Four years ago, at the 2019 AASL conference, I attended a session about a 20 book challenge in a middle school library (you can find a webinar by the originator of this idea here). It was a great idea, and I know I was one of many who took that idea back to their own school and ran with it. We did a shortened 10 book challenge in spring 2020, and even with the world shutting down, had a quite a few students totally finish the challenge. We’ve done a new 20 book challenge every year since in our middle school, and have adapted the basics, based on student feedback, for a much more flexible challenge in our upper school.
The challenges are quite a bit of work for us as librarians, but I’m starting to see a change in how our students approach reading. Last week, I went into several freshmen classes to help them pick out a choice reads book. Choice reads is an initiative in our English classes to have students read anything they’d like for 15-20 minutes, once or twice a week, during class time, with the only rule being that the book needs to be in print. Usually, I have several students tell me they’ve never ever read a book for fun when we go to start choice reads checkouts. but this year I only had one student say that, and it was a student who is new to Webb this year. You see, my current freshmen who came up the hill from our middle school have always had a reading challenge. In fact, many of those same freshmen already had a book they were reading at home and wanted to bring in. I saw the same thing happen in several of my of the older students’ classes as well. Even the students who are more reluctant readers, and there are still plenty of them, could tell me about books and authors they liked or didn’t like so that we could find a good fit for them, a big change from the reluctant readers who looked askance at anything that resembled the written word.
The upper school book challenge has become a beast of it’s own as well. Students can submit any book they read outside of class, including their choice reads since they’re not read together as a class. Over the summer and for the first 3 quarters of the year, the grade that submits the most books gets an out-of-uniform day, and the competition for those days has become very fierce. The class of 2023 had won every single quarter since we started this tradition, so there was a huge opening for a new powerhouse grade as we began the new year. I made summer submissions due a few days into the new year, and I had over 200 submissions during the final day. When I announced the summer winner in our daily assembly, after having several students bug me about it in the days leading up to announcement, the cheers from the winning grade lasted a full minute.
The book challenge isn’t the only thing we do to encourage a culture of reading, of course. All teachers in the middle and upper school have a currently reading sign on their doors to share their current reads. We prioritize student voice in our collection development. We share books on social media, send out a weekly library newsletter to students, and host annual author visits and book fairs. And I know that BookTok is a contributing factor based on the number of book challenge submissions that start with “I saw this on BookTok.” But I can’t help but feel that the constant celebration of reading across our campus is making a big difference in how our students see themselves as readers, and it’s really nice to see all that hard work pay off.