Top Ten Books to Start a Classroom Library (Plus Ten More)

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By Julie Lucash and Sarah Donovan

As junior high English teachers, we see the implications of elementary programs like Accelerated Reader and practices like reading logs on students’ reading habits. Kids who once raced to the school library to read piles of picture books, who were once so proud to read those chapter books now, as young teenagers, have lost their faith in books.

As junior high English teachers, we see how the push to standardize curriculum and prepare for tests has us spending more time in meetings and reviewing data than reading the latest young adult novels. We ask students to be “readers,” but are we even keeping up with the latest titles or up-and-coming authors? This school year, we wanted to do something for our students and ourselves to make reading class, well, about the power and joy of reading again. We wanted students to find their way back to books this year. We wanted to find our way back to books this year — to be readers again.

The first step was for us to read– to find great books. The second step was to bring new titles into our classroom library, which meant finding deals, applying for grants, and, quite honestly, spending our own money. The third step was to make time in class for students to read. At first, it wasn’t easy. Students were not used to selecting books for themselves, to asking teachers and peers for recommendations, to reading for any length of time. Gradually, however, students began to look forward to that quiet time in class to read, and on the days when new books would arrive, you’d think it was Christmas.

We became readers again– real readers who knew when new books were coming out, who knew which titles should go to which students, who had to-read lists going of our own, who found pockets of time in our busy lives to read – a lot. This post is to share the best of what we read this year. So if you want to bring your middle school readers back to those days when they’d ask for reading time or say I loved this book, we recommend starting with these ten books (plus ten more). (Please, please read these books before you put them in the hands of your students.) We hope you will share some of your favorites with us, which we will add to our summer reading list!

Julie’s Top Five

Every reading teacher begins the school year with the same common goal– to make his or her students better readers. As we all know, this is no easy task, especially when faced with students who would much rather pick up their PS4 consoles than a book.  I realized that the best way to improve their skills was to first improve their attitude toward reading with my primary goal being  that they would end the year liking reading even a tiny bit more than they did at the beginning.  To do so, I knew I needed to build up my somewhat weak classroom library without breaking the bank.  In the past year, I have added over 400 books to my personal library thanks to the bargain bin at Reading Warehouse where I have come across some fantastic titles at unbeatable prices.  My top five are all books that both my students and I have loved — all discovered in the bargain bin, all purchased for under $3 each.

see you at harrys

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

Any teenager who has ever felt like the outcast in his or her family will immediately relate to this novel. While everyone in her family is wrapped up in their own lives, 12-year-old Fern often feels alone and resents that she must constantly take care of Charlie, her 3-year-old brother.  When tragedy strikes, her family is torn even further apart, making Fern feel more alone than ever. This is one of those rare YA books that found myself unable to “get over” quickly. I actually wanted to abandon it in the middle because it touched me so deeply, but I am glad that I continued because the way that Knowles tied it all up at the end was beautiful, and my students agreed. They loved it and every single one of them said she cried.

Small as an Elephant

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

My students say that there must be something wrong with me because I always choose stories and books that are sad, and the foundation of this narrative is no exception.  As one of my students incredulously asked, “What kind of mother just leaves her son at a campground!?”  However, Jack’s attitude and determination are uplifting, and you find yourself rooting attached to and rooting for this boy to find his way home. Students shared that they found this book a quick read because there was a lot of action and they couldn’t put it down; they HAD to know what was going to happen to Jack. I find the majority of YA novels to be quite predictable, but there was a significant twist in the ending that I found surprising and satisfying.

A Monster

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

After reading review after review praising this book, I took a chance and ordered a class set. I am so glad that I did.  I have read many young adult books that depict the protagonist dealing with loss and grief, but the creative mix of fantasy and reality brings the character’s struggles to life in a way that is unique to this type of novel. The beautiful and heartbreaking story will engage readers of varying levels and interests. There is both an illustrated version (covered depicted above) and a non-illustrated version. I highly recommend purchasing the illustrated if you have the option as it really brings the story to life for the reader.

When I Was

When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

I know that students judge books by their covers, so when purchasing books, this is the first thing I consider. Luckily, the merits of this novel extend beyond its cover art. This book tells the story of Ali, a teenaged boy who is trying to stay on the right path and avoid the negative influences of his neighborhood. This is one of the few books for which I have actually had to create a waitlist at different points this year.  While many were first drawn in by the cover image, students stuck with the book because of the humor and story of friendship. This book also features one of the most younique characters I have ever come across in a YA novel– Needles, who learned to control his Tourette’s syndrome tics by knitting.

Little Fish

Little Fish by Ramsey Beyer

I was hesitant about purchasing a memoir of Beyer’s first year of college for my 7th graders but was pleasantly surprised to find an appropriate and relatable story about taking chances and creating your own identity. The story was visually appealing to students as it is told through a mix of comics, lists, letters, and diary entries.  Many students who have been slow to finish books this year finished it in just a few days and thoroughly enjoyed it, asking me if I had any other books with similar formats.

Sarah’s Top Five

I started this school year with a grant to bring in contemporary titles that were written by diverse authors and included diverse subjects and narrators. I consulted We Need Diverse Books authors and resources to develop the book list. I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisper and Penny Kittle’s Book Love for guidance in setting up our seventh grade classroom library and reading workshop. To keep it simple, I make time everyday for three activities:1) Students read every day selecting books they want to read alone or in a book group. 2) We write about what we read. 3) We talk about what we read reflecting on the ways these books work as mirrors to our own lives and windows into lives unfamiliar or distant from our own. These are some of the books students have loved.

