Six fifth-graders from South Knoxville Elementary School are journeying to Alaska the next few weeks – through the pages of a book.
A new school year means another chapter of the SKE Book Club, which Dr. Tanna Nicely, the school’s principal, just launched for the seventh time. She introduced their lead-off book, “Julie of the Wolves” by Jean Craighead George, at their first meeting on Tuesday.
“The first book we’re going to read I’m choosing for you,” Nicely told the six girls gathered around her office at lunchtime. “It’s a classic. It’s really a neat book about a strong woman.”
“Ooh, that would fit us very well!” said one of the girls excitedly.
Seven is the largest number the principal has ever had with the lunch bunch. One year she started with three, but more came along. She even had a boy join once. She kept the club going online when school was closed during the pandemic.
“They volunteer to be part of this book club all year long,” she said. Usually they get through five books, and they get to keep every book they read.
The kids make a slideshow about each book and present it. They also have a celebration at the end of the year. Last year they went to the South Knoxville restaurant Little Tokyo and had their dinner cooked in front of them.
The girls on Tuesday were pleased to have a guest, but they’re hoping to lure a bigger fish.
“Can we bring Dolly Parton?” one asked, with the others quickly piling on their pleas. “Why don’t you ask her,” said Nicely. “You might have a lot more power to ask her than I would.”
The principal had the girls study the front and back covers of the book to see what they could learn from them. The art on the front shows a wolf and a young woman wearing a fur hood. The girls surmised that the story is set somewhere cold, possibly Alaska. Nicely also pointed out that the words “Winner of the Newbery Medal” are on the front and asked if anyone had heard of the Newbery Medal.
No one had, so she gave them an overnight assignment: Find out what the Newbery Medal is, report back on Wednesday, “and you’ll get something special from me.”
The back cover has a synopsis and a collection of critics’ quotes. Nicely said one of them, “an absorbing story,” made her think of choosing the novel – which she had read years ago when she was in school – for the club.
“I’ve read this book several times, and I’m going to read it again with you all,” she said. “I love it.”
Nicely told them that when she was a young reader checking out books from the Mascot branch of the Knox County Public Library, she loved books by Judy Blume and Laura Ingalls Wilder. She shared that her husband is fond of westerns – not scary stories – by Stephen King. “Who’s that?” one girl asked.
“If I have a really good book, I’ll read it more than once,” said Nicely. “That’s why part of this book club is, you keep the book after you’ve read it. And then someday you’ll start your own library, and some of you might want to go back and refer to this book.”
The assignment for next week is to read 40 pages and be able to discuss them with the group. Forty is the minimum, she said.
“Last year, we had a girl who read the book in two weeks.”
After the girls headed back to class, Nicely talked about what the members get from the book club.
“We don’t just talk about books; we talk about all kinds of stuff in this club,” adding that she even slips in a little nutrition. “This promotes a sense of belonging, and they look forward to it.”
Hosting the club lets the students know “I’m a woman who loves to read, and I was a little girl once. It’s a good way to relate to your kids.
“They’re seeing me in a different light besides just being the principal of the school, seeing me as an equal. They make me accountable.”
Nicely doesn’t foresee any book-banning problems at SKE.
“I feel like we’re blessed at this school to have such a wide variety of topics in our library,” she said. “Our parents are very supportive of what we have in our library (because we’re) transparent about what is available in our collection.”
Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.