Two weeks ago a most extraordinary thing occurred: I went back to high school.

Not having a child of my own, my expectations were based solely on my high school experience, and let me be perfectly honest: I was expecting kids full of attitude who wouldn’t give our books a second glance. Eye rolls, heavy sighs… surely you know what I mean. I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

What I found instead: kids with clear ideas about what they want to read and why, opinions about the books they’ve already read, and a willingness to try new things. What a joy!

I took about 600 books to Clarke Central High School here in Athens. Lindy and Nancy, Clarke Central’s Media Specialists, set aside a portion of the library for the entire day and worked out a plan for 7 sophomore English Literature classes to receive books. We set the books up in the library and the classes came in, one at a time, for about 30 minutes each.

Try and picture it: 30ish kids at a time, sifting through tables full of books… discussing storylines with friends… making recommendations to classmates… sharing their opinions with me, the Media Specialists, the teachers, and each other. It was FABULOUS.

We set the books out on tables at random, unsorted, uncategorized. This strategy has worked well in elementary school because the younger kids need encouragement to consider books that aren’t familiar to them. The high school students would have appreciated having the books separated into categories: fiction vs. non-fiction, classics vs. modern. If nothing else, we’ll definitely separate the “Chick Lit” next time.

Vampire books were popular, but most of the kids who wanted to read the Twilight series already had. I boxed up quite a few of those to take to our middle school distribution. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series was a clear dud; I doubt a single copy was taken. Stephen King was a winner, especially with the boys.

For the girls, it was all about Jodi Picoult. After the first class came through I scrambled to find all the Picoult books and put them together. The girls flocked to the newly-established Picoult section and it was wonderful to hear them discussing their thoughts on the various plotlines.

Lively book discussions were a frequent occurrence! At one point, a group of students AND teachers were heatedly arguing over whether Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible” was worth reading. Those who’d read it either loved it or hated it. Twilight fans separated into “book vs. movie” camps, with book fans advising movie fans that the book contains much more insight into the characters, and movie fans wondering aloud if 600 pages was “worth it”. Stephen King fans debated which books were the most nightmare-inducing vs. “just creepy”.

Throughout the day students would mention a book they’d read and loved, and ask me to recommend a similar book. Thankfully, the English Lit teachers and Media Specialists were circulating among the students and helping them find something they’d like. Between now and next year, I’ll be catching up on my high school reading so I can be more helpful! Some of the requests: “gang books”, “make me cry”, “drama and despair”, “vampires!”, “anything that’s not a chick book”, “something by a rapper”. Now – how do I turn these into a wishlist?

The biggest surprise of the day (to me) was the interest in the classics. Old-fashioned covers and childhood classics like Nancy Drew and Little House on the Prairie have been rejected repeatedly by elementary school students. I thought the same would be true of high school students, so I sorted out much of the “old stuff” and left it behind at the sort room. I never expected anyone to ask me for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Big mistake, but (thankfully) correctable. We’ll be delivering more books to Clarke Central between now and the end of the school year, so I’ll add them back and send them along.

Distributing books to high school students is a lot more work than elementary school distributions. The kids have stronger opinions about what they want to read AND books compete with more demands on the students’ time, their social lives, jobs, and of course TV and video games. Matching books to students is harder, especially with such a random inventory. With unlimited funding, I’d let the students order the books they want and enlist the help of researchers to determine the most effective number of books per student. Until that day comes, we’ll continue to share all the books we collect and refine the program as we go.

I’m thrilled with Books for Keeps’ first high school distribution, and the kids were clearly happy to have the books. Thank you, our wonderful donors, for making it possible.