Everything, Everything

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

This is a story about Maddy, a girl allergic to the world, and how her mother protects her from that world. It is also a story about Olly, the boy who moves in next door, who finds a way to be friends Maddy. It is a story about what we risk for those we love and how we find the courage to be in a world that just might hurt us. I have four copies of this in the classroom for book groups. The first book group finished this book in a week; the second book group did the same. Now the set is dispersed among other students who heard all the buzz. If you check out the review of this book on Disability KidLit, you can read about the reasons this book can be problematic, but read the book first (because the review has a spoiler).

A Time to Dance

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

I heard Venkatraman speak at NCTE, Minnesota this year and had to read the book. It is a book in verse, a story of a dancer who loses a leg in a an accident but finds a way to dance again. It is a story of resilience, but is also a story that reminds us what it means to be good at something and why we love what we love. Boys and girls read this book and enjoyed it. There is a cultural dimension of this that moved students to do inquiry into bharatanatyam dance and India. Some students even wanted to learn more about prosthetic design.

All American Boys

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

This is one book that I think everyone should read as it deals with the very serious of police brutality and the social conditions that prompted the Black Lives Matter movement. There are two narrators — one black, one white. Jason Reynolds writes from Rashad’s point of view, a boy hospitalized after an “incident” with a police officer. Brendan Kiely writes from Quinn’s point of view, a boy who witnesses the officer beating Rashad. Quinn is an outsider, an observer. This book explores race relations but it is also about basketball and team loyalty. One boy read it in one night and said it was the best book he read this year.

Words With Wings

Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes

After I read this book, I bought four copies for the classroom. Students can read this book in one or two class periods, so it was passed around a lot this year.  This is a verse novel about Gabby, a day-dreamer who gets in trouble for escaping into her dream world at home or at school. The day dreams began as a safe place to go when her parents argued, but when she moved to a new home and school (without her father), she also day-dreamed to assuage her worries about making friends. One teacher helps her turn those dreams into poetry. This book celebrates the dreamers in our world.

El Deafo

El Deafo  by Cece Bell

At first, I thought this book might be too elementary for my middle school students, but after the first student told me she loved it, I bought a few more copies (now they are all missing). This is a graphic memoir about Cece transitioning from an all deaf school to a school where she is the only one with a hearing aid strapped to her chest: the Phonic Ear that helps her hear her teachers. The hook with this book is the part where Cece discovers she can hear her teacher going to the bathroom — ah, the power to spy on teachers! But this book is really about making friends and figuring out the meaning of a true friend.

Ten More Tiles

And here’s ten more titles: Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton, All Rise for the Honorable Percy T. Cook by Leslie Connor, Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt, Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1 by Willow Wilson, Make Lemonade (Trilogy) by Virginia Euwer Wolff, Miracle’s Boys by Jacqueline Woodson, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Where I Belong by Mary Downing Hahn, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson.ten more titles


Bringing Joy-Reading Back

Before you start your summer break, think about how you might make time for reading in your classroom next year. Here are four tips for bringing reading back:

  1. Make time to read: Some people find it easiest to begin class each day with fifteen minutes of reading and then transition to whole class instruction.  Others might read a few days for longer periods of time. Find what works for you and your students and stick to it.
  2. Have book-release days: When new books arrive, it’s like Christmas morning. It’s a toss up of who is more excited- the students or us. When you get new books that you haven’t read, try to read a few quickly and then talk them up to students.  Maybe you had a student in mind when ordering a book. Tell that student (although they may not show it, students are touched by this) and then offer to read it along with him or her. When you get a lot of new titles, it’s impossible to read them all before releasing to students. Ask if any students want to preview it for the class and then share their thoughts. Students get excited to become a part of the process. We’ve have actually had students ask to stay in at lunch to help us label new books.
  3. Try exit slips: Start class with reading every day. After students read, have them complete an exit slip and set it aside as you move on to your lesson or activity for the day. On the way out, collect the exit slip making sure everyone wrote something. Before class the next day, read through the exit slips — 10 minute tops. The next day, while students are reading, use the exit slips as a starting point for conferences: “tell me more about what’s going on in your book,” “how might what you noticed yesterday change things for the character.” Another way to use exit slips is as tools to assess whether or not students are grasping concepts being explored in class lessons. Have students apply those skills to the books that they are reading. For example, for figurative language, ask the students to write a simile to describe a character or use hyperbole to exaggerate the conflict.
  4. Feature books in classroom: Prominently display books that relate to content being covered in class for students who wish to further extend their study into their independent reading. Have mini-book talks for some of these titles. During a poetry unit, create a section of your library featuring verse novels. If you read The Outsiders whole-class, display S.E. Hinton’s other titles like Rumblefish and That Was Then, This Is Now, along with other similar coming-of-age novels.

Do you have other tips for bringing back the joy of reading? Do you have sure-thing titles or favorites we should add to our summer reading lists? Please tell us about it.

2 Replies to “Top Ten Books to Start a Classroom Library (Plus Ten More)”

    1. I think Little Fish is a memoir (recommended by Julie). Can you suggest a few titles? I will test them out on my 7th graders and report back.

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