The Undercover Book List
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The Undercover Book List
"I'm handing back your reading responses," Mr. Lee said when their silent reading period was over. He walked up and down the aisle depositing papers on kids' desks.
Usually Tyson had nothing to put in a reading response, so he doodled. His doodling skills had improved; his mark in English hadn't. But last class, when Mr. Lee had given them a prompt about characters, Tyson had had something to say. Once he'd started the response to Holes, it had been hard to turn off the words.
Mr. Lee paused at Tyson's desk and slapped the paper down. There were a few red marks adding in periods and capitals and a couple of words were spelled wrong, but underneath Mr. Lee had written: I'm glad you liked Holes. it's one of my favorite books too. I also loved how you noticed the theme and connected it with Zero and Stanley. You're right, ALL kids deserve a chance. Way to go, Tyson!
Tyson stared at the paper. Way to go, Tyson! A smile spread across his face when he read the words. As soon as he got home, he was going to hang it on the fridge beside Ava's honor roll certificate and Max's Athlete of the Month award.
The Undercover Book List is a story told in two voices in alternating, very short, chapters. The initial voice is Jane's, and she is having to cope with several very stressful situations at once. First, her absolutely best friend and reading buddy is moving away, but, compounding this devastating fact is the additional one that Sienna was the fourth person on the school's team for the Kid Lit Quiz competition, and the Regional competition, which would determine who would go to the finals, required a four-person team (with a fifth allowed as spare), and a coach. This excuse to read more is Jane's "thing"; she adores reading, and being quizzed about what she's read makes it all even more fun, but she, Jane, must find another person for the team! NO one seems at all interested. However, there is a bright spot: before leaving town, Sienna, knowing Jane's love of mysteries, has set up a puzzle for her, one that requires Jane to find something in the library that is "safer approved".
The second voice belongs to Tyson, whose mother is so fed up with his total concentration on video games to the exclusion of everything else, including school work, sleeping, and remembering to put dinner in the oven, that she finally confiscates his X-box with no promise as to when it will be returned or under what conditions. At school, Tyson is the class clown, prepared to make a joke of anything, frequently at other people's expense. These pranks often go too far and end up with his being sent to the principal's office. Again. And again. This last time, he is faced with such a long spell just sitting and waiting to be dealt with that he takes up the secretary's suggestion and goes to the library to get a book. There he sees Jane who, having solved Sienna's clue and found two letters stuck in a book (in which one of the main characters was Georges ("the s is silent"), but the other is Safer!), takes one of the letters away and leaves the other in the book. Tyson is intrigued, sneaks that book out and starts to read both the book and the letter that was in it.
The letter suggests that Jane use this book essentially as a post box by which to communicate with another book lover. Tyson, always ready to play a trick on someone, decides to go along with this and writes a return note saying "I LOVE reading!" (a blatant lie) and adding a recommendation for a book that his previous year's teacher had read them in class. But now, sitting in the principal's office with nothing else to do, Tyson actually finds that reading is not a bad way of passing the time and this is a pretty good book! Exchanging letters with Jane under the anonymity of being not Tyson but "Y", he finds he actually enjoys talking about the books and their characters. Eventually, he reveals that he is Y, though he doesn't actually confess that he led Jane on as a joke and wasn't -- or at least hasn't been -- as keen a reader as he had let on. When he's persuaded to come to one of the Kid Lit Quiz practices, he finds that he actually knows quite a lot of the answers! (His mum read to him.) So he joins the team, they make it to the Regional finals, and all's well that ends well.
This is every mother's dream situation! Confiscate your kid's game box and have him turn to reading as a compensation? Wow! Tyson isn't stupid, but, until now, he's not been motivated to do anything that takes more effort than a quick joke would. The anonymity of communicating by letter is a way for him to be a different sort of person and without having to worry about being laughed at or teased. So what if the situation is a bit idealistic rather than realistic -- every life can use a bit of fantasy (and it doesn't have to be in the form of a video-game avatar)!
An added bonus is the book list at the end, giving all the titles that Jane and Tyson discuss as well as the ones that just got a mention. It would make for a wonderful display in a school library, a Tyson-path and a Jane-path, with arrows leading from one book to the next to the next; I only wish I were still working in a library. Give The Undercover Book List to a reader and open up a whole new bunch of possible authors to be enjoyed or give it to a non-reader and see what happens. You might be surprised!
Mary Thomas retired as a library clerk/school librarian in 2011, but she is still interested in what books kids are reading, and she wants them to read more.