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Middle School Monday: Mondays that Don’t Sparkle

MSM1When I was driving into school this morning, I was thinking about how lucky I was to work as a librarian at my school where because we are gifted with such a small student body, I’m able to build real relationships with my students. I was excited about what I was going to be teaching. I was looking forward to seeing my students.

Have you had morning drives like that? Where everything is just working? The sun was shining. I was listening to Hamilton. [I was even feeling strong enough to listen to the end of Side 2, people. Clearly, I was feeling fairly strong emotionally.] My coffee tasted great. I was flying.

Gah, I had A DAY. Things weren’t working like I wanted them to. Technology issues. Too busy of a [self-made] schedule. Some space issues. Some, ah, personnel issues. Burnt popcorn. Blah. Blah. Blah. We’ve all had days like this.

During my last class, my students were fairly WIRED. Normally, I just dive into that emotion and use it with whatever I’m teaching. I’m going to be honest. I was too tired to dive in today. I was stuck in the sand and discovered that I HATE NOT DIVING IN. [This is strictly an extended metaphor. I am deathly afraid of sharks and do not go above my knees in the ocean. Even writing about diving in via a metaphor made me a little nervous.]

You may be wondering why I’m telling you this. Here’s why: being a school librarian is hard. We’re educators at the same time that we’re running our own companies. And, typically there is no one else in our school who is doing the same thing. It’s awesome! But, it’s hard. For each of us for different reasons. [If it’s not hard, I’m not sure we’re doing it right!]

Online presences that only tout the shiny and close-up ready moments are a lie. I didn’t have one of those days today. And, that’s okay.

I’m Julie Stivers at @BespokeLib—and I’m going to have a good day tomorrow!


Middle School Monday: Short Stories + Book Covers = Creativity


I love short stories. I love them as a reader* and I’m excited at their potential for us as librarians. Short stories give us an accessible way into ELA classrooms with a bite-sized unit that we can connect to the curriculum by exploring figurative language, plot devices, or vocabulary. Using excellent short story collections like Flying Lessons (Oh, 2017) or Open Mic (Perkins, 2013) are a double—and necessary—win as we can introduce #ownvoices authors into the classroom…and the literary canon.

From Open Mic, I’ve been reading Under Berlin by G. Neri with both 7th and 8th grade classes. Under Berlin is a warm, engaging short story in verse that underscores issues of prejudice in a humorous and unexpected way.

It takes us only one class lesson to read [with some background discussion on the city of Berlin]. During the next class, we move to designing book covers.

Bor-ing, you may be thinking. Perhaps you’ve been including the option of creating book covers as a culminating project choice on your novels for years.

I’m standing by this lesson! Here’s why—and why I was excited about how this lesson worked.

  1. Individual short stories typically HAVE NO cover, so there is a completely blank slate. Students have no preconceived version of what the cover for a short story should look like.
  2. We began by looking at a sampling of covers from books I brought to the classroom. What did they have in common? What was the book ‘selling’? Which covers were the most successful? Why were some author names SO BIG? We talked about images. Fonts. Colors.
  3. To create our covers, we used Google Drawings, which I think sells itself short with its own name. I told my students to think of it as Google Design instead. After a lightning quick tutorial [The best way to learn a digital tool? Play with it yourself.], each student got to work. I mean, play.
  4. The finished covers were fascinating. Besides an obvious affinity for the Permanent Marker font and atmospheric subway photos, the covers were structurally different. Most focused on the setting, but I loved how several students were intent on finding a family or female teen [the narrator] to include on the cover that was reflective.
  5. My favorite part? The students who I felt had the strongest covers were not students who usually were receiving top grades in ELA. While I displayed all the covers, I separated the strongest covers under a Bestseller List tag.


We need to continually provide alternate access points for students to connect with literature and language besides simply writing about it afterwards [or annotatingshudder]. Hopefully, this mini-project worked in this way. In fact, every time I do a short story with students, I think I will include this activity, at the very least as an option for a culminating mini-project. The options for digital tools are vast. [Canva would be an exciting choice.]

