August 21

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Reaching All Readers with Personalized Book Baskets by Melissa Williams

Readers’ advisory is my favorite part of my job as a Middle School Librarian, and offering a personalized book basket service communicates to students that they are all readers; they just need to find the right books to stoke their reading flame.  Implementing a book basket service encourages struggling readers by supplying titles that they will find easy to love and prompts students to try genres and diverse authors, broadening their reading horizons. Just as critical, the process of customizing a basket for my students allows me to get to know each of them in a meaningful way and affords the chance to express my understanding of each student as a person. I can’t imagine performing my role without this vital and joy-producing service. As I describe my system, you will see that it’s easy to roll out a book basket program of your own. 

With a working knowledge of your collection, putting together individualized book baskets is not a complicated process.  I give out index cards (though you could design a form if you’d prefer), asking students to write their name and grade along the top. I then request that they simply jot down information about themselves:

  • Favorite books and authors
  • Favorite genres
  • Genres they do not prefer
  • Favorite movies
  • Favorite hobbies
  • Things they love to learn about or to do, both in and out of school  

I tell my students that the more thorough and specific they are, the better their book basket is likely to be.  With the completed index cards, I fill plastic book bins with both fiction and nonfiction titles that I suspect students will like based upon the information they gave.  I include genres and titles I feel certain they would gravitate towards naturally as well as genres and titles that they might not think to try on their own, but that I have a hunch they might enjoy.  I stick each student’s index card out of the top of a book in their basket so we can clearly see their names and identify the basket as theirs.  It is important to communicate to students that this is a no-pressure book browsing situation. I have no expectation that they take any of the books I choose.  The basket is offered completely as a gift.  Students choose the books they would like to leave in their baskets for future consideration, which books they want to check out on the spot, and they set aside any that do not interest them.

I’ve discovered a few helpful considerations before introducing a book basket service.  Obviously, there is a small cost associated with assembling a stash of plastic book bins.  This light investment will return to you many times over in satisfaction and reading zeal among your students. Stagger your roll-out.  I learned that introducing the program to both the fifth and sixth grades at once created a back-log of requested baskets due to both limitations on my time and a scarcity of free baskets.  It was a good problem to have, but I would rather introduce the program one grade at a time and be able to meet the demand readily to keep student enthusiasm strong. You also will want to think about enlisting helpers for reshelving the books.  I would not be able to offer book baskets if it were not for my faithful volunteers who reshelve the books that students set aside.  Additionally, you will have to make peace with some level of decrease in collection searchability. I have to be prepared to dig through baskets to retrieve books students are asking for that I previously placed in a basket. I find, however, that any inconvenience created by having to hunt through baskets is far outweighed by the effectiveness of a robust book basket program.

How is this worth the trouble when a librarian can just as easily hand students a stack of recommended books or supply a list of titles to consider?  While these alternatives are appreciated, there is something truly magical about the baskets.  When you hand a student their books in a basket, they respond as though you are giving them a very personal and thoughtful present.  Students have been known to respond that it “feels like Christmas” when they receive their basket.  I have never had a student exclaim similarly when I’ve verbally recommended a few books to them, emailed them a list of titles, or handed them a small stack of books to consider.  Curious it may be, but there’s magic in the baskets.

So what makes this service so joyful and indispensable? It simultaneously appeals to and supports students, teachers, and parents/guardians.  Students beam over the prospect of book baskets and excitedly describe the option to new students who, in turn, catch their enthusiasm. I have seen a well-curated book basket light the fire of reading in many students who previously did not see themselves as readers. Parents and guardians love to hear about this program and sometimes partner with me when they are uncertain what books to purchase for their children or when they are worried that their children are not connecting with their reading. I will create a basket either virtually through Destiny Collections or in person, snapping a photo of the contents to send home.  Book baskets form a strong Back to School Night presentation, particularly when I have two or three pre-made baskets on display. Often parents exclaim that they would like for me to create one for them! Equally valuable is the way the baskets provide collaborative possibilities with teachers.  Teachers will request that I make a basket when they notice students are not engaged during Silent Sustained Reading or are having difficulty choosing or committing to books. A book basket program can build and energize your school’s reading community.  I hope that you too will discover the magic and joy of this simple and effective service.

Melissa Williams is a Middle School and Grade 9 Teacher Librarian in southern Maine who loves nothing more than to watch the reading flame ignite in her students.  She earned a B.A. in English and secondary teacher certification from Gordon College and completed a M.A. degree in Modernist Literature at the University of York in England.  After teaching high school English, she returned to her first love: libraries and completed a MLIS from Rutgers University.  Melissa lives in Berwick, Maine with her husband, two children, and four cats.  They are a family of book hoarders, date nights often involve a bookshop stop, and Melissa’s kids will proudly tell you they have grown up in libraries.