The Power of Sharing Stories in Stacks

By Kate Messner, Guest Blogger 

Book talking and individualized book recommendations are key to sustaining a classroom where every student is a reader. I’ve been out of the classroom four years now but will never forget sharing my beloved favorites with students. I remember clutching Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me and telling my seventh graders, “This book has my favorite ending of any book ever.” I recall book talking Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind with the novel in one hand and a box of Kleenex in the other. I knew anyone who signed out the book would want the tissues, too. I remember hands shooting into the air after I book talked Monster by Walter Dean Myers. Half the class was so desperate to sign it out first that I had to go buy more copies.
But maybe even more than those public book talks, I remember the one-on-one sessions when I recommended titles to readers who hadn’t found the right book just yet, or readers who were too consumed with something else to think about choosing a new novel. My favorite strategy in those session was book-talking by the stack. 
Sometimes I’d know that a great new book’s main character shared common ground with my student in terms of ethnicity or background. Sometimes I’d read a great middle grade or young adult novel that dealt with tough issues like poverty or abuse or addiction and recognize that a student might be struggling with some of the same never-talked-about challenges at home. A librarian quietly told me this summer that she’d like to recommend my own novel The Seventh Wish to students who have a family member struggling with addiction, but she wasn’t sure how to do that without making it awkward and uncomfortable for both the reader and the recommender.
I could relate to her discomfort. It reminded me of a student I taught years ago who had just moved to our small town from a larger city. His older brother was in prison for a gang-related crime, and he didn’t like to read. Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers was sitting on my shelf. I knew my new student might connect with its main character, but it would have been presumptuous to assume that he wanted to read about a situation that mirrored his own so closely. The answer, I found, was in book talking by the stack- recommending a pile of titles at once and leaving the student to peruse them before making a selection. I chose a wide mix of titles that I thought might interest him. Scorpions was in that pile, but so were Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, Cracker: The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata, Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. He chose the Wimpy Kid book, read it during our silent reading time, and took it home. The next day, he came back and asked if he could sign out “one of of those other books.” I pulled the pile back out and left it on his desk. He took Scorpions home that night and never brought it back until the school year ended. In his end-of-the-year reading reflection essay, he told me it was the first book he ever read all the way by himself. “It was pretty good, too,” he added.
Sometimes, readers facing tough situations at home want a book that portrays a character in a similar situation. In those situations, the right book at the right time can show readers they’re not alone, that other people can and do survive what they’re going through, and that they can be resilient, too. But sometimes, those readers in crisis just need a story that lets them forget for a while – something funny like Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoga books or Rachel Renée Russell’s Dork Diary series, an action-packed heist story like Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist, or a spine-tingling adventure like Tracey Baptiste's The Jumbies.  Sometimes, they want to read books with lots of drama of a different variety -- someone else handling a family crisis, but in a way that’s less familiar and little less raw to read about. No matter how in tune we are with our kids, we can only guess what a reader might want or need at any given time.
The solution? Ask, “What are you in the mood for? Something funny? Exciting? Realistic? Scary? Sad? Adventurous? Mysterious?” That gives readers the opportunity to request titles in certain genres and to rule out some kinds of books. Sometimes, I asked that question as a teacher and heard the answer, “Not sad.” As a book talker, that’s my cue to reach for some of the lighter hearted titles on my shelf and keep the books that mirror the tougher parts of that reader’s life tucked away for another day.
Often, we ask “What are you in the mood for?” and get a simple shrug in response. In those situations, I found that it’s wonderful to have a diverse pile of books ready to go. If you’d like to offer Alex Gino’s George to a student who might be dealing with gender identity issues, or Jacqueline Woodson’s I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This to a student with a history of abuse, recommending those books in the context of a bigger, wider book-talk can bring about awareness in a less personal, non-threatening way. The stack-of-books book talk is especially great for schools that serve only a few readers from marginalized groups. The one Korean American student in your class might love to know about Mike Jung's Unidentified Suburban Object, and a Chinese American student might be wishing for a book like Lisa Yee's Millicent Min, Girl Genius. Book talking those titles to the whole class or offering them to the reader within a stack of book options is a great way to recommend without making the student feel singled out. 

Book talking by the stack opens up so many possibilities and makes it possible for us to talk about titles that students might otherwise miss. I found that my students who were overwhelmed by an entire shelf full of choices felt special when I’d suggested a particular pile of books “just for you.” That way, the options are less overwhelming, but the student is still empowered as a reader by making their own choice. This allows teachers and librarians to suggest a wide range of titles, including some that might have sensitive topics, because as reader-leaders, we know that recommending the right book at the right time always gives a child a literary boost. Sometimes, it can provide a lifeline for a reader, too.

About Kate: 

Kate Messner is the author of more than two dozen current & forthcoming books for kids. Her titles include OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW (Chronicle), the Marty McGuire and Ranger in Time chapter book series, the Silver Jaguar Society Mysteries (Scholastic), and novels like WAKE UP MISSING and ALL THE ANSWERS (Bloomsbury). A former middle school English teacher, Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her family. She loves reading and spending time outside.

Twitter: @KateMessner