Freedom to Read Week – a lower school perspective


FTRW-2014-clipart-5x2-thumb-1February 23 – March 1, 2014 is Freedom to Read Week in Canada. This annual event, which highlights issues of censorship, intellectual freedom and book banning, is an excellent chance to initiate a discussion with students about the books they read and why they choose to read them. The US has an equivalent, Banned Books Week, which takes place every September.

As a library that serves students in grades one through twelve, we try to initiate grade appropriate discussions with our students about the issues highlighted by Freedom to Read Week. As the focus of my posts on this blog is Lower School, I will give some examples of activities we have shared with our younger students. Interestingly, some of our best discussions over the years have been with grade seven and eight students; they are generally widely read, and are starting to become aware of media influences and how they as teens are influenced by issues in the wider world.

Our library technician puts together a display of ‘banned books’ a week or so before Freedom to Read week, and as our younger students study the display, I initiate informal conversations about why certain books might be banned. The example of And Tango Makes Three is always a great conversation starter; our school mascot is the penguin, and this book is much-loved in our library. When our junior classes stop by for their regular library period, I share some observations I’ve made about their comments about banned books (Harry Potter is also a good conversation starter!), discuss issues of censorship and selection, and give examples of how books have been separated from readers throughout history. I also share information about the challenges we’ve had in our own library (one serious, and a couple of more informal over the past ten years or so). We discuss how the library should tackle such challenges, with options ranging from pulling the book from the shelf and banning it outright, to having a discussion with the challenger, to ignoring the complaint altogether. We usually arrive at a consensus, which generally matches the challenge policy document we have, although we always have a few students who would like to ignore any and all challenges…

I am lucky to be teaching in a community that is open to us having these discussions with elementary age children. While it may not work in every school library, the chance to have these fascinating discussions with our youngest readers offers a real insight into their reading lives, and their consumption of media. We often broaden our discussion to chat about censorship in movies and on the internet, using our school internet filter as an example, and discuss issues around student safety and access to information. It’s always an interesting week!

Keeping up with new resources!

Keeping up with the thousands of resources that are published each year is a challenge! As we run a library that serves students in grades 1 through 12, as well as staff, it can be difficult to keep up with new books, additions to series, new formats, as well as changes to the curriculum that demand new print and online resources.

There are a number of print and online sources that I use to stay up to date about new releases, and items that should be in our collection. Here are a couple of my favourites:


H.W. Wilson’s Core Collection

We subscribe to the Children’s edition, the Middle and Junior High edition and the High School edition. These are wonderful resources, which list recommended books by Dewey number, as well as fiction for different age groups. The recommendations are always excellent, and I use the volumes frequently. Updates come once a year for each of the editions, so I am always able to see what has been recently published in a certain area. This resource is also available online, but I far prefer the print version, which I can annotate, add sticky notes to, and photocopy to distribute to faculty. There are a couple of drawbacks to this source, however; sometimes the books they list are out of print or difficult to find, and it has a US focus (although, obviously, that is not quite such an issue for many readers of this blog). If a Canadian version were available, I would be thrilled!

Quill & Quire

Quill & Quire is ‘Canada’s magazine of book news and reviews.’ Published monthly, it features publishing industry news, and reviews for all ages. Their reviews of children’s books are particularly good.

Resource Links

Resource Links is published six times a year, and focuses solely on Canadian resources, both fiction and non-fiction. All of the reviewers are librarians; the reviews are informative, and always contain useful information about age-appropriateness / potential issues associated with a source. Resource Links also regularly publishes lists of award winning books from across Canada, so is a good source for staying up to date with popular material. Resource Links also reviews French materials, so if you are looking to build your French language collection, it is a good place to start.


I find Booklist superb for adult fiction and non-fiction, but less good for children’s books. They always review unusual books, however, and I do often one or two excellent recommendations in every issue.


We all have our favourite Kids Lit and YA Lit bloggers; here are a few that I subscribe to via my Feedly reader:

Kids Lit:

A Fuse #8 production

CanLit for Little Canadians

A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy

100 Scope Notes

YA Lit:

Reading Rants

Chasing Ray

Teen Lit Rocks


Other excellent sources of book recommendations are our students (who are well-read and vocal about it!), browsing at the bookstore, booktalks at our regional library group meetings, awards announcements, meetings with vendors etc etc. It’s not surprising that it’s difficult to keep up!

What are your favourite sources for book recommendations? And are there any you avoid?

Fixed vs flexible schedules – what works for you?

