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A Content-Rich Christmas Gift Guide

We can’t say enough about the deep impact of a content-rich literacy curriculum on student success—indeed, we’ve mentioned it in a few of our Partnership Posts (here, here, and here, for example). Ample research demonstrates—and our own students’ performance growth shows—that reading comprehension doesn’t just require skills like decoding; it depends on the prior knowledge students bring to each text. So from their earliest days with us until eighth grade graduation, our students are reading texts that build broad knowledge—of history, science, the arts, and the world.

But as we head toward Christmas, there’s another aspect to the books our students explore that’s worth sharing: they are fun to read. We love reading them ourselves. More than one has disappeared from the shelves of our academic team only to show up a few days later in the hands of a coworker, gushing about how much they enjoyed the book.

So if you’re still looking for stocking stuffers for the young people in your life, or you just want a book to stay in your pajamas and read this holiday season, our team has a few to recommend. The first five on our list each come from our curriculum and are recommended by a member of our academic team.

The second five recommendations come from two other Partnership book lovers. St. Mark the Evangelist librarian and author David Ellis has a wide-ranging eye for literature children will love at all ages. His interviews with children’s authors and illustrators this summer highlight additional authors, so be sure to revisit our Post with him for more recommendations. And David’s colleague James Dooley, who teaches middle school English and religion at St. Mark’s, adds a few recommendations to round out our list.

We’ve put recommended ages below many of the books, but those are a loose guide; again, we’ve been riveted by these works as adults.

So without further ado, our Christmas book buying guide:

Bud, Not Buddy

Christopher Paul Curtis

Recommended by: Karen Cichon, Director of Curriculum:

It happens I have two elementary-age children at home, which certainly comes in handy when it’s time for me preview potential novels for our Partnership classrooms. It’s like I have my own little focus group gathered each night for bedtime stories! Of all the books from the Reading Reconsidered curriculum that I’ve shared with my own kids over the last few years, Bud Not Buddy is hands down our favorite.

This Newbery Medal Winner is about a 10-year-old motherless boy living in Flint, Michigan, during the Great Depression. Having had enough of the orphanage and the foster system, Bud sets out to find the man he’s convinced is his father—a legendary Jazz musician named Herman E. Calloway. Bud narrates his own journey, which provides an innocent and oftentimes laugh-out-loud funny perspective of the harsh realities he faces, and the heartwarming people he meets.

Recommended ages: 10 and up


Laurie Halse Anderson

Recommended by: John Bacsik, Director of Professional Development

Chains follows the story of Isabel, a thirteen-year-old enslaved girl, during the Revolutionary War, as she fights for her freedom amidst the context of colonies fighting for theirs.  Isabel finds herself in an unfamiliar city, playing the role of protector for her younger sister, as they both navigate this turbulent time in American history.

This first-person narration places readers right into Isabel’s shoes as she and her new friend, Curzon, endure several frightening experiences as the tensions between Loyalists and Patriots in New York hit an all time high.

Lovers of historical fiction will appreciate the depictions that Laurie Halse Anderson provides of the streets of New York and what they may have looked and sounded like nearly 250 years ago. You’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat several times throughout this novel, holding your breath right alongside Isabel.

Luckily, readers can follow Isabel’s journey well beyond this novel, as Chains is just the first book in The Seeds of America Trilogy.

Recommended ages: 12-15

Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson

Recommended by: Nehemie Villarceau, Talent and Academic Manager

Though set in the 1960s and 70s, Jacqueline Woodson’s poems can almost be read as journal entries that can be familiar to girls (and boys) from all over. The poems include deep and intimate stories of a range of experiences, including being a struggling reader as a child, sitting in the kitchen on a Sunday at the hands of her grandmother and a hot comb, and navigating life and finding belonging in her community. Brown Girl Dreaming is a capturing read that is relatable to any preteen.

Recommended ages: preteen

The Outsiders

S.E. Hinton

Recommended by: Maggie Johnson, Vice President of Academics

Beloved by parents as much as their children, this timeless story about Ponyboy and his band of brothers—the “Greasers”—will leave you in awe of it’s teenage author, S.E. Hinton.

Young readers are, without fail, enthralled by the tensions between the Greasers and a rival group—the affluent “Socs,” who seem to make their own rules. When things come to a head between the two groups, Ponyboy and his gentle friend Johnny must go into hiding. While stowed away in an abandoned church in a rural town, they grapple with big questions about the society Ponyboy feels has unfairly relegated him and his gang to the margins. By the end of this powerful story about loyalty, identity and redemption, you’ll find yourself combing your hair back with pomade—60’s style— and muttering those eternal words… “Stay gold.”

Don’t forget to check out Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation when you’re all done—but not a second before. It’s a star studded cast.

Recommended ages: 12 and up

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (short story)

Ursula K. Le Guin

Recommended by: Christian Dallavis, Assistant Superintendent

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” by Ursula K. Le Guin, is among the most thought-provoking stories I’ve read. The story begins, simply enough, as a joyous fairy tale. The setting is an idyllic, seemingly enchanted place that is home to people who are universally happy—almost impossibly so.

The narrator asks if we believe it. “No? Then let me describe one more thing.”

Omelas has a secret. And the implications of that secret, and how the people of Omelas respond to it, will challenge you to think about your own place in our world. This is a story that is best read with others, because you will want to plumb the depths of the secret of Omelas, to consider the deep-seated social issues and historical crimes that polite society papers over, and examine how people ought to respond to evil in the world when it stares them in the face. In just a handful of pages, the story has the power to haunt the reader with powerful questions long after closing the book.

Recommended Ages: 12 and up

St . Mark Librarian David Ellis also recommends:

All Because You Matter

Author: Tami Charles; Illustrator Bryan Collier

A marvelous book to remind students that they matter and that they are special. This book would also give students hope and help them to be proud of their roots. I fell in love with not only the words but also the illustrations.

Recommended ages: all

The Silver Arrow

Lev Grossman

A great story about kids who have an adventure on a magical train, The Silver Arrow touches on topics including animals, environment and climate change. This book will have students use their imagination; it is filled with magic and mystery.

Recommended ages: middle school

Becoming Muhammad Ali

Authors James Patterson & Kwame Alexander; Illustrator Dawud Anyabwile

This is a breathtaking book about Muhammad Ali’s childhood for middle school students, especially those who love sports. An amazing introduction to poetry for students, the writing and illustrations bring Muhammad Ali to life. This is a very inspiring story, letting students know to never give up and to keep trying, no matter what you go through in life.

Recommended ages: middle school

St. Mark teacher James Dooley also recommends two series:

The Chronicles of Narnia

C.S. Lewis

I recommend The Chronicles of Narnia to students that enjoy mythology and fantasy books. C.S. Lewis is an author who writes books that speak across time. The themes of Good and Evil and the difficult choices of life are timeless. In addition, many students’ parents enjoyed reading this series when they were growing up, so students can bond with their parents over a series that has only grown in popularity with time.

Recommended ages: 8 and up

Artemis Fowl

Eoin Colfer

The story of a world-traveling, semi-criminal, billionaire, kid-genius appeals to those who enjoy an adventure. I recommend the Artemis Fowl series to students that enjoy the overlap of science fiction and fantasy.

Recommended ages: 9 and up

As communities first and foremost, we would be remiss if we didn’t encourage you to join our community of readers and get your books at a neighborhood bookstore. David recommends two Harlem bookstores: Revolution Books and Sisters Uptown Bookstore. And our colleague Portia Gadson in Cleveland recommends Loganberry Books. All have online shopping options, and if you haven’t discovered yet, it’s worth exploring this way of shopping local bookstores online.