The 40 Book Challenge Revisited

Years ago, at a professional development workshop, Ellin Keene poked fun at the creator of the overwrought and overused “Text-to-Self, Text-to-Text, Text-to-World” reading strategy. If you’re laughing right now, you know that Ellin is one of the original architects of this strategy, which appears in her groundbreaking book (co-authored with Susan Zimmerman), Mosaic of Thought.

A few years back, a woman proudly announced to me at a workshop that she was, “doing her own version of the Daily 5, but she could only get in three of them.” I imagine Gail and Joan want to know which three. I should have asked, ladies, but I was at a loss for words.

It happens; the original thinking behind an instructional idea becomes lost when it’s passed along like a game of Telephone. You heard about it from a 60-minute conference session. Your teammate attended a book study and she gave you the highlight reel. The teacher down the hall is doing something innovative. You should try it. We’ve all seen the quick adoption of shiny, new ideas without a full picture of how these concepts fit into best practices (or don’t).

I’ve shared many ideas through my teaching and writing, and I stand by what I’ve put out into the world—but the one idea most demanding a revisit is my 40 Book Challenge, which appears in The Book Whisperer. In a nutshell, the 40 Book Challenge invites students to read 40 books across different genres during the school year.

I wonder sometimes if I failed to communicate the true intentions behind the 40 Book Challenge. Teachers email me or contact me on Facebook and Twitter about it every day. I have also seen a lot of what my dear friend, Teresa Bunner calls, “Book Whisperer Gone Bad” activities that actually undermine children’s development as independent readers instead of fostering it.

On Teachers-Pay-Teachers, I found worksheets, award certificates, rubrics, and posters using “The 40 Book Challenge.” While citing me as the source (shudder), the teacher who designed these materials offers incentives and creates competition between readers—the antithesis of my teaching philosophy and research about incentives tied to reading.

An unfamiliar parent emailed me to complain. She tracked me down on the Internet after asking her son’s teacher about the “outrageous requirement” that students read 40 books and complete 40 book reports this school year. Her son’s teacher said the assignment was based on my work, and this upset mom wanted me to know that I was hurting her son. I responded that while I expect my students to read 40 books, I don’t tie any assignments or grades to this expectation.

A close friend shared on Facebook that a teacher publicly humiliated his daughter because she “only” read 35 books this school year. The complexity or length of the books his daughter read weren’t considered. What she gained from these reading experiences didn’t matter, either.

Visiting a school last spring, a 4th grade teacher told me that she didn’t “allow” her students to “count” any books that were under 100 pages long. Walking the school library together, I asked the teacher to look at the biographies, traditional literature, and nonfiction texts available (and appropriate) for her 4th graders to read. After 20 minutes of searching, we found 12 biographies that met her stringent guidelines. It never occurred to her that she was limiting her students’ choices or access to books.

The 40 Book Challenge isn’t an assignment you can simply add to outdated, ineffective teaching practices. The Book Challenge rests on the foundation of a classroom reading community built on research-based practices for engaging children with reading. Assigning a 40 Book Challenge as a way to generate grades or push children into reading in order to compete with their classmates corrupts everything I have written and said about reading. The 40 Book Challenge is meant to expand students’ reading lives, not limit or define it.

The 40 Book Challenge is a personal challenge for each student, not a contest or competition between students or classes. In every competition or contest there are winners and losers. Why would we communicate to our students that they are reading losers? For some students, reading 40 books is an impossible leap from where they start as readers, and for others, it’s not a challenge at all.

If Alex read two books in 4th grade and reads 22 in 5th grade, I am celebrating with him. What an accomplishment! Look how much Alex grew. He didn’t grow because he read more books. He grew because he had 22 successful reading experiences.

Conversely, when Hailey read 55 books in 4th grade, reading 40 books in 5th grade isn’t challenging her. Encouraging Hailey to read biographies and historical fiction, which she claims to detest, does more to stretch her than simply reading more books.

Honestly, I don’t care if all of my students read 40 books or not. What matters is that students stretch themselves as readers and increase their competence, confidence, and reading motivation through their daily participation in our reading community. The 40 Book Challenge works for my students and me and for the many teachers successfully implementing it because of these core beliefs:

Everybody reads here. Let’s get started. Our direct influence on students’ reading lives lasts 40 weeks—36 weeks of school and 4 weeks of school vacation. Setting high expectations (roughly a book a week) communicates that reading is ongoing and continues from the first day of school to the last—hopefully longer. Students should spend more time reading than they spend completing reading-related activities like worksheets, reading responses, and projects. Students who read the most will always outperform the students who don’t read much (Krashen, 2004).

