Book Talk Tuesdays

We read a lot in my class. NEWS FLASH, right?

People ask me how I get my students to all read so much, and the answer is simple: I give them books and time to read them. I wrote about ways to help kids find the right book in an article over at The Educator’s Room. But the best way to get titles to them regularly is to do Book Talks.

Every Tuesday I choose two books to share with my classes. Usually they are titles I’ve read, but sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are ones that are my To Read List and I want to share with them why I want to read them in hopes someone else will want to too. And sometimes I grab books I have no interest in either because it’s outside my taste or usual genre, but I know the book is one that is popular and that not all my students share my taste.

Each of my students also have a sheet to write down the titles of the books they hear that they may be interested in checking out some day.

I’ll be honest, some Tuesdays it seems like I’m talking to the desks; however, this morning during first hour, after I announced that it was Book Talk Tuesday, a kid said, “Oh good! Book Talk Tuesday is my favorite day of the week!”

Ok, so my first reaction was skepticism; I questioned him because I thought he was kidding. Turns out he was absolutely serious. “No, really, Mrs. Sluiter. I love it when you get all excited about books. It’s great.”

The photo above is what I book talked today: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Random Riggs and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. I chose today’s books because they are ones I have “alternative” options for reading. For both I have the audio version available, and for the Riggs novel, I also have the graphic novel version (plus it’s a first in a series, and kids love a good series).

By the end of the day, everything was checked out and in the hands of eager students.

And you know what? I remembered that Book Talk Tuesday is my favorite day of the week too.

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Donate to my classroom library here.

YA for Beginners

My classroom door is always open (quite literally because it gets really warm in there in the morning) to anyone coming in to observe me. Because of this policy, I’ve had fellow teachers stop by, but I have also had college students/teachers-in-training and student teachers come through my door as well. I welcome them all because I enjoy the wonderings and questions I get from each of them. I love to see my class and my teaching through the eyes of someone else so I can stay fresh and always keep “why do that?” in my mind.

That said, one of the biggest draws to my classroom is my library. I’ve got about a thousand titles that I’ve painstakingly collected through my own purchases and many many many donations. Everyone wants to lay eyes on this glorious wall-o-books, and the question that is always asked is, “what would you suggest to get first? If I was going to start a library, what books are good ones to start with?”

This answer changes every year as new books come out and student interest changes, but I think I can make a Top Twenty Starter Pack list for anyone wanting to either start a classroom library, or start reading YA Lit for the first time.

Here is my list in no particular order (keeping in mind that I am cheating a bit and just naming authors so I can cover more than just twenty. What? I’m addicted!).

  1. Winger by Andrew Smith (and then Standoff because it’s the sequel. And then, well, let’s just put Andrew Smith books at the top of the list. But read Winger first.)
  2. Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
  3. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  4. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (ok, again, just read everything he’s written, but this is his newest and it’s incredible)
  5. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
  6. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (she is another one that you should just invest in all her books)
  7. Me, Earl, & The Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews (seriously inappropriately funny)
  8. Lily & Dunkin by Donna Gephart
  9. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina
  10. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  11. La Linea by Ann Jaramillo
  12. A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
  13. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (again…just get everything she’s written)
  14. Everything Walter Dean Myers has written, but specifically get Monster- both the novel and the graphic novel
  15. Yummy by G Neri
  16. All of Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels
  17. Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
  18. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
  19. Any (or all) of the Blueford High Books–kids LOVE them because they are accessible and high interest. I suggest starting with Brothers in Arms
  20. Wonder by RJ Palacio

Oh gosh…I really could keep going. This is really just a very small start. Other authors you should really read include Ellen Hopkins, Matt de la Pena, Ibi Zoboi, Neil Shusterman, and so SO many more.

Happy reading!

Feeling Like a Phony

Our new Sunday routine for the fall has me driving separately to church and leaving after the service while the kids go to Children in Worship (our church’s version of Sunday School) and Cortney stays back to count (he’s a deacon) or go visit his grandma and then picking the kids up.

I don’t leave to go take a nap–although today I was very tempted to do just that–I run any errands and then take my Chromebook and any school work or writing deadlines I have and head to our Barnes & Noble cafe section and work for a couple hours.

