February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Choice Chapter Book Read-Alouds for a New School Year



School Library Journal’s readers and reviewers weigh in on recommended back-to-school read-alouds. Feel free to add your suggestions below.

As we begin the school year, we work together to build a community and Laura Shovan’s novel-in-verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary (Random, 2016; Gr 4-6), is a terrific read-aloud to get kids thinking about how individuals come together to form one. Ms. Hill’s 18 fifth graders keep poetry notebooks, and, through their verses, readers gain insight into their thoughts, hopes, and worries (about middle school, family problems, and so on,) as the year progresses. The year is one of impending change; their school building will soon be demolished to make way for a new supermarket. I especially like talking with students about how, as a group, this class protests the school board’s plans. Activism should be an especially exciting topic for students as the presidential election approaches.—Mary Ann Scheuer, Berkeley Unified School District, CA, and Great Kid Books blog

Dan Gemeinhart’s Some Kind of Courage (Scholastic, 2016; Gr 7 Up) will hold students’ attention from the first page. It’s 1890 and Joseph Johnson has lost both parents and his little sister in the span of a year. Now a shyster has stolen his beloved horse, Sarah, and the boy aims to get her back. (Joseph is only 12, but he has enough spirit and hope for a legion of grown men.) Soon he meets Ah-Kee, a lonely Chinese boy about his age, who is searching for something, too. Together, the duo must confront threatening men, wild animals, and the challenging geography of Washington state. As Joseph makes decisions about how to navigate these situations, he recalls lessonss taught to him by his family. At times, the enormity of all he has lost overwhelms him, but the boy perseveres. Joseph’s story bores straight to the core of the human heart, buffeting all of the tender places with its honest depictions of loss, grief, friendship, and family. Listeners will relish his vivid, colloquial descriptions of people, places, and wildlife. Add to those, white-knuckle chapter endings, and you have a first-rate read-aloud.—Jennifer Prince, Buncombe County Public Libraries, NC

Who doesn’t love a great dog story? Fortunately, there are two new canine tales that beg to be read aloud. Lynn Plourde’s Maxi’s Secrets (or what you can learn from a dog) (Penguin, 2016; Gr 4-6), features a dog that can’t hear; his owner, Timminy, an “extra-short,” bullied fifth grader; and Abby, Timminy’s next door neighbor, who is blind. Each chapter ends with the canine’s “secrets,” a combination of delightful life lessons and tantalizing teasers of what’s coming in the story. Wish (FSG/Macmillan, 2016; Gr 4-6) by Barbara O’Connor (FSG, 2016; Gr 4-7), introduces readers to 11-year-old Charlie, sent to live in a small town in North Carolina when her dad is imprisoned and her mom can’t care for her. The girl hardly knows the aunt and uncle who take her in, but she longs to fit in—somewhere. Charlie finds a stray—Wishbone—and meets a neighbor boy, Howard, both of whom help her understand what is important. Both of these heartwarming stories brim with fully developed characters and deftly tackle overcoming adversity. Don’t miss them!—Michelle Shaw, Quail Run Elementary School, San Ramon, CA


The summer of 2016 has seen an abundance of troubling national news, so I’ve had my eye out for great books that give kids an entry point into thinking about injustice and intolerance: books such as Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow (Dutton/Penguin, 2016; Gr 5-8 ), in which a girl protects a homeless veteran accused of a troubling crime. In Eric Dinerstein’s What the Elephants Know (Disney/Hyperion, 2016; gr 4-7), Nandu is a Tibetan orphan growing up with elephant keepers in Nepal. He experiences discrimination and taunts when he attends boarding school in India. This episodic novel is graceful and compelling, recalling Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in its exploration of family in the South Asian jungle. And the extraordinary events of Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale force each character to make decisions that pit their moral instincts against their legal obligations, religious beliefs, or even their own self-interest. Kids want to do what’s right, and often possess a strong sense of justice. I like to give them characters who struggle with their choices alongside the elephants and dragons.— Paula Willey is a librarian and blogger at unadulterated.us.

Gordon Korman’s Slacker (Scholastic, 2016; Gr 4-7) is an engaging novel that humorously blends gaming culture and community service. Cameron Boxer is an avid gamer with a reputation as a goof-off. Forced by his parents to get involved at school, the boy creates a fake community service club, the Positive Action Group, and is horrified when he discovers that students actually want to join. If Cam isn’t careful, his slacker style and rep will be ruined. In Cam, Korman has created a likable, realistic protagonist who learns a few lessons without sacrificing his love of gaming. The book’s short chapters, believable dialogue, and memorable characters, make this a terrific read-aloud with wide appeal.—Marissa Lieberman, East Orange Public Library, NJ

I don’t often read aloud from young adult books, but if I do, it’s because both the language and the story are memorable and compelling. I would recommend The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (Wendy Lamb Books/Random, 2016; Gr 7 Up) for exactly those reasons. It’s a story that’s rooted in Alaskan history and culture, but it’s also the coming-of-age story of several young people from different backgrounds and how their lives intertwine in surprising ways. The characters in this book go through emotional upheavals and life-changing events, trying to find closure, but not always succeeding. It’s a quiet story that packs an emotional wallop, and readers won’t soon forget it.—Andrea Lipinski, New York Public Library

Two of my favorite books this year are middle grade novels by Jason Reynolds. As Brave As You (S. & S./Atheneum, 2016; Gr 5-8), begins with Brooklynite brothers Genie and Ernie Harris, dropped off at their grandparent’s home in rural Virginia for a month. It’s clear there are problems between their parents, but all is not perfect down in Virginia, either. Brave is a sibling, family, intergenerational, and a friendship story rolled into one. It’s about long-held wounds, honesty, forgiveness, taking risks, and so much more—delivered with Reynold’s signature warmth and humor. His Ghost ( S. & S. 2016; Gr 4-7) is a quick read, but another one that lingers long. Castle “Ghost” Crenshaw is being raised by his single mom; she’s loving, but tough, and struggles to provide for the two of them. At school, the boy has to deal with taunting—about where he lives and what he wears. Ghost has an anger management problem, but the kid can run, really run (his hero is Usain Bolt), and one day, while watching a track-and-field team practice, he can’t help but show his stuff. In learning to work toward a goal and be part of a team (it’s not easy), Ghost grows in so many ways, reminding us of the potential in everyone. Nuanced characters facing realistic problems, delivered with snappy dialogue and style make Reynolds’s books irresistible.

Finally, I’ll be recommending Marilyn Nelson’s My Seneca Village (namelos, 2015; Gr 5 Up), a series of poems about the 19th-century community that thrived on the edge of what today is New York City’s Central Park. Combing through census records, the poet imagines the lives of some of the individuals she found listed as living in this multiethnic village of African American landowners, German and Irish immigrants, and possibly, Native Americans. From scenes of a child pondering freedom and race to a priest comforting a mixed-race couple who have lost a child, Nelson creates a poignant portrait of a displaced community. Particularly at this time, when so much of our national discourse is negative, Nelson reminds us of the diverse groups who have long comprised our nation, and who lived peacefully together in this place.—Daryl Grabarek, School Library Journal.

For last year’s list of recommended books, see “Looking for a Back-to-School Chapter Book Read-Aloud?


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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.