*Strong readers have lots of reading experiences. You need to be a good all-around reader. Encouraging students to read widely—sampling books from every genre—improves their reading ability by expanding their reading experiences. If you spend every day working on your jump shot, you’ll improve your jump shot. To be a strong all-around player, you must practice passing, guarding, and dribbling, too. To be a strong reader, you must practice reading poetry, fiction, nonfiction, wordless books, graphic novels, blog posts—a little bit of everything.

*There’s the right book for you out there somewhere. Let’s find it. For many students, trying a lot of books helps them find the one type of text that excites them and invites them into reading. True preferences come from years of wide reading—trying books, having some false starts, discovering authors, genres, and writing styles that we enjoy. Students who haven’t read much may not have found the books that speak to them. Reading buffet-style—tasting all types of books—students can discover what the world of reading has to offer.

*Whether you read or not isn’t a choice, but what you read is YOUR choice. I don’t waste a lot of time at the beginning of the school year talking about why students might not like to read. Everybody reads here. Everybody is a reader. Whether you read or not is off the table, but what you read is your choice. Whatever you want. You pick. Providing students with choice in what they read increases their reading motivation and engagement (Gambrell, Coding, & Palmer, 1996; Worthy & McKool, 1996; Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).

*Your reading life matters. Students’ personal reading goals have as much value as our academic goals. Classrooms exert tremendous influence on the development of students’ reading identities—whether it’s positive or negative. While students learn the skills of reading, they must develop a positive reading identity to remain readers (Serafini, 2013).

Without these core beliefs in place, the 40 Book Challenge becomes another tedious reading assignment that drives kids away from reading. If students leave our classrooms hating to read or skate through without any positive reading experiences, we have failed. It doesn’t matter what they scored on the reading test. It doesn’t matter how many books they read if they stop reading when they leave our classrooms.

I recently received a Facebook message and photos from Aliza Werner, a third grade teacher at Parkway Elementary School in Glendale, Wisconsin. Aliza and her students held a 40 Book Challenge last school year, and she wanted to share her students’ successes with me, “Through the challenge, we created an enormous sense of community that embraced comfort, security, growth, sharing, excitement, and organic learning and curiosity that I had never felt before in any class.”

alizas class photo Aliza’s 20 students read 1741 books last year and they all met or surpassed their academic reading goals. More important, these 9-year olds developed a bond with each other and with reading that will last long after 3rd grade. Recounting anecdote after anecdote about her students’ individual reading successes, Aliza told me, “I could go on and on, as I am so proud of each of them in their own way.” Looking through the photos of Aliza’s beaming students, this note from Kristen made me smile.

Kristens best year ever


It’s clear that Aliza and her students embraced the full intent of the 40 Book Challenge. Aliza says that her students are still chatting over the summer–sharing their reading. In a classroom culture where reading threads through every class day and every conversation—everyone grows as a reader and finds reading more interesting and personally meaningful. Every reader has value. Every reading experience has value. It doesn’t matter who ultimately crosses an arbitrary finish line.

How can we empower our students and help them grow? How can we make reading an exciting adventure? What do we want our students to remember about reading and our classroom community when they leave? The 40 Book Challenge kicks off a year of reading. That’s Day One. What about the rest of the year? Developing students’ positive reading identities and development as lifelong readers—these must remain our priorities every day, all year long.

129 responses to “The 40 Book Challenge Revisited

  1. Where would dystopian books fall in the genres? We tried the 40 book challenge for the first time this year, and it was a lot of fun but we had trouble deciding where to place our dystopian novels on our genre list. I always introduce my students to a few dystopian books and series each year (The Giver, City of Ember, Among the Hidden, The Girl Who Owned a City, etc.) since that has always been a strong interest of mine, but with the 40 book challenge this year I felt like they didn’t quite fit anywhere. It led to quite a few great class discussions that ended with me telling the students to place the book wherever they felt it best fit (some argued fantasy because some of the plot twists in some dystopian books seem so imaginative and fanciful, some argued realistic fiction because technically it COULD be our world in the future, and a few chose to write it under historical fiction, saying it was like reverse history). I had my reservations with each of those genres, and could never make up my mind where I felt they belonged, so I told students who also were not satisfied with any of the genres to list them under the free choice. Has anyone else thought about this? I am thinking about taking a few of the free choice slots and creating a spot for a dystopian genre, but what do you all think?

