Top 20 Student Favorites & A Conversation with Rajani LaRocca: Books Between, Episode 74

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!

Intro

Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for educators, librarians, parents, and everyone who loves middle grade books!  My goal is to help you connect kids between 8-12 with fantastic reads because I believe that a book can change the trajectory of a child’s life.  And I want to help you introduce kids to those amazing, life-shaping books and bring you inspiring (and fun!) conversations with the authors and educators who make that magic happen.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom of two tween girls, a 5th grade teacher, and finally beginning my summer vacation!! Before we begin, I have a few quick announcements!

First – a reminder that Monday nights are the #MGBookChat Twitter chats with some really amazing topics coming up this summer like STEM in Middle Grade, Inspiring Kids to Write, Grief in Middle Grade, and several Open Chats where you can bring your own topic to discuss. So if you are like me and have a tendency to forget those sort of things, set a reminder on your phone for Mondays at 9pm EST and check out #MGBookChat on Twitter.

Second – I will be at NerdCampMI this July 8th & 9th – so if you are headed that way this summer, please please do say hi.

And finally – I am really excited to tell you that I will be rejoining the All the Wonders team as their Podcast Network Developer to produce a new array of shows cultivating a wider variety of perspectives and stories in the world of children’s literature. First up is All the Wonders This Week –  a brief, topical show released every Tuesday where a guest and I will chat about all things wondrous and new in the world of children’s literature. So stay tuned for that this summer!

But – no worries – Books Between isn’t going anywhere!This is episode #74 and today’s show features the top 20 books that my students loved this year, a reflection on what went right and what went wrong for me this last school year, and then I’ll share with you a conversation with Rajani LaRocca – author of Midsummer’s Mayhem.

This is episode #74 and today’s show features the top 20 books that my students loved this year, a reflection on what went right and what went wrong for me this last school year, and then I’ll share with you a conversation with Rajani LaRocca – author of Midsummer’s Mayhem.

Top 20 Student Favorites

Let’s start with the top 20 books that my 5th grade students loved and recommended this school year. Because it’s one thing for an adult to enjoy a book, but for it to really make an impact, it has to connect with its intended audience. There have been plenty of books that I loved, but for some reason didn’t seem to resonate with middle grade readers.  Honestly, I think THIS list is way more valuable than ANY list that any adult puts out.

I couple notes before we begin. My students have pretty much free choice to read what they want in class and for homework at night, but we did have two book clubs this year – one in the fall featuring immigrant and refugee experiences and then we just wrapped up our fantasy book clubs. So that context likely influenced what books they had most exposure to. Also – our four main read alouds this year were Home of the Brave, a non-fiction title called When Lunch Fights Back, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and The Thief of Always.  Only two of those made it into this Top 20.

And there are only six graphic novels on this list, which might surprise some adults who like to complain to me that “all kids read these days are those graphic novels”. (Can you hear my eyes rolling?)

I also want to be transparent about how I calculated this “Top 20”. So, at the end of the year, we did various wrap-up and reflection activities. In mid-June, I send out a quick survey one morning asking them for their top reads of the year. They also worked on an end-of-the-year reflection celebration slideshow and one slide was devoted to sharing their favorite books. Also, each student worked on a “Top 10 List” (or” Top 5 List” or whatever – an idea I got from Colby Sharp) listing their most highly recommended books of the year – recommended for their current class and to be shared with the incoming 5th graders. So… I tallied up each time a title was mentioned in any of those places. And here are the top 20 titles my 5th graders loved and recommended.

20. Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi

This graphic novel is still a strong favorite with my fifth graders. Maybe slightly less so this year, but I think that’s because a LOT of them already read it in 4th grade.

19. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Still going strong! Admittedly, not every mention was book one, but the series is a perennial favorite among my students and one that they love to reread in between other books.

18. Ghost by Jason Reynolds

The Track Series has gained a lot of momentum this year – and mainly through word of mouth. It was one of our school’s ProjectLIT selections so there was some buzz around that, but only one of my students was able to make it to those meetings so the popularity of this title is due strictly to kids recommending it to other kids.

17. Escape from Aleppo by N. H. Senzai

This title was one of the immigrant /refugee themed book club selections from the fall and even though just four kids read it in that club, it was quickly passed around after that. If you know children who enjoyed books like Refugee or Amal Unbound, Escape from Aleppo is a great next book to introduce them to next.

16. Ghost Boys  by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Every child that picked this book up and read it, ended up calling it a favorite.

15. The Books of Elsewhere by Jacqueline West

This title was one of our Fantasy Book Club options and it really lends itself to fabulous discussions if you’re looking to round out that genre.

14. Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

I will admit – I was totally surprised this made the top 20. Not because I don’t like it – I LOVE this book, but I didn’t really witness it being read or talked about a lot past September or October. But clearly it made a lasting impact on those that did read it.

13. Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

In the same vein as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, this series of books are the go-to rereads when a student isn’t sure what they want to read next. It’s one of those comfort reads that always winds up back in their book boxes.

12. Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

This graphic novel was passed from kid to kid this year with so many of them reading it multiple times.

11. Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

Which was a second shocker to me because this novel is a class read-aloud in 3rd grade. So all the love for this one came from students who remembered it fondly and reread it. Maybe because I happened to have a few copies in our room? Which reminds me to make sure to have those previous year’s titles available in our classroom library.

10. Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Another one of our hot fantasy book club picks – this series is a winner. Year and after kids fall in love with the characters! And it will make you fall in love with a cockroach. That’s some powerful writing!

9. Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Still…. after all these years. This book has that special spark.

8. Crush by Svetlana Chmakova 

When this graphic novel came out in this past October, I bought one copy and immediately the kids grabbed a pen and paper and started their own waiting list.

7. The Strangers by Margaret Peterson Haddix 

The credit for this book’s popularity falls squarely to a book trailer that our school librarian showed our class. It got us all sooo hooked that I splurged a bit and bought three copies for our classroom. And it just took off from there. In fact, I haven’t even read the darn thing yet because I could never get my hands on a copy. And actually, I think it’s the only title on this list that I haven’t read.

6. Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Because…. of course!  And actually, our classroom copy of this book didn’t even make it past March. The spine cracked and then the pages started falling apart, so I’ve got to get another copy for the fall. It was clearly well-loved.

5. Blended by Sharon Draper

Whoa did this novel take my class by storm!  And it wasn’t part of a book club, it wasn’t a read aloud, it didn’t have a snazzy book trailer – it just really resonated with kids. And they just kept recommending it to each other.

4. Front Desk by Kelly Yang

This was THE hot title this fall!  It was one of the choices for our immigrant/refugee book clubs but unlike some of the other titles, this one had a huge resurgence after the clubs ended with kids rereading and passing it along to their friends all through the year. It was constantly in someone’s book box.

3. The Unicorn Rescue Society by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

This was another fantasy book club option. And I think, the popularity of this book is really due to the fact that it had a phenomenal book trailer that hooked kids with it’s humor. It was also a shorter book with lots of great illustrations so kids quickly finished it, passed it along and were on to the next in the series. 

Okay – we are down to the top two. And not surprisingly, they are both class read alouds. It makes sense that the books every child read or listened to would be high on a list of class favorites. But as I said before, two of our read alouds didn’t make the cut so these two truly did connect with the class.

2. The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

Oh my word is this book amazing!  And for many students – it’s their first foray into horror. The chapter illustrations are gruesome and disturbing and wonderful…. If you know kids that like scary books with that paranormal twist… who like something a little weird – this book is perfect!  And it makes a really great read aloud.

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

I added this one as a read aloud this year since it was the 20th anniversary, and I honestly wasn’t sure if the kids were going to like it.  That first book does have a slow start, but it was by far their top rated read aloud and the title most frequently found on their favorites lists and their recommended lists.  Harry’s still got the magic.

Reflection

One of the most important aspects of our last few weeks together at school is time for student reflection and feedback for me and my own reflection on what went well this past year and… what did not. 

First, let me share with you 5 things that stood out in my students’ final feedback survey. And yes, this is information from a particular class, but I think you’ll find something useful to take away from their responses as well.

  1. When asked what they liked most about class, the top responses were Flash-light Fridays (where we turned off all the lights and they got to read with flashlights anywhere in the room), the read alouds, all the Harry Potter activities (house sorting, trying Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, I sent them acceptance letters to Hogawarts, etc.), and doing the one-pagers.
  2. When asked what changes I should make for next year, they suggested more book clubs, students getting to vote on our read alouds, and… many of them said they don’t like sitting in groups. That they wanted to be spread out more and have their own space. (Which is interesting – because a couple years ago I came REALLY close to doing away with individual desks and switching to tables and mainly flexible seating options that have been very popular and whenever I have brought that up, my students have consistently told me – they like their own desk and their own space.)
  3. When asked “Did you read more or less than last year?”, 33% said a little more and 50% said a lot more. And only one child said that they read less this year. 
  4. When asked how I could be a better teacher, the most common responses were to give more reading time, read more books aloud, and a suggestion to ask kids to read even more each night.
  5. When asked what books we should have more of in our classroom library, they wanted more scary books, more books with magic, more books in a series, more poetry, and of course, more graphic novels.

So those were some big takeaways from the feedback from my students. And of course, as I reflect and revise and look for professional development opportunities over the summer, I pair their feedback with the things I saw going well and also things that did not. Here are some “wins” and some “fails” from this past year.