I’ve been delighted to notice that there is a whole crew of regulars here including the most adorable elderly couple who seems to be arriving after church for some coffee and chit chat. Even the barista must have this as her regular schedule. Today she said, “Oh welcome back. are you going to be one of our new regulars?” I smiled and said, “Probably. I’m more productive here than in a house full of kids.”

As she was ringing up my order I complimented her on the tattoo of a beautiful ship on her arm. She asked why I had “Write.” on my arm. “Are you a writer?” I fumbled. This isn’t the first time I have been asked this since getting that ink on my arm.

“Um, well, I write a lot, and um…I’m actually an 8th grade English teacher. But I’ve been blogging for ten years…and, well…I have been published a couple places and I guess that makes me a writer.”

I winced in my head. I have the word permanently on my arm and I seem so unsure of it when asked.

“What are you writing right now?” She asked me with clear curiosity.

“Um, well, I’ve been working on my statement for my PhD application and I have a chapter in a book I am writing…a book about teaching. I’m writing about teaching a certain book with a grief focus. I’m not sure it will be included, but I want to use it because I need a ten-page writing sample for my application too. So nothing, like, for publication, but yeah.”

OH MY GOSH. I internally rolled my eyes at myself. What is wrong with me?

“That is really awesome! A PhD! Then everyone can call you Doctor! So cool! Good luck!”

I shrunk into myself and hid myself in a corner table. I immediately decided to grade essays because I had NO idea to revise my statement, and I don’t actually know where to start with the book chapter, and WHO DO I THINK I AM?

A total phony, that’s who.

I am in one of those funks where I have this paranoid feeling that I have people snowed; that they think I can write these wonderful things, but in fact I am a terrible writer. I sent a draft to a friend recently and I am surprised–no, SHOCKED–she still thinks I have it in me not just to do this writing thing, but to get a higher degree in English education and teach other people to do this stuff.

I have doubts, is what I’m saying.

Today I do not feel like I can do it.

Today I feel like an impostor.

Today I feel like I have nothing together.

So I’m going to pack it up for today, but I will try again next week. Because I made this commitment and even if I totally blow it, I have to try.

Three Middle Grade Books Dealing With Loss

I’ve never been drawn to middle grade books. I think by the time middle grade literature actually became good, I was an adult. It took me long enough to realize YA lit was fabulous, and as my friend Trisha says, I seem to not trust people’s opinions and have to experience stuff on my own…slowly.

Over the past year, I read three middle grade books that I really wanted to share. They all deal with loss to a certain degree that is age-appropriate and encourages discussion and critical thinking. Plus they are all beautifully written.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D Schmidt

middle grade books

In January, we had Gary D Schmidt visit the junior high where I teach. All 8th and 9th graders read his book Orbiting Jupiter in preparation. Because I knew I would be teaching it, I read it in two sittings the summer before school started.

The story is told from 6th grader Jack’s point of view. His family takes in 8th grader Joseph as a foster kid. Joseph has had a sorted past: he has an abusive father, no mother, and somewhere out there, a daughter. He has been in and out of juvenile detention centers and it seems Jack’s family is his last shot.

Like I said, it’s a quick read, but a powerful one. I sat in our front yard when I was finishing it. As I sat in my bag chair under our front tree, tears streamed down my face as I closed the book. I walked into the house and my husband said, “Aw. Did you finish your book?” I nodded. “Did you come in the house so the neighbor kids playing Pokemon Go wouldn’t see you crying in the front yard?” I nodded again.

Orbiting Jupiter was easily my students’ favorite book of the school year, and they read a lot of book! We read three together as a class and they read a minimum of five more on their own, yet this one came up over and over again as we talked and discussed themes, characters, etc.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

middle grade booksIn November I went to the NCTE and ALAN conferences that were held in Atlanta, and received a TON of free YA and Middle Grade books. After finding The Thing About Jellyfish in my pile and hearing Ali Benjamin speak about writing about loss, I knew this one needed to be on my To Read pile.

My only regret is that I waited until summer to read it rather than reading it during the school year so I could book talk it; it sat untouched on my classroom library shelves all year.

That will change this year!