When a group of elementary school librarians gather, the conversation will inevitably turn to a discussion of fixed vs flexible schedules. A quick glance at the AISL and LM_NET archives show similar levels of discussion. Is there a right answer, or is it simply a case of finding what works best for you in your setting? Of course, in many cases, the librarian is the last person who has any say in how their schedule is set up, as the type of schedule used is often imposed by the school administration.

Although little formal research has been done in this area, one recent article states that where possible, flexible scheduling works best; in particular, Gavigan et al (2010) suggest that where scheduling is flexible, circulation statistics are generally higher. This interesting article is worth a read, but it is obvious that more research is needed in this area.

I have a flexible schedule; at the beginning of the school year, I have a completely blank timetable. I chat with each elementary classroom teacher over the summer to book a time for their once-a-cycle library period (we have a 9 day cycle). During this time I have with each class we focus on sharing stories, booktalks, library user skills and book exchange. This works well for us; I get to see each of my six elementary classes on a regular basis. If a teacher wants to come to the library to do a research project, they book in with me separately. This has great advantages; for example, just before the Christmas break I saw our grade four class every day for two weeks, to help them complete a research project on the provinces and territories of Canada.

I am forced to use a flexible schedule because I teach students in grades 1-12, and this is the only way we can handle bookings from all the classes we need to work with. It does work well for us, however, as pre-booked and prioritized junior school time is invaluable. We very quickly get booked up with upper school classes wanting to use the library for research periods, and do sometimes have to turn away classes. Unfortunately, flexible scheduling is also hugely dependent on your collaborative relationship with faculty, and their willingness to embrace the library program. We have had years where we see very little of one grade or subject’s students because the teacher is not willing to make time for it, or doesn’t see the value of bringing their class for instruction or dedicated library research time. In this case, fixed scheduling would at least mean that the class was guaranteed some library time. It’s a frustrating situation to try and navigate…

So, what works for you? Any suggestions for making the elementary library schedule work most efficiently for both you and your students? And if you’re considering a change to the way classes are scheduled with you for the next school year, good luck!

Mother / Daughter Book Clubs (and more)

In a continuing effort to promote reading and literacy throughout our school community, a few years ago we introduced a grade five Mother / Daughter book club. Meeting once per term, the book club serves to bring together readers with books that they might find challenging, or that require discussion and context. Meetings are generally well-attended; we provide breakfast and a convenient early morning meeting time that allows as many moms as possible to attend. Of course, despite the name, any adult is welcome to join the Mother / Daughter Book Club; we’ve also had dads, grandmas and older sisters take part in the discussion.

Although I do solicit suggestions from our students as to which books will be chosen, I do make the final choice. I think this is important because I want the book to be as widely read as possible, both by moms and daughters, and many of our grade five suggestions are not as adult-friendly as our older participants might like! Thankfully, many books published for younger readers today ARE accessible for adult readers, and do often have great crossover appeal. Some notable titles from previous meetings include Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Two of our most successful titles have been Wonder by R.J. Palacio, and Charlie Wilcox by Sharon McKay; each is discussed below:

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

It seems redundant to give a summary of this book, as I imagine everyone reading this blog post has read this wonderful novel. The discussion at this meeting was rich and fulfilling, and we thoroughly discussed all aspects of this remarkable book. You can read more about our meeting at our blog SCS Reads.

Charlie Wilcox by Sharon McKay

We usually read this title at our fall meeting, which I usually try to schedule for mid-November as the school gathers to commemorate and honour those who have served our country on Remembrance Day. It is particularly interesting for our students to hear the adult perspective about this novel, and war in literature. At our most recent book club meeting, we were lucky enough to be joined by two grandmothers who offered an invaluable perspective, and whose participation really enhanced our discussion. Charlie Wilcox follows a young Newfoundlander who, quite by accident, ends up on the battlefields of Belgium during the Great War. It raises questions of war, ethics, child soldiers, logistics during war scenarios, and remembrance. The author, Sharon McKay, is a war artist, and regularly takes tours of duty with the Canadian Army, and we have been lucky enough to have her visit our school. You can read more about our meeting at our blog SCS Reads.

Our grade twelve students have also recently been involved in a similar, but less formal, mother / daughter reading experience. Our seniors read Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (the 1997 Orange Prize winner) as their set text during the first term of their final year. One of our English teachers, herself a published author, arranges for the author to come in to the school for an afternoon, and invites the seniors and their moms to hear her presentation. The novel tells the story of a Jewish boy, Jakob Beer, who is rescued from the ruins of his native Polish town after hiding from the Nazis, who murdered his entire family. His rescuer is Athos, a Greek geologist who happened to have been in the area. Athos raises Jakob, first in Greece, and later in Canada. In the second part of the novel, a reader of (a now adult) Jakob’s poetry tries to make sense of his parent’s experience of the Holocaust. Originally a poet, Michaels is a wonderful Canadian author who is a fascinating and entertaining speaker, and whose presentation truly enhances the reader’s understanding and enjoyment of the novel.

