The Story of the Library Ukelele

I came to my current school library job from a public library setting. The friend who trained me to plan and conduct preschool story times told me to always, always include songs and rhymes in between the books to keep the kids engaged and to keep them from getting too antsy. So, recognizing that she was much wiser and a much better storyteller than I was, (Seriously, she’s still the best I’ve ever seen)I took her advice.

Months later, when I got my current job, I brought all of my public library antics with me. The librarian at this school before me was very calm and quiet. She read the kids stories, checked their books out and then had them sit very quietly and read, so when I showed up and wanted to sing and dance, some of the teachers looked at me like I was nuts, some even told me that they thought I was going to lose control over the class (maybe I did a few times, but I always got it back!)From K3-K5 we start every story time off with Raffi’s “Shake My Sillies Out”, and we do lots of songs and flannel board activities in between the stories.

This summer, Ashley, my wife attended some of my summer story time sessions for the students with my two kids (my son is three and my daughter is 20 months). A few weeks after the first session, on Father’s day, I opened my Father’s Day gifts. I got a Harry Potter marauder’s map coffee mug and a blue giraffe ukelele.


Both of these gifts were really thoughtful and unexpected. I can usually guess what I’m going to get (This time, I thought it might be the new Outlander novel since it had just been released) but this year I honestly had no clue. I must have looked surprised because my wife laughed and told me that she thought that I could learn how to play it over the summer, and then I could use it in my preschool story times when school started. I admit, I was a bit doubtful. I loved the ukelele, but I just didn’t know if I was ever going to be good enough to play in front of my students. 

At first, my fears seemed well-founded. I was terrible. I couldn’t switch between chords very well (G gave me a lot of trouble) and I just couldn’t get the strumming right. I was getting discouraged, and didn’t think there was any way that I would be ready by the time school started in early August.

I decided to try playing with a very thin pick, and that helped out with the strumming some, but  I was still really slow switching back and forth between the chords. I gave up trying to learn children’s songs for story time, and just had fun with it. I learned some pop songs (even some R & B songs) and just played for fun. One night, I was playing around, and I realized that I was actually switching between all of the chords, even G without any trouble. Somehow, it had just worked itself out. That got me excited, so I switched back to learning some children’s songs, and I found that they came much easier.

School started, and I still wasn’t brave enough to bust out the uke that first week. I just didn’t feel confident enough to “preform.” My wife went out of town with the kids, and I went book shopping to alleviate some of the boredom. One of the books I picked out was the new Eric Litwin book, The Nuts: Bedtime at the Nut House. I read it to myself, and loved it. Then I went to Litwin’s website, and saw that he had some songs that went along with the book. One of them was “If You’re Nutty and You Know it.” It’s basically, “If You’re Happy and You Know It” but with nuts. I already knew “If You’re Happy and You Know it” on the uke, and thought I had finally found a way to introduce the uke at story times. So, the second full week of school, I read the book and played the song for the K3, K4 and K5. I was really nervous, but it went ok. It really wasn’t that  big of a change to the kids. We were already singing songs every week, so it didn’t seem like big of a deal to them.

The next week, I added a bit more ukelele. I did “Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes” for the K3 and K4, a song we had done a million times before a cappella and “Five Green and Speckled Frogs” for K5, and I even started doing “Shake My Sillies Out” on the uke instead of playing the Raffi recording for a few of the classes.

Overall, I’ve been really pleased with the uke addition. It adds a bit to the overall story time experience. My only problems so far have been leaving the uke at school when I meant to take it home to learn a new song (I had to learn a new one in my office this week and a 5th grader walked in on me) or leaving it at home when I meant to take it to school. I’m still working it all out, but honestly, if I’m still leaving my lunch at home after all these years, I’m probably going to leave the ukulele at home a bunch too. I’ve made so many mistakes playing, but the kids don’t seem to notice. They just like singing. I have a terrible singing voice, but they’re used to that, and they know that if they sing loud enough they can cover my voice up.

