Megan Smith was eager to get back to her roots.
Smith felt like she left an important part of her identity behind when she started sixth grade at Thunder Ridge Middle School in the fall. Specifically, she missed the comradery and closeness of the Sunrise Elementary School Newbery Club, a student organization that welcomes readers and encourages literary discussions.
For the past four years, the Sunrise group has been dedicated to reading, discussing and recognizing eligible entries for the annual Newbery Award, America's premiere prize for children's literature. Smith joined when she was in fourth grade, and she wasn't going to let her status as a middle school student keep her away from one of the club's biggest annual events.
"This club meant a lot to me when I was here," Smith said as she joined current Newbery Club members at Sunrise on Jan. 23. Smith was on hand in the school's library when Susie Isaac, the Sunrise librarian, announced this year's official Newbery winners to dozens of students. Smith cheered and celebrated with club members, readers who were younger, but who shared a similar passion for reading. "I was with the nerds of my kind when I was here," Smith said, adding that she misses the in-depth discussions of plot, theme and characters, "We could all discuss our ideas together. I was really nostalgic to get back."
That kind of passion for literature and reading is at the heart of the Newbery Club, which launched in 2013 as a way to get students invested in books. According to Isaac, the mission has been overwhelmingly successful, as membership in the group has grown from 30 kids to more than 50.
"It's become wildly popular," Isaac said, pointing out that the club draws readers of all backgrounds and abilities. "All of our club members feel safe to read and discuss different books."
That much was clear as Newbery Club members assembled for the biggest meeting of the year. The Sunrise group had already voted on their favorite Newbery candidate of the year, and many readers chose "The Girl Who Drank the Moon," a coming-of-age fantasy by Kelly Barnhill. Their selection proved prophetic. During their meeting on Jan. 23, Isaac announced that the official Newbery committee, a group of esteemed scholars, artists and professionals, had chosen the same book as the 2017 Newbery Medal winner.
"They chose this book, and you did, too. You're amazing!" Isaac told the assembled group. "I hope that when you take your children to the library someday, you can talk to them about reading this award-winning book."
Isaac and the rest of the Sunrise library staff want to make sure that future generations of Newbery Club readers will have the same opportunity. The staff has applied for a grant through the Follett Challenge, which could qualify the club for up to $60,000 in money for its most precious resource: books. While the Sunrise group has earned critical grants from the Cherry Creek School Foundation in past years, winning the Follett Challenge grant could usher in a new era of stability for generations of young readers.
"If we can win, this club will be funded until I retire," she said.
Supporters can vote for the Newbery Club here. Winners will be announced after the contest wraps up at the end of the week.
For Isaac and the rest of the Newbery Club, the contest is the latest exciting update in a push for literacy that's already exceeded expectations. As Isaac wrapped up the final Newbery Club meeting of the 2016-17 school year, several students seemed disappointed that it was coming to an end.
"What are we supposed to do on Fridays?" a student asked aloud, only to find a clear response in a coordinated chorus from the rest of the group: "READ! READ! READ!"
It's a message that resonated with Megan Smith, who hasn't lost her passion for books with her move to middle school.
"I just finished a new Newbery Award book," she said. "I think it would be really fun to start a club at my new school."