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How Do I Choose My Literature Circle Books?: Faye Brownlie's Book Selection Tips PLUS a Sample Social Justice Book List

How Do I Choose My Literature Circle Books?: Faye Brownlie's Book Selection Tips PLUS a Sample Social Justice Book List

By Faye Brownlie | Date: October 13, 2021



Faye Brownlie’s (she/her/hers) goal is to build capacity with teachers, co-planning and co-teaching, providing seminars, workshops, and keynote presentations in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Asia. Passionate about including and supporting all learners, her work focuses on literacy, teaching for thinking, assessment, and inclusion. She has co-authored many books for teachers, including It’s All About Thinking series for Portage & Main Press and most recently, a 2nd edition of Grand Conversations Thoughtful Responses. Faye believes, ‘We know enough, collectively, to teach all our students to read, and more importantly, to create readers who not only can read but want to read."



How do we encourage students to become active readers? Book selection counts. Creating a community that reads and discusses relevant and engaging books is key. In this article are eight steps I use to select books for literature circles in the classroom. To illustrate the range of books that could be selected, I have chosen the broad theme of social justice for middle school readers.

GC cover Aug 16

Voice and choice: these are the ingredients for creating readers who read. I love working with literature circles in classrooms! They have proven to be a literacy structure that supports students’ voracious reading, deep thinking, and thoughtful conversations about their reading. In my version of literature circles, the teacher chooses a collection of five or six different books. These books are chosen with every student in the class in mind; they are books each student could and would want to read. Six copies of each book are purchased (so there are enough copies for students to exchange when they finish a book). The teacher “sells” the book choices to students and then students choose which book they wish to begin reading. They read at their own pace and meet with their peers who are reading the same book to discuss the book. Read more about this in Grand Conversations, Thoughtful Responses, 2nd edition.

How do we best choose our books? Should there always be a theme or a central idea to the collection? A central theme is not necessary. Sometimes we collect “good reads” books that will capture our students’ imaginations and invite them into “grand conversations.” However, in creating any collection, I am guided by a few principles. 


1. Get to know your students and choose books based on who they are as learners and individuals.

What are your students’ strengths and stretches? What are their interests and passions? 

2. Choose books for a variety of reading levels, both above and below the abilities of your students. 

Our classrooms are rich with diverse learners. Make sure you consider all students in creating the collection. Every student in your class must be able to find a book that they can read and would choose to read.

3. Choose the right number of books for your students’ age and grade level.

In a primary class, I choose the titles to use as mentor texts with the class. I then collect 15 to 20 picture books and 2 or 3 early chapter books. (See Michelle Hikida and Lisa Schwartz’s early primary literature circles in chapter 6, Grand Conversations, Thoughtful Responses, 2nd edition.)

With an intermediate or middle school class of 30, I choose five or six titles and have five or six copies of each. This ensures that no group is too big or too small and that there are always a few “extra” books for those who finish a book and need a new one.

4. Add new books for students to choose from as the literature circles progress.

New books can be added as a particular book is read by all students who will read it and/or if a particular book is not a popular choice.

5. Read all the books yourself before introducing them to your students.

It is critical that you have read all the books in the collection prior to introducing them to students. Without your reading, you cannot engage in deep conversations.

6. Find a variety of books.

Librarians are our best friends. They know their books and can make recommendations.

7. Stay current on what kids in your class are reading.

Read, read, read. Whatever age/grade of students I am working with, I advocate reading widely to keep current with new books.

8. Supplement literature circle themes with lessons that build motivation and background knowledge for students.

If you are working with a theme, you’ll need supplementary materials such as picture books, YouTube videos, poems, and newspaper articles for whole class lessons to build up motivation and background knowledge.

Once the books are chosen, marketing of the books is important. ALL students need to see one or two choices that are great matches for them. Some students will read all the books you have chosen, while some may only read two.


Using these principles, I have chosen possible texts around the broad theme of social justice.  

Social justice has been my lifetime passion. What motivates me is the search for justice and equity, being mindful of the impact of wealth, opportunity, and privilege within a society. We are becoming more conscious of how what we do and think, and how we speak and listen every day impact those around us. Social justice issues exist locally, within Canada, and globally.  Well-chosen texts can help learners of all ages build awareness of and consider ways to improve justice for all. 

This list should help you begin to make your selections based on your focus for the general theme of social justice and your students’ passions and skills.

Picture Books

Bryant, Jen. Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball. Illustrated by Frank Morrison. New York, NY: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2020.

  • Basketball icon, civil rights activist, one quiet person can make a difference

Clark-Robinson, Monica. Let the Children March. Illustrated by Frank Morrison. Boston, MA: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2018. 

  • 1963, Birmingham, AL, African-American children march after hearing Martin Luther King’s call to actio

Dupuis, Dr. Jenny Kay, and Kathy Kacer. I Am Not a Number. Illustrated by Gillian Newland. Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2016.

  • Residential school story where names were exchanged for numbers, identities lost

Hood, Susan. Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay. Illustrated by Sally Wern Comport. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, 2016.

  • Children’s orchestra plays with instruments made from trash, story of hope and resilience

Lam, Thao. The Paper Boat. Montreal, QC: Owlkids Books, 2020.  

