Going Broke Buying Books

Disclaimer: There are countless ways to save money when securing books for your classroom library. I, however, often lack the patience for such measured and responsible procurement of texts. This is my story (and possibly my defense should my husband discover just how much I spend on books).

My husband Nick is a dear man. He has to be, to put up with the amount of time, energy, and hard earned cash I devote to this passion called teaching.

In the 14 years I’ve been at this, or rather the 2 years I’ve been building a genuine classroom library, I have probably spent $4, 398,291 (hyperbolic numbers are my favorite, because I’ve never been good at math).

It often happens before I know what I’m doing. Like those poor souls who sleepwalk and end up in the middle of a busy road in their pajamas, I find myself “just putting a book in my Amazon cart so I remember the title,” or “checking Thriftbooks for a minute (or 27), to see what’s new.”

Hi. My name is Lisa, and I buy a lot of books for other people’s children. 

doryThis “problem” sort of took me by surprise. With my head hanging low, I must admit there was a time, not too long ago, when there were very few books in my classroom. There were very few books in my life period, besides the ones I “taught” year after
year. My classroom was rich in many valuable thoughts, inquiries, and experiences before workshop, but it was not full of books.

How, as a teacher of literacy, had I allowed my classroom to become devoid of the very tools of reading I kept suggesting to my students would be their salvation in the face of collegiate ambitions, thematic exploration, and aspirations of world domination?

Apparently, it wasn’t important to me.

Ugh. That reflection looks ugly in print.

I didn’t purposefully create a text desert in my classroom, of course. If someone had said, “Hey, Dennis. You teach English. Where are all the books?” I would have smiled and pointed to the textbooks and countless copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Students bought any books they needed for independent reading, and I happily progressed with assigning reading, providing study guides, giving content quizzes, lather, rinse, repeat. This is what I knew. This is what I had experienced myself. This is how I was taught to teach.

But then, one day, a big rock fell on my head. I dreamt of rows upon rows of bookshelvesryan gosling lining the walls of my classroom and students clutching copies of countless titles to their bosoms. Ryan Gosling walked into the room and said, “Hey girl. I really love the work you’re doing for public education. Let’s get those kids reading more. Cool?” When I came to, I was blushing, but more importantly, I knew that my students needed more choice. More challenge. More access to books.

Ok. Not really. But the conclusions I came to after some workshop research, training by the lovely workshop team of Three Teachers Talk, and logical reflection about how I wanted my students to view reading, that part is true.

There is still a very important place for whole class novel work in my classroom. There is still a place for short lists of books with a central theme to get kids working in book clubs. There is still a place for the classic and contemporary. But there is also now a place for a lot more choice right in my classroom, always located just a few steps away.

And though we might not want to believe that we have to hold our kids’ hands and walk them to our bookshelves, instead of trusting them to take their own time to go to the library or while away the hours at the local bookshop, at least in the beginning, we do. We need to make the books so wildly available, that kids can’t help but wade through them in the course of our time together.

Think of elementary classrooms. Books upon books, upon teachers reading aloud books. If books aren’t at home, they are certainly at school, and when kids are learning to read, they are showered with books. Why not shower them with texts when we are trying to reignite that love of reading?

Given time to read, talk about books, formative and summative work around independent novel study, goal setting, book challenges, quick writes on choice reading, daily book talks, a teacher who pours passion about books all over their every class period AND shelves of books three feet away, progress in building and rebuilding readers is very possible, and even, probable.

We can teach children to read, but for reading to become a habit, they need ready access to books. We also know, they need choice, choice, and more choice (thank you a million times for your brilliance, Donalyn Miller).

When it comes down to it, we might not want to believe our students evade the reading we ask them to do, but they often do. Many fake read very, very well. Others simply smile, or avert their gaze, or defiantly say, “I didn’t do it” or “I’m just super busy.”

I’ll put it this way, my dentist hands me floss, but I don’t use it as often as I should. There. I said it. I am a college educated, do-gooder, who knows she should floss…every day. I do not floss every day. I know my teeth will suffer for it. I know when I go to the dentist I feel bad for having to say that I could probably floss more. I know it’s with the best intentions for my own self-interest that the professional tells me to do it, but…I don’t do it. I’m just super busy.

Perhaps a bad analogy, but our students don’t always make the right choices when it comes to reading. They prioritize other things. If my dentist were handing me floss every day, chances are good, I’d get in the habit. Should he have to? No. Should I just do it on my own because I know it’s good for me, of course. But, I’m flawed. We all are.

So, at least for awhile, I’m going to care enough about my students’ teeth, er, reading habits to make it highly visible, readily accessible, and as entertaining as I can.

