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(Not so) Middle School Monday: In Which I Attend a State Library Conference

MSM1Dearest Readers,

In case you missed it, almost a year ago I moved from the School Library Media Specialist arena to that of Public Library Children’s Services. (I also moved two states up the east coast.) And I can honestly say I have never felt so valued in my professional life.

Several months ago I received an email congratulating me on being chosen to attend this year’s state library conference; I thought this was a little odd since I had not applied to attend, but I was assured that it was normal, and that the library system tries to send its new people. Cool, cool. Someone was going to pay for me to attend a library conference. After I picked myself up off the floor, I started to look through the schedule of events. Man, they had some neat preconferences – wish I could go to those! It turned out that I could. For the whole day, if I chose to. You can see where this is going, right? The library system paid for my registration for the conference and the preconferences, paid for my hotel room, organized carpools (I didn’t even have to drive), paid for my meals, and paid me for the time I was at the conference – including my travel time.

I know some of you are thinking, “this is not exactly groundbreaking.” Let me back up and explain the world in which I spent the previous 21 years of my professional librarian career. If I wanted to attend a library conference, I either had to present a session (to have my registration covered) or find a grant or pay for it myself. Ditto for the travel and hotel room (without the present a session option.) I did get a grant once to attend ALA which paid for my travel and food…but they chose me because I didn’t need housing. Unless the conference fell during a school break I often had to take some kind of leave to attend (the legality of this still eludes me.) If I didn’t take leave, the library would be closed for the days I was gone, because the school certainly wasn’t going to pay a substitute on its own dime.

So this was different. Really different.

Anyhow – on to the conference highlights!

If you ever have a chance to hear author Jason Reynolds speak in person, run, DO NOT WALK, to the event. He was lyrically eloquent and a truly beautiful human being. He spoke of his childhood and youth, and made me cry. He spoke of the chip on his shoulder that didn’t allow him to believe the people who said he couldn’t write (thank goodness.) He spoke of all of the other authors and publishing professionals who have mentored and guided him along the way, and made me cry again. It was stunning. And then I went to a smaller venue and heard him talk again, where he gave us highlights of his upcoming works – be excited, be very excited.

I attended two preconferences. One, Sensory Storytime and Beyond, provided a wealth of resources and ideas for serving your patron population who are on the spectrum. My favorite ideas had to do with holding a Teen Sensory Hangout. They set it up in centers where the teens can choose to interact or not with their peers. One of the centers is Wii gaming, but with the sound turned down low. Basicall everything was set up in such a way as to not be too stimulating, but to encourage the teens to make friends.

The second preconference I attended was Ukuleles in Storytime. The presenter was super engaging and funny. She said it should only take a month for me to build up calluses so I can actually play during storytime – we’ll see. Luckily, one of the handouts was a songbook with the chords for most of the common storytime songs.

I attended a variety of sessions, including my first Guerrilla Storytime, one on starting a robotics club, and one on starting a homework help center. Overall, it was the best conference experience I’ve ever had – including ALA. Have you had a similar conference experience? Hit me up in the comments.


Middle School Monday: Teens, Body Image and Wonder Woman


A couple of weeks ago, my teenage daughter came to me, lifted up her shirt and told me she was thin. And I had what may arguably be one of my worst parenting moments. I looked her straight in the eye and said, “I’m not, so what.”

As the mom to a middle school girl, I remember very well how I developed an eating disorder in middle school. I am now an adult woman the age of 44 and I continue to struggle with body image issues, a healthy relationship with food, and how to help my daughters not have my issues. Parenting and librarianing to teens can be hard y’all.

Which brings me to Wonder Woman.

I have been looking forward to the Wonder Woman movie for years as it languished in production, changed directors, etc. And I didn’t really realize it was coming out so soon until The Mary Sue shared an article about how they weren’t really marketing the movie, and they’re not. While I couldn’t avoid a Guardians of the Galaxy commercial or tie-in, I had no idea that Wonder Woman’s release was fast approaching (June 2nd).

Fans Want to Know Where All the ‘Wonder Woman’ Marketing Is

As the mom to two girls, I have made it my mission to financially support female centric entertainment because there just isn’t enough of it and we know that in the world of entertainment, box office receipts and viewer ratings are what speaks to the gatekeepers. So we go see the movies (if we financially can when they come out).

