“Which book is longer?” asked an 11th grader after hearing my book talks for the two competitors of the day.
It’s March Book Madness time in my high school library: my favorite activity of the year. Each day, I walk around promoting the books in that day’s competition and asking students which one they would rather read. What I love most about the book tournament is that it pushes me to interact with the students in a way that is directly related to books and reading.
After listening to the student’s question, I quickly searched my brain for an analogy that would resonate with the table of boys I was standing over.
“Length shouldn’t be a deciding factor,” I began. “Would you rather watch a short Tik-Tok video of a middle-aged woman like me talking about makeup, or a longer clip of a basketball star playing a practical joke on his friend?”
The point seemed to sink in. They cast their votes and I moved on to the next table, reminding them all that they could also sign into the school library’s Canvas page and vote using the daily Google Form.
March Book Madness is a tournament that, in an ideal world, would be based on books that students read and judge. A few years ago, on one of the Facebook librarian groups, I found a comment referencing my Knowledge Quest article that had outlined the way I set up the tournament in my school library. The writer criticized the fact that I didn’t require students to read the books for which they were voting. She felt that my competition format played into students’ increasing lack of interest in books.
I’m continually frustrated by the fact that smart phones take up so much of potential readers’ time. Teenagers today don’t read books or enter into in-depth conversation as often as those of the past did. What I’ve found through my approach to March Book Madness is that talking about books with students is a step in the right direction.
Titles in this year’s bracket include topics such as an Indigenous teen struggling with identity; competitive figure skaters grappling with their pasts; Cuban immigrants finding their way in Miami; a Peruvian American girl dealing with hip dysplasia; and a social media influencer coming to terms with sibling jealousy. Every one of these themes sparked conversation among my students. Whether they plan to read the books or not, they are now aware of them after discussing the related issues with their peers and me. One student has been taking the same book off the book display each day and reading it during her free period.
Increasing reading motivation among teens is one of my main goals as a librarian. It’s also one that appears to be slipping through my fingers at an alarming rate. During another book talk this week, a 12th grader bragged that he hadn’t read a book since 5th grade. I joked that once he’s in college he won’t be able to get an A without actually reading the book. He smiled and said his brother is a junior in college (at an Ivy League school) and he hasn’t read a book yet. He has straight As.
If only I could clone my obsession with reading and plant it into the brains of all the young, growing teenagers. As Emily Boudreau from the Harvard Graduate School of Education states, “literature has the potential to be so much more than a vehicle for practical instruction” (2021). When I was an English teacher, I was able to set aside each Friday for silent reading. As a school librarian, it’s not as simple to require teens to read while spending time in my space. As I continue to tweak the details of my yearly March Book Madness tournament, I plan to keep searching for ways to engage my students and foster a genuine interest in reading. Maybe one day March Book Madness will become a national tournament like the NCAA basketball March Madness. Until then, I’ll cheer on the books in our library bracket and eagerly watch to see which book becomes this year’s champion.
Boudreau, Emily. 2021. “Help Teens Connect to Fiction | Harvard Graduate School of Education.” Harvard Graduate School of Education. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/21/10/help-teens-connect-fiction.
Author: Karin Greenberg
Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.