The payoff just this week is real:

  • Josh is a super smart kid who hadn’t been devoting time to reading. He, like so many others, used to love to read, but had fallen out of the habit. With our 10-15 minutes of reading a day, and my suggestion that he add just 10 minutes before falling asleep each night, Josh is back into books. Major texts, in fact, and just book talked The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss to our a class. A little bit here and a little bit there made the reading a habit again. I bought the book and handed it to one of his peers who flew through it too.
  • I saw Brianna standing at the bookshelf yesterday morning. Sort of swaying back and forth. I skipped over (ok, I was skipping in my head, but I was excited to help her find something magical).
    “What are you in the market for, my dear?”
    “Uh…I’m not sure. I just read Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. It was really good, but I might be over nonfiction for a while.”
    “Makes sense. How about a really good story? Try this. Oooo! And this…and I had someone read this one last month. And…this (The Help). Have you read this one yet? Take a look at the reviews in the front from past readers. This is a great book.”
    Brianna was 20 pages into The Help and picked up the book between activities in class that day.
  • The somewhat shocked and surprised smile on JJ’s face when, after book talking Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things: A Novel last week, I put in his hands a copy of her incredible new release. He had asked for my copy a few days later when he finished his latest read, but it had already been checked out. He looked crestfallen. When I saw it yesterday on the new release cart in the library, I checked it out, and hunted JJ down during our resource period. “Wow. Thank you!
  • And this…You might remember Nathan from a few weeks back after he finished A Dog’s Purpose:
    I was at Barnes and Noble and used one of my gift cards to buy the sequel A Dog’s JourneyI think this smile is worth the expense:

Truth be told, I’m very lucky to work in a district that has put a huge amount of money into funding the classroom libraries of our English department as we’ve moved to workshop. And there are countless ways to put on your thrifty teacher cap and get the texts rolling into your room if your district isn’t yet on board with choice reading:

  • Write letters to your local bookstores and appeal to their sense of community pride, favorable Yelp reviews, and goodwill to all.
  • Loiter in bookstores and flash your teacher credentials. Sometimes a pleading jessicasmile and/or a small purchase will secure some free or discounted books.
  •  Apply for grants (Nothing says #booklove like free books…next year).
  • Rummage, thrift, estate sale your way through the summer.
  • Gather some research on classroom libraries and get it in the hands of your administrators. You might be surprised.
  • Ask Shana for books. She loves to give away books to fellow workshop teachers.
  • Befriend authors via social media! Jessica is trying her hand at scoring some Matthew Quick books through Shana’s connection. No shame, Jessica! Twirt (twitter flirt, I believe) away!

You don’t necessarily have to spend your own money on books, but I do. Something inside of me saying that I need more. I need more variety. I need more to recommend. I need more books.

I keep telling my husband that I’m helping to inform, inspire, and impassion the electorate. I’m also in charge of the money, so my little addiction should be able to continue a little while longer.

I consider you all my support group in this matter. Thank you for your support.

How do you surround your students with books? What titles have you added recently that keep flying off your shelves? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below. 

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Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of friends at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her latest classroom library purchases were The Hate U Giveby Angie Thomas, American Street by Ibi Zoboi,  and Violent Endsthe story of a school shooting told from various perspectives and written by 17 YA Lit. authors.  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 


29 thoughts on “Going Broke Buying Books

  1. Joan Warwick June 7, 2019 at 10:58 am Reply

    I literally went to get cash during my prep period today so I can pay cash at our book fair today. Because, fellow book buyers, I’ve already placed two orders, and have a full shopping cart for another.


  2. […] P.S.-If you are just starting out, here are some great tips on how to build your classroom library. I completely relate to Lisa’s situation. I often hide Amazon and First Book boxes in the trunk of my car so I can sneak them into my classroom without the husband finding out. Sorry Dougie! […]


  3. […] I look around my classroom this year, full of some familiar components (budget-busting classroom library, inspirational posters touting the beauty of words and books, and my space age rolling furniture), […]


  4. […] Summer Reads to Stay Up Late With, Amy E’s Refresh the Recommended Reading List, and Lisa’s Going Broke List just to name a […]


  5. vendija723 June 7, 2017 at 9:37 pm Reply

    How did I miss this post?!? I got a huge BookLove grant last summer, but doubled that amount of books with dangerously enthusiastic book shopping all year. I keep thinking–but what if THIS BOOK is the one that will work for THAT KID? I use a don’t ask/don’t tell approach to making it part of our family budget.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lisa Dennis June 8, 2017 at 8:34 am Reply