This Was Not the Wonder Woman Marketing We Were

But then I learned that they were doing some marketing tie-in with the Wonder Woman – with a health diet bar called Think Thin. That’s right, we finally get a solo female superhero movie and the dangerous marketing tie in they choose is Think Thin. I can not even begin to tell you about the disgust I feel in the pit of my stomach. This is dangerous messaging to send to the tweens and teens who are anxiously awaiting their first chance to see a female led superhero movie. It reinforces every negative body image message these young people receive, and they receive a lot.

And now as a mother and a woman, I am forced into a deep ethical quandary: do I go see the movie to support women in film and risk endorsing this message or do I take an ethical stand of opposition and risk having the studios say see, we tried a female superhero movie and it didn’t work? As a woman, I resent that the studio have put me in this position. As a mother, I resent that they are once again telling my daughters that “thin” is the ideal. As an eating disorder survivor, I can not emphasize to you enough the harm that this does.

Make no mistake, I have boycotted film and television before and I share with my daughters the reasons we are doing so. For example, though The Teen wanted to go see Passengers I explained to her what my concerns about the movie were and we decided not to support it financially.

But I really don’t know what to do about Wonder Woman. And I resent that I am put in the situation of having to try and figure out whether I want to support a female superhero movie or whether I need to boycott it to make a statement about how we harm women with our messaging about body types.

Middle School Monday: Fangirling from Afar

MSM11Because Karen (@tlt16) loves me, she regularly visits authors on whom I have the most indelible of crushes. This includes, almost exclusively, Kiersten White. I’ve never had the great fortune to meet her, but Karen regularly visits her table at conferences on my behalf. She is lovely like that. This time, I asked her to seek out a copy of the ARC of Beanstalker, Kiersten’s first middle grade novel:

Once upon a time, a girl skipped into the forest and became a zombie.

Wait, no, that’s not how this story is supposed to go. Let’s try again.

Once upon a time, a boy did a horrible job as a sheep-sitter and burned his tongue on stolen pie.

No, children in these stories are always good and virtuous. From the top.

Once upon a time, a king and queen tried to find a princess for their son to marry, and he wound up fleeing from a group of very hairy vampires.


What about, once upon a time, a bunch of fairy tales got twisted around to be completely hilarious, a tiny bit icky, and delightfully spooky scarytales… in other words, exactly what fairy tales were meant to be. Grab some flaming torches, maybe don’t accept that bowl of pease porridge, and get ready for a wickedly fun ride with acclaimed author Kiersten White and fairy tales like you’ve never heard them before.

Coming July 25!

She did get a copy! I await its arrival with baited breath!


Middle School Monday: Jumpstart Creative Writing with Storybird Poetry

MSM11Have you been using Storybird? It’s a wonderful free digital tool that uses images to unlock creative writing in our students [and ourselves!]. Sometimes, writing poetry or prose from scratch can be daunting for students—this is why Storybird can be so effective. With Storybird, users choose the art FIRST and then create poems, picture books, or chapter books using the artwork.

The artwork is extremely varied—and differs greatly in terms of tone, medium, and subject matter. There is truly artwork that would fit the writing of our students from K to 12, making it a wonderful fit for the tricky age-level that is middle school.

Storybird is a favorite tool of mine because of two empowering events that seem to happen with every class.

  1. A student that has never shown interest in poetry will have an immediate affinity for Storybird poetry. As the words are preloaded, it is a sort of ‘found poetry’ like black-out or spine poetry. It’s almost like putting together a puzzle. Without fail, a student will blow us away with her/his/their talent with this mode of poetry. It’s awesome!
  2. Also, in every class, there will be at least one student who will love the tool so much that they will start using it to create poems in their free time.

girl reading poem

Storybird has a new feature that I’m incredibly excited about. Teachers are able to select the words [up to 100] that will pre-fill for a poetry assignment.

What a wonderful project choice for a culminating assignment for any subject! I can imagine 6th grade students using this feature to create cool poems after their space unit. Or, 7th graders writing poems on an aspect they’ve been studying during their WWII units. 8th graders ‘studying’ vocabulary by building poetry. It can fit just about any topic. Any unit. Any subject.

Recently, sixth graders created poetry using a vocabulary list I created from G. Neri’s Yummy: Last Days of a Southside Shorty.

yummy poem

Whenever I incorporate creative mini-projects after reading literature, I’m going to include this as a choice. Thank you Storybird for adding this feature. I LOVE IT!

I’m Julie Stivers at @BespokeLib—and I get excited about things. Have a great week!

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 www.tonycliff.com 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 https://campbele.wordpress.com/ 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!