*I grew up despising short stories. They were so depressing! Recent collections have changed my views on the format. Please don’t only use the short stories we were taught in school. [Another, bigger shudder.] Go get a class set of the wonderful Flying Lessons instead!

I’m Julie Stivers at @BespokeLib—have a great week!

Middle School Monday: Spy on History Blog Tour and Giveaway

Mary Bowser - blog tour banner

We are pleased to be today’s stop for the Spy on History blog tour! Here is the question put to me: If you could go back to anytime or place in history, where would you put your spy skills to use?

sohThis is such a difficult question! So many times in history would be fascinating to take part in – but which ones could really use me? If I have to choose, I’d like to go back to the United States during the late 1930’s and infiltrate the lives of government officials who made decisions that excluded Jewish refuges from entering the U.S. In light of recent current events, I’ve been thinking about this part of our collective history quite often. We can look back on that time and see what a horrible mistake we were making – but it doesn’t seem that enough of us have learned that lesson.

Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring is an engaging read, with enough detail to really get a feel for the time and place. While it would be a good way to introduce a study of Civil War history, it also would be a great inspiration for a writing project. I enjoyed the first entry in this series, and would recommend them for use with third through sixth grade students.

More about the book:

Book Summary: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring introduces an exciting interactive series for middle grade readers—Spy on History, where the reader gets to experience history in a whole new way.

Meet Mary Bowser, an African American spy who was able to infiltrate the Confederate leadership at the highest level. Enigma Alberti dramatizes Mary Bowser’s suspenseful story—how she pretended to be illiterate, how she masterfully evaded detection, how she used her photographic memory to “copy” critical documents.

Using spycraft materials included in a sealed envelope inside the book, a canny reader will be able to discover and unravel clues embedded in the text and illustrations, and solve the book’s ultimate mystery: Where did Mary hide her secret diary?

Author: Enigma Alberti is the nom de plume of a secret cadre of authors who are each writing a book in the Spy on History series.

Illustrator: Tony Cliff is the author and artist behind the New York Times bestselling Delilah Dirk graphic novel series. Find more on Tony at and @TangoCharlie on Twitter.

If you’d like a chance to win three Workman titles (Spy on History, Who Wins?, and Boss Babes) please leave a comment below with your Twitter handle.

Middle School Monday: It’s All About the Memes

MSM1This is going to be another one of those posts where I’m almost embarrassed to share this idea because it is so EASY. SIMPLE. But, who among us wouldn’t like some shared, simple ideas for library engagement? I ALWAYS want some! [That means: bring ‘em on, people!]

Over the summer, I had hung up some large write-on/wipe-off boards [that you can find at Lowe’s back in their building supplies section for very cheap]. My original intention was just to have some spots where students could draw, write, doodle, etc. [At the end of last year, we were literally writing on the walls and I LOVED THAT and didn’t want it to stop.]

meme usain

Like many of us last August, I was in full-Olympics-swoon mode and I loved looking at images from the gamestwo of my favorites being Usain Bolt pulling away from the pack with that glorious smile and Michael Phelps with his ‘game face’ before a race.
meme phelps

I wanted to somehow bring the Olympic games into the library and so I had the idea to set up meme boards. In the continual effort to think of our libraries more as KITCHENS than GROCERY STORES, this allows students to write and flex their creativity in an extremely accessible [and quick way].

I thought they might be fun for a couple of weeks and then after that, I would use the boards for some other purpose. Well, it’s February and the meme boards are going NOWHERE. They are still going strong. The students have completely taken ownership of themwhich I love. They find the pictures now and decide when it’s time to change them out. [They know to bring me the pictures to give a once over before they get put on the board. I also ensure that the pictures aren’t just of white people. The wonderful thing is that now, they just KNOW this and the pictures they bring reflect a wide range of genders, race, ethnicity.]
I’m Julie Stivers at @Bespoke Lib and I’m loving our meme boards. I’d love to hear how you’re making creative expression a part of your libraries!

Middle School Monday: What We Say—and Don’t Say—Matters


Our students are listening to us. Being neutral—or quiet—is also being registered by our students. They are noticing what we say. What we do. They also notice the silence.

