The Power of First Lines: Another New Library Orientation

School is back in session in Georgia, and I’m once again reorganizing what happens in the first visit to the library. I’ve tried to steer away from a traditional orientation where students hear the do’s and don’ts in the library. It’s not that they aren’t important, but is that really the message I want to send about reading with the first words that come out of my mouth?

The message that I really want students to hear is about the joy of reading. I want them to hear about how readers talk about books to one another. I want them to hear how books can be windows into other worlds and other perspectives. I want them to hear how books can be mirrors that reflect a part of ourselves back to us.

I also wanted to tackle a problem that bothered me last year. I saw so many students continue to come to the library and spend their whole time standing at the computer typing out topics in the library catalog instead of actually looking at books in our various genre sections. I had hoped that genres would eliminate this, but it hasn’t. I decided to start with something that wasn’t intimidating to most readers: the first lines of a book.

So, here’s what a first library visit looked like for 3rd-5th grade this year.

What are you reading?

We started with a question, but instead of asking students to share their own reading, I showed them what I just finished and what I was reading now.

I promised them that all year long I would post what I’m reading on the door of the library so they can always see, even if I’m with a class.  I told them that my hope was that anyone in the school could ask anyone else in the school what they are reading and both of them would have an answer. One of the best ways to find a new book is to see what others are reading, so we are giving ourselves permission to freely ask each other throughout the year about books. I also hope that several teachers will begin to post their reading outside their classrooms too.  In most classes, a few students said what they were reading now, and I loved how it immediately felt like a connection between us.

Next, I showed students some of my summer reading. I did book talks of Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and the Track Series by Jason ReynoldsAs soon as I finished book talks, I showed students a picture of a window and a mirror and asked them about their purpose. Then, students brainstormed how a book could be like a window and a mirror. It was a conversation we’ve never had in such an public manner, but so many of them added amazing contributions to the conversation. One standout comment was how a window keeps you safe from things going on outside and a book lets you explore dangerous situations without getting hurt.  I let students know that I intentionally chose books this summer that would most likely be windows for me. I wanted to read about people whose lives were very different from my own.

Power of First Lines

This became our invitation to step into the books in the library and begin to look for windows and mirrors for each of us.  Ahead of time, I put chairs at each section of our chapter book section: scary, realistic fiction, historical fiction, humor, fantasy, sports, mystery, science fiction, and adventure.

I shared with students how one more great way to discover new books is to visit sections you love and try out the very first lines of several books. Some of my favorite books hooked me with the very first line. I shared Barbara O’Connor’s first line from How to Steal a Dog.

“The day I decided to steal a dog was the same day my best friend, Luanne Godfrey, found out I lived in a car.”

That line has so much story packed into it. Why did she steal a dog? What’s her situation that she lives in a car? What does Luanne think about all this?  You can’t help but read on to find out.

I placed students into random chairs in the chapter books and invited them to try as many first lines as possible in about 90 seconds.

Then, they moved to the right to the next chair and had 90 seconds in that section. We continued this process for as many rounds as we could squeeze in.

Students did not take any books with them, but I told them to make mental notes of what books caught their attention.  Some students thrived in this experience.  Others weren’t happy that they were in a section that they didn’t usually visit. Still others read first lines in one section but not in another.  The teacher and I circulated and gently encouraged students to keep giving the books a try. Sometimes that even meant jumping in with a student and reading some first lines for them.


Back on the carpet, I asked if anyone found a book that grabbed their attention, and it was amazing to see how many people raised their hands. We used this brief moment to go over some reminders before exploring the whole library to checkout books.

  • Enjoy reading as much as you can while you’re here
  • Choose what you love, but push yourself too
  • Spend less time at the computers, and more time at the shelves
  • Respect other learners
  • Borrow what you need (limits are different for every reader)
  • Honor the line at check out

What happened next is what encouraged me the most. Students could hardly contain themselves as they rushed to the shelves to find their first check outs of the year. Almost none of the students went to the computers and instead went straight to shelves and started opening up books. As students have returned for their 2nd rounds of check outs, they have continued to visit the shelves more than the computers.  I can’t wait to see how our momentum builds during the year, and I want to immediately start asking “What are you reading?”

What about K-2?

For the younger grades I did something very similar, but I book talked several picture books including Drawn Together by Minh Li, The Very Last Castle by Travis Jonker, and Hansel & Gretel by Bethan Woolvin. After talking about windows and mirrors, we read aloud All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold. I wanted students to see and hear the message that all are welcome at our school and in our library. We used the book to talk about the windows and mirrors we saw within the book and our own school.

This group did the book sampling at the picture book section. Some classes rotated chairs and other classes just stayed in one seat to practice using shelf markers and sampling books.

The Pitfall

Overall, this new orientation experience did everything I hoped it would do, and only time will tell if it got us kicked off in the right way. The one big pitfall of this was that the shelves started to look like a tornado had gone through. Books were pushed back behind other books. Books were on the floor. Books were turned upside down and backwards. I had to pause and take some deep breaths every once in awhile, but when you look at the grand scheme of things, the messy shelves are evidence of excited readers, so it’s hard to complain too much about the mess.

