Massachusetts School Library Media Association
Annual Conference, October 28, 2002
Booktalking: One method of
My assigned topic today is "How to Do a Book
The purpose of booktalking is to get people you care
about to read books you care about. It's only one of a librarian's tools for
promoting good books, but it's one of my favorite ones - partly because you
can't do it online. You can write reviews and annotations and summaries of books
and post them online. You can even post the scripts for book talks online. But a
genuine book talk involves talking.
As a form of communication, booktalking involves a
speaker, a message, and an audience. Let me start with the audience.
The best audiences for booktalks are above the primary
grades: older children, teenagers, and adults. For young children, I like
storytelling or reading aloud better. But by the time they're in middle school,
you want to entice children to read longer books - novels, biographies, and
assorted nonfiction. You need to tell them just enough to whet their appetites,
and set them free to explore on their own.
Booktalking works: Joni Bodart's research has shown that
booktalking is an effective way to get high school students to read selected
titles. And it's worth doing: Stephen Krashen, in The Power of Reading,
demonstrates that the more students read for pleasure, the better their reading
skills become. Even if what they choose to read is comic books, their reading
Booktalk audiences can be individuals or groups. A
librarian who knows both her collection and her users can give on-the-hoof
reader's advisory service to individuals, talking up just those books that are
most likely to appeal to the reader or serve a need. A children's or young adult
librarian can give a booktalk to a classroom or an auditorium full of kids,
weaving bits on diverse books around a single theme. A librarian can give
booktalks to clubs, teachers doing in-service training, or groups of senior
If librarians don't book talk, others will. Commercial
interests will. Some of the slickest booktalks nowadays are on television, and
it can be scary for us to compete. But here are two good things to remember:
- First, there wouldn't be booktalking on TV if there
weren't a market for it; people do want to hear about books.
- Second, if you're booktalking in person, you have at
least one advantage over any TV personality: you're there, and you're
Even if you aren't a professional entertainer, the
sincerity of your interest in your audience and in the books will help create a
friendly context for the booktalk. One librarian even wrote letters in advance
to members of the class she was asked to address.
Getting to know your audience is one important way to
prepare for booktalking. You need to know their interests and capacities, and,
more important, you need to care about them.
You also need to know and care about the books you're
going to discuss. Faith Hektoen, as a state library consultant in Connecticut
some decades back, reported that the average children's librarian had a
repertoire of about 20 titles to recommend. When you consider children's range
of interests and reading abilities, that's just not enough. Under
Margaret Edwards, a pioneer of young adult services at the Baltimore Public
Library, new YA librarians had to memorize no fewer than 300 booktalks before
she recognized them as full professionals.
Booktalking also calls for a
few speaking skills. If you're nervous, these are things you can practice:
- A relaxed posture - try to stand straight, shoulders
back, feet slightly apart.
- Deep breaths - with your diaphragm. Journalist Ida
Tarbell, who took up speaking late in life, practiced by lying down with a
stack of books on her stomach and soon learned to project more strongly.
- Relaxation - a choir director used to call for
"idiot jaw" and recommend yawning ease tight vocal cords.
- Eye contact - preferably with somebody in the
audience who looks friendly and encouraging.
Message: Choosing materials to talk
What kinds of materials should you booktalk?
- Things in your collection
- no sense creating a demand for something you can't supply.
- Materials your audience
might not find on their own, but will probably enjoy
once discovered. You don't have to booktalk the most popular stuff, because
they're already reading it; if you include one or two of those titles in
your talk, do it because 1) you like them, 2) you can reasonably expect them
to help you create rapport with your audience, and 3) you can use them as an
introduction to other, less known titles your audience will enjoy.
One of the worst booktalks I've ever seen featured an out-of-date series
about the 50 states, not worth trying to sell (even if you could) because
they were assigned reading already.
- A mix of materials.
If you're talking to a class, for instance, pick some books that will
challenge the good readers in your audience, and others that won't
intimidate the slowest; some that will appeal to girls and others to boys;
possibly a video or two, or magazines, or comics or graphic novels, among
The most important rule: Don't booktalk anything unless you've
read and enjoyed it yourself.
For more selection ideas, see Hazel Rochman's "Loose
Canon" article in Booklist online: http://www.ala.org/booklist/v93/55yat1.html
Message: Organizing your talk
Choose titles; choose a theme; and decide if you want to
use a novel approach or gimmick for all or any of your titles.
