August 23, 2017

Ring the Bell–Finding Friendship in Diverse Back-to-School Books

Written by Deborah B. Ford

Losers clubLabor Day marks the official end of summer and, for many people, the start of the new school year. It’s time to put away bathing suits and flip-flops and perhaps put on school uniforms or back-to-school clothes. It’s time for packing lunches and catching up with old friends. New school supplies are everywhere! Don’t you love the smell of new crayons and freshly sharpened pencils?

It’s also a time for kids to keep their eyes open to the possibilities of new friendships. For Chase Ambrose (Restart by Gordon Korman), it means creating a different identity. For Cammi del Valle (The Go-Between by Veronica Chambers), the start of school means facing a stereotype head-on. Clayton Byrd (Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia) can’t seem to stay awake in class—but for good reason. 

For real-life kids, September can also be scary—new school, new teachers, or even new bullies. The following Junior Library Guild selections may help readers see all sides of the back-to-school season. 

ANDERSOPostedN, John David. Posted. 384p. Walden Pond. 2017. ISBN 9780062338204. JLG Category: RFM+ Realistic Fiction Middle Plus (Grades 5-8).

Booktalk to Go:

In middle school, words aren’t just words. They can be weapons. They can be gifts. The right words can win you friends, or make you enemies.

Readers will find stories they can relate to in our new category, Realistic Fiction Middle Plus. In Posted, cell phones are banned. As teens often do, they find a new way to communicate—the sticky note. What begins as notes between Frost and his friends catches on and soon turns to written bullying. “Sticky notes were the weapons and words were the ammunition.” As Frost knows—he writes poetry of his own—words can also lift you up. Only you can decide how to use your words.

Boy called batARNOLD, Elana K. A Boy Called Bat. illus. by Charles Santoso. 208p. Walden Pond. 2017. ISBN 9780062445827. JLG Category I Independent Readers (Grades 2-4).

Booktalk to Go:

For Bixby Alexander Tam (nicknamed Bat), life tends to be full of surprises—some of them good, some not so good. Today, though, is a good-surprise day. Bat’s mom, a veterinarian, has brought home a baby skunk, which she needs to take care of until she can hand him over to a wild-animal shelter.

But the minute Bat meets the kit, he knows they belong together. And he’s got one month to show his mom that a baby skunk might just make a pretty terrific pet.

Reading about a character with special needs is one way to help kids develop understanding, empathy and compassion. Bat is a young boy on the autistic spectrum. The point of the story, however, is about proving he can take care of a pet. The beauty of this tender story is that readers will see that Bat is very much like them. He’s smart. He loves animals. And with a little effort on his part, he can learn to be a friend too.

Miss Ellicotts schoolBLACKWOOD, Saga. Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded. 368p. Katherine Tegen Books. 2017. ISBN 9780062402639. JLG Category: FM+ Fantasy/Science Fiction Middle Plus (Grades 5-8).

Booktalk to Go:

Chantel would much rather focus on her magic than on curtsying, which is why she often finds herself in trouble at Miss Ellicott’s School for Magical Maidens. But when Miss Ellicott mysteriously disappears along with all the other sorceresses in the city, Chantel’s behavior becomes the least of her problems.

Though you’d never expect it, Blackwood’s fantasy novel is perfect for diversity and inclusion. Class and orphans are the objects of prejudice. Chantel even struggles with the “proper behavior” for girls, when she’d much rather be a scientist. Who cares about magic for setting up a tea party? Wouldn’t it be better to find a faster way to do laundry? Closing the final chapter may find readers longing for more adventures of the new-found friendships of Chantel and her mates.

Go BetweemCHAMBERS, Veronica. The Go-Between. 208p. Delacorte. 2017. ISBN 9781101930953. JLG Category: PGH+ PG High Plus (Grades 9 & Up).

Booktalk to Go:

In Mexico City, Cammi lives a life of luxury. Her father is a voice actor and her mother is a telenovela actress. When her mom gets a new role in LA, Cammi’s new friends make the faulty assumption that she’s a poor kid on a scholarship. What if she just played the stereotypical role? Then she could teach these kids a lesson about jumping to conclusions.

Chambers takes a stereotype of a Latina family and gives it a twist. Poverty and domestic service exist as occupations in every culture. Perhaps by putting themselves in Cammi’s shoes, teens will find that they think twice before they judge people from the outside.

CLEMENTS, Andrew. The Losers Club. 240p. Random. 2017. ISBN 9780399557569. JLG Category: A Intermediate Readers (Grades 3-5).

Sixth grader Alec can’t put a good book down.

So when Principal Vance lays down the law—pay attention in class, or else—Alec takes action. He can’t lose all his reading time, so he starts a club. A club he intends to be the only member of. After all, reading isn’t a team sport, and no one would want to join something called the Losers
Club, right?

Once again, a bully rears his ugly head in this just right story by Andrew Clements. Though Alec is a good kid, once he has an upper hand, it’s hard not to use it. Can Alec choose to do the right thing—even when the bad guy deserves it?

Life in MotionCOPELAND, Misty and Brandy Colbert. Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina: Young Readers Edition. 192p. Aladdin. 2017. ISBN 9781481479790. JLG Category: SM+ Sports Middle Plus (Grades: 5-8).

As the first African-American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland has been breaking down all kinds of barriers in the world of dance. But when she first started dancing—at the late age of thirteen—no one would have guessed the shy, underprivileged girl would one day make history in her field.

DAVIES, Jacqueline. Nothing But Trouble. 320p. Katherine Tegen. 2016. ISBN 9780062369888. JLG Category: PGM+ PG Middle Plus (Grades 5 – 8).

