Library advocate and author of The New Librarianship Field Guide, R. David Lankes describes librarians or media specialists as being “change agents” in a community rather than being just neutral curators. Florida school librarians, in conjunction with the Florida Association for Media in Education (FAME) and the Florida Department of Education, strive each year to engage and open the minds of students by encouraging them to read from the list of Sunshine State Young Readers Awards (SSYRA). If your children go to school in Florida, chances are they participate in this program.
Facilitated through the schools, the purpose of the SSYRA Program is to encourage a love of reading for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, while improving fluency. According to FAME, the Sunshine State books are chosen for their wide appeal, literary value, varied genres, curriculum connections, and multicultural representation. In order to be considered, the book must have been copyrighted in the past three years. No more than three books on the list are available only as hard bound to keep the cost of reading low, and the content must be age appropriate. Students, parents, teachers, and librarians can nominate books, which are then voted on by the SSYRA Committee of 20 librarians.
Giving students a choice
“Our students read for many reasons in school, and often read books that are assigned to them,” explains SSYRA Committee Chairperson Jenn Underhill. “SSYRA encourages students to choose what they want to read. They only need to read three of the 15 books in order to vote for their favorite in the spring. As a committee, we try to create a list that has something for every reader. We hope that no matter what a student’s interests are, they will find at least three books on the SSYRA list that excite them,” she says.
Last year, the SSYRA Jr. Program was added to engage Florida’s youngest readers. This year’s Chairperson and Sea Gate Elementary School’s Media Specialist Laurie Arnez says that she is excited about the 10 picture books and five beginning chapter books that were chosen. Arnez reads the picture books aloud to all of the kindergarten and first graders during their library story time, and she purchases copies of the chapter books for the more independent readers to enjoy at home. Her favorite “read aloud” book this year is I Yam a Donkey, by CeCe Bell. “I laugh every time I read this one,” she says. It’s a “great way to play with grammar.”
Getting the vote
While the ultimate reward for reading at least three books is the opportunity to vote on one winner, school media specialists can offer students other incentives to reach their goals. Arnez gives out charms for the students to collect as they complete each book and they can attend a party at the end of the school year. If a student finishes all 15 books, he or she is invited to speak about their favorite book on the school’s morning news. What the students really enjoy, she says, is getting to vote for their favorite in real election booths provided by Collier County election officials. Arnez also keeps older SSYRA titles on display in her library for avid readers to discover.
Pine Ridge Middle School Media Specialist Beth Lindenmeyer points out that several of this year’s middle school selections are part of a series and encourages students to start with the first book in that series. While the middle school doesn’t offer a reward system based on completion of the list, they do encourage students to read at least three titles so they can participate in the vote in March.
Regarding the genres of this year’s nominated books, Lindenmeyer likes that many of the selections are realistic fiction, offering mystery and suspense rather than the dystopian themes in years past. While students are encouraged to read as many of the SSYRA books as possible, students may want to start off with the selections that closely match their interests.
Here are some recommendations:
SSYRA Grades 3-5
The student who loves pets and animals may want to start off with The Pet War, by Allen Woodrow, which is about a family’s competition to determine what type of pet they will be allowed to have.
Fantasy fiction fans will enjoy reading about a clinic for magical creatures in Pip Barlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures, by Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater, or take an intergalactic journey while babysitting the galaxy’s toughest extraterrestrials in Gabby Duran and the Unsittables, by Daryle Conners and Elise Allen.
Life lessons about bullies and empowerment are themes explored by Dinosaur Boy, by Cory Putman Oakes, Absolutely Almost, by Lisa Graff, and Fish Finelli: Seagulls Don’t Eat Pickles, by E.S. Farber.
Who doesn’t love a great mystery? Wannabe sleuths can dig into Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells.
Learning to fit into a new culture while dealing with adversity are the challenges faced in Serafina’s Promise, by Ann Burg and Prairie Evers, by Ellen Airgood.
The unique challenges of dyslexia combined with a talent for art and math are explored in Fish in a Tree, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
SSYRA Grades 6-8
Historical fiction fans can be taken back in time to experience the impact of World War II on three different boys in Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan or fast forward to a fictional World War III with Tom, a space-age warrior, in Insignia, by S. J. Kincaid.
Teens embarking on life-changing journeys are a common theme this year in Turn Left at the Cow, by Lisa Bullard, The Worst Class Trip Ever, by Dave Barry, and The Honest Truth, by Dan Geminhart.
Basketball, hip-hop, jazz and poetry are woven together in The Crossover, by J.V. Kade.
Teens love to challenge authority, and there are plenty of conspiracy theories and good versus evil themes in selections such as The Neptune Project, by Polly Holyoke, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, by Nikki Loftin, and Frenzy, by Robert Lettrick.
For a complete list of the 2016-17 Sunshine State Books and descriptions click here.