Book Excitement: Experiences with the Keystone State Reading Award by Rose Cappelli

It wasn’t long after I became chair of the Keystone to Reading Elementary Book Award committee that the books started to arrive. Imagine having boxes of children’s books delivered to your door on about a weekly basis! Sometimes they were big boxes with lots of books by well-known or soon-to-be well-known authors and illustrators. Sometimes they were smaller boxes with just a few books, but always they were treasures. It felt a little like Christmas morning every time I opened a box. I was giddy with delight to get my hands on so many beautiful books! It was the committee’s job to choose the best books for the Keystone State Award list, sponsored by our state reading organization. Children from all across the state of Pennsylvania would be reading the books that made the list and choosing their favorite, so it was (and is) a big responsibility. The problem I face every year is that I pretty much love them all! Luckily, I have a co-chair and a committee of dedicated teachers who read them, share them with students, and help decide the finalists.


My first job in those initial months that the books started arriving was to calm my husband down and assure him that our retirement nest egg was still intact, that publishers generously were sending the books for review. Then there is the mailman. I feel badly that he often has to trudge up our long driveway with a box of heavy books on his shoulder. But he tells me he doesn’t mind, that it’s a good workout for him. Still, I wonder. I have been a part of this process for about six years now, and I think it has definitely sealed my membership in the Nerdy Book Club.


I have always loved children’s books, at first including them in my reading program as read alouds. Soon, I discovered children’s books as a rich source of writing craft to use as mentor texts in writing workshop. For the book awards, I need to examine the books through a slightly different lens. The books that make the final award list need to have universal appeal to a specific age group and have language, illustrations, and stories that set them apart from the others. I have been able to draw many parallels between my experiences with children’s books – using books for different purposes, and examining their potential use through different lenses – and what we ask readers and writers to do in the classroom.  For example, sometimes someone on the committee will offer an observation about a book I might have dismissed as not quite right for our purposes. From this I’ve learned the importance of sharing opinions and letting others’ thinking in, just as we do in the classroom.


Not all the books we consider and review come from publishers.  We read on-line and print reviews, and get suggestions from friends, teachers, and librarians. Reading the Nerdy Book Club blogs and the blogs of several Nerdy Book Club members has certainly added titles to our list of must-reads to consider. Being aware of so many titles and authors has helped me be better able to suggest books to students and colleagues. But from the multitude of suggestions and submissions we receive, less than thirty titles make the final list, spread out among three categories – preschool, primary, and intermediate.


The fun is always in trying to predict which ones will be chosen by the students. Most of the time I get it right, or am at least close, because in the time I’ve been doing this I’ve learned a lot about what kids like:

  • Stories about animals. Dogs seem to be at the top of the list as was First Dog by J. Patrick Lewis and Beth Zappitello in 2011. But other animals have also made the winning category – Memoirs of a Goldfish by Devin Scillian in 2012 and Chippy Chipmunk: Babies in the Garden by Kathy Miller in 2013.


  • Humor. Both the primary and intermediate 2009 winners fit this category – The Perfect Nest by Katherine Friend and Punished! by David Lubar.


  • llustrations that pop and add to the excitement of the story. You can see this in finalists Bats at the Library and Bats at the Ballgame both written and illustrated by Brian Lies, 2010 winner Abe’s Honest Words:The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by Kadir Nelson, and finalist A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant with illustrations by Melissa Sweet.


  • Stories about friendships, animals or people. Look at 2010 winner Two Bobbies by Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery,  2012 winner The Can Man by Laura E. Williams, and finalist Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O’Connor. Other favorites here include Diamond Willow by Helen Frost (a novel in verse) and Night of the Spadefoot Toads by Bill Harley.




  • Adventure – real or imaginary. Favorites here include finalists Tango: The Tale of an Island Dog by Eileen Beha and Capture the Flag by Kate Messner.


  • Words that linger in the mind or heart, or are just fun to say. Good examples include finalist Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman, and  2013 winner in the preschool category Chuckling Ducklings by Aaron Zenz .


  • Books that help explain the world.  These are books like Teeth by Sneed B. Collard III and 2011 winner Bubble Homes and Fish Farts by Fiona Bayrock.


So, even though the boxes eventually start to take over my living room and spill into other parts of the house, I wouldn’t want to trade this job for anything. There is no excitement like book excitement!

If you are from Pennsylvania and want  more information on the Keystone Awards (there is also a Secondary Award for middle and high school students), visit and look under Teacher Resouces. You will also find videos from some of the 2013 winners who were unable to attend the award luncheon.
Rose Cappelli is a teacher and literacy consultant. She is co-author with Lynne Dorfman of Mentor Texts, Nonfiction Mentor Texts, and Poetry Mentor Texts. You can find her at or follow her on Twitter at @RoseCappelli.