    • Dystopia is a subset of science fiction, so we placed it there… The conversation you had with students provided interesting insight into their thinking, though!

    • I also place mine in science fiction, but it’s great to have conversations like those. I had trouble figuring out where to put the Series of Unfortunate Events, which caused interesting conversations.

    • I am considering adding a genre called mishmash this year to include the books that seem to hit to genres at the same time. I am specifically thinking of novels in verse that really do hit historical fiction or realistic fiction: Out of the Dust, Crossover, etc. I am also curious to see if anyone else has added something to include graphic novels or comic books.

      • Aliza Werner

        Tricia, I would encourage you to take the opportunity to discuss books that cross into multiple genres with your students during conferring. While a miscellaneous category catches the tricky books, it doesn’t help students think about the genres it fits. When this happens, I encourage my students to discuss and then just record the genre they feel it fits most. After all, it’s not an exact scientific recording you’re after with their reading record, it’s the process of recognizing features in books that put them in various genres. Be careful to know the difference between genre and format. For example, graphic novels might be realistic fiction or fantasy (genre), but they are graphic novels (format). The Crossover is realistic fiction (genre), but is written in verse (format). Hope that makes sense and you have awesome conversations with your students!

    • I call them “Speculative,” a category that in my room encompasses fantasy, science fiction, and dystopia. It’s basically defined by a vague concept that it’s “Like our world, IF…”
      It was kind of born from a need to place Eoin Colfer’s ARTEMIS FOWL books, because when you’ve got leprechaun’s using advanced technology, where do you go?

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  3. We have been implementing (or trying to implement) your 40 Book Challenge for the past 3 years in our middle school Reading classrooms. We got rid of AR – YAY!!! And book reports – double YAY!!! Our kids are WAY more excited about reading than they were before. However, we/I have made many mistakes… the first year I tried having conversations with each child about their reading. That was a disaster because I have 120 students during the day and 50 minutes class periods. I just couldn’t get to all of them and the other curriculum pieces that I am required to cover. So…. I have “evolved” your idea into a reading/writing curriculum with yes, grades attached, for accountability. And now, I fear, that is becoming a disaster. My question is this – what do I do about those who see the “challenge” at the beginning of the year and opt out completely. Not worry about them? It seems that no matter how much time I spend with them in the library trying to get them to like reading just a bit more than when they came to me, it does not make a difference. I have even given some shorter articles, short stories, etc. just to help them avoid the daunting task of chapter books. I have read some comments about a 25 book challenge. Does that help alleviate some of the stress so that it isn’t a huge undertaking for both students, parents and teachers? I would love to hear exactly what your students write about in their journals or on blogs to get you to “check off” each of the 40 reads. I have tried having them answer a question prompt each week, write a summary, write about various elements of the book depending on the genre…. they HATE writing about their books. Help!!! I am struggling between too much accountability and not enough. I have thought about completely lifting the writing about their independent books and only using the journal writing for my assignments over class reading material. I teach 7th grade – in Texas. They HAVE to write.

    • I feel I addressed your concerns about how many books children should read in this post. The number of books isn’t the point. Research shows that kids who read 35-40 books per year score at the top of standardized tests of reading. If you want to change it 25 that is your choice. The main goals of the challenge are communicated here.

    • I’ve tried this for a few years with varying success. Having my students write in a reading notebook every week has made a big difference for me. It keeps them more accountable. I have given them guidelines for what to include in the letter:
      (There’s more in that doc than the letter…feel free to use any of it…I borrowed it from others)

      I also have a grade for each entry. I realize a grade isn’t ideal, but it keeps my students a little more accountable. Once I started doing that the quality of their letters really improved:

      • I mentioned response letters in BW and Reading in the Wild, and I’m glad you’ve found success with using them, too!

      • I have read both. Love your books!

        I have found it to be a lot of work to write to each student every week, but it sure keeps them accountable with reading! I write to them every week about a book I read too. Keeps me accountable too!

      • One thing I tried when I had 100+ middle schoolers was asking students to write a response each week, but I didn’t read and respond (and grade) every response. Every two/three weeks (in a rotation), students would reflect on their entries, select a response they wanted to share, and wrote a reflection about what this response showed about their growth as a reader or a goal they had. I checked each week to see that everyone had a response written, but I think the reflection helped students take more ownership of their reading.