Usually, when a K4 class lines up and leaves the library, one or two of the really sweet kids will shout out, “Thanks for reading to us!” as they are leaving. Today, one of the kids smiled really big and yelled. “We had fun! Thanks for playing with us today!” That just made my day. I wasn’t just reading books to them.We were playing together. We sang songs, danced and read some fun books, too. To the kids, the books were just part of the fun, and that’s exactly how I like it. I hoping that they grow up loving to read, without even realizing it.

Girls Kissing in the Library

This particular incident happened this afternoon during a 2nd grade class. We were upstairs having some end of the year quiet reading time. Everything was very peaceful and quiet until one of the boys erupted in an incontrollable fit of giggling. He got up and ran over to where I was sitting. He pointed to a group of girls that were sitting in the corner apart from the rest of the class.

“They’re…they’re kissing!.” he managed to say in between giggles.

“Kissing?” I asked.

“Yeah! Kissing!”

I didn’t know what to think. I’m not prepared to deal with anyone kissing anyone, but girls kissing girls? and 2nd graders? I don’t know if there’s proper protocol for that. I asked the boy to sit back down, and decided to watch the girls for a little while.

One of the girls took the book that they were all looking at and brought it up to her face, and planted a big kiss on the page. I started giggling myself. I knew what book it probably was.

I walked over to where the girls were sitting and looked down. Sure enough, I had guessed correctly.



Most circulated books in the 2014 school year (continued)

Friday, I posted my top ten circulated books of the 2014 school year. You can view it here. Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Elephant and Piggie dominated the list. I had a lot of fun with that post. I love to see which books top the list every year and sometimes, it surprises me. I had so much fun, I thought I’d extend the list to 20 titles. The11-20 list offers a much better variety. 

20. Doll Bones by Holly Black


It really surprised me that this was in the top 20. It’s kind of creepy, and I usually only recommend it to  older kids. I knew that the 4th graders had given it a lot of love, but I didn’t know that many students had checked it out. I’m glad though. It’s a phenomenal novel, and very deserving of it’s 2014 Newbery Honor.

19. Bad Kitty for President  by Nick Bruel


Bad Kitty is really popular. I’m not sure why this particular title was more popular than the rest, but the kids loved it.

18. Arnie the Donut by Laurie Keller


This is probably one of my favorite picture books to read out loud. If you have a 1st-3rd grader, this would make an awesome gift. Everyone loves Arnie.

17. The 13-Storey Tree House by Andy Griffiths


This one was a huge hit with the 3rd and 4th graders. I couldn’t keep it on the shelves. The sequel, The 26-Storey Treehouse, was recently released and has been extremely popular the last month or so.

16. Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds


Creepy Carrots in an awesome book. The students (And the 2013 Caldecott committee) agree.

15. The Last Straw by Jeff Kinney


Greg is still tearing up the list.

14. Big Nate Goes for Broke by Lincoln Peirce


My shelves are always a mess around the Big Nate section.

13. Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling


There’s been a kind of Harry Renaissance (a Harryssance?) this year. I’ve always tried to direct kids to this series, but for some reason, this year they’re biting. I actually have a 2nd grader who just just finished them allA 2nd grader! Anyways, it makes me happy to see Harry on my top 20 list.

12. Happy Pig Day! by Mo Willems




Elephant and Piggie will not be denied.

11. Extreme Baby Mouse by Jennifer and Matthew Holm


The girls love these graphic novels. The boys pretend they don’t because they’re pink, but after they finish all of the Squish books, they always read Babymouse too. They just try to check out when no one else is looking.

That’s it. The top 20 books circulated this year. I just looked at my list from this time last year. (At the bottom of the post). Interesting.




The Top 10 Circulated Books of 2014

Here are the top 10 books at my school this year. My students range from 3 years old to 11.

10. Pete the Cat and his Cool Blue Magic Sunglasses by Kimberly and James Dean


This was the first decent Pete addition in a while, and the preschool kids love Pete.

9. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kenney


8. I am a Frog! by Mo Willems


Elephant and Piggie are HUGE here, and not just among the preschoolers. Kids all the way up to the third grade here love these books. In case you didn’t know, so do I.

7. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days by Jeff Kinney


6. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate



This makes me so happy. The Newbery committee nailed it last year.