Told from 7th grader Suzy’s point of view, The Thing About Jellyfish is about the loss of friendship and the death of a classmate. When Suzy finds out her former best friend drowns, she decides to quit talking. She also becomes obsessed with jellyfish. The story is perfect for middle grade readers, but it’s also beautifully written prose that any age can find meaning in, like when Suzy thinks about how things are changing with her best friend:

I think about my hair, about the tangles I battle every morning. I have spent so many hours of my life trying to brush out tangles. But no matter how carefully I try to to pull the individual strands apart, they just get tighter and tighter. They cinch together in all the worst ways, until they are impossible to straighten out. Sometimes there is nothing to be done but to get out a pair of scissors and cut the knot right out.

But how do you cut out a knot that’s formed by people?

Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart

middle grade booksThis one was suggested to me by a student. It’s another one that I received at ALAN and although I hadn’t read it yet, I put it out with my LBGTQ display. It was quickly picked up and loved and recommended to me.

This is a dual narrative book and almost reads like both Lily and Dunkin are writing in a diary of sorts. Lily begins the book. She is a girl who was born with boy parts. She is going into the 8th grade and hoping the bullying and harassment stop this year. She is hoping her parents agree to getting her hormone blockers. She struggles with being Tim at school, but knowing she is really Lily.

Dunkin is the new kid in town. He and his mom moved down to Florida to live with his Grandma (who he calls Bubbie) after something happened with his dad who struggles with bipolar disorder. Dunkin’s real name is Norbert, but he hates that name. Dunkin also struggles with bipolar disorder, but doesn’t want anyone to know about it. He just wants to fit in for once and he thinks he has found the way to do that: by joining the basketball team. The problem is, if he wants to be popular and well-liked, he can’t be seen hanging out with Lily. They both have a secret and are not sure they can trust each other.

All three of these books are quick reads; I think I read each in just two or three days. But they each really stick with you. They all have an element of loss in the form of death, but they also deal with loss of friends and the naive childhood that is enjoyed before the turbulent middle school years.

I’m excited to be able to book talk these right off the bat when we start school in a few weeks.

 

The Recovery Letters

recovery letters

It’s been over seven years since my original postpartum depression diagnosis and over ten years since my general anxiety disorder diagnosis. Since that time, I’ve tried my best to be open and honest about my struggles while celebrating the victories of living with a variety of mood disorders.

I don’t always feel great about the stuff I admit online; in fact, I feel very vulnerable letting people know that I don’t always love being a mom and that there are days that I struggle to find anything joyful. However, I know what it’s like to feel alone.

Flipping through social media is a great way to stay connected, but it can also create a feeling of being left out, being alone. The images people put out there are carefully curated to look like their best life. I totally get that. I am guilty of that too. But I have also always tried to put the not-so-perfect stuff out there; because really, my life is very much not perfect.

I want people to know that they are not alone, but also that things can–and do–get better.

Two years ago I was honored to be included in an anthology of personal essays specifically about Postpartum Mood Disorders. When I first sat in my doctor’s office, I had a really false idea of what PMDs looked like, and it’s always been my goal to put a face on these disorders for others.

This summer I am honored to be included in another collection, this time of letters addressed to all sorts of people who suffer from depression.  One of the editors, James Withey, approached me because he wanted PPD represented.

recovery letters

The result is a collection of letters edited by James and his partner Olivia Sagan called The Recovery Letters: Addressed to People Experiencing Depression. Along with my letter are many, many others that are encouraging and uplifting and filled with hope. The message is loud: you are not alone.

The book will be officially released on Friday, July 21, but you can pre-order on Amazon. If you suffer from depression, this is a fantastic book to have on hand to flip through during your tough times. If you know anyone who suffers, this would make a lovely gift when you know they need a little extra hug.

Suffering from depression makes me vulnerable, but not ashamed. I am honored that I have been offered so many opportunities to put my words to good use to let others know it is a survivable disease.

Other anthologies I have been included in:

Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience (2015)
My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends (2014)
Three Minus One: Stories of Parents’ Love and Loss (2014)

*None of the links in this post are affiliate. I gain no monetary compensation for sharing these books with you.

A Decade of Words

Ten years ago today I opened up a new blogspot account and started Sluiter Nation. All of our closest friends had moved out of state, so I thought maybe having a “website” to post pictures would be a good way to keep everyone up-to-date.

I’ve been consistently (sometimes more consistently than others) putting my words here. They range from the mundane (updates and giveaways and some product reviews) to the deeply personal.

