Speed Dating with Books: The Power of Creative Nonfiction

This year I was thrilled to be back in person for our yearly 11th-grade Speed Dating with Books event. Though last year’s digital version was successful, it could not compare to the energy of a live activity. Amid the chaos of the past two years, students seem to be craving connection to the world around them. Nonfiction has proven to be a powerful tool through which they can achieve this. 

Books That Motivate High School Students

It’s a constant struggle to get high school students to read for pleasure. One of the most disheartening comments I overhear in my library is, ”I didn’t even read the book and I got an A on the summer reading assignment.” The students who like to read admit to me that they rarely have time to pick up a book unrelated to school work. Those who have not yet experienced the joy of reading don’t see any reason to try to fit it into their busy schedules. 

The Independent Reading Project is a unique opportunity to introduce students to books that have the capacity to excite them. Presented with a list of 10 nonfiction titles, they choose one; this sense of agency sets a positive tone from the start. When I initially collaborated with my English teacher colleague four years ago, many of the books I chose were complex nonfiction books such as I Was Told to Come Alone and The Far Away Brothers. Both are impactful and moving narratives but after observing the students who chose those titles, I realized that the texts were too dense to keep teenagers hooked. As the years went by, I learned that what engages students most is conversational, accessible, and fast-paced writing; books that fell into the category of creative nonfiction. Now, when I prepare each year’s list, I lean heavily on memoir. If I do choose books that contain more investigative reporting, I include ones that have a distinct attraction. For example, one of this year’s choices is The Lost Boys of Montauk, which tells the story of four fishermen lost at sea in 1984. Since our school is located on the same island as Montauk, many students have been there and perked up at the mention of a mysterious case relating to a popular summer destination. 

Speed Dating 

Speed dating is a creative, entertaining way to introduce students to a list of independent reading books. Because we don’t yet have our regular round tables back in the library, I set up the individual desks in pairs of two and placed the book summaries and book stands at each station. In larger classes, some students had to triple up at one station. As I did in the past, I gave a slide presentation where I displayed the first sentence of each book and its cover while giving a brief book talk. I encouraged them to mark a + or – on reading charts to record their initial reactions. I then set a timer for two minutes, told the students to read the summary, look through the pages of the book, write down the main idea, and when the timer went off, move to the next station. Though this activity worked well in the past, it was even more productive this time around. Limiting the groups to two or three helped the students concentrate. In the past, some tables had groups as large as five, which for high schoolers, fosters natural conversation and interrupted their book analyses. Having a dialogue with only one other person allowed for a more focused interaction. 

It’s been a few weeks since the lesson and recently a number of students have stopped by my desk to discuss their books with me (full disclosure: student networks have been down so they needed me to print their reflection essays, but still…). It’s a pleasure seeing students get animated while talking about books. With each new junior class I’m reminded that this is the first time some of them have experienced the rush that comes from being engaged with a non-academic book.

This Year’s Nonfiction List

This Is Really Happening by Erin Chack

The Lost Boys of Montauk by Amanda M. Fairbanks

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

I Live a Life Like Yours by Jan Grue

Maid by Stephanie Land

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Beauty in the Broken Places by Allison Pataki

Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance


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.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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