If you have inter-generational book clubs in your school, please share! Which books have worked well for you? Which have been less than successful? And if you have any tips for successful meetings, leave a comment!

‘Romance’ novels for fifth and sixth graders…

It is a perennial problem for libraries that serve both children and teenagers; what to do when your fifth and sixth graders want to get into reading the novels in the YA section? Admittedly, my library set-up is fairly unusual; we have one library, serving a total of 475 girls in grades 1 through 12. However, even if you are lucky enough to have separate libraries for different divisions, I’m sure you still face this issue!

I enjoy spending time with our grade five and six students, helping them browse the shelves for a good book. Inevitably, someone will ask for a ‘romance’, and after their giggles have subsided, I try to quickly come up with some titles that will be of interest, but that are not too racy or explicit. It’s probably my most challenging readers’ advisory task!

When recommending books to this age group I do tend to err on the side of caution, but try to never say no. Nothing makes a book more desirable than me saying someone can’t read it! In cases where the student is reading far beyond her age, I will send an email home with a heads-up for mom and dad that ‘Suzy’ is reading said book, and find that this usually minimizes any potential issues. I am lucky; we have a reasonably liberal parent community (we ARE Canadian!), and have only had one challenge in my eleven years at the school (that’s a story for another day…).

Another complication to the issue is that we have self-service checkout. We have had self-service checkout for years, and it works well for us. However, nothing is worse than the feeling you get in your stomach when you are checking in books and realize a grade 5 has been reading something that may be a little beyond her years… I always follow up in these cases, and am pleased to report that our girls are pretty good judges of their own reading levels. Interestingly,one grade 6 student who took Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (despite our suggestion that she might like something different) said she returned it the next day because it was boring. If only she’d read a little further to get to the good stuff!

So, here are my top books for fifth and sixth graders that are teen-y, but not too teen-y. All of them are shelved in our YA section, but I happily recommend them to my older elementary students. Please also remember that all school communities are different and what works for me here may not be appropriate for your setting…

Shug by Jenny Han
This lovely book tells the story of Shug (Annemarie), and her first year at Junior High. Life is changing quickly for her; she’s meeting lots of new people, and Mark, the boy she’s always been best friends with, is starting to look a little different… I have recommended this book hundreds of times to fifth and sixth graders, and have never had anyone say they didn’t like it. It’s my number one ‘romance without really being a romance’ book for tweens.

The Georgia Nicolson books by Louise Rennison
If you can get past the title of the first book in the series (Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging – and be aware that it’s not the footwear thongs she’s talking about), your students will be rewarded with a great series about fourteen-year-old Georgia, and her minute by minute account of her time spent with friends, obsessions with boys and worries that she may have to move to New Zealand. Hilarious throughout, you’ll get lots of questions about British slang (although there is a helpful glossary at the end of each book), but you and your students will grow to love Georgia.

The Princess Diary series by Meg Cabot
Every year I think that this series will disappear into obscurity, and every year the books in Meg Cabot’s signature series get signed out over and over again. They’re great books with a strong female character, and are more ‘crush’ than ‘romance’; I really like the way Cabot handles the blossoming relationship between Mia and Michael. Be warned, however, that the later books in the series can get a bit more racy, but the first four are perfect for grade five and six students.

The Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers
Karen Rivers writes great (early) middle grade fiction. The Encyclopedia of Me features Think, a thirteen year old with two older brothers (who of whom is autistic), who is recording her daily movements in her ‘encyclopedia’. Her best friend, Freddie Blue, has been at her side for years, but what happens when they both start to like Kai, the cool new skateboarder who has just moved into the neighbourhood?

Words that start with B / Love is a four-letter word / Days that end in Y by Vikki VanSickle
Canadian author VanSickle has written the perfect middle grade series; her novels are much-loved by our grade 5 & 6 students. The first novel in the series, Words that start with B, introduces us to Clarissa and her best friend Benji. As well as dealing with all of the usual early teen issues and angst, Clarissa is also dealing with her mom’s illness; she has breast cancer. This novel is a lovely read for grade five and six students, and I applaud VanSickle for her sensitive handling of a complex issue. The romance that slowly develops between Clarissa and her classmate, Michael, is also very well done.

Please leave a comment below if you have any further suggestions for romance-hungry grade five and six students!