I believe this blog made me the writer/teacher I am today.

This little blog of mine reunited with me with a high school friend named Emily (formerly known as DesignHER Momma) who had moved to Indianapolis. She connected me with Indy bloggers like Casey (Moosh in Indy) and to Curvy Girls like Brittany Herself who made me want to write better. They also showed me BlogHer.

Emily’s honesty helped me recognize I had postpartum depression after Eddie was born.

That led me to all the Warrior Moms.

I started to write very honestly about my struggles.

I went to BlogHer. I tried to find myself as a blogger for a long time. I did product reviews occasionally, giveaways here and there, and tried to separated my writing and teaching lives.

It wasn’t until after Charlie was born that I realized that my writing and teaching actually fit better together than trying to be a mom blogger.

It was also during this time that some of my personal essays about my struggle with my mental health were published in anthologies. I started to realize that maybe I have a gift. I’m not a best-selling author–nor will I ever be–but I have the ability to put my thoughts into print.

I started to read Young Adult Literature and become passionate about my career in a way I never did before. I began writing for Education sites, (currently I write for The Educator’s Room). Friends and colleagues encouraged me to write about my teaching experiences and research for education journals.

Now I am in the process of applying to a new graduate program to get my PhD in English Education.

Wednesday I was trying to trace back how I got to this place, and I believe it comes back to this space.

I’ve made true friends because of this space. I’ve traveled across the country by myself because of this space. I have taken so many more chances on opportunities that I would have NEVER done because of this space.

On an internet where more and more bloggers are closing up shop, I plan to keep my little space open and chugging along. This is our life right now. It’s who I am right now.

Yay, Ten!

Inked

Much to my mother’s chagrin, I got another tattoo this weekend.

All tattoos have a story, don’t they? Even the ones that are “I just thought it was cute and wanted one because I was in college and being a rebel.” There is always a reason.

Ten years ago a few things happened: I found out I was pregnant, I lost that pregnancy, I started a blog, and I got a tattoo. I would say it was a busy year, but that is pretty much just how our married life has been. Highs and lows with very little in between.

When I started this blog I called it our Family Website. I was going to post photos and write little blurbs about what was going on in our life. I think in the first couple years of this blog’s life I probably only wrote a handful of things that were real and not just superficial “look at this fun day at the beach;” my tattoo post was one of them.

Contrary to what my mom probably thinks, I don’t take permanently “disfiguring” myself lightly (Cortney’s words in jest, not my mom’s). The first time, I tattooed what my students think is a V on my neck. It’s not a V. It’s two things: it’s the Aries sign and it’s also the Egyptian hieroglyphic for “woman.” You can read that post up there for more details, but basically after getting unexpectedly pregnant when I wasn’t sure that I ever wanted babies, then miscarrying that baby (and feeling like it was my fault), Cortney and I realized we wanted to be parents. Women’s bodies are strong, yo. That tattoo was for womanly strength.

Since then I have been writing.

Before I knew I had an anxiety disorder or depression or OCD or needed medication or therapy, I wrote to get it out of my head.

When I was having intrusive thoughts, I wrote them out of my head and then destroyed the evidence.

When I realized that one of my biggest fears in life was being forgotten and lost in time and space, I wrote out my stories.

When I decided to turn all of my passion for reading and writing and education into a PhD program, I wrote articles and journal pieces and conference proposals.

When I wanted my children to know me as I am in this moment, I wrote letters.

When I acted too impulsively or said things without thinking or made an ass of myself, I wrote to apologize.

When I missed or loved or thought of people, I wrote to them.

When I wanted my students to learn to write, I wrote with them.

Writing has kept me alive for the past ten years.

I’m placing my faith in writing to keep me alive forever.

Write.

It’s a command.

Write.

 

 

 

ps. My mom is not really that upset.

pps. Yes she is.

ppps. I love you, mom. Thanks for loving me despite my disfigurement.

Being a More Faithful Family

I would not say that Cortney and I have been excellent role models of what faithful families should look like. In fact, I recently joked with a few people that it seemed like we had given up church for Lent. We had a string of weekends with sick kids, other plans, or both that kept us from our regular Sunday 10am worship, and in turn kept the kids away from their Sunday morning Children in Worship centers.