  • Wordless picture book of a refugee’s journey from Vietnam, story of hope, courage, resilience

Latham, Irene, and Charles Waters. Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z. Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publishing Group, 2020.

  • Words, quotes, anecdotes, poems, actions that focus on inclusiveness and diversity

Robertson, David A. When We Were Alone. Illustrated by Julie Flett. Winnipeg, MB: HighWater Press, 2016.

  • A grandmother remembers her days in residential school, illustrating her strength and sense of power

Warner, Jody Nyasha. Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged. Illustrated by Richard Rudnicki. Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books, 2018.

  • African-Canadian woman in Nova Scotia who refused to change her seat, story of determination and inspiration


Graphic Novels

Craft, Jerry. New Kid. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2019.

  • Middle school hierarchies, racism, finding one’s voice 

Jamieson, Victoria, and Omar Mohamed. When Stars Are Scattered. Illustrated by Victoria Jamieson and Iman Geddy. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020.

  • Growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya, as told by a Somalian refugee, Omar Mohamed; home, family

Storm, Jen. Fire Starters. Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, colour by Donovan Yaciuk.  Winnipeg, MB: HighWater Press, 2016.

  • Restorative justice versus Canadian law enforcement on a reserve in northwestern Ontario

Vermette, Katherena. A Girl Called Echo. Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson. Winnipeg, MB: HighWater Press, 2018–21.

  • Time travel from present to significant historical events in Canada of a Métis girl, family, home, friendship, loneliness



Cisneros, Ernesto. Efrén Divided. New York, NY: Quill Tree Books, 2021. 

  • Undocumented Mexican immigrants, deportation and its repercussions, family

Draper, Sharon M. Blended. New York, NY: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2017. 

  • Living between two multi-racial families; identity

Ellis, Deborah. No Ordinary Day. Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books, 2011. 

  • Slums of Kolkata, homelessness, leprosy, power of a helping hand

Ellis, Deborah. Sit. Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books, 2017. 

  • 11 short stories, all themed on a chair, hope rising from desperate circumstances

Flake, Sharon G. The Skin I’m In. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009.

  • Bullying, identity, peer pressure

Florence, Melanie. He Who Dreams. Victoria, BC: Orca Book Publishers, 2017. 

  • Balancing Irish and Cree heritage, soccer and Indigenous dancing, conforming and following your dreams

Florence, Melanie. Dreaming in Color. Victoria, BC: Orca Book Publishers, 2020.

  • Companion book to He Who Dreams, female and male protagonists, bullying, racism, power of a multi-racial—Irish settler and Indigenous—family

Frost, Helen. Hidden. New York, NY: Square Fish, 2015. 

  • Free verse and prose, alienation, friendship

Gratz, Alan. Refugee. New York, NY: Scholastic Press, 2017. 

  • Refugees in three contexts: Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, 1930s; Cubans fleeing Castro in 1994; Syrians fleeing in 2015

Holt, K. A. House Arrest. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2015. 

  • Free verse, a year’s house arrest for stealing medicine for infant brother, right and wrong, poverty, justice

Hunt, Lynda Mullaly. Fish in a Tree. New York, NY: Puffin Books, 2017. 

  • Non-reader, new school, hiding her disability behind her behaviour

Korman, Gordan. Restart. New York, NY: Scholastic Press, 2017. 

  • With no memory of your former self, recreating yourself; what are your values?

LaRocca, Rajani. Red, White, and Whole. New York, NY: Quill Tree Books, 2021. 

  • Southeast Asian daughter, mother diagnosed with leukemia, family strength, cultural ties

Reynolds, Jason. Look Both Ways. New York, NY: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2019.

  • Assumptions we make about each other, the invisible connections we have to each other, 10 stories upon leaving the school bus

Reynolds, Jason. Track series. New York, NY: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2016–18.

  • Each book centred on a young, black teen on a track team, friendship, diversity, family

Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Ghost Boys. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018. 

  • Black boy, shot by a police officer, connects with Emmett Till and processes family, racism, as ghost

Robertson, David A. The Barren Grounds. Illustrated by Natasha Donovan. Toronto, ON: Puffin Canada, 2020.  

  • Two Indigenous kids living in foster care, identity, family, friendship

Stratton, Allan. The Way Back Home. Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2017. 

  • bullying, Alzheimer’s: stay at home or move to a residence, transgender sibling

Telgemeier, Raina. Ghosts. New York, NY: Graphix, 2016. 

  • Sister with cystic fibrosis, Day of the Dead and cultural traditions, family

Venkatraman, Padma. The Bridge Home. New York, NY: Puffin Books, 2020.

  • Homeless children in India working together to survive

The list provided here is not intended to be prescriptive or only for grades 6 to 8. Rather, consider the choices to be great suggestions to engage your students in texts around social justice, including picture books to build background knowledge, teach mini lessons, and engage in classroom discussion. There are far more books here than you would want in a collection—and even these are just a sampling. There are so, so many available!

Scan the list and think of your students, their backgrounds, their passions, and their skill as readers. Think of your curricular goals and the social justice questions you wish to explore. Grab a copy of Grand Conversations, Thoughtful Responses, 2nd edition and use this as your guide in how to set up and run literature circles. Be ready to watch your readers dive into their books, engage in rich conversations, and respond thoughtfully in their journals! You are creating readers who read and are ready to change the world. Now, choose six titles to begin. Good luck! Read on.