What’s a shelf talker?

Well, if you still shop at brick-and-mortar bookstores (instead of always ordering new books online)–and especially if you’re lucky enough to have an enthusiastically staffed little local bookshop in your town–you’ve probably seen one before. They look like this:

A shelf talker written by Rachel for Caldecott winner This is Not My Hat
A shelf talker written by Rachel for Caldecott winner This is Not My Hat

If you’re browsing around in the bookstore and looking for a recommendation, the shelf talker might help you make a choice. It might attract your attention to a book you may otherwise have overlooked. And, if you know the person who wrote the shelf talker, you might even think to yourself, “Well, if my friend Rachel liked this book, then maybe I will, too!”

Basically, a shelf talker is a tiny little book review written by someone who loved the book enough to pass it along to all their book-loving pals.

So when one of our second grade teachers, Mrs. Favors, and I were chatting about how her kiddos were going to be learning how to write book reviews, our conversation quickly turned into an idea for collaboration and some very authentic student writing!

Planning the project:

We planned for our shelf talker mini-project to take two weeks in the library: one week for students to learn from an expert shelf talker writer, and one week for students to compose their own shelf talkers about books that they love.

And, of course, we had the perfect experts in mind!

Just down the road from our school is Avid Bookshop, a cozy little store that we collaborated with last year for a writing contest celebrating the release of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.

Rachel Watkins, mama to two Chase Street Tree Frogs, is also a bookseller and the PR and events coordinator for Avid–and she was thrilled to share her expert knowledge with our students.

She agreed to speak to all three of our second grade classes during their regularly scheduled library visits, which meant that she came to see us from 1:00 to 1:30 on a Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

(While we probably could have arranged a time when she could speak to all 57 second graders at once, I think it helped all of the kids to learn from her in a smaller, more intimate group.)

We really appreciated Rachel being willing to share so much of her time with our students!

Week 1: Learning from an expert

The week before she came, she emailed me photos of a variety of children’s book shelf talkers from around the store, and I compiled the images into a Google Presentation so that she could easily click any image to show it to the kids close up:

Rachel sent a great variety of picture books, chapter books, graphic novels, newer books and old favorites!
Rachel sent shelf talkers for a great variety of picture books, chapter books, graphic novels, newer books and old favorites!

Of course, as soon as the kids saw all of these exciting book covers, they were all ears to what Rachel had to teach them!

Some of the shelf talkers Rachel shared were great models for the kids to follow–concise, attention-grabbing, and easy for customers of all ages to understand. Many of these also shared personal connections to the book, like how she had read it with her own children, or connections to other similar stories.

Other examples, she pointed out, were a little less effective because they were longer or harder to read than she would prefer for a kids’ book. I really loved that Rachel gave the kids ideas about what not to do, too, because the following week the kids were very aware of being concise and conveying some real enthusiasm for their books!

Here are a few more close-ups of the examples that she shared with us:

Now, it was time for Rachel to guide the kids through the process of writing their own shelf talker.

For this part, we chose a super short, super fun book so that the kids would have plenty of time to compose their own review–and so that they would have plenty to say about the book, Oh My Oh My Oh DINOSAURS! by Sandra Boynton:

image from http://www.indiebound.org

First, Rachel read the book aloud, straight through from start to finish, so that the kids would all have a common frame of reference to start with:

Next, she had students brainstorm a list of noticings about the book, which included everything from the content to the writing style to the illustrations:

As students shared their ideas, Rachel jotted some notes on the board, then used those notes and the students’ input to write a shelf talker for the book:

Rachel even let the kids have a little Q&A session with her before she left, and the two most popular questions were “What kinds of books do you sell?” and “Where is the bookstore?”

(I wouldn’t be surprised if Avid gained some new second grade customers as a result of Rachel’s visits! :))

The kids’ homework for the week? Think of books for their own shelf talkers!

Week 2: Writing on our own

The following week, I talked students through the process one more time, and I made an organizer to help students record their noticings about the books they were reviewing:

My example, written about Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs & Ham
My example, written about Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham

This part of the project was done during the week of Read Across America Day, so of course I had to use a Seuss favorite as my example. 🙂

I gave students index cards for publishing their shelf talkers, and I showed them my finished shelf talker for Green Eggs and Ham:

Title, author, 2-4 sentences about the book, and a signature at the bottom
Title, author, 2-4 sentences about the book, and a signature at the bottom

(My example actually errs a little towards the side of too long, but I wanted students to see how my notes in the organizer translated into complete sentences about the book in the finished shelf talker. I would probably edit this down a little next time.)

Students had the rest of their library visit to work on their shelf talkers, and those who didn’t finish were given time in their classrooms to complete them if they wanted to.

Week 3: Showing off our work!

The most important part of this, of course, was that we wanted the writing to be written for an authentic purpose–so all of the shelf talkers that were written about books in our collection are now stuck on the stacks all around the library!

Some students wrote about books from home and explained that they wanted to put their shelf talkers up at their houses. And one student (a regular Avid customer) informed me that he was going to take his shelf talker to Avid for them to hang up there!

The students were thrilled to see their own shelf talkers and their friends’ recommendations displayed all over the library, and I have already seen many other students reading the shelf talkers while they were browsing for their books.

This is an activity that I can’t wait to try with other classes, and I would love to see shelf talkers hanging all over the library to help kids find their new favorite books. 🙂