5. Diary of A Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney


4. The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow



These books are wildly popular here, and there’s a story behind it. Last year, a parent complained about one of the characters in the book having two dads. He didn’t try to remove the books or anything. He just complained. Some students heard about it, and since then, I can’t keep this series on the shelf.

3. Elephants Cannot Dance by Mo Willems




2. A Big Guy Took My Ball by Mo Willems



Go Mo!

And no drumroll needed.

1. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney


Are you surprised? If you are, you shouldn’t be.

To see 11-20, just click, here!


Something cool happened yesterday. It was actually really awesome, but I didn’t think about it until after the day was over. The library honors day kind of took all my attention, and I didn’t even really notice the really cool thing until after it happened.

First, let’s go way back to August of 2010. I wasn’t Mr. Martin, yet. I was just plain Benji. I was a recent library school graduate, and I was going to change the world. I believed, and pretty firmly, that there was a book out there for every kid, and once they read it, they were going to love books and they would be life-long readers until they quit reading in the grave.

I took my first job as a middle school librarian in Memphis, at an inner city school, and that didn’t really help ground my lofty beliefs. When I took over, the teachers and even the principal warned me, don’t get discouraged. These kids don’t read at all. “We’ll see,” I thought to myself. See how cocky young Benji was?

Well, the library was in a very poor condition when I took over. It looked like the collection hadn’t been really developed since the 70’s. I’m not joking, either. A String in the Harp, 1977 Newbery Honor winner was on display. I didn’t have much of a budget to improve the collection, but a lot of great friends from library school and elsewhere, sent me lots of donations. The collection was much improved, not where  I wanted it, but the students did start reading more. By the end of the year, the circulation had doubled what it had been for the previous two years. Of course, I was feeling really good about that, and I was really feeling like my theory about every kid having potential as a reader was true.

Then I took this job, and real life smacked me in the face. The majority of  the kids here, already loved reading and the library was in phenomenal shape. In Memphis, things were so bad, they could only go up. Here, I was taking the place of an outstanding librarian, and just trying, in the beginning, to not drop the ball and let everyone down.

Like I said, most of the kids really love reading here, but there are a few who don’t. They really, really don’t, and at first, they frustrated me to no end. I gave them suggestion after suggestion, and every time it was, “That book’s too long, or “My teacher will only let me read 5th grade level books,” when I tried to give them shorter books.  I tried so hard, and every week when these certain students came to library, I had a stack of suggestions ready for them. And those suggestions, like all of the previous ones, would fail.

Finally, not consciously I hope, after about a year of trying and failing, I left these few kids to their own devices. They’ll read the bare minimum, I thought, and there’s nothing I can do about that, They just don’t like books, and they don’t want to read. I need to focus on the kids who actually want to read. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my views had totally changed. I went from thinking that EVERY kid will read and love it if you find them the right book, to thinking MOST kids will read if given the right book. By the end of the year, I might have even gone down to A LOT of kids will read if given the right book. I just couldn’t break through to that one group of kids.

About a month ago, a girl was going through my bookmark drawer to get a bookmark to save her place in a book that she really, really didn’t want to read. Her teacher had given her three days to finish a book and take an AR test, and she was miserable about it. She picked out a bookmark and asked for a pair of scissors. I gave them to her, confused about why she needed them. She took the scissors from me and cut off the bottom of the bookmark where it read , “I LOVE READING!” underneath a girl jumping really high with a book in her hand. (cheesy bookmark, I know, but my students go through them fast, so I take what I can get)  “Thanks,” she said after she handed me the scissors back. “I didn’t want my bookmark to lie about me.”

That’s when I knew that I had changed. I had seen this girl every week for about two years, and I had never once found her a book that she liked. She believed that she just didn’t like reading. She had learned that over the years about herself, and she had convinced me, too. I shrugged my shoulders, my feelings may have been a little hurt, but she wasn’t really telling me something I didn’t already believe.

Well, the cool thing happened yesterday. Last week I had shown the kids this book trailer for Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson. It’s a great trailer for an awesome book. I told the kids in would be ready for check out soon, I just had to put it in the computer, cover it, etc.