    • Do they enjoy reading graphic novels? There are some absolutely terrific graphic novels out there. Sports-related titles? The Guinness Book of World Records? Ghost stories? True animal stories. Cookbooks for kids. Craft books. I’m a parent volunteer in our school’s library, and I can usually lure kids with books like these.

  4. Donalyn, thank you for your reply. Dawn, thank you for the resources. So, if a student finishes a book and has not written a response in their journal, how do you know they have read it in order to get credit for that book on the 40 challenge? I have a colleague who does the response of the week as well. But what about those who read more than one book a week? Do all of your students write about every book they finish in order to get the “credit”?

  5. Do students write a letter for each book or should varied forms of responses be used? I feel like students will choose the same, favorite or easiest response method (ie…book commercial) if not monitored/too open, but I also feel like the letter writing would become redundant.

    • Students write letters once a week (or blog posts) about different topics. I model various ideas for responses (some tied to curriculum and some open-ended) and we practice them as a class with shared reads before students step into writing their own.

  6. Amen!! Donalyn, I love your book and your philosophy reflects my own beliefs. This past year my 4th graders took the 40 book challenge and ended up reading an average of 63 books per student! They reached their original goal in April and then we’re so excited they asked if they could increase it to try and read 2,000 books by the end of the year. My answer of course “YES!!” I allow my kids to count 5 sophisticated picture books as 1 chapter book. I also allow/encourage the kids to listen to books on CD and that counts as 1 book as well. If the book is over 250 pages it counts as 2 books. My kids were so proud of themselves at the end of the year at what they’d accomplished and the book discussions we were having were so rich and fun. Nothing gets me more excited then to have a kid come up to me and want to talk about a book they’re reading! Thank you for giving me permission to just let my kids read!

    • Andrea, I teach 4th grade as well. I read BW last summer and loved it. I didn’t use the 40 book challenge in the fall because I have been trying to figure out the best way to implement it with 4th graders. I team teach and now have 75 minutes 4 days a week to teach reading and social studies. I want to begin a 20 book challenge beginning in January. Did your kids write weekly letters? How did you handle that pesky thing called grades? Thanks so much!

  7. I do a modified version of your 40 book challenge. My idea behind it is to get students to sample different genres. I let my students choose 15, 20, 30, or 40 books. It is fun to watch those who choose 15 books come to me and ask if they can change it to 20 or 30. There are no assignments attached to it. Parents keep wondering what the catch is. I tell them my goal is to get kids to read a variety of books and become better informed about books. My goal is to create life long readers. My reward is having a child come to me and tell me they are beginning to like to read, or they didn’t know there were such good books out there. That is the only thing I am looking for. I ask my students to keep a reading log and to write about their reading. I don’t grade it. I check it every couple of weeks. I had 147 students last year and with all the extra writing the county made us do it was all I had time for. But we talked books every day in every class before we got started or I set time aside at the end of class. I’ve only been challenged by one parent. They were touring our school at the end of last year and they were upset I didn’t participate or encourage my students to do AR. I explained my philosophy on reading. He responded, not everyone is going to win points like my son the rest are just loser readers. I asked him if he felt himself qualified to teach a reading class to low level, second language kids. His response was that he would never be able to teach them because he didn’t have the skills or patient. I then asked if that made him a loser. He looked at me, opened his mouth and said,”got it”. He quietly left my room. I was told he filled out the application to send his son to our school.

  8. Thank you so much! I shared this with my department. There are a lot of teacher who still believe that every book that they read HAS to have an assignment attached to it. I “fight” with my own children about AR and how they won’t read a book that doesn’t have an AR test attached, or one that is “too hard” or “too easy” for them. Please keep preaching!

  9. Is naming the genre and deciding which it is a huge deal? I think the conversation that is taking place and the fact that kids are reading are more important than WHAT genre you decide a book is. Am I missing something? Just wondering…

    • We want students to be widely read and studies that readers who read widely have higher reading abilities. As I mention in the post, my hope is that if students try a little bit of everything and widen their reading experiences, they will discover books they enjoy reading.

  10. Hi! Since many of my students love reading longer chapter books, how many pages do you count as 2 books?

  11. I share many of your concerns. While Pinterest is a great resource, many teachers get ideas for lessons and anchor charts there without understanding the why or how.

    I have students graph what they read to record their reading life and for me to encourage them to step out of their reading comfort zone.

