Closing the Door on an Amazing Year

The last couple of weeks of school were tough. The kids were wild and out of control most of the time, and it seemed like they had checked out mentally during spring break. Every day you would hear the countdown everywhere you turned. Any time you passed someone in the hallway, it was, “15 days left, only 13 school days, though.”

By the time the last day got here, I, for one, was worn out. I was trying so hard to not just coast, to make every library class on those last few days as meaningful as the first day of school, but it got harder and harder as the end got nearer.

When the final day of school came, everyone went into celebration mode. It was a half day of school, and the only classes I had scheduled to come in were the 3 and 4 year olds. I love reading to those kids, and when I’m having fun the day flies by, so that last day of school went by before it felt like it really got started.

After school, we had a faculty gathering in the library to eat and to say goodbye to and celebrate the teachers who are retiring or moving on to different things. It was all really festive and what you would expect. Everyone was in high spirits. Summer had officially arrived!

Afterwards, I walked over to the circulation desk to gather up a few books I had set aside to take home and read over the week that I would be away (I go back the first week of June for the summer reading session). There was a book that I hadn’t put there sitting on the top of the stack. Luckily, I hadn’t shut down the computer, or logged out of the circulation system yet.

I scanned the bar-code to check the book in, and the record of the student who had turned the book in popped up. I cringed, not sure what to expect. This student was the best reader in the school this year, and just a week ago, he had 15 books checked out (I didn’t apply check out limits to him this year. What am I talking about? I don’t really apply them to anyone except the kids that I know are going to lose their books.) He’s leaving the country next week never to return to our school, and if he still had any books checked out, I was never going to see them again. I looked at the screen.Next to his name it said, books checked out-0.

That moment, it all hit me at once. I was never going to check out a huge stack of books to him again. Heck, I was never even going to see him again. I was never going to help any of my fifth graders find books again. As much as they drove me nuts this year, I’m going to miss them. I started listing in my head all of the students that aren’t coming back next year. They’re either homeschooling or going to a different school. All of a sudden I wasn’t feeling so jubilant about school being out. I realized that I was closing the door on a pretty darn good year.

I loved my first year at this school, but this year, the second, was even better. I still felt like I was getting to know the faculty and students here last year. This year, I felt like the teachers were my friends, and I already knew most of the students well this time around. The students helped design the new book drop last year (See here.), but we actually got the finished product this year. (See here) We had one author visit last year, and it was good, but this year we had TWO, and the second author, Shelley Moore Thomas, brought the house down. I don’t know how I’m ever going to top her visit. We had the Battle of the Beard this year, and that was a lot of fun.I lost, and that was really the best way it could have ended. I read some amazing books this year, along with my super students. We watched the Youth Media Awards together, and we all cheered for Doll Bones and Flora and Ulysses when they got Newbery stickers. One of the students actually had Flora in her lap as we were watching, and she jumped up in celebration when it won. Most importantly, I  saw some students who struggled with getting interested in reading for two whole school years, come around at the end and fall in love with some books. One of them was a fifth grader and I really hope that spark started something that she’ll take with her to middle school.

After I put that book down on top of a pyramid of titles on my overflowing book cart, and grabbed my stack of books to take home, I took a deep breath and said goodbye to the 2013-2014 school year. Some really good things happened, and I’m lucky that I got to be a small part of it all.

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.