Well, I forgot about that. With the library awards day and the Battle of the Beard, I forgot all about Boys of Blur and getting it ready for checkout. It just sat on a shelf in my office for a while.

Yesterday, the girl, the one who hated reading, and had cut the bookmark, came into the library in the afternoon. This surprised me. Before, she only came into the library with her class when she had to.

“Mr. Martin, is that book ready?” she sheepishly sheepishly? “Boys of Blur?”

I was taken aback. “Do you want to check it out?”

“Yeah. It looked really good in the trailer,” she said.

“Here,” I said rushing into my office, and getting the not-yet-processed book. “Take it.”


She took the book and started flipping through it while she was walking back to class. I saw her today, reading before school. I’ve never seen her reading, ever, not even during our quiet reading time in library class.

Anyways, that’s the cool thing. I had pretty much given up on this kid, but maybe, just maybe, she found a book that she liked. We’ll see, but it’s possible that my original beliefs might be true. Everyone can like reading if the right book is put into their hands. Maybe. I hope.

The Beard Removal

The only thing bad about posting about the Battle of the Beard and how it ended yesterday was that I didn’t have pictures to post. I just didn’t know if I would have time today. The actual beard removal happened today at the Library Honors ceremony. Absolutely no students, and only like three adults knew beforehand how the contest ended. At the very end of the awards ceremony, I let them know, and the kids went wild. I wasn’t sure if my conqueror would want to actually shave the beard in front of everyone. That can be kind of daunting, shaving a full grown man’s beard in front of 300ish students, but he was very brave and didn’t disappoint. He stepped right up, and got to shaving. At the end, his reading teacher stepped in to help. Here are a few pictures for your viewing pleasure. The first one is a “selfie” of what I look like now.clean

beard removal beardremoval beardremoval2

The Battle for the Beard is over!

It’s over! For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, back in August I made a deal with the students. I was going to take Accelerated Reader tests with them all year, and at the end of the year, if any student had more points than I did, I would shave my beard, and whenever anyone asked me why, I would tell them that it was because I got beat by a kid.

The kids were all gung-ho about it back in August, everyone wanted to be the one to take me down. I think we set some reading records for that month, but then the school year got going in earnest, and most of the students slowed down. One though, didn’t. He stayed neck and neck with me. At times I would be way in the lead, but he always came fighting back.

In October, a local newspaper surprised me by requesting an interview. I’ve never done anything like that before, so it was pretty exciting, but nerve-wracking too.

At christmas, the kid baked me some cookies, he made sure to taunt me in the card.



Around March it was clear to everyone that there was only one student who stood a chance to beat me, and they all got behind him, cheering for him when I would announce the current point totals, and giving him high fives in the hallways.

In the beginning of May, he broke the school record for most AR points EVER. (The record was just set last year by a 5th grade girl.She broke 1000 points, but just barely) I was still in the lead, though, and made sure that he knew it. I didn’t want him to give up just because he set the record.

About two weeks ago, I still held the lead by a pretty slim margin, and it looked like I could keep it if we both just held pace. A few teachers here told me that I should let him win, but those teachers didn’t know this kid’s reading life like I do. He’s not the kind of reader you just let win. There was a really good chance that he could beat me all on his own, and if I just let him do it, it would take all of the magic out of it, at least for me. I think that he would have been able to tell as well.

I met my doom when he showed up to the library before school one day, and checked out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Me: What? You haven’t read Harry Potter yet?

Him: Nope.

I had been recommending series and stand alone books to him all year, and hadn’t led him to my favorite.

Anyone who waited until midnight for a Harry Potter book release, remembers staying up until the next morning to finish the book. The books are huge, but they read fast, especially when you’re really into them. I knew I was toast. Done in by my own favorite series.

Sure enough, he read all seven books in a week and a half.

And when the contest ended Friday, he was in the lead. He beat me. I really tried as hard as I could. I stayed up till midnight a few nights trying to finish a book.

But it wasn’t enough. It’s over. This is my last day to have a beard for a while. My kids, especially my one year old daughter, are going to freak.

