March 6: Ode to an author, to reading, to just right books

Put the just right books
In the hands of our readers;
Watch what happens next.
Their eyes widen. Their hearts beat.
Faster. And faster. They’re in.

I'm not much of a poet, but I wrote the poem above after hearing Kwame Alexander at a literacy conference here in Ohio weekend before last. He was inspiring. He told stories and recited poems... no powerpoint, just his voice, his stack of books, and a guitar (played by his friend Randy Preston) setting the mood (some blues here, some surf music there). My big message from hearing him (three times -- in a breakout; in his keynote; and the next day, at a library up in Cleveland - #fangirl) was simple: if you want kids to read and care about reading, get just right books in their hands.


So simple, and yet, so daunting.

How do we get books? (Especially if our schools are poor, without libraries)
What if our leaders require a basal? (One anthology story/week does not equal "books in hands")
Do we need to read everything ourselves, first?
Can we trust there is a "just right" book for every reader?
And once they are reading, how does our teaching fit in?

I am a HUGE believer in creating real readers (workshop, independent reading blocks, book clubs -- I care less about the model and more that it's happening!), and now that I'm a coach/consultant, I travel with dozens of books every time I visit a school, squeezing in 30 seconds here or a minute there to give a book talk, often beginning by holding up a book and saying "This book will change a student's life, I promise you."

In order of intensity, these books have been my go-to, provocative just right books. They are all novels except for Just Mercy and Ugly; both are narrative nonfiction; and Brown Girl Dreaming -- autobiography in verse.

These are texts that made me close the book for a moment. Take a breathe. Wipe a tear. Feel. Deeply. And these are the books I keep buying and handing out, as often as I can afford. To the kids I tutor, the principals I know, the giveaways in workshops, to teacher friends (and even teacher strangers!), to readers I see need a book that is going to hook them, allow them to see themselves and the world in a different way. I give warnings: it may be uncomfortable, it may be comforting. Be brave and persist.

Raymie Nightingale. Save Me a Seat. The Crossover. Wonder. Pax.
Gracefully Grayson. Flying Lessons & Other Stories. Brown Girl Dreaming.
Towers Falling. Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story.
All American Boys. The Hate U Give.
Challenger Deep.
Just Mercy.

Let's join together and read hard, read to challenge our assumptions, read to ensure we always know a book that is just right, even for our hardest kids. And please share YOUR ideas -- what are your just right books?

A heads-up that the books listed above include sex, violence, foul language, drugs, death and real life situations around identity, mental illness and heartache. Read with your eyes and heart open. Be ready to share and process.


  1. I love everything about this. Some of my sure-fire books are Orbiting Jupiter, Boy 21, The Circuit, Don't You Dare Read This Mrs. Dunphrey, and Mexican Whiteboy.

    1. I still need to read some of these, Wendy, and didn't know -- thanks for good ideas -- I'm already making a list!

  2. I saw Kwame in August at TCRWP Summer Writing Institute. Best public speaker I have ever seen. I teach younger kids, but I could not agree more with every thing you say. The right book is the key that unlocks the door!

    1. Lucy & Kwame -- that would be an amazing week!!!

  3. What great reading suggestions! Adding them to my to read pile.

    1. My pile just grew another 8" from comments today :-)

  4. I'm a sucker for any post that includes reading or books in the title. I celebrate your generous spirit of buying and handing out books. There are a few on your list that I haven't read. I'm pulling Flying Lessons out right now because I thought the short stories would be great to share at my after school book club, but I haven't read it yet. I would love to hear Kwame Alexander! Booked is in transit from the library. I had a copy, but have lost it somewhere along the way and it's one of the titles for this month's March Book Madness. I would add two titles to your list, The Girl Who Drank the Moon and Wolf Hollow.

    1. Let me recommend the magical love story in Flying Lessons by Kwame right now. Yep -- love & magic! And I've got a copy of The Girl Who Drank the Moon on hold. Adding Wolf Hollow to MY list!


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