I’m not going to lie: this was one of my proudest accomplishments at this job.
It started out with a list of sort of mediocre selections for our state book award, the Caudills. I love our state awards, but the Caudill has a tough job – it’s for students in grades 4-8. Yikes! There are not a whole lot of books that are appealing for 9-year-olds and 14-year-olds. So they’d recommend some books for the younger kids, some books for the older kids, but what about my completionists – the kids who were desperate to read every. single. book, even if they hated ’em?
This project started for those kids, but it grew to include just about everybody else. What I love so much about running an in-house book award program is the sense of ownership our students feel. The whole program is run by them, with some oversight from staff members. They pick the books, they promote the books, they celebrate at the end of the program. It provides great leadership opportunities for our committee members, and students who aren’t on the committee are more invested because the list was chosen by their peers. Plus, that list is perfectly tailored to our school, which is huge.
I heard about another local middle school who’d given up on the Caudills and created their own award. After a few conversations with their librarian, I knew this was the solution for us.
With the help of our G/T coordinator, the literacy coach, and an ELA teacher, I gathered a team of our most enthusiastic 8th-grade readers – about 20 kids in total. For the first year, we gave them a list of about 50 books to choose from. (For this year, our second, students from all grade levels submitted suggestions throughout the year.) The committee met during lunch to discuss the titles, and over six meetings they whittled the list down to 15.
One of the things I’ve been most impressed by is how incredibly thoughtful the student committee members are. I’ve been through this process a few times now, and they are always talking about making sure we create a balanced list: that we have books at a range of reading levels, so all our students can access the program; that we have books across the genres; that the authors of and main characters in those books offer meaningful representation of the big, diverse country we live in.
And of course, in a nod to the Caudills, we’ve always put a few current Caudill nominees on the list. That way, students can choose to participate in both programs.
The initial program launch was easy, thanks to my predecessor, who’d built up a lot of enthusiasm for book awards. We had all the students come to the library to hear booktalks on all of the titles. (Some of these were video booktalks created by our committee members.) We ordered anywhere from 5-10 copies of each book, and by the end of that week of booktalks, every single copy was gone.
This year, we launched in November and students had until roughly spring break to read the books and fill out a (short!) Google form for each completed book. We’ve had more than 200 participants each year – more than a third of the school. And every year, there have been more applications to join the selection committee.
At the end of the program, we held a big party during each grade level lunch where students who’d read at least three books from the list got to vote and eat cupcakes. It was a great celebration, and also gave us an opportunity to talk up the committee to our soon-to-be-eighth graders.
I’m leaving my position at NBJH, but I’m excited for the future of the program – my colleagues and the student committee are planning next year’s list as we speak.
If this sounds like a program you’d be interested in bringing to your school, I’d be more than happy to talk to you about it – just drop me a line here or on social media. I remain grateful to the Washburne librarian who walked me through her process, challenges, and successes.