August 17, 2017

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Looking for a Back-to-School Chapter Book Read-Aloud? Don’t Miss These!

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Librarians can count on certain perennial requests, and chief among them is the call for read-aloud suggestions. We surveyed our readers about the chapter books they’ve been recommending lately. Here are their responses and thoughts on what makes a good read aloud at the beginning of the school year.

During this time, I pay special attention to stories that cultivate kindness and community, as well as courage and tenacity. These are qualities and topics that we’ll be talking about throughout the year. This fall, I’m excited to recommend three new favorites: Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw (Feiwel & Friends, Sept. 2015; Gr 3–5); Gennifer Choldenko’s Chasing Secrets (Random, 2015; Gr 4–6); and Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gone Crazy in Alabama (HarperCollins, 2015; Gr 4–7). Conversations about these novels will center on friendship, family, and community.—Mary Ann Scheuer, Berkeley Unified School District, CA

Mitali Perkins’s Tiger Boy (Charlesbridge, 2015; Gr 4–6) is an engrossing tale about a young Bengali boy who undertakes incredible risks to save a tiger cub. Neel is studying for a coveted scholarship to a prestigious boarding school in Kolkata when a female tiger cub goes missing from the local reserve near his island village. The boy and his sister, Rupa, set out to find the animal and return her to her home before she is captured by nefarious poachers. Vivid action and suspense, conveyed in simple, clear language, make this a captivating choice.—Lalitha Nataraj, Escondido Public Library, CA

“Holy unanticipated occurrences!” Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses (Candlewick, 2013; Gr 3–6), illustrated by K. G. Campbell, is both quirky and deeply moving, and Flora’s passion for words and old-timey sayings makes the book fun to read aloud. For this same age group, I also recommend Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan (HarperCollins, 2012; Gr 3–6), illustrated by Patricia Castelao. The writing is fluid and elegant—almost free verse in its lyricism—and the first-person narration make listeners feel as if Ivan were whispering his secrets to them. From memorable characters to thought-provoking themes, Ivan has it all. Also on my list are Kenneth Oppel’s The Boundless (S & S, 2014; Gr 5-7), illustrated by Jim Tierney, for its rollicking, non-stop adventure, and R. J. Palacio’s Wonder (Knopf, 2012; Gr 4-6) for its emotional wallop.—Linda Ludke, London Public Library, Ontario, Canada

I look for stories with descriptive language, suspense, and a conflict that will make listeners think when selecting chapter book read-alouds. Chris Grabenstein’s Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (Random, 2013; Gr 4–5) makes an excellent choice, offering a perfect blend of mystery, adventure, puzzles, and literary references. For grades 2–4, I recommend Barbara O’Connor’s The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester (Square Fish, 2011). The story, which is set in rural Georgia, features quirky characters and snappy dialogue. The question of what makes a good friend could lead to rich discussions.—Cathy Potter, Falmouth Elementary School, ME

Adventures with Waffles (Candlewick, 2015; Gr 3–5) by Maria Parr has my vote. The book offers the wonderful combination of honestly drawn characters; humorous, laugh-out-loud adventures; and truly heartfelt moments of emotion.—Kary Henry, Deerfield Public Library, IL

Perfect for grades 3-6, Phil Bildner’s A Whole New Ballgame (Farrar, 2015), illustrated by Tim Probert, is a feel-good story about friendship, basketball, and the surprising things that happen when an inventive teacher shakes up the fifth-grade curriculum. Readers will instantly warm to the likable and refreshingly diverse cast of characters. The realistic dialog makes this a pleasure to read aloud. (Listeners will be in stitches at the gross-out humor of a class presentation on the “most disgusting” things.) This book’s message of teamwork makes for an encouraging start to the new school year.—Allison Tran, Mission Viejo Library, CA

