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How School Librarians Create Summer Reading Lists

I’m excited to have my friend Sarah Chessman stop by today to talk about creating a summer reading list. Sarah is the librarian at Wellesley Middle School (and a food blogger) who puts together three summer reading lists every year. Here’s how she does it.

What’s the first step in creating a summer reading list?

Required summer reading can be a controversial topic. Some teachers don’t think we should have any summer requirements and others think they should be a lot more stringent than they are. When I first started working at my current job, the summer reading lists were very small, about ten books per grade, and the students had to choose one or two off of the list.  In my opinion, that wasn’t good enough.

When I go about creating my summer reading list, I want it to provide a huge number of options. My goal is to put on good books, but also fun books.  Sometimes I am willing to sacrifice quality in favor of entertainment, but I try to find titles that will meet both of those qualifiers.   In part, this helps make sure reluctant readers will be able to find something that appeals, and also students who like to read have lots of great choices to keep them busy all summer long.

To accomplish this, I’ve changed our little summer reading lists to monster summer reading lists.  I break the lists down into 10 categories and put five books into each category.  The categories are new releases, classics, non-fiction, historical fiction, realistic fiction, fantasy/science-fiction, humor, mystery/adventure, graphic novels, and sports.  Coming up with three 50-book lists is a bit of a trial, but I get really excited about them as I get going.

The first thing I do when I break out the list for the year is look at the titles on the list from last year.  I don’t have any formal assessment of what students chose to read from the summer before, so a lot of my decision making is purely based on instinct.  I think about which of the summer titles I’ve seen being checked out a lot during the school year and which ones I haven’t seen any interest in at all. Another step in the beginning is to go through the lists and take out anything teachers have begun to use in classes.  We ran a big reading program this year with the eighth graders that I hope to repeat in the future.  A lot of the titles from that program were on the reading list for entering eighth grade, so I had to remove them and replace them with other options.  

Once the list has been whittled down, I can see where there are holes and start wracking my brain for things I think will be good fillers.  This year, I’ve tried to go back to my youth to pull out some books that aren’t brand new, but are good options as a hope that students will find things they might not otherwise be attracted to.  Besides that, I rely on my resources to find good titles to fill the holes with.  We do a lot of collaboration with Wellesley Books, so I can always call on them for ideas, and my friends and colleagues in the writing community always have suggestions as well.

Are there books you come back to year after year? Why do these titles work so well?

There are some books that stay on the list because I know they’re popular, and also some titles I keep on because they’re just that good.  I also struggle to make sure my lists are diverse, both in the ethnicity and characteristics of authors, and coverage of diverse topics.  Then I have to take the gender of the readers into consideration.  I can’t have only sports books about boys the same way I can’t stuff the realistic fiction full of pink books about teen heartbreak (even though I might want to).  Certain authors, like Walter Dean Myers, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Rick Riordan are list-regulars.  Books like The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and Nory Ryan’s Song by Patricia Reilly Giff have been on the lists forever because they’re excellent examples of their genres.

The section I find to be the most fun is always the new books.  I put anything in there that has been published within the last six or eight months and like to mix genres.  These are fun because I get to talk to my friends in the industry about what I should read and then share the titles I’m excited about with my students. 

What are the unique challenges of finding books for grades six through eight?

The hardest thing about finding books for this age group is the range in maturity among students.  Middle school is a time when there is a huge range among students from a reading-level perspective as well as interest-level.  I struggle with the entering sixth grade list the most because those students are really still fifth graders.  From a personal perspective, I read a lot more upper YA than upper middle-grade, so I am less familiar with the titles I want to put on the list for them.

I also probably aim a little bit high on the eighth grade list, mostly because these are the titles I’m most excited about.  I have to remember that an entering-eighth grader is a totally different beast from an exiting-eighth grader, which is what I am surrounded with when I am making the actual list.  Part of the appeal of putting so many books on the list is that I can make sure I am putting something on for everyone.

Seventh graders are a mixed bag.  Seventh grade is typically where we lose male readers, so I really try to but books on that I think will appeal to boys.  You also have girls who want to be reading Twilight mixed in with those who are rereading Anne of Green Gables for the 100th time.  Authors like Jordan Sonnenblick and Ally Carter have been my heroes when it comes to the seventh grade list because I know they’re going to put out good quality, appropriate titles that will appeal to that age group.

What kind of responses do you get from teachers and students about the books on the list?

I am lucky enough to work with teachers who trust my instincts. They are usually not only supportive of the titles I choose for the list, but excited to read as many of them as they can. Teachers are super busy people and I know the 50-book summer reading list I dive into head first is not as high a priority for them as it is for me. When I can grab them, or when they do provide feedback, I definitely take it as gospel. They’re the ones working with the students on a day-to-day basis; they know what they’re reading. I had a teacher email me just this morning saying that she was sad to see Because of Mr. Terupt wasn’t going to be back on the list this year because she loved it so much. So, with a few shifts, I found a place for it.

I don’t talk to students as much about the books on the list as I would like to. Mostly, I hear from my enthusiastic readers, but they like everything, so they’re not always the ones I want to be getting input from. It is incredibly satisfying though when the lists come out and students come in to take out some of the books or tell me which ones they’re looking forward to reading.

Is there a type of book that you’re always on the lookout for?

I could say good books, but that would be obvious. I’m really on the lookout for things that will appeal to students. I book-talk the summer reading list to parents and community members every spring and have fun defending titles like Angus, Thongs, and Full-frontal Snogging. This year I’ve added Au Revoir Crazy European Chick, that should be another one that gets a few odd looks. As I mentioned before, my number one goal is to get kids to read. I don’t care if they’re reading Jane Austen or Cassandra Clare, if they’re finding books they can’t put down, I’ve done my job!

Once my lists are finalized, they’ll be up on my library website: www.wmslibrary.com.  And if you’re local and want to come hear me talk about them, check the library calendar for a finalized date.

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Thank you, Anna and Sarah! What a fascinating window into those summer reading lists, and all the care and thought that goes into them.

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