Book Buffets, Recipes for Success

Written by Julie Caudle

Are you looking for a new or different way to have a large group of students select a book for a project?  Translation: you need to somehow encourage a bunch of students who are at different reading levels who may not be the most independent and motivated readers, to check out and read a book that they will be interested in enough to read and successfully complete a project on over the next several weeks.  Tall order, right? I may have just the right thing for this challenge–book buffets!

I am fortunate that for the past couple of years, my eighth-grade ELA teachers have been incorporating independent reading book assignments once a quarter and bringing their classes to the library to choose a book for their project.  I’m thrilled that not only do they encourage their students to come to me to find a book for their projects, but they are also open to me showing them, and the students, some new cool ways of doing a book project.  However, I kept running into the challenge of successfully matching a book with a student, particularly when that student is not one of my “frequent flyers” and is not as experienced at picking out a book on their own that is accessible to them and is substantial enough to finish a more in-depth assignment.

Then, I read about book buffets.

Kelsey Book Buffet
The original book buffet! From the Don’t You Shush Me! blog.

I first heard about book buffets on the Future Ready Librarians Facebook group.  (A quick sidebar note: if you aren’t already in this group, I strongly encourage you to join it.  There are a slew of fantastic ideas from librarians from all over the country at all grade levels that regularly post questions and ideas on there. It’s really upped my librarianship game!) High school librarian, Kelsey Bogan, writes the blog, Don’t You Shush Me! and linked to her post about book buffets in the Future Ready Librarians group. Like Kelsey, I had tried book speed dating, (which students just didn’t seem to be into as they kept just wanting to look on their own or at other tables), and book tastings (which I never did implement as the directions were always so long, complicated, and convoluted that I never could quite figure them out, let alone explain to students), but my students just didn’t really seem to get them, or I wasn’t doing them correctly, so I stopped them. Instead, I ended up doing a whole bunch of individual mini book talks that left me exhausted and students often empty-handed, especially if a student has their mind set on a particular book and it was checked out, or they had to get a certain type of genre the students had no interest in reading.

Book Buffet instructions
The instructions I used for the book buffets.

Book buffets are kind of a mesh of book speed dating and book tastings, with a dash of old-fashioned book talking thrown in. I did two different book buffets, one with historical fiction and nonfiction books only, and one that did not focus on a particular genre.

Reading survey 1
Sample of student responses on the nonfiction reader interest survey.
Reading survey 2
Sample of student responses on the nonfiction reader interest survey.


The first step after collaborating with the classroom teacher about the assignment was to create a reader interest survey and have the students answer the survey at least a couple of days before they come in so that you have time to choose your categories, make your signs, and pull your books. For the general buffet I just asked what they primarily like to read and gave four choices, topics and stories they primarily like to read (choose no more than three), and what they like to do after school. For the historical and non fiction buffet, I asked what types of memoirs/biographies they most like to read (choose no more than three), what historical time periods and events do they most like to read about (choose no more than three), what is their favorite subject in school (choose no more than two), and what do they like to do the most in their free time.  They checked their top choices, and I also gave them a write in option on all of the questions. I made the survey in Google Forms and sent the link to the ELA teacher, who shared it with her classes in her Google Classrooms and had them answer it in class one day. Once I had the results, I chose six main categories with about 5-7 subcategories that correlated with the main topic.

Reading survey 3
Reader interest survey responses.
Reading survey 4
Reader interest survey responses.

Then, it was time for the buffet!  I created signs for each of the categories, listing the subcategories on the signs.  After that, I arranged the tables in the library to accommodate the groupings of books and went through our collection and began pulling books for the categories.  I tried pulling a mixture of levels and interests, keeping in mind that I was going to book talk at least a few at each table.

Book Buffet
Science fiction table of the general fiction buffet.
Book Buffet1
Realistic fiction and memoirs table of the general fiction buffet.
Book Buffet2
Fantasy fiction table of the general fiction buffet.
Book Buffet3
Historical fiction and general nonfiction table of the general buffet.

When the classes came in, I projected on the screen a slide I created that gave directions for how the book buffet was going to work, along with a few tips of how to determine if a book was going to be appropriate for their task.  Once the class came into the library and settled, I went over the instructions on the screen, pointing out that if a book caught their interest to look at the cover, read the synopsis on the inside of the book jacket or back of the book, read the first paragraph or page,  and thumb through the book some.  I was also sure to tell them that if they checked out a book and they realized the book wasn’t going to hold their attention or work for their project, they should bring it back and find a more suitable one.  Then, I went to each table and book talked 3-4 books at each table.  I feel the book talking was key.  For one thing, I’m able to tell more students as a whole, specifically why this book might stand out for them.  Also, I was able to frequently reference the responses they made on the survey to pique their interest and so they would know that I did read their survey responses and pulled out books tailored to their interests.

NF Book Buffet 1
The biographies and memoirs table of the historical and nonfiction buffet.
NF Book Buffet 2
Historical fiction and nonfiction books about World War II.
NF Book Buffet 3
Nonfiction and Historical fiction books about wars other than World War II.

After I book talked, students had the rest of the class to look at the books on each table, make their selection, and check out a book.  Once they checked out their book (or books!), they could read the rest of the time while others kept looking over the books.  They were also welcome to choose a book from the shelves if they wanted.  Some did, but a vast majority of the students found something from one of the tables.

NF Book Buffet 4
The Holocaust portion of the Historical and Nonfiction book buffet.
NF Book Buffet 5
Nonfiction book buffet.
NF Book Buffet
General historical fiction and nonfiction that didn’t fit in the other categories.

I’m very happy to report that the book buffets have been a resounding success! Almost all of the students checked out a book from the buffets, including more reluctant readers, and I’ve had very few of them return their checkouts later!  Book buffets are a lot of work and much more preparation than general book talks, speed dates, and tastings, but the much more successful outcome is so worth it.  Again, I think having the students fill out interest surveys and tailoring the buffets to their answers was key.  The surveys are also a win for both the students and me, as they received a more customized selection and I was able to learn more about them.  I would also encourage frequent mentions of their interest survey responses to let them know the books selected are selected for them and that you listened to them.  Just look at the results in the picture below!

Students reading unedited
Students reading their new project books they had just checked out from the book buffet.


Julie Caudle is the librarian at Page Middle in Franklin, TN. You can follow her on Twitter @JulieCaudle.

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