  • A win – the book clubs centered around immigrant and refugee stories. Students learned a lot, had a new perspective on events they may see in the news, and bottom line – just really enjoyed those books.  Since many students requested more book clubs, I am considering adding another round or two – perhaps centered around neurodiversity and understanding ourselves and others. 
  • A fail – not reading nearly enough poetry and nonfiction. So if I think about expanding book clubs, perhaps shifting a little to a poetry reading club or clubs that want to explore a particular nonfiction topic might be a way to go. 
  • A win – read alouds kicked butt this year.  After three times reading aloud Thief of Always, I had the voices down, and I finally felt like I knew that story inside and out and could take them places this year that I never would have even realized the first time we read it together. That just reinforces to me how much can be gained be rereading a text multiple times.   
  • A fail – not reading enough shorter texts – picture books and short stories. And also, every single one of our read alouds this year featured a male protagonist. And I am NOT letting that happen again next year. Or ANY year! Nooo way!
  • A win – when a student told me she wanted to read books with gay, trans, and queer characters, within 3 minutes I was able to gather a huge stack from our classroom library to plop on her desk so she could find something that might appeal to her. 
  • A fail – she didn’t know we had that many titles! I had book-talked many of them, but next year – maybe I’ll have a “Read with Pride” bin to rotate some of those titles in and out.  I want to be careful to not “other” those stories and separate all of them, but I do want students to be able to find them easily. 
  • A win – students read far more diversely this year than any prior year. And I had many, many boys who without much reservation read Baby Sitter’s Club books, and books about girls getting their periods, and other novels with female protagonists that in year’s past might be met with push-back and laughter.  I am maybe seeing a possible cultural shift there. Maybe. I’m hoping. 
  • A fail – not taking enough time to explicitly explore bias and structural racism, the impact of social norms and honestly – all the things that are tricky to talk about but that NEED to be talked about.  And that was better this year, but still not enough.

And I know this is not the work of a summer but the work of a whole career, a whole lifetime. And as always, we are learning together so I’d really love to hear from you about any feedback you received from the children you work with, what your successes and misses were this past year, and what books your kids loved. You can connect with me on Twitter or Instagram – our handle is @books_between or email me at booksbetween@gmail.com and I’d love to share your ideas.

Rajani LaRocca – Interview Outline

Joining me this week is debut author Rajani LaRocca! We chat about baking, Shakespeare, the novels that influenced her as a child, writing ideas for kids, her unparalleled skill at finding the perfect GIF, and  of course – her debut novel Midsummer’s Mayhem!

Take a listen…

Midsummer’s Mayhem

For our listeners who have not yet read Midsummer’s Mayhem – what is this story about?

You novel has so many elements that I love – a bit of mystery, a dash of earthy magic,  – it’s like The Great British Baking Show meets Shakespeare! And the recipes are so mouth-watering, so unique! Did you actually make all of the recipes in the book?

Can we talk about Vik?!  I had no idea until the very end which way he was going to go. I love how you created this mystery surrounding him that was multi-sensory – not just visual, but musical, and the earthy scents of the forest….

Mimi is very inspired by Puffy Fay – her celebrity chef idol. Who is your celebrity writing idol?

A very important question – do you say “JIF” or “GIF”?   However you say it, you are the QUEEN of the Gif!!

Your Writing Life

You said recently, “Often when I sit down to write a chapter, something surprising happens, and things go in a completely different direction than I’d planned.”  What was one of those moments in Midsummer’s Mayhem?

My students and kids are always eager to hear writing advice from authors.  What’s a tip or trick that you’ve picked up along the way that has helped your writing? 

What are you working on now?

Your Reading Life

You’ve mentioned before that the books you read as a child helped shape who you are today. What were some of those books?

What are some books that you’ve read lately that you’d recommend to our listeners?

Thank You!

LINKS

Rajani’s website – https://www.rajanilarocca.com

Rajani on Twitter – @rajanilarocca

Rajani on Instagram – @rajanilarocca

Books and topics we chatted about:

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)

Meet the Austins (Madeleine L’Engle)

The Arm of the Starfish (Madeleine L’Engle)

The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin)

The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis)

Amar Chitra Katha graphic novels

The Simple Art of Flying (Cory Leonardo)

Seventh Grade vs the Galaxy (Joshua Levy)

Caterpillar Summer (Gillian McDunn)

Planet Earth Is Blue (Nicole Panteleakos

Super Jake and the King of Chaos (Naomi Milliner)

All of Me (Chris Baron)

Closing

Alright – that’s it for our show this week. If you have a question about how to connect middle grade readers to books they will love or an idea about a guest we should have or a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org.  And, if you are liking the show, please help others find us too by telling a friend, sharing on social media, or leaving a rating on iTunes or Stitcher.

Talk with you soon!  Bye!

CorrinaAllen

Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

 

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