Themed Book Talks: Offering Challenge and Choice

“I’d like to talk to you about some books.”

That’s how I start nearly every class period. My students are ready with their own independent reading books, and their phones are usually on their desks, which is what I want. They’ve got their next reads list in the notes app, and they are ready to add some new titles to the lists. They just need some inspiration!

I’ve tried a few different ways to introduce students to books, and there are all sorts of strategies that work. I’ll describe the one I’m currently using; students are enjoying it, and I am getting titles in front of them en masse.

I’ve explained in previous posts that my students set some second semester goals by drawing randomly themed cards out of a bag. The themes offer challenge and choice, and generally serve to expand their comfort zones.

I’ve started drawing cards out of the bag, too, and those cards are now shaping my themed book talks.img_7298

Today’s book talk theme was nutrition. Included in our grouping: a multicultural cookbook, some nonfiction about the Irish potato famine (also counts for the immigration card), Eating Animals by Jonathan Safron Foer, the Neil Flambe series, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, a quirky graphic novel titled Chew by John Layman, and Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley. By the end of the day my students had added more titles: Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory, and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson to name a couple.

Some recent themes have been Feeling Musical? and A Midwinter Infusion of Summer and Sunshine.img_7259

I included  A Rose that Grew From Concrete, by Tupac Shakur, The Anthology of Rap, The Hip Hop Family Tree, and Questlove’s Mo Beta’ Blues. I also included the Nicolas Sparks book The Last Song, a novel called Dirt Music, and a Meg Cabot called Teen Idol. I try to vary the types of books included in these themed book talks even though they all center around a fun theme. Students should be able to find something that piques their interest in a grouping like this.

For the summer themed grouping, I included The Summer I Turned Pretty, a YA novel by Jenny Han, Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, and Make Lemonade, the first of a trilogy written in verse. I also included a graphic novel: Sunny Side Up, and an old favorite, Summer of the Monkeysimg_7247

I also included some nonfiction: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkersonand and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Godwin.

The element of choice is what makes these book talks powerful. Students can absolutely count on the fact that any group of books will have a range of reading levels and interests even if they surround the same theme. Students have agency within the boundaries. They know they need to read more and different books, but they know that they ultimately have the choice about what to choose and whether they will finish or drop any given book. They are getting better and better at choosing books they like, so they are dropping fewer and fewer books. They are responding just like they are supposed to, which is also a great motivator for me as a teacher. Everyone seems to win in this game.

I’ll list some of my categories below:

nonfiction choice

about YOU


nonfiction 812-939

nonfiction companion to a novel you’ve read

published pre-1900

setting in South Africa

natural disaster


creatures that aren’t real

main character is under the age of 12


an important character is old

banned or challenged

unreliable narrator

detective fiction

something from the elementary side


coffee table book

graphic novel

more than 100 pages and has pictures

a book you wish you’d read in middle school

one book in a new to you series 

Perhaps I’ll put all of the categories in a later post, but for now I’m imagining that you get the idea. A category can by anything, as long as the student has challenge and choice while she is branching out to new ideas and types of books.

Like Penny Kittle says, the whole point is to create readers. In order to do that, I book talk every day, show students that I am excited about books and their reading lives, and get a variety of books into their hands.

Author: adventuresinhighschoolworkshop

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and is currently in her second year teaching in Managua, Nicaragua.

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