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Nerdy for Life

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Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp.

The Nerdy Book Club existed as a concept long before there was a hashtag or a blog. People who consider themselves devoted, passionate readers have been card-carrying members, albeit metaphorically, for their whole, book-loving lives. As Donalyn wrote in her first Nerdy blog post, titled “Lifelong Member of the Nerdy Book Club”: “Welcome to the Nerdy Book Club. I was waiting for you. I know that you were waiting for me, too.” Almost as much as we love to read, readers like us enjoy talking about books. Online reading forums are the natural evolution of our desire to find other readers with whom to discuss books.

On a tiny corner of the internet, the children’s literature and education communities come together to discuss and debate children’s books as both an art form and a fuel that feeds the emotional and intellectual lives of young people. There’s a lot of online collaboration among bloggers, authors, teachers, librarians, parents, and readers these days. Working together pushes us to think beyond our own experiences and points of view. No matter our differences, we have two shared qualities: we read more children’s and young adult literature than most other adults do, and we are passionate about fostering a lifelong love of reading in children. We understand the power that reading has to transform, comfort, and expand our lives, and we want kids to discover their full human potential through the increased opportunities that reading and exposure to art offer us all.

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The two of us “met” on Twitter during the summer of 2011 when Colby joined Donalyn’s annual #bookaday reading challenge. That fall, we began co-hosting our monthly reading-and-books Twitter chat, #titletalk. These chats mirrored the conversations we were having with colleagues online every day — sharing a mix of instructional practices, reading research, tips for engaging children with reading, and book recommendations.

Around this time, someone began using the #nerdybookclub hashtag as both a confessional for over-the-top reading and book-buying habits (as in, “I stopped at three bookstores on the way home from school. #nerdybookclub”) and to humorously underscore questionable reading instruction practices (“Gary Paulsen didn’t write Hatchet so we could teach a three week camping unit. #nerdybookclub”). The hashtag then became an identifier for the people who used it.

We first met in person at the 2011 National Council of Teachers of English conference in Chicago. We found ourselves discussing children’s book awards and how few of them, depending on the makeup of the committee, might consider actual children’s opinions and reading experiences, or the expertise of some adults who have daily contact with children. While we agreed that not every award-winning book has to appeal to every child, we could identify many lauded titles that were difficult to get even one or two of our students per year to read. We also observed that many worthy books that don’t win awards the year they are published disappear unless specifically championed by reviewers and educators, and that most parents and many educators are unaware of children’s and young adult book review resources. We didn’t presume to have solutions to these concerns. We were just debating our grand ideas during cocktail hour at a literacy conference. It’s what you do.

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But after the NCTE conference, this conversation continued and edged into online discussions. Debating the merits of Linda Urban’s Hound Dog True, a book our students loved that seemed overlooked by reviewers, our friend Katherine Sokolowski tweeted, “We should start our own awards. #nerdybookclub”

By the next day, the two of us had bought the nerdybookclub.com domain name, set up a WordPress site, and created a SurveyMonkey survey to collect nominations for the First Annual Nerdy Book Club Awards, the Nerdies. It was a lark — we did it because we could. We didn’t have any long-term vision for the Nerdy Book Club. The blog and awards were the outgrowth of all of the other conversations we were having online. The Nerdy Book Club crew already existed; the website and blog just gave it a home address.

We announced the blog and invited our online community to nominate books for the awards. We didn’t want the blog to sit around for two weeks while everyone nominated books, so we invited select friends to write daily posts for it. These early Reading Lives posts are beautiful tributes to the joys of reading and the ways that reading influences our lives. We still publish Reading Lives posts every Monday.

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The club’s original logo, by Tom Angleberger.

By the time the Nerdy Awards lists were announced, Nerdy had six thousand daily subscribers. The blog was more popular than we’d imagined — reaching an audience far beyond our initial online group. It seemed there were a lot of people looking for a positive, collegial online reading community that loved children and their books. Nerdy Book Club gives us a place to find like-minded colleagues, share ideas, and express our thoughts about reading and sharing children’s literature. The mantra for the blog reflects the belief that all of us have something to offer in these conversations: “Every reader has value and a voice in our community.” We believe it for ourselves and for the children we raise and teach.

