Crossing Over into a Community of Readers (Part Two) by Eti Berland
Standing in the exhibit hall in Chicago after two days of intense book deliberations examining and discussing children’s books with the fourteen other dedicated and brilliant members of my committee, I feel like a glittering orb of joy. My mind feels new, rewired by this labor of love that pushed me beyond my believed limitations. Books, my treasured companions and passionate vocation, have gained a new luster, my appreciation deepening with each perspective shared. I’m electrified by the unimaginable experience I have just had – and all that is to come.
My experience on the 2015 John Newbery Committee was life-changing and heart-expanding. I learned how to raise my voice and how to listen closely. I learned how to evaluate books with fresh eyes and how to seek out opposing views. I learned how to trust the process. I learned, as Kate DiCamillo says, how stories connect us in profound ways. I learned, as Kwame Alexander says, how to say yes to myself, to step into the unknown in the face of fear and embrace life’s opportunities.
When I was invited to visit Leanne Ellis’s classroom to talk about my committee experience, I said yes. She told me about The Great The Crossover Drought of ’15 and how the children read The Crossover aloud to each other to share the limited supplies; I knew I found kindred spirits in this outstanding educator and her extraordinary students.
Prepared with a basketball-themed presentation (naturally!) based on their questions, I joined Leanne Ellis’s class, honored to share my story. I let myself be vulnerable and wholehearted, revealing how intimidated and fearful I felt to embark upon my journey. I told them about my motto to do something each day that scares me, and the dizzying glory in attempting new challenges. (I may have mentioned the happy dance I did when I received the news about joining the committee.) They asked the most fascinating and insightful questions (“Did you change as a reader?” “Did you change as a librarian?” “Do you plan on writing a book?”) How did they see into my soul?! They were astounded by the behind-the-scenes details like how committee work is voluntary and unpaid – and the fact that we keep our day jobs while reading and taking notes in our free time. They appreciated hearing about exploring different genres and reading outside our comfort zones, which is clearly a message they understand from Leanne’s varied reading units. We talked about the Newbery criteria (with inquisitive questions about residency requirements and limitations), the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Book Discussion Guidelines, and Thom Barthelmess’s Rules of Order: Ten Tips for Good Book Discussions from The Horn Book. It’s never too early to talk about the difference between sandbags and arrows in book discussions. Debating books is integral to this community of readers, with book battles that change from year to year. Leanne has created a culture of literacy where passion for books sparks curiosity and enthusiasm, where choice in their reading interests helps students reach their own reading goals. Being in her classroom feels like stepping into a book lover’s Hogwarts. (And it’s not really an exaggeration since they do have their own copy of The Monster Book of Monsters, not to mention being sorted into the Houses…Go, Hufflepuff!) They coined the term, “Bluebery,” for a book that wins the Newbery and the Bluestem, the Illinois Grades 3-5 Readers’ Choice award. (The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate holds that honor.) Some students even made up their own award, complete with an original seal, to celebrate notable books. They were unwavering supporters of Leanne’s writing and eager to discuss her work. Their nerdy passion was inspiring and heartwarming. I ended my presentation with Cece Bell’s hilarious animated thank-you video, which was a huge hit, and gave out Brown Girl Dreaming bookmarks. And this year, the fates aligned for me to donate a signed copy of Brown Girl Dreaming, a book that they didn’t have in their classroom library yet.
By allowing me to share my Newbery story with them, Leanne and her students have become part of it. They have shaped the narrative of this unforgettable year and shown me of the purpose of our efforts. The children are the reason we do committee work. Our goal is to get excellent literature into children’s hands. And these formative experiences with distinguished books may very well lay the foundation for committee members of the future! Whatever their future has in store, I know these students will continue to seek out books that ignite their imagination and fuel their curiosity. And this fills me with endless, sparkling joy.
Eti Berland is the Head Librarian at Hebrew Theological College where she teaches courses in Children’s Literature, Oral Interpretation of Literature and Storytelling, and Poetry. She has worked as a middle school and high school teacher, teachers’ center facilitator, and curriculum developer. She volunteers in the youth services department at Evanston Public Library. Sometimes she takes a break from reading to make literature-related song parodies. She is also the Social Media Coordinator of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival and you can connect with her on Twitter @90secondnewbery.