The traditional pattern is to talk about 3
to 5 featured books for maybe 4 or 5 minutes
each, and to mention a few others in snappy one-liners. If you are in a school
or a library, you can wheel in a truckload of books to display, but you won't
have time to talk about all of them. Since you can't discuss every book, you may
want to distribute an annotated list with
It's also traditional to connect the books you're
talking about with a theme. Hazel Rochman,
in Tales of Love and Terror, has demonstrated how you can link classics
and popular fiction by connecting them to a broad theme like "love" or
"horror." This approach is flexible, and allows you to include
something for everybody in the audience. Using the theme in transition passages
between one featured book and the next also makes it easier to avoid ending your
descriptions with that old chestnut, "If you want to know what happened
next, you'll have to read the book." You can leave an audience hanging
without coming right out and telling them you're leaving them hanging.
Some booktalkers use elaborate
costumes and props. Some use overhead transparencies or PowerPoint.
Others simply look the audience in the eye
Remember that adolescents, especially, have a
developmental need for participation.
- Margaret Edwards could send her well-versed YA
librarians into classrooms with lists of 100 titles,
where they'd let the kids choose which titles they wanted to hear about -
kind of an interactive game. And of
course the kids ended up with the lists.
- Sometimes it's fun to invent new participatory
formats for booktalking. A wheel of fortune format? A Trivial Pursuits
format? A talk show? Let your imagination run wild.
Message: What to say about each title
No matter what your organization is, it's important to
do justice to each title you talk about.
- There are some familiar
formulas that make it easier to do the first draft of your
booktalk - things like "This is a really great book," or "If
you want to know what happened next, you'll have to read the book." But
these get stale quickly, and I recommend
not using them - or at least not using
any of them more than once in a single booktalk, no matter how many books
- Also avoid telling the whole
plot (or everything but the end) in a blow-by-blow narration.
- Time is limited, so you have to be selective.
Tell one episode, or adopt the accent
and mannerisms of a character in the
book while describing one of the other characters through his or her eyes;
or evoke a mood ("Have you ever
felt as if somebody is watching you, even though there's nobody there but
you?"). But whatever aspect of the book you select, make sure it's
representative of the book - don't retell the only funny episode in a
heart-rending story, or get everybody in the mood for horror when you're
offering a pleasant family chronicle.
- Nonfiction and fiction often complement each other;
consider using both if they fit your theme.
- When you're booktalking nonfiction, you may not be
able to organize your talk around a plot or a main character; the most
familiar "book report" formulae fail you. I think if there's one
overused formula in booktalks (and reviews) of nonfiction, it's probably the
series: "Learn about this great subject, including x, y, and z."
Oh, that's another formula - "learn about," or "let's find
out about" - I challenge you not to use those phrases too often!
- Use your imagination. Your booktalk on magic books
could begin with a flourish and a trick, performed in silence before you say
a word (at least, maybe yours could - mine couldn't, because I would muff
the trick). Remember the riddle game Bilbo played with the Gollum in The
Hobbit? You could probably build a science booktalk around that,
featuring books about eggs and fish and the roots of mountains and the
things people hide in their pockets; the riddle format could lend itself to
talking about science.
Message: Practice and delivery
A lot of thought
goes into a successful booktalk. You can:
Some general rules of
- Write it all down
- the individual booktalks and the artful introduction, transitions, and
conclusion, too - or just outline it.
- Memorize it (the
Margaret Edwards way; she kept her workers' texts on file and they weren't
supposed to deviate) - or simply remember and retell it spontaneously in new
words every time (my way; I prefer to make stuff up as I go along) - or rely
on written notes. A trick for
maintaining eye contact if you have to use written notes is to tape them on
the backs of books you'll be holding up as props.
- Practice on your
family, your cat, the car ahead of you at the stop light.... Or tape
yourself and listen to how it sounds.
- Time yourself.
Ken Morse tells about a little boy who went to church with his father and
noticed the minister putting his pocket watch on the pulpit. "What does
that mean?" the little boy asked, and his father said, "It don't
mean a damn thing, son." A fifteen-minute sermon (or booktalk) is
almost always better than a twenty-minute one.
- Breathe from your
diaphragm; relax your throat
- Maintain eye contact
with your audience
- Pace your talk -
don't rush it or drag it, but keep it short
- Never booktalk a
book you haven't read or don't like
- Never mislead
your audience about what a book is like
- Always respect your
Booktalking can be a huge pleasure for the booktalker.
If you get the right combination, you see interest, curiosity, and even
eagerness flicker across listeners' faces. You get a satisfied customer coming
back and asking for more books just like the one you pitched, only different.
You get a feeling of connection, which is one of the greatest highs in
Script for a sample booktalk