Beyond the core group that runs Nerdy (techie Cindy Minnich, scheduler Katherine Sokolowski, reviewer Teri Lesesne, plus Colby and Donalyn), we depend on volunteer contributors to write our posts and evangelize Nerdy’s message. Almost eight hundred individuals from around the world have contributed posts. Whether you’re a novice teacher or national literacy expert, a debut author or children’s literature legend, Nerdy Book Club offers a place for everyone to celebrate children’s and young adult literature and exchange ideas for engaging young people with reading for pleasure. We joke that Nerdy Book Club isn’t much of a club. Everyone who reads automatically has a membership card.

The two of us are blessed that our lifelong passion for reading has shaped and transformed our professional lives. Alex London, author of Proxy and The Wild Ones, identifies the thread that connects his personal reading life to his professional work as an author, writing in a 2011 post, in part about his visit to a refugee camp in Tanzania and the universal, metaphorical club of readers:

I was led to the Nerdy Book Club in stages, by my parents who filled our home with books, and by my sister who read them aloud, by teachers who gave me the tools, sometimes against my will, to read and write with ease, and by a lonesome kid on the other side of the world [in a Tanzanian refugee camp] who built a community around the stories he loved and the stories he had to tell. I’m thrilled to be a member of the same club as he is and I love to see it grow.

Today, the Nerdy Book Club blog has fifty thousand daily subscribers, operates a CafePress store, and hosts Nerd Camp, a free literacy conference and writing camp for kids held in Parma, Michigan, every July. We don’t know what the future brings, but we know Nerdy works and continues to thrive because every reader wants a reading home, and Nerdy Book Club offers one.

From the May/June 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Collaborations. For more, click the tag Collaborations.

Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp About Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp

Donalyn Miller is a Texas-based teacher and author of books including The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild (with Susan Kelley). Colby Sharp is a third-grade teacher in Parma, Michigan, and the co-founder of Nerd Camp.

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Comments

  1. This is fantastic! The Nerdy Book Club has been an incredible way for me, as a writer, to connect with educators worldwide. I’ve been to three Nerd Camps (in Michigan, Northern New England, and Long Island) which have all been incredible experiences. I can’t thank Donalyn, Colby, Cindy, Katherine, Teri, and all of the Nerdy Book Club members enough for everything they do to generate excitement about children’s literature. Well done!

  2. Denis Markell says:

    Fantastic post. For those of us who came late to the social media party, it’s great to hear the history of this extraordinary online community, which has morphed into a vibrant offline community as well. It’s so wonderful to know that the impetus for the ‘Nerdies’ was the thought that kids’ voices matter as much as everyone else’s!

    Long may the enthusiasm and nerdiness live on!

    Denis

  3. Dear Donalyn, Colby, Cindy, Katherine, and Teri,
    Thank you so much for everything you are doing on behalf of writers, teachers, and especially students. There’s nothing more important that placing the right book in hands of the child who needs it most. You are making a positive impact on young readers every day.

  4. NERDY!!!!!!!!!

  5. Hard to believe it’s only been five years! You all have accomplished much in and contributed greatly in such a short time. Proud to know you guys!

  6. Thank you for bringing book lovers and teachers and writers together! The Nerdy Book Club has made such a difference in my professional and reading life–and in the lives of my student readers. I love the collaboration and the club space. Such strong work you all are doing!

  7. Thanks so much for all you do to foster a love of reading – it feels like I’ve found my tribe when I visit your blog. I’ve had the pleasure of attending nErDcamp twice and LOVE it – it’s the highlight of my summer (shh, don’t tell the family)! Happy reading!

  8. I’m late to the Nerd Camp party, but this picture-book author would love to get involved! Any info is much appreciated!

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