Lena is the new girl at school and she’s certainly got her own drum. Somehow she clicks with Maggie, a budding scientist and engineer. Before you know it, there is nothing but trouble.

Davies’s tale is more than a new-girl-at-school book. Maggie comes with her own baggage—her father died long ago. Lena gives Maggie just what she needs to pull off some seriously complicated pranks that cement their friendship. Along the way Maggie gets a chance to put herself in her family’s shoes—and is surprised by what she finds.

WILLIAMS-GARCIA, Rita. Clayton Byrd Goes Underground. illus. by author. 176p. Amistad. 2017. ISBN 9780062215918. JLG Category: CE City Elementary (Grades 2-6).

Losing Cool Papa Byrd is almost more than Clayton can handle. His grandpa read to him every night and let him tag along when he played with his blues band. All Clayton wants to do is play his blues harp. His mama has other ideas. So Clayton runs away to join the band. His subway journey takes a turn he never expected.

Each child handles grief differently. Many kids just shut down. Readers may see themselves in Clayton, who rather than tell his teacher why he’s falling asleep in class, he says nothing and gets sent to the office. For teachers and librarians it’s a reminder to look for reasons a child is not negotiating the school waters well. Finding out the reason can make all the difference to a child.


Here are some additional stories with a diverse assortment of characters and what happens when they go to school.

FRANK, Steven B. Armstrong & Charlie.304 p. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2017. ISBN 9780544826083. JLG Category: C Advanced Readers (Grades 6-9).

FRIER, Raphaele. Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education. illus. by Aurelia Fronty. 48p. Charlesbridge. 2017. ISBN 9781580897853. JLG Category: BE+ Biography Elementary Plus (Grades 2-6).

GERBER, Alyson.Braced. 304p. Arthur A. Levine. 2017. ISBN 978054902144. JLG Category: PGM+ PG Middle Plus (Grades: 5-8).

JAMIESON, Victoria. All’s Faire in Middle School. illus. by author. 248p. Dial. 2017. ISBN 9780525429982. JLG Category: GM+ Graphic Middle Plus (Grades 5-8).

KELLY, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe.illus. by Isabel Roxas. 320p. Greenwillow. 2017. ISBN 9780062414151. JLG Category: B Upper Elementary and Middle (Grades 5-7).

KING, Amy Sarig. Me and Marvin Gardens. 256p. Arthur A. Levine. 2017. ISBN 9780545870740. JLG Category: B+ Upper Elementary/Middle Plus (Grades 5-7).

KORMAN, Gordon. Restart. 256p. Scholastic. 2017. ISBN 9781338053777. JLG Category: HIM+ High Interest Middle Plus (Grades 5-8). 

MURPHY, Jim. Revenge of the Green Banana.160p. Clarion. 2017. ISBN 9780544786776. JLG Category: B Upper Elementary and Middle (Grades 5-7). 

ROBBINS, Dean. Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing.Illus. by Lucy Kinsley. 40p. Knopf. 2017. ISBN 9780399551864. JLG Category: SCE+ Science Elementary Plus (Grade 2-6).

SHANG, Wendy Wan-Long and Madelyn Rosenberg. This is Just a Test. 256p. Scholastic. 2017. ISBN 9781338037722. JLG Category: RFM+ Realistic Fiction Middle Plus (Grades 5-8).

SPRINGSTUBB, Tricia. Cody and the Rules of Life. illus. by Eliza Wheeler. 176p. Candlewick. 2017. ISBN 9780763679200. JLG Category: I+ Independent Plus (Grades 2-4).

STANLEY, Diane. Joplin, Wishing. 272p. HarperCollins. 2017. ISBN 9780062423702. JLG Category: CE City Elementary (Grades 2-6).

THOMAS, Angie. The Hate U Give. illus. by author. 464p. Balzer + Bray. 2017. ISBN 9780062498533. JLG Category: HIH+ High-Interest High Plus (Grades 10 & Up)

UWIRINGIYIMANA, Sandra and Abigail Pesta. How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child. 304p. Katherine Tegen. 2017. ISBN 9780062470140. JLG Category: NH+ Nonfiction High Plus (Grades 9 & Up).

WILLIAMS-GARCIA, Rita. Clayton Byrd Goes Underground. illus. by author. 176p. Amistad. 2017. ISBN 9780062215918. JLG Category: CE City Elementary (Grades 2-6).

ZARR, Sara. Gem & Dixie. 288p. Balzer + Bray. 2017. ISBN 9780062434593. JLG Category: Y Young Adult (Grades 9 & Up).

 Additional Resources

With the turn of the publishing calendar, a new JLG Booktalks to Go: Fall 2017 LiveBinder has been created. Titles are sorted by interest level. Clicking on that tab will take you to the books and their resources. You can also find the BTG Titles at Junior Library Guild on the book’s detail page. Look for the JLG Booktalks to Go tab. The link will take you directly to the LiveBinder. Follow us on Pinterest and you’ll see new books as they are added to our JLG Booktalks to Go board. Everything you need to teach or share brand new, hot-off-the-press books is all in one place.

For library resources, tips, and ideas, please visit JLG’s Shelf Life Blog.

Be sure to revisit last year’s back-to-school ideas in The Horn’s Book’s What Makes a Good School Story? and my article in the same newsletter, Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic.






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Deborah B. Ford

Deborah B. Ford

Deborah B. Ford, JLG’s Director of Library Outreach, is an award-winning library media specialist and international speaker with almost thirty years of experience as a classroom teacher and librarian in K–12 schools. Traveling across North America, she does workshops, library coaching, and professional development for school and public libraries. Deborah is the author of JLG's Booktalks to Go @ SLJ. She also maintains an award-winning coordinating online resource at Contact her at Follow her on Twitter @jlgdeborahford.

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