a fast paced adventure, or a mystery with just the right amount of puzzle to decipher. I don’t carry a lot of the really short, quick read series because they take up a lot of shelf space and kids go through them so fast I can’t keep them in the library long enough for them to check out the next one when they are ready. But because of the school’s demographics, most parents are happy to keep their children in reading material, so I am off the hook about purchasing those. But what surprises me is that even when I think I’ve figured out a kid’s preference, it changes, Which is great because then I have a whole new pile to recommend. I love watching a student venture off the mainstream into a new genre. It makes my job more interesting and keeps me thinking.
How do you go about steering kids to a just right book?
I use all the usual tricks: a five finger rule, grade level, and asking them what books he or she recently read and really loved. I also ask which books they hated and why, so I don’t offer those up, but it also helps me narrow down their tastes. Sometimes, when I get an especially tough reader, I ask what they like to watch on television or what video games they play. That helps me focus on the kind of things that keep them interested and focused over longer periods of time, and it really surprises kids when the Librarian asks about things most teachers don’t. Also, I’ve found, that students who wouldn’t touch a serious piece of fiction with a ten-foot pole, will often read some of the most intense nonfiction or biographies. They might not like to fight through a made-up story, but give them one about real people facing real obstacles and you’ve reeled them in.
I suppose the only other trick I use is to ask them to tell me if they could write a book, what would it be about. I try very hard to come up with one that matches their interests whether it be pirates and battles or pink hearts and dinosaurs.
What are some of your current favorites?
Anything by Kathi Appelt or Kate DiCamillo. I love The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp because it combines wit and adventure with an environmental message. Any time a book is both entertaining and makes a kid think, is great. Of course Rick Riordan is a perennial favorite. Recently, the 39 Clues series and The Seven Wonders series have been popular. Although I try to read new things each year, a few I go back to regularly are Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, and Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud Not Buddy. I also loved this year’s Newbery Winner, Flora and Ulysses, and Clair Vanderpool’s Navigating Early. Two of my favorite sleepers are Christopher Healy’s The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom and The Hero’s Guide to Storming Your Castle. They are hilarious. Also, Grace Lin’s books are very popular, and Kekla Magoon’s, Walter Dean Myers’s, and Rita William’s Garcia’s books go out all the time. For older students, John Green.
Is setting aside time for read aloud important for middle grade readers?
Everybody loves to be read to. I especially love it when after a few minutes of reading, I’ll look up and the squirmy, fidgeting middle schooler who I have had my eye on is suddenly fully engaged, completely still, listening with his or her mouth open. You gotta love a story that can do that.
Louise is the author of the action packed upper middle-grade/YA thriller HEIR OF THE JAGUAR. Hailed by Kirkus for “nail-biting suspense” and “tight, sharp and intelligent” prose, it’s great for daring advanced readers who aren’t afraid to be a little bit scared when they read. JAGUAR was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award and is now available as a graphic novel.
Tami Lewis Brown is all for nail-biting suspense… as long as it stays on the page. She’s now working on a middle-grade murder mystery with a historic twist.