The final score was:

Me: 1,339 points

4th grade boy: 1,348 points.

I read 306 books and 8,712,295 words.

He read 100 books and 9,030,416 words (he likes really big books if you can’t tell)

I’m so proud of him. It was a legendary fight, and I am very glad that he beat me on his own, without any help.  He will be leaving the States this summer, and I’m really sad that he won’t be coming back next year. I don’t know if we’ll ever have another student like him.





This week, I’m reading this nonfiction book to the 1st graders. It’s about an awesome type of cannibal snail that stalks down other snails, and sticks a long tongue covered with tiny teeth into its victim’s shell, and sucks out the other snail’s meat, leaving behind an empty shell.

woflsnail2To top things off, as if this snail needed to be any cooler, it has a mustache.

The response from the students has been great. They’re all appropriately grossed/creeped out and intrigued. Every story time has ended with questions like, “Mr. Martin, are those snails real?” “How fast are they?” and “How many snails can they eat in one day?”

Yesterday, I even got a “Mr. Martin. Wouldn’t it be so cool if those snails were huge and could eat people?”

A few students giggled, but the others sat still waiting to hear what I would say. I just gave a “Umm. sure. That would be cool, and moved on.”

Some of the 1st graders might be having snail nightmares this week.


The Battle for the Beard (About 2 1/2 weeks left!)

We’re so close to the end of the school year, and with that, knowing the ultimate fate of the beard. The contest is a lot closer than I would have imagined a month ago.

I guess I was kind of lulled into a false sense of security. Up until this Monday, I was ahead by 100+ AR points. Since I had a comfortable lead, I started reading new books that don’t have AR tests yet (AR is slow as molasses in getting tests for some of these books.) and galleys of books that haven’t been published yet. I thought the win was in the bag, but when I checked the scores over my lunch break, I almost dropped my sandwich. (Not really. It was delicious and I would never have dropped it.) My opponent, who broke the school record for student AR points last week was only 7 points behind me. (for a bit of reference, I just picked up a 7 point book, and it’s 202 pages.) It’s anybody’s beard right now. I’ve decided that even if I win, I won’t be doing the contest again next year. For me, reading is more enjoyable when I don’t have to worry about AR points, so this is a one time opportunity for the students. Their champion is close, now he just needs to finish strong.

Here’s how the race looks in the final stretch.

The top three:


4th grade boy: 1,199.4

5th grade girl: 657.7

*For those of you you who are wondering what the heck I’m talking about, I’m having a contest with the students this year. If any of them get more Accelerated Reader points than me, I have to shave my beard.*


An Author Visit To Remember

Yesterday, Shelley Moore Thomas, author of the Good Night, Good Knight books and the middle grade novel The Seven Tales of Trinket visited our school. It was phe……wait for it….nomenal.

It all started sometime last February. I’m always trying to think ahead when it comes to author visits. Who can I get next year, what about the year after that? Authors are busy people, so it never hurts to book them way ahead of time. My favorite book of 2013 was The Seven Tales of Trinket. I loved the Irish folklore throughout the book, and I really felt like I could relate to Trinket. I loved the book so much that I added Shelley to the list of possible authors for our 2014 Spring visit.It didn’t take long for me to decide that Mrs. Thomas was the perfect fit. Her picture books are adorable and I knew the younger ages would love her. Her novel is terrific, so the older students would get a lot out of her talking about that. She’s a professional storyteller and knows how to captivate a crowd, and she’s a third grade teacher, so she knows how to speak to children. I sent her an email, and we booked a visit for sometime between April 7-11 (California’s Spring Break).

Throughout this school year, since the summer session really, I’ve been pumping the kids up, throwing the Good Night, Good Knight books into my story times (something I would have done anyways) and telling them they would be meeting the author in April. I’ve been selling Trinket to my 4th and 5th graders hard. A lot of the third graders have read it, too. The last few weeks especially, I’ve pushed her books extra hard, with good results.