Every one of us is on a different spot on our journey of cultural competency.* I was thinking this weekend about what is going on in our country and I’m just going to say it: unless you are resisting human rights violations and hateful rhetoric that is coming from the current administration, you are not moving forward on your cultural competence journey. To move forward is to RESIST. Not just resisting in our heads, but with our words and actions.

*This month’s YALS journal from YALSA is centered on issues of Cultural Competency. Full disclosure: I wrote one of the articles, centered on building relationships. In addition to talking about issues like reflective literature, pushing back against the notion of color-blindness, and building a diverse PLN, I put out a call—a question: Are we on the right side of contemporary civil rights issues? Are we? Are our libraries? Are you?

It’s not about politics. It’s about human rights. It’s about caring for our students—in a meaningful way.

I came in this morning and made this display.

safe display

Is it going to change the world? No, of course not. I didn’t do it to change the world. Will it matter? I don’t know. I just know this: it’s true. It’s real. [And we have to be intentional every day making sure it’s true and real. We have to constantly improve.] And, it’s a sentiment and a reality that is necessary to make our libraries and schools safe spaces.

Otherwise, why are we here?

I’m Julie Stivers at @BespokeLib and I believe that the best school libraries = safe spaces.

Middle School Monday: Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri

MSM11Last week, I wrote about the books on the top of my TBR pile of dreams. All were published in late 2016 or early 2017. Except one. Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri (Candlewick Press) came out in 2011.

Honestly, these are my favorite titles to be on my TBR lists, because it feels like I’m correcting a mistake I made. Reading a book that somehow I missed when it first came out. [Of course, I wasn’t a librarian in 2011, so I have A LOT of titles to catch up on!]


I read Ghetto Cowboy yesterday and I loved it. Books, just like movies, can have an IT factor, a hard-to-describe feeling when everything just clicks. The characters feel real, the momentum is building, and you feel invested in where the story is going. It’s that feeling when you are PULLING for the main character and feel safe enough in the author’s hands that you know your character is going to get there. Ghetto Cowboy has that magic.

From G. Neri’s website:

The Story         

Suddenly, something big and white bumps up against the car and I jump. I think I must be dreamin’ ’cause I just saw a horse run by.

When Cole’s mom dumps him in mean streets of Philly to live with the dad he’s never met, the last thing Cole expects to see is a horse—let alone a stable full of them. He may not know much about cowboys, but what he knows for sure is that cowboys ain’t black and they don’t live in the inner city! But on Chester Avenue, horses are a way of life, and soon Cole’s days of goofing off and skipping school in Detroit have been replaced by shoveling muck and trying not to get stomped on.

Crazy as it may seem, the lifestyle grows on Cole, and he starts to think that maybe life as a ghetto cowboy isn’t so bad. But when the City threatens to shut down the stables—and take away the horse that Cole has come to think of as his own—he knows that he has to fight back.

Inspired by the real-life inner-city horsemen of Philadelphia and Brooklyn, Ghetto Cowboy is an timeless urban western about learning to stand up for what’s right—the Cowboy Way.

The original SLJ review can be found here. A comprehensive page on the novel can be found on G. Neri’s own site.

I can’t wait to share this one with my students. Here is what I’m thinking…

We’ll read G. Neri’s thoughts on the novel. His writing on the background of Ghetto Cowboy starts with a powerful introduction: “I’ve always said truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction can sometimes dig into that truth a bit more clearly. That’s why I write fiction inspired by real life.”

If you’re someone that likes to start a novel study with a book trailer, find a solid teaser trailer of the novel here.

While reading the novel with classes, we’ll supplement with the audio version of the book. [I see it won the 2012 School Library Journal Best Audio for Middle School Award.]

There is an EXCELLENT Teacher’s Guide for the novel from Candlewick Press. When I saw the author of the guide was Edith Campbell, I was thrilled! [If you’re not following the essential for literature reviews and resources, please do. it’s a must follow for school librarians!]

street riders

We can pair the novel with other sources, including watching This American Life: Horses in North Philly and information on the original LIFE article that inspired G. Neri.