  12. Does this include books that are read to them such as in my Read Aloud?

  13. I would like to know the way in which the the challenge is organized and recorded. Does anybody have any suggestions for a school wide kick off that will excite school wide middle schoolers.

    • Detailed information about the challenge is in The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. Students record information in their readers’ notebooks about all of the books they’ve read.

  14. I read your blog and book excitedly when I was homeschooling. I loved it! My kids since started public school, and this year their teachers announced a 30 book challenge! Lovely, I thought! There’s a writing assignment for every book. In one week my reluctant reader went from finally finding two series she loved (pre 30 book challenge) to stressing about what she would write, and not reading. Hopefully we’ll ride through this storm, but I am frustrated. I am SO GLAD you wrote this post. At least I am not alone.

  15. Sad to see an idea of promise wrongly implemented in middle school. Strong readers read anyways. My language impaired son failed to take up this herculean challenge. He was graded zero out of twenty in such assignment. Reading is for pleasure. 40 books in one quarter ??? We did not have to read so many books in our entire Medical school curriculum. Has this hypothesis been tested in learning disabled community? In stead of guided reading on Classics/ Nobel/ prize winning literature, this epic exercise may increase test scores but it will not expand the mind. Books are wings to imagination. The bar which has been set so high is clipping the wings of some vulnerable students before they learn to fly.

    • I never recommended or described the implementation of this challenge in the ways it was given to your son. My apologies.

  16. What are your thoughts about starting this midway through the school year? I’m a librarian and would love to do this challenge with my students, but it’s already winter break! :0

  17. Whittney Bender

    Hi Donalyn!
    I am a huge fan of “The Book Whisperer” and I love the 40 book challenge. I teach high school 9th grade Honors English. I decided to try this out for the last quarter. I asked my high school students to read 15 books, that is the challenge. However, high school kids do not complete work that is not for a grade (and their parents take issue with work that does not give them that A in English). While I love the idea of not attaching a grade to this, I need to do this to give it value for them (I hope to change that for next year). How would you suggest that I grade them? I thought anything above 12 books would get them an A. I felt that was fair. Anything below 4 would get them an E. I don’t want to punish them with a bad grade if they read 4 books! That is still better than before. Do you have any suggestions or things you might try? I appreciate any help! Thank you!

    • I highly recommend reading Penny Kittle’s Book Love for practical ideas about creating a reading culture in the HS classroom.

  18. Heather Edrington

    I have used the 40 Book Challenge in my fourth grade classroom the past two years and LOVED IT!! It encouraged my students who weren’t all that into reading and it pushed those who couldn’t put their books down. I want to continue using the challenge but I am moving to first grade. Have you ever heard of anyone using the challenge in the primary grades? I have only taught fourth and fifth graders and I don’t want to go in with a 40 book goal only to have these little ones completely shocked. I also wonder if 40 books may be low for some of them considering most of them will be reading pictures books. I have always discussed book choices with my students in the past. For instance, some of my students thought they would read some shorter, easier books in order to hit their 40, so we discussed how that wasn’t pushing them as a reader and looked for books that were more appropriate. I would appreciate your thoughts. Thank you!

    • If the goal of the challenge is for all children to read widely and in volume, what would be a reasonable number of books? The 40 book challenge works out to be roughly a book a week during the school year (including school vacations).

  19. Outstanding explanation of the 40 book challenge !! I couldn’t agree with you more that it’s not about competition it’s about empowerment and allowing kids to feel strong about their Reading choices . When kids are excited about learning and sharing what they’ve read with others there’s no way learning can be stopped !! Thank you for what you do I’m behalf of kids !!

  20. Donalyn,
    I am writing to you with tears in my eyes. I met with my third grade students yesterday to complete their reading interest survey. One of my boys wasn’t quite sure what to write down as his favorite book. “What is the teacher book called?” he asked me. I asked for clarification. “You know, the book that teachers get the stories with the questions at the bottom? That’s the only book I read in second grade.” My heart shattered. I scrapped all plans for the rest of the day and all 29 of my third grade students jumped into the baskets of our classroom library. Students were recommending books to each other and even my reluctant readers found a book that brought a twinkle to their eye. It was a beautiful beginning to our journey into growing as readers. Thank you for inspiring me as a teacher. This is exactly why I wanted to become a teacher. Thank you for validating what I’ve felt in my heart. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! We are embarking on our own 40 book challenge and I’ve never been more excited.

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