Things got a little complicated last month when it came time to order books for the students to get signed during the visit. In my experience, I’ve found that it’s very rare for the authors to have copies of their own books on hand to sell and sign. That means that I have to  send home an order form with the students featuring the author’s available books. A few days later, the parents send me the form back with the books they want selected along with the money to pay for them. Then I order the books through our local, independent bookstore. This is always the most difficult part about planning for an author visit, for me at least. During these weeks, there are always order forms and sheets with titles and tally marks strewn about my office. This time it was a little more difficult than usual. I got an email sometime in the middle of our Spring Break from the book seller letting me know that they had made a mistake. One of the books that they had told me was available actually wasn’t. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if we had known before hand. I just wouldn’t have put the title on the students’ order forms, but since I already had, and 35 students had ordered and paid for the the book, we had to figure something out. When we got back to school after the break, I sent a letter home with the 35 kids, giving them two options. They could replace the book with a similarly priced book or they could get a refund check. It was a major headache, but I finally heard back from the parents with mixed responses. (some wanted new books, some wanted a check) It finally all got sorted out right before the visit.

Last week, I had the 3rd and 4th graders (the 5th graders were at a nature camp all week) make welcome posters for the visit. They were all very excited and worked hard. Friday, after school, I hung the posters all over the library, and went to pick up  the books from the local bookseller. Finally, everything was in place. Saint James was ready for Shelly Moore Thomas.

Monday morning arrived, and the weather was terrible. It was flooding all across the county, and there were tornado watches in nearby counties. I knew Mrs. Thomas was from California, and I didn’t know if she had ever experienced a tornado watch or warning, or rain for that matter. (I’m joking, of course) My mind immediately went to the worst case scenario. I pictured the tornado sirens going off during one of her presentations, and us all having to hunker down in the hallways for the rest of the day. Luckily, the severe weather passed and Shelley arrived at Saint James without any trouble. She didn’t seem bothered by the weather at all.

The day started out with a bang. We had 130ish 3-5 year olds crammed into the library, and Shelley brought the house down. There were literally rolling on the floor, laughing. They loved her puppets, her storytelling (She told a hilarious, interactive version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”) and her reading of Good Night, Good Knight. Afterwards, she signed tons of books for the students, and before we could catch or breath, the 1st and 2nd graders were filing in.

This session was similar to the first, but not really. Each one was unique for the age group. She still used her puppets, but instead of Goldilocks she told a very funny version of “Fin M’coul: The Giant of Knockmany Hill.” I usually read this story to the older kids, but not the 1st and 2nd graders, so they got to hear it for the first time from a much better storyteller than myself. She then read her book Take Care, Good Knight, took questions from the audience, and then allowed her herself to be mobbed by eager students wanting their books signed.

We took a break after that for lunch, and returned just in time for next session, a mixture of the third, fourth and 5th graders. For this session, Shelly shared some of her 2nd grade writing and artwork. talked about writing and finding inspiration, and then told a haunting version of “The Stolen Child”, an Irish tale about fairy kidnappers. She then talked about how she used folklore and mixed it into The Seven Tales of Trinket and still and made it her own. After thatm took questions and signed for the students.The mood for this session was different, a little more mature for older children, and they loved it as well.

The last session was for 4th and 5th graders, and one third grade class.It was much like the session before, but a little different. Shelley told “The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies” for this group. The students had all heard me read the book before, but you couldn’t tell at all. Shelley’s version was so unique and interactive, they all acted like they had never heard it before.

When the last session was over, and Saint James had to say goodbye to Shelly Moore Thomas, I sat down in the empty library. I knew that for me, the day was a huge success. Every single child seemed incredible happy. Usually, at this point, I breathe a sigh of relief, glad that the day is finished, but it wasn’t like that. I was sad to see it go. It had been so much fun, and I wish that every day could be like that.

We had a faculty meeting after school, the teachers all raved about Mrs. Thomas and how awesome she was. They all agreed that it was the best author visit they had ever witnessed, and I agree. I’ve met several authors, and heard them speak to children, but Shelley Moore Thomas did it like no one I’ve ever heard before. She’s a wonderful mixed concoction of author, storyteller, teacher, and avid reader, and she was exactly what I wanted for our students.