Onward we go to search for the windows and mirrors in our library collection. Onward we go to becoming a school community that shares our reading lives with one another.




19 thoughts on “The Power of First Lines: Another New Library Orientation

  1. Beth Raff says:

    Wow! I am starting my first library job in a few weeks, and you gave me some great ideas. I want to start with growing a reading community – I can easily work up to windows and mirrors. Thanks.

    • plemmonsa says:

      Best wishes as you start your new job. It’s such a great job with many rewards. I’m so glad you found some inspiration in this post. Just take it a step at a time and know you can’t do everything all at once. Focusing on a reading community is a very important step.

  2. Christina Cucci says:

    You’ve inspired me to open my school year with book sampling. I love the idea of windows and mirrors, I want to use these metaphors as well. One suggestion is to take the pitfall photo, and use that to open the next lesson on the topic of caring for our space. Thanks

    • plemmonsa says:

      That’s so exciting. Sometimes I second guess when I post something, but I’ve had such a response from this post. Maybe I can use that pitfall video to show what it can look like when there’s a reading frenzy and how we can help each other find books better when we all take care of our collection. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Lindsay Rice says:

    LOVE this! Thank you for providing some direction for the first couple days of school. I struggle with what to do with the grade 3s in our school, as this is their fourth year using the library. They know the expectations/rules for the space and how to treat each other, but now I feel I have some tools and ideas on how I can focus on developing their love for reading and using the library as a place to do so.
    Do you have any specific suggestions on how to effectively teach the new Kindergartens how to use the library in the first month of school? As adorable as they are, they sure can make a mess of the place as well as not really “get” how to peruse for and choose a book that might suit them. I’m getting sweaty palms right now thinking about my first block with them! I’ve been considering pairing them with the grade 3s in a buddy session to have the older kids role model the selection and sign-out process, but do you have other strategies on how to implement a positive, successful, love-for-reading-inducing practice for the youngest students in our systems?
    Thanks for your time!

    • plemmonsa says:

      You are very welcome. For Kindergarten, I did something similar, but I did not have them rotate. Instead, they really worked on trying lots of books on one shelf, using a shelf marker, and putting books back neatly on the shelf. Many of them ended up choosing a book from the section they browsed.

  4. Emilibrarian says:

    Just did the first lines lesson with a class and it was great! It gave them a simple way to sample several different books! They were so excited to check something out!

  5. Heidi Anderson says:

    Tried this today withmy sixth graders and about 3/4ths of them find a book they want to check out! Thanks for the idea!

  6. Connie Hanes says:

    I love love love your idea of windows and mirrors! Why we read is much better than library rules! Also, thank you for a fresh perspective on the books looked like a tornado had gone through. I feel like that every day and I wish I could instill something in the students to cause them to relax and be more careful. I’ll try thinking of it as “excited readers”.
    Love your posts!

    • plemmonsa says:

      Thanks so much for reading these posts. It’s such a process, and I’m always listening, reflecting, and changing how things flow in the library to better meet the needs of learners.

  7. Missy says:

    This is such a great way for students to experience new books! Thanks for sharing!

  8. JA says:

    Great Idea- I can’t wait to try this. If you can, please make a freebie poster of those “rules” on TPT. Thank you!

  9. First lines in a book. You’re right, they can make or break the book. An example is the book “The Milagro Beanfield War.” As a teenager, I resisted reading it (check out my blog for one pretty stupid excuse). as an adult, a friend gave me a copy. I opened it up, read the first line, and went, “Good God, I wish I’d written that line.” It grabbed me, hooked me, and I’m well into the novel now.

  10. Alison Kirkpatrick says:

    Thank you so much for this! Just changed my orientation plans for next week!

  11. Laura Requarth says:

    When I saw your pitfalls video, it reminded me of some unusual solutions I discovered. Seriously, I hated to shelve books as a librarian, but thankfully I never had to, because I always had my army of volunteers. My dedicated parent volunteers were also happy to coach my sometimes motley crew of student helpers, who took pride in shelving and were a big help. I offered teachers to allow their misbehaving students the opportunity to use their time to be helpful (shelving), instead of other detention or standing-against-the-wall kind of punishments, as long as they could show me model behavior in the library. The parent volunteers showed my little criminals, which they sometimes liked to jokingly call themselves, respect and gave them some attention, and it became a winning combination. Not a single misbehavior from them. Some of them returned to help when their friends got in trouble. 🙂 I had single pieces of candy in a jar to thank them. I also found a couple special education students each year, who found it calming to put books away with their aides, and they also took pride in their work and in the titles and awards I gave them. Some became quite quick at it. The least calming job to me, was something they liked doing. From the after school care crew, I privately invited some gifted and high-achieving students who liked to preview computer programs and educational websites and figure them out for me. Some of them taught teachers and/or their students how to use them, usually with me and with their teacher’s permission. They also liked to clean the many tables and computers off, which saved me time. (When will that become a janitor’s job?) Thanks to my army, I could keep my focus on the kids and books.

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