We are usually regulars on Sunday, and if I am being truthful, I’ve left most of the “teaching” about our Christian faith to church: our pastors, the Children in Worship leaders, and the children’s message during church. I know that is not enough. That if we truly have this faith we say we have, it isn’t just on Sundays.

While I firmly believe our actions and how we treat the earth and who and what are in it are really the mark of our Christianity, talking about it is important too, especially with our kids so they know why we do what we do. As I do with most things, I turned to a book given to me by a close friend: Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments At Home by Traci Smith.

faithful families

The book is divided into three categories: Traditions, Ceremonies, and Spiritual Practices. I went through the entire book in two sittings and put post-it notes on everything I thought would be a good fit for our family. As you can see above, I used a LOT of post-it notes!

I marked the most practices in the Traditions section because I’m looking for ways to make our faith more a part of our every day lives. I like the way each practice is not just explained with a short narrative, but also is laid out in easy to follow steps. Then in the notes part, suggestions are given for making it more or less complex depending on the age of your children.

One thing we have always struggled with is consistently praying as a family. At dinner the boys are pretty good at leading our family prayers, but at night we tend to read books and then just go to sleep. I didn’t want to start the kids reciting memorized rhymes for prayers because I remember just flying through them as a kid and not really thinking about what they meant. I also tried it with Ed when he was little and he got hung up on the “if I die before I wake” and was freaked out for quite some time.

The first thing practice in the book suggests saying a blessing at bedtime. These can be as long as saying, “Eddie, may the peace of God, which is bigger than anything we understand, fill your heart and your mind, and may you know God’s love always. Amen.”  Or it can be as short and simple as “God Bless Alice. Amen.” It can even be part of the bedtime routine for kids to say “God Bless (family member).”

Practices in the book range from simple like a blessing, to more complex and deep ceremonies for things like pet loss, moving, and traumatic events in the news. There are small and large traditions for holidays such as Lent, Pentecost, Christmas, and even birthdays.

Another practice I want to put in place is to somehow mark the changing of the colors of the church calendar. We talk about this a lot in church and I would like to carry that into our lives as well: green for Common Time, purple for Advent and Lent, white for Christmas and Easter, and red for Pentecost. I could just be a small area–a shelf or table–but I think it would help us remember growing/learning, waiting, and celebrating. That there is a time and season for everything.

faithful families

I am really looking forward to putting some of these suggestions into practice to help our kids know why we give and take care of others–that it’s part of our faith to be the hands and feet of Jesus. That our number one reason for being is to love.

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This is not a sponsored post. The link is not an affiliate one. The book was a gift and I loved it, so I wrote about it.

What I Read in 2016

I had this lovely goal of writing something super poignant for my first post of 2017, but man. I am so busy that my brain doesn’t have a lot of space for poignant. So instead, I thought I would do my yearly “What I Read” post.

I took the GoodReads Challenge again, but I set my goal for 35 books. In 2015 I set my goal for 25, but ended up reading 35, so I figured I could do it again. I surpassed the goal handily by reading a total of 44 books! It helps that I love Young Adult Lit and some of those can be read super fast. In fact, it’s only January 6 and I’m already on my second book of the year.

What I Read

Anyway, this is the list of books I read last year in the order I read them. The ones in BOLD are the ones I recommend (although there were only a couple I was “meh” about, so go ahead and check them all out and let me know if you read them and what you think. The ones wit (YA) are young adult lit. (P) are novels that are written in verse/poetry. (N) are nonfiction.

  1. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
  2. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (YA)
  3. Rush by Jonathan Friesen (YA)
  4. Looking for Alaska by John Green (YA)
  5. Somewhere Safe with Someone Good by Jan Karon
  6. Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon
  7. A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (YA) (N)
  8. Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick  (YA)
  9. Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman (YA)
  10. The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle (YA) (P)
  11. My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson (YA)
  12. Far From Home by Na’ima B Robert (YA)
  13. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (YA)
  14. Letters for Scarlet by Julie C. Gardner
  15. The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (N)
  16. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  17. Parrot in the Oven by Victor Martinez (YA)
  18. A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer (YA)
  19. Send Me Down a Miracle by Han Nolan (YA)
  20. What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman (YA)
  21. The Long Season of Rain by Helen S. Kim (YA)
  22. The Viscount of Maisons-Laffitte by Jennie Goutet
  23. Challenger Deep by Neil Shusterman (YA)
  24. Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want to Read and Why We Should Let Them (N)
  25. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (YA) (first in a trilogy)
  26. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  27. Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (N)
  28. Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
  29. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt (YA)
  30. Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d Like Them to Be by Teri S. Lesesne (N)
  31. Godless by Pete Hautman (YA)
  32. Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA) (first in a trilogy)
  33. Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (N)
  34. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (YA)
  35. Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King (YA)
  36. La Línea by Ann Jaramillo (YA)
  37. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (YA)
  38. Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy (YA)
  39. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (YA) (N) (P)
  40. Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers (YA)
  41. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (YA) (P)
  42. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina (YA)
  43. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  44. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (YA)

