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How Does Read to Them Select Books?

Why read a book altogether?

You can read a book by yourself, with your family, or with your class – but when you read a book with all your families and all your classrooms something different happens.

What happens is conversations. Conversations in families, in classrooms and outside of classrooms. Conversations in the cafeteria and on the playground, conversations across grade levels. Conversations with your principal or your bus driver! Even conversations away from school such as at the library, the supermarket, or the soccer field.

What are those conversations about? 

Those conversations are about the books and what’s in the books: the characters, the dilemmas, the jokes, the plot, what happens, what could have happened instead, what’s going to happen next. 

Those conversations are about the themes: what it’s like to go to a new school; what it’s like to solve a mystery or go on adventure; how to make new friends; how to handle it when your friendships change. Sometimes those themes involve meeting new characters who live unfamiliar lives in unfamiliar places. Kids who are different, neuro-atypical kids, kids with learning differences, kids in wheelchairs. Kids who live in different neighborhoods, or different countries.

We at Read to Them believe these are great things to talk about – in your family, with your friends, your classmates, your schoolmates, your teachers, with your principal. We aim to provide the fodder to make those kinds of conversations possible. To make them urgent and animated – and natural. When your community gets excited about a book, it can turn reading into something more, something your students and families will want to do again. The regular rallying cry at One School One Book schools is, “What is our next book going to be?”

So how do we choose books that can do all that?

We look for quality: books that are well written, books that will improve anyone who reads or listens to them, that use vocabulary and prose well, and that don’t waste your time.

We look for books that are engaging, that will interest and appeal to a wide audience. This can be tricky because there are plenty of books that concern subject matter or a genre that some people might not think they’re interested in. But good books can surprise you. Everyone’s read a book or seen a movie about something they thought they didn’t care for, only to discover that in this particular book it became really interesting.

If you told kids this book is about a pig on a farm in the 1950s, they might not think they’d be interested. But when they discover it’s really about a girl protecting that pig, and a really smart spider, and the community in the farmyard (including an enterprising rat) rallying behind the pig, millions of students have discovered that the simple pig in that simple farmyard is in fact unforgettably interesting.

The books we’ve selected – about an autistic boy caring for a baby skunk (A Boy Called Bat); or a robot stranded on an island (The Wild Robot); or a tree narrating the events witnessed in and around a park (Wishtree) – have this quality. Telling you what they’re about doesn’t really tell you what makes them special and unforgettable. What we do know is that these books appeal to a very wide audience.

A great book needs memorable characters, characters you want to spend time with. It needs an engaging plot, something you want to find the answers to. It really pays if it’s funny. But it can also be great if it’s scary! A great book needs to be emotionally engaging. When you care about what happens to the characters, not just to find out what happens, but because what happens to the characters affects you, a great book touches your heart.

How do we handle sensitive content?

The wider the audience – and our bread-and-butter audience is elementary schools – the easier it is for something to be not perfect about each book. Some great books that have worked great for our programs and read by an older audience may not be perfect for Kindergartners. Some great books are read a little younger and may not be quite as stimulating to fifth graders.

We are also aware that great books can contain some content that may be perceived sensitively for some families or in some communities. We take this issue seriously, and know that schools, if they are going to select a single title for all their families, must take it seriously, too.

When selecting titles, Read to Them’s selection committee makes special note of content that can be perceived sensitively. Coarse language or curse words. References to alcohol or smoking. Physical or emotional threats or violence, directed toward children, animals, or adults. References to weapons or guns. Social or political themes that may be divisive in some communities.

Who does the choosing?

Our books are reviewed thoroughly by a team of experienced educators, folks who live and work with students in schools. If the selection team thinks any content in a book is egregious or disqualifying, then we don’t add the book. The committee carefully reviews and discusses every instance of potential sensitive content, great or small. If the content is central to the story, or if the content is just a footnote, the book can still be selected based on its larger strengths, its overall virtues and redeeming qualities, or because of the context in which the content occurs.

We all know what happens to Charlotte the spider in Charlotte’s Web. It’s a sensitive moment, but generations of students, families, and schools have embraced that moment as a life lesson in a larger story about loyalty, love, teamwork, and the cycle of life.

The long-standing favorite How to Eat Fried Worms contains a single instance of the word ‘bastard,’ a coarse word considered a curse when spoken as a negative characteristic. It’s a very small moment in a comic novel that tries to use realistic dialogue amongst its young characters; the book has been and remains a favorite of Read to Them audiences for many years. But for a handful of schools, that word, used that way, will not play with some of their families. So they choose a different book.

Read to Them encourages and actually insists that all schools read the book they have selected to make sure it will be well received in their community. But we stand ready to help alert a curious school to any potentially sensitive content, if it will help a school make their own decisions about context and redeeming virtues.

Voila!

So that’s how we choose our books – looking for titles that are funny and heartwarming and teach lessons for all families; titles that contain a stimulating array of characters, moments, and scenarios; titles that engage, excite, instruct, and inspire conversations across all students, all families, all grades, amongst everyone in the school community.

Our favorite image is of a young Kindergartner getting to sit down with their principal in the cafeteria, talking about a young boy caring for his skunk, or a lonely robot making friends with the animals on a remote island, or a young girl befriending a pig she decides she needs to protect…

Do you have any further questions about how Read to Them selects books? Let us know in the comments below. Happy reading!

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