I love sharing what authors say about their writing with students, especially when they say things like: “Even the greatest writers I know admit their first drafts suck.” G. Neri says this and much more at Beginning the Journey to a Finished Novel.

In addition to the many awards Ghetto Cowboy has won, it was also the 2012 Horace Mann Upstanders Book Award Winner. [G. Neri is in extremely good company. Past winners include Nikki Grimes’ Almost Zero, Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy, and Sharon Draper’s Stella by Starlight.]

I’m planning on using this novel with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. I recommend it as a whole class text or as a literature circle choice. [The paperback is currently $6.99 on Amazon and only $4.55 via Follett.] I’m excited to get started!

I’m Julie Stivers at @BespokeLib and am telling you that Ghetto Cowboy is a WINNER. What books have you recently read that were WINNERS? I’d love to hear about them!

Have a great week!

Middle School Monday: Lovely TBR Lists. Piles. Dreams.

If you’re coming back to work after a winter break, welcome! I hope it was restful. Oddly (and wonderfully), I did very little work over break. Except reading, if you count that as work. Which I don’t. Obviously. But, isn’t it dreamy that READING is technically considered part of our work? [Which is probably why many of us are librarians!]

Are you good at keeping your GoodReads account updated? I’m horrible. When a fellow librarian was hoping to check out recommendations via that account, I might have gasped. Then, apologized profusely. I’m a GoodReads slacker.

In addition to working to update my account, I also thought of the top five books on my TBR (To Be Read) list right now. I’m sharing mine with you…in the hopes that you share yours with me!


Ghetto Cowboy (2011) by G. Neri, The Sun Is Also a Star (2016) by Nicola Yoon, The Creeping Shadow (2016) by Jonathan Stroud (Number Four in the Lockwood & Co. series), The Last True Love Story (2016) by Brendan Kiely, Flying Lessons (2017) edited by Ellen Oh, and Labyrinth Lost (2016) by Zoraida Córdova. You may notice that there are six above, which means I clearly lied about the top five part. I’m going to say a bit about my outlier—Flying Lessons—because it’s not even a TBR book. It’s more like an ACRAS [Am Currently Reading and Savoring] book.

Flying Lessons has been on my TBR pile for longer than any other book, because I am SAVORING it. I’ve never understood when someone told me they were drawing a book out on purpose. I don’t do that. Can’t do that. I like to finish a book soon after I start it [to the detriment of my sleeping habits and state of my home]. But Flying Lessons? It begs to be drawn out. When I finish one powerful short story, there is no way I can jump into the next. I need to reflect on what I’ve just read. Looking forward to talking about this one more in the future on MSM!

I’m Julie Stivers at @BespokeLib and I can’t wait to read/finish all six. What’s on YOUR TBR list?

Have a great week!

Middle School Monday: Professional Development. Not the Optional Kind.

A Crucial Strand of PD.

We have an early-release day coming up. Does your school have those? Where you get to squeeze the work of a whole school day with students into a shorter time frame and then stay for meetings and/or professional development? Just typing that out is making me a bit tired.

This year, our staff is breaking up into small groups to work together on a professional development ‘strand’ of our choice. Two of our ELA teachers asked me to lead a strand on diverse literature. How awesome is that?

I eagerly said yes. Not only is it a favorite subject—and my guiding framework for collection development—but, we all need to be engaging in PD on this topic. We all need to continually be learning more. Thus, our REFLECTIVE LITERATURE PD strand was born. In addition to our ELA teachers from each grade, we also count our Assistant Principal and one of our Social Studies teachers as members.

Of course, the need for reflective literature is part of a larger conversation. When we talk about having books in our schools that reflect our students, their lived experiences, and their interests, it’s necessary to situate that idea in a discussion on culturally relevant pedagogy, structural inequities, institutional racism, and white privilege.

As we engage in these discussions with school staff, it’s helpful to remember that we are all at different points on our own cultural competence journeys. I thought I’d share our four point plan for our first meeting as these are resources or ideas that you might enjoy for yourself or want to share.

One. The Danger of a Single Story.