For Christmas this year, I was given a few gift certificates for books with explicit instructions to spend them on books I want to read for myself, and not necessarily something to add to my classroom library. It’s so hard for me to choose to spend my money on adult contemporary or nonfiction knowing that while I might enjoy it, it probably won’t interest my 8th graders enough to put in my classroom. But there are lots of books I want to read that fit these categories. So I did it. I went out and bought five books (and was gifted one) that are just for me. My goal is to roughly go every-other with YA books and adult or nonfiction books.

Of course there are still YA books I would LOVE to add to my classroom library, so if you are feeling generous, you can always check out my classroom library Wish List that the students and I create.

I set my 2017 GoodReads goal to 40 books. I realize maybe I should take a risk and set it at 45 since I read 44 this year, but I tend to be conservative in my risk-taking. Like I said, I’m already on book number two for the year. I have to read just over three books per month to make my goal. I think I can do it!

Tell me, what should I add to my 2017 To Read List?

The National Book Award Project: The Finalists

national book award

All the way back in June I started a project, spear-headed by Dr. Steven Bickmore, with a bunch of other educators: We read through all the National Book Award Finalists and Winners from the past twenty years. There were twenty of us–each assigned a year. I read the five books from 1996.

Each of us chose one book to move forward to the next “round”. We were then placed into brackets of five books and as a group we needed to choose which of those five would move to the final round.

The final round has four books. Our task was to read all four and vote for which one we think is the best of the best. I had already read Homeless Bird (2000 National Book Award Winner), but the next three were new to me.

Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers (2005 National Book Award Finalist)

As is typical of Myers, this book starts out right in the action with the funeral of a teenager who was shot in a drive-by shooting. Jesse and his friends, CJ and Rise, are forced yet again to consider how quickly life can be taken away. Rise makes the comment that he believes this is why you have to live every day as if it’s special. All three boys grapple with how to do this, but Rise seems to take it to an extreme that Jesse can’t agree with. As Jesse tries to decide to stick by Rise–his blood brother–or follow his own intuition, he sketches Rise and the rest of what they experience. It’s a very honest look at what being a teen in Harlem is probably like.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2012 National Book Award Winner)

Ten-year-old Hà, her three older brothers, and her mother are forced to leave Vietnam when the war reaches their home in Saigon in 1975. Hà has never met her father, who is MIA in the war–possibly somewhere in North Vietnam where communication has been cut off. The family journeys by ship to Alabama where they become refugees. Hà is forced to repeat the 4th grade even though she was at the top of her class in Vietnam because she doesn’t know English. What is most special about this book is that it is told in first-person verse covering a complete year: from Vietnamese New Year in 1975 to the same day in 1976.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (2014 National Book Award Winner)

Another book completely in verse, Jacqueline Woodson tells her autobiographical tale of growing up African American during the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and 70’s. Her life is split between two homes: one in South Carolina with her maternal grandparents and one in New York City with her mother. Her poems seamlessly weave her life story together in a way that the reader can actually feel. It’s beautiful writing.

Of the four books, I really liked Homeless Bird and Autobiography of My Dead Brother but I loved Inside Out and Back Again and Brown Girl Dreaming. I also felt all four books would be appealing and accessible to my students (all 8th grade). They were all well-written, though I think the three I described here were a little more literaturey (yes, I just made that up) than Homeless Bird. Or maybe it’s that Homeless Bird is about a culture different than the author’s.

In the end, Woodson’s poetry did more than just tell a story; it created an experience; therefore, it got my vote as the best National Book Award Winner of all time.

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