One of the first things I learned in library school was S. R. Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science:
Books are for use.
Every reader his/her/their book.
Every book its reader.
Save the time of the reader.
The library is a growing organism.
Although libraries and the role of librarians have changed since 1931 when Ranganathan created these laws, I think they still very much apply to my job, particularly number two when helping upper school patrons who might be reluctant readers. Maybe they would rather play soccer or watch TV. Maybe English isn’t their first language, and it’s a struggle to get through a whole book. Maybe they think reading is boring. Whatever the case, I know that there’s SOMETHING in the library that will make their eyes light up. It’s my job to try to figure out what that is.
Since I know it isn’t always feasible for upper school students to get to the library on their own over the summer or for summer programs to visit the library on a regular basis, many of you might be in the position of helping an upper schooler find a book to read. Below are a couple of tips and tricks to keep in mind as you help connect readers with books:
The better you know the student, the easier it is to find a book that will interest them. Find out what they love, if they have hobbies, if they speak other languages, if they play sports or musical instruments or create art. Then look for a book that ties into that thing they love.
If possible, find out at least one book they have read in the past that they have enjoyed. This will help give you some idea of what other books they might like as well as give you an idea of approximate reading ability. If they say they loved The Hunger Games, you would probably want to offer different suggestions than if they said the only books they enjoy are the Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series.
Don’t judge their reading choices. Reading is reading, especially in the summer when they have the time and the freedom to pick their own books. If they want to reread the entire Babysitters Club series for the 17th time, fine. If they want to read only graphic novels, great! If they want to read a book on dog breeds, perfect. The important thing is that they read SOMETHING during the two months they are out of school, so give them the agency to pick the books on their own and refrain from adding your own thoughts and comments.
Take your cues from their peers. The best way to get a reluctant reader to pick up a book is if it’s suggested by their friends. Especially if you aren’t familiar with the current most popular books, keep your ears open when kids are talking to each other and you might pick up some tried and true book suggestions.
Let them see you reading and/or getting excited talking about books. Enthusiasm is contagious! If you just read the funniest graphic novel in the world, tell them about it. Or even just leave it out and available for them to stumble over on their own. If you’re taking a coffee break or lunch break and will be in sight of the kids you work with, bring a book with you. They know you’re cool, and if they see you reading by choice, they might start thinking that reading can be cool too.
Don’t be afraid to use internet resources! There’s nothing wrong with googling “popular books for middle schoolers,” but there are lots of other great online tools to find book suggestions for kids. Here are just a few:
Cambridge Public Library Book Lists: The CPL youth services librarians put together new book lists each year for a variety of age ranges, genres, formats, etc. Reference them! Print them! Use them!
us, reading blog: The CPL has a free summer reading program just for students entering 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, and its main purpose is to create an online reading community for upper schoolers while school is out. Participants write reviews of books they read over the summer, and they can win some great prizes just for writing them! It’s a great way for kids to see what their peers are reading to get an idea for what they might enjoy too.
OurStoryKids and OurStoryTeen: These are two awesome resources created by the We Need Diverse Books team to help kids and teens find books with diverse content and/or by diverse authors and illustrators. It compiles booklists tailored to each person by having you complete a short 5-question quiz about what interests you.
Goodreads: You don’t need to create an account to use Goodreads to help generate book ideas, particularly if you know at least one title that the student enjoyed. Many books on Goodreads include a pretty extensive list of great readalikes if you google the book title followed by “goodreads."
NoveList: This is one of the many databases that the CPL pays for so you will need your library card and pin to access it outside of the library. It offers all sorts of ways to get book suggestions, from Title Readalikes to Author Readalikes to an Advanced Search function that allows you to select different options from reading level to grade level to author’s cultural identity to page number count.
Use your local librarian! When in doubt, please feel free to call any of the Cambridge public library locations and ask for ideas. We always like it best when we can talk directly to the student in question, but we are happy to do our best with you over the phone. You can also contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, to set up library visits, or to get more tailored upper school reading suggestions.
Emily Meyer is a youth services librarian at the Cambridge Public Library. She is the library liaison to the Cambridge Upper Schools, runs a monthly STEAM book club for upper schoolers, and divides her time between the Children’s Room and the Teen Room at the Main Library. Her favorite thing about her job is seeing a young patron’s face light up after connecting them with the perfect book.