In Chimamanda Adichie’s illuminating TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, she shares her own first experiences with reading to drive home the point how “impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.” She brings together insights on reading, writing, power, stereotypes and story. And the joy of reading books that reflect you. Even if you’ve seen this before, each time is a gift for us as viewers—new understandings, powerful ideas, and favorite quotes. It made an ideal kick-off to our discussion.

Two. Diversity in Children’s Books 2015 Infographic.

The CCBC infographic below—Diversity in Children’s Books 2015—appeared on Sarah Park Dahlen’s post, Picture This: Follow Up. [The powerful imagery draws on the Windows/Mirrors analogy for literature first written by Rudine Sims Bishop. If you’ve never read her original article, find it here.]


This infographic is talking strictly about QUANTITY. Debbie Reese’s post at A Close Look at CCBC’s 2015 Data breaks down the 0.9% for American Indians/First Nations even further—taking into account reviews and authors. It is a crucial complement to the raw publishing data.

We didn’t start with these numbers to depress us, but rather to galvanize us.

Three. Race: The Power of an Illusion.

After a quick walk-through of PBS’s informative site, Race: The Power of an Illusion, we broke apart to engage with the site on our own.

Four. #ownvoices.

We then talked about the importance and necessity of #ownvoices titles. I had curated a stack of novels from our library collection and gave EXTREMELY quick booktalks on the titles. We each then chose one to read for our next PD strand meeting. Below are some of the titles chosen.


I’m Julie Stivers at @BespokeLib and I get excited talking about reflective literature!

Middle School Monday: Reading Incentive Programs Limit More Than Choice

MSM1That a school librarian has something to say about reading incentive programs is not new. I’m not here to tell you whether or not to do them—but rather to talk about the one aspect of incentive programs that I see to be particularly damaging.

Several teachers I’ve known have used (and use) Book Adventure to track and or quiz student reading. Students then come into the library for an ‘ADVENTURE’ book. [When I first started at my current school, I misunderstood and thought students were asking for an adventure story. After initially thinking, ‘wow, these kids are really into adventure,’ I then understood.] Sigh. We’ve all probably been in this situation…and felt miserable watching a student put a book back on the shelf because it is not on an arbitrary list.

Here’s the problem with Book Adventure that came apparent very quickly as I started searching for books that students and I were choosing to see if they ‘qualified’. THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH #OWNVOICES AUTHORS AND STORIES. Let me give some examples of gaps that are simply not acceptable.

  • Ahem. Not one Matt de la Peña book is part of Book Adventure. Not one. This is our 2016 Newbery Award Winning Author. This is the author who just won NCTE’s Intellectual Freedom Award. Where is he?
  • Walter Dean Myers. Walter Dean Myers! Some of his novels are there, but no Monster. Monster! Printz Award Winner (and still fits within the K-8 Book Adventure framework).
  • Jason Reynolds? Not one.
  • Meg Medina? Nope.
  • Daniel José Older? Rita Williams-Garcia? Kekla Magoon? No. No. No. What?
  • Gene Luen Yang who is currently our National Ambassador for Young People’s LIterature has American Born Chinese included in Book Adventure, but that’s it. No Boxers. No Saints. No Shadow Hero, Avatar or Secret Coders.

You get the idea…

Reading Incentive programs that are tied into quizzes from outside sources [like AR or Book Adventure] can limit choice for students. What is the single biggest factor for reading engagement? Choice. Choice! In this way, reading incentive programs obviously limit access to choice-based reading, but they also limit access to books written by diverse authors.

[If you’re wondering, I searched for white authors of comparative success/critical acclaim and found a higher percentage of books included. There is definitely a Masters Project there, MSLS students!]

So, what are we to do? Our 7th Grade English Teacher, Ms. Thomas, has devised a wonderful work-around. Her students pick any book they want to read for her classroom reading. If there already is a quiz in Book Adventure, great. If not, she reads the books herself and writes quizzes for the students using Quia. Is that time consuming? Of course. But she rightly felt like it was necessary to support students’ reading AND support diverse authors and literature. [Yea, Ms. Thomas!]

