The group of dozens of elementary school students fidgeted, squealed and screamed.
They watched intently as Susie Isaacs, the librarian at Sunrise Elementary School, prepped for an announcement that held plenty of drama, gravity and importance. She stood in front of a mobile bookshelf wrapped in bright construction paper, and the group of dozens of students eyed the object hungrily.
After what seemed like hours, Isaacs finally simulated the sound of a drum roll and gave the students the green light to attack. They rushed in and tore apart the wrapping paper with all the fervor of kids unwrapping birthday presents.
These students weren't looking for the latest video games or electronic toys. They knew that a selection of brand new books was waiting for them under the wrapping paper, and they couldn't be happier. It made sense, considering that the fourth- and fifth-graders assembled in the Sunrise library on Oct. 23 were all members of the school's Newbery Club, a group of more than 50 students who are dedicated to reading, discussing and recognizing eligible entries for this year's Newbery Award, America's premiere prize for children's literature.
"It's a very popular club," said Isaacs, who detailed the plots, characters and authors of titles like "Fish In a Tree," "The Thing About Jellyfish," "Full Cicadia Moon" and "Lost in the Sun" after the students had unwrapped the latest arrivals. "Every year, attendance has gone up quite a bit … The demand, the excitement is still there."
Isaacs first came up with the idea for the club two years ago after meeting a member one of the 15 members of the Newbery Committee, an organization that annually offers rewards for the best new children's literature. She was intrigued by the process behind the Association for Library Service to Children's award, which kicked off in 1922 and recognizes "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Isaac saw the need for more direct feedback from young readers.
"The heart of it is that we're bringing kids together for no other reason than they love books ... We're bringing out all of their critical thinking skills."
-- Susie Isaacs, Sunrise Elementary School librarian
That was the genesis of the school's Newbery Club, and thanks to partnerships with the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation and other community partners, Isaacs found a way to provide students with the latest nominees for the coveted literary prize. That's no easy feat, considering the titles are brand new and often come in the expensive, hardcover format. But thanks to grants from the Foundation and from community supporters, Isaacs found a way to fulfill a specific mission.
"The heart of it is that we're bringing kids together for no other reason than they love books," Isaacs said. "We're bringing out all of their critical thinking skills."
The impact of the grants from the Foundation and from private donors was easy to see as the Newbery Club members gathered to discuss their latest reads and choose titles to take home for Fall Break. It didn't go unnoticed by Margie Adams, a Cherry Creek Schools Foundation Board member who was on hand to take in the excitement. She saw firsthand how the Foundation's grant program is making a serious impact for students across the district.
"These kids are so excited. They were rushing after those books like they were toys," Adams said, more than a little awed by the impact of good books on the Sunrise students. "We can hear stories about our grants, but you don't get the real impact until you see the reaction … You can see why Susie gets so much energy from these students."
Indeed, Isaacs was quick to point out that the Friday meetings of the Newbery Club are often the best part of her week. That effect will only intensify as the students make their way through the list of nominees and send their feedback to the Newbery Award officials before they select the official winner for the year.
Students like Taytum Borgman, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Sunrise, take their responsibilities seriously. She was eager to dig in to "The Boys Who Challenged Hitler," a book by Phillip Hoose about a group of teenagers in Denmark who find ways to resist the Nazi occupation of their country during World War 2. Borgman joined the Newbery Club two years ago, and she insisted that she won't give up her affiliation when she heads to middle school next year.
"There are new books all the time," she noted. "I'm going to make my own Newbery Club next year."