I Found It! Using the “It” Factor in Booktalks by Amanda Sass-Henke
Anyone can share a book by stating the title and author, reading an excerpt, or sharing a glimpse into the plot, but booktalks require more than the basics. There’s an art to selling a book, and it requires the booktalker to capitalize on the “it” factor. In a booktalk, the “it” factor is an appealing quality of the book that is used to draw readers to it. Finding that appealing quality is the hard part, but it is also the fun part. Here are some of the tried-and-true methods that I have used to bring out a book’s “it” factor:
Cry. For real. It may seem a little manipulative, but the cornerstone of an effective booktalk involves manipulation. Crying used to get me out of trouble, and now it’s an effective tool to get kids to read. Unfortunately, this is not a tool that can be rehearsed; it’s often a spur of the moment (and an embarrassing) occurrence. This tool most recently came to my aide as I booktalked Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosay to a group of 8th graders. I described a scene where a girl hides her young brother in a cupboard as police are approaching, and to my dismay, emotion took over. Tears started to flow down my cheeks until I was in full-blown-ugly-cry-mode. Sniffling while searching for a Kleenex, I barely made it through a plot summary before I admitted that I couldn’t talk about this book. It created such strong emotions that I had to set it aside, but before that book hit the shelf, a reader had it in her hand.
Tell them what you won’t read. “I can’t read this. In fact, I won’t read this because I like to sleep at night, but if you’re not worried about sleeping, maybe you can read it.” That is how I introduced Mary Downing Hahn’s Took. I followed up by sharing what I knew about the plot and used that information as the reasoning for why I won’t be reading it. Adolescents love to prove their teachers wrong. They love to find typos in presentations made by the teacher, and they love the invitation to be braver, stronger, and tougher than their teachers.
Share the story of how the book came into your life. A few weeks ago, I booktalked A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I barely talked about the book, instead I told the eighth graders about my Grandma Shirley, a woman who at the age of 91 has a social media presence, who can take a junky piece of furniture and turn it into a treasure, and who feeds people every 20 minutes when they visit to the point of gluttony. She was the one who handed me this book when I was in high school and said, “Mandy, if there ever was a book that reminded me of my life when I was growing up, it was this. Won’t you please read it?” She had tears in her eyes when she handed it to me, which may be where I got #1 on this list from. Anyway, I read the book, and it helped me see what it was like to grow up during the Great Depression. It made me feel connected to her, and through sharing that story, it invited students to join in that connection.
Single out a student. As an educator, this is a cardinal rule that should NOT be broken, BUT when it comes to matching a reader to a book, singling out someone can be a positive. When I was a college sophomore, my young adult literature professor was talking about a book he’d read recently. As he spoke about it, he said, “I read this book, and it made me think of Amanda because the main characters play tennis, and I remember Amanda talking about playing tennis in high school. Amanda, would you like to read this book?” Of course, I did, and not only did I read it, but my peers talked to me about it and asked to read it, too.
Outbest the best. Students often tell me, “I want another book like The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, Hatchet, etc.” And so I am always on the hunt for books that replicate whatever the book of the moment might be so that I can hold it above my head, like that scene in The Lion King when Rafiki holds up Simba, and proclaim, “I found it! The next (insert title here)!” This is what I did with Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star. I triumphantly walked to the front of the room and announced that I had found the next The Fault in Our Stars and proceeded to share about the hardships of my quest. Maybe it was sympathy for my grueling search, or the dramatic flair that I shared my find, but there were plenty of readers willing to trust my judgement and read that book.
The “it” factor is elusive. Many times I’ve tried and failed to present a book’s “it” factor. However, finding the element that sets a book apart from others and draws in readers because of the emotion it creates, the danger of its plot line, or the connection it fosters, feels like a major victory when that book finds its way into the hands of an adolescent reader.
Amanda Sass-Henke is a literacy and media specialist at Orono Middle School in Long Lake, Minnesota. Besides crafting booktalks, she spends her spare time genrefying her library’s collection, conquering her TBR pile, and chasing two kids. Follow her @ SpartansRead on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.