I’m not trying to pick on Book Adventure—it is a free program and I love free programs. I also appreciate that the text on their site indicates that they WANT more quizzes created and they recognize that more quizzes = more choice for students. [For Book Adventure, you can submit to be a quiz creator.] During this coming year and summer [and well forever], I want to make sure that more books are included that are #ownvoices stories. I just read Ghost by Jason Reynolds this weekend. [Wonderful!] That is the first quiz I’d like to create. Then, I’ll start with the authors/gaps listed above and move on from there.

Will you help? If you’re already a quiz creator for Book Adventure or a similar reading incentive program, will you be intentional about including more diverse books? Or, will you consider registering to upload quiz content? I just filled out my application for Book Adventure. [Find more information at]

Does this make me love reading incentive programs? No. I’ve read too many valid arguments against them. However, realistically, I know teachers are going to continue to use them, so we have to work to support and promote #ownvoices titles to ensure that they are included.

I’m Julie Stivers at @BespokeLib. I see a lot of quizzes in my future. And, I don’t even LIKE quizzes about books that have only one correct answer. But, that’s another post…

Have a great week!

Middle School Monday: Finding, Funding, and Flooding

MSM1Has our libraries’ mission to fill our shelves with books that reflect our students—and the world—ever been more important? We need reflective literature and #ownvoices books for all of our students. All the time.

Today, let’s talk about money. Yes, money. Because to make a commitment to filling our shelves with diverse books, reflective literature and counterstories is absolutely crucial (it’s not optional, fam). But, to have an actual plan for making it happen? That’s even better.

Lack of funds can’t be a barrier to getting the books our students need. I think I was at our school for two weeks last year before I asked my principal for more money. Always start with your own administration! Back up your ‘ask’ with data and student stories. If you happen to be at a Title I school, ask for some of the Title I funds—I can’t think of a better way to spend that money than on engaging, reflective literature that is going to increase the amount of reading our students do.

I’m lucky—I have an extremely supportive administration, and yes, they show that support in the way of funds for our library (after I asked for those funds). For my students, though, I’m greedy. To truly transform our collection, I needed more.

We all need more, don’t we? Are there ever enough books? [Both rhetorical questions.] Money is out there for us to diversify our shelves and programming—we simply have to be intentional about looking for it.

Last year, as I faced a collection that was woefully out of date and out of touch with my students, I turned to Donor’s Choose for books I could use with students in the classroom and for classroom reading. I had eleven Donor’s Choose projects funded last year. In my experience, donors like to support projects that involve BOOKS. That describe clear ways those books will be enjoyed and used by our students. If you’ve never used Donor’s Choose before, give it a try. Identify a set of books that you need. Perhaps your fiction collection needs more fantasy series with diverse characters. Let me rephrase that. ALL of our fiction collections need more fantasy series with diverse characters. We all need more LGBTQA+ titles. We all need more mysteries, realistic fiction, graphic novels, sci-fi, and poetry that feature diverse characters. That are written by #ownvoices authors.

We all need more class sets! Through Donor’s Choose last year, I received class sets of Shadowshaper, The Crossover, Open Mic, and Booked.


I love Donor’s Choose. Last year was my first year at my current school and because of a transformed collection, space, and policies, circulation rose 175%. That would not have been possible without Donor’s Choose and those 11 funded grants. Read more about Donor’s Choose here. [Also enjoyable to support other educators’ projects across the country!]

For this school year, my library was fortunate to be a recipient of a Laura Bush Foundation Grant. [Please read more about this wonderful grant program here.] My application focused on the need to make our collection more reflective of our students, their lived experiences, and their interests. I included specifics—specific titles, specific ways I would use the funds, specific data on what reflective collections can do.

The first batch of books ordered with Bush Foundation funds have been delivered and our library is flooded—flooded with reflective literature. It’s pure joy. Below are some pictures of these books, including a class set of You Don’t Even Know Me by Sharon Flake.


In addition to grant programs above, the below resources might be helpful for identifying a grant program that would fit with your school. [Already missed the deadline for this year? Mark your calendar for next year!]

I’m Julie Stivers at @BespokeLib. Money for reflective books is out there! Let’s find it!