I put Emily Jenkins’s Toys Go Out (2006) into the hands of kindergarten and first grade teachers who are looking for chapter book read-alouds. Jenkins imbues her characters (stuffed animals and a ball) with enormous personality, and their trials and triumphs ring true to this audience, who are thrilled to hear more of their adventures in Toy Dance Party (2008). And now there’s newly released picture book Toys Meet Snow (2015; all Random, all illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky). Since many students have been introduced to Kevin Henkes’s picture books during kindergarten or first grade, by second grade they are ready for the author’s The Year of Billy Miller (Greenwillow, 2013). Billy is a seven-year-old worrier; he worries about the bump on his head he received from a fall, whether second-grade will be everything it’s promised to be, and so much more. Elementary children will relate to Billy’s internal dialogue, and his anxieties, and the book’s message is one that will resonate with all listeners.—Daryl Grabarek, SLJ and PS 89/IS 289, New York, NY

Lisa Graff’s Absolutely Almost (Penguin, 2014; Gr 3–6) is a great back-to-school read aloud with sympathetic protagonist. Fifth grader Albie is having a tough time—continued learning issues necessitate a new school. He must leave his one good friend; the only attention he gets from his father is harsh; and there’s a bully in his new class. Enter Calista, his new, hip babysitter. Donuts, “Captain Underpants,” and reality TV…need I say more? Well, there is more—a wealth of family, school, and even ethical issues that are sure to prompt lively discussion. For grades five through eight, Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars (2009) is a good choice. Holling is a seventh grader living with his family on Long Island in 1967-68. The Vietnam War, discrimination, family expectations, a teacher who may—or may not—hate him, William Shakespeare, bad luck, and rats—this Newbery Honor title delivers. Schmidt’s Okay for Now (2013, both HMH) is a companion to the Wednesday Wars, but can be read independently. It features Doug Swieteck, an eighth grader who moves to the Catskills Mountains after his alcoholic father loses his job. Despite myriad family problems, Doug writes about his life in a lighthearted, amusing way. Though he makes a lot of bad choices early on, the young artist ultimately finds himself inspired by the town library’s copy of an original John James Audubon book.— Barbara Auerbach, P.S. 217, Brooklyn, NY

Over the course of one school year, readers follow Sam, Jax, Eli, and Frog and their two dads as they make new friends and more than a few mistakes in Dana Alison Levy’s The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher (Delacorte, 2014). The matter-of-fact depiction of an ethnically diverse family headed by a same-sex couple, along with this family’s strong, loving bonds make this heartfelt, and oftentimes hilarious, tale great to share aloud with students in grades 3-5.—Kelsey Johnson-Kaiser, La Crosse Public Library, WI

Rodman Philbrick’s Newbery Honor book, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (Blue Sky Press, 2009) is recommended for grades five to eight, but as a read-aloud kids as young as fourth grade would be entertained by Philbrick’s colorful storytelling. Homer is an engaging Huck Finn–esque narrator, admitting on page one that “telling the truth don’t come easy to me.” The boy is searching for his brother, a Union soldier, who he eventually reunites with at the Battle of Gettysburg. Most chapters end with tantalizing cliffhangers, so expect kids to clamor for “one more.” Consider recommending it as part of a unit on the Civil War.— Marybeth Kozkowski, Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, NY

A good read-aloud chapter book must have believable—and relatable—characters as well as an interesting (but not overly complicated) plot. Every year I read Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Candlewick, 2006; Gr 3–5), illustrated by Bagram Ibatouline, to my fourth grade students as a reminder of the transformative power of story. Although I have read the book many times, I still get choked up at the end. My audience’s call for “just one more chapter” is music to my ears.—Wayne Cherry, Jr., First Baptist Academy in Houston, TX

Tear down the walls between school and real life with How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon (Holt, 2014; Gr 8 Up). Tariq is black, his shooter is white, and multiple narrators tell what they saw or what they think happened that led to the teen’s murder. Ask your students to take some visual notes as you introduce a broad cast of characters that includes family members, friends, and witnesses. Provide turn-and-talk prompts to analyze how race and culture create sometimes wildly varying presuppositions and points of view.—Chris Gustafson, Whitman Middle School Teacher Librarian, Seattle Public Schools, WA

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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