      I’m glad you found it now! Solidarity! 🙂


  6. […] What’s kept you up late reading lately?  What’s next on your TBR?  Please share in the comments…so we can all go broke buying books!! […]


  7. […] keep telling myself I won’t buy any more books.  Every time I resolve that enough is enough, and I can wait for grant money, it seems like […]


  8. […] paralyzed with fear that someone will steal books from my classroom over the summer, jeopardizing the integrity of the inventory I have yet to […]


  9. […] wrestle with accountability, making the right choices, bankrupting our personal finances, moving in new directions, providing substantive feedback, reinventing our curriculum, and […]


  10. […] Lisa’s post last week, among other things, these few sentences rang true for me, too: “Students bought […]


  11. Sabrina McClure March 19, 2017 at 6:42 pm Reply

    Be sure to develop a good relationship with the public library (especially if you lack a school library and/or school librarian). Sign all your kids up and make weekly runs to pick up requets.


  12. Amy Rasmussen March 17, 2017 at 9:25 pm Reply

    You, my dear friend, Lisa, are an inspiration! And our husbands should become great friends, bemoaning our book-buying habits.


  13. […] the biggest fear on that list of Cons was the idea of losing books.  We teachers, just as Lisa pointed out yesterday, are notorious for going broke for the […]


  14. Elizabeth Oosterheert March 15, 2017 at 6:35 pm Reply

    Hi Lisa,
    Thank you SO much for this awesome post! I spend hundreds of dollars each month on books for my classroom, and I view it as an investment in the future and in students I love so much. My husband is a Fed Ex driver, and jokes that our home is an “Amazon hub,” in our town because drivers make deliveries to our front porch so often. I agree with everything you wrote, and I admire your passion for students and for the craft and calling of teaching. I would love to “talk books” with you sometime! My most recent purchases have been multiple copies of Unbroken, Salt to the Sea and Between Shades of Gray, among others, for World War II book clubs in eighth grade, and just when I think I am “done” purchasing books for the month, NCTE publishes a great list filled with titles that I long to read or know that a student would LOVE. Thanks again for a beautiful post. Putting books in our students’ hands can and will change the world for the better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lisa Dennis March 15, 2017 at 7:04 pm Reply

      Elizabeth, I love everything about this comment! We should talk books soon! Shoot me an email and we’ll ‘talk’ over coffee and books. And … we should introduce our husbands to talk ‘wives who love books and the men who love them.” 🤓


      • Elizabeth Oosterheert March 15, 2017 at 7:14 pm Reply

        That would be awesome! 🙂 Shoot me an email anytime as well, or we can “talk” via Twitter. 🙂 I refuse to add up how much I spend on books every month; I just keep telling myself that students matter, and putting books in their hands matters, too. I have become adept at finding like new copies of high interest titles on Amazon and Thriftbooks. 🙂 Thanks again for the inspiring post!

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Jessica Paxson March 15, 2017 at 2:02 pm Reply

    Lisa, this post is just everything. I love the stories you shared of your students, and I just love the look on a face whenever you hand them a book that’s been hand-selected and weekend-purchased just for them. I don’t think there’s any way around spending our own money. Funny thing about books–they just keep making them! Darn it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lisa Dennis March 15, 2017 at 2:09 pm Reply

      Kudos to YOUR success at the bookstore today! Coloring can bring about a reduction in stress. 😘


  16. tbreitweiser March 15, 2017 at 12:22 pm Reply

    As teachers we create a “greenhouse” for our student readers – I refuse to add up how much I spend on books. I recently moved buildings (again) and last year moved my office 3 times. I finally just gave about 3/4 of my collection away to teachers and children.
    Thanks for this awesome post!

    Liked by 2 people

  17. carriegelson March 15, 2017 at 10:41 am Reply

    I love everything about this post. Perhaps because it allows me full permission for my intense book shopping and spending. I do believe the money I spend on books is one of the BEST investments I can ever make in the world. True it isn’t like the equity in my house but wow, the returns are pretty impressive when I look at all of the readers who cycle in and out of my room. How do I put books into my room? My own spending is probably #1 if I am completely honest. And then . . . when I do workshops and am asked about an honorarium I ask for book gift cards, I know which bookstores have incredible sales and frequent these stores often, I am lucky to have a book blog and be sent some review copies, I rant and rave about the importance of books and people ask me if I would like to look through a box of donations and I always say yes!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. skrajewski March 15, 2017 at 9:48 am Reply

    I could have written this post myself! I spend a few hundred dollars on books for my library each month (along with the occasional DonorsChoose project). My husband knows about it, and has basically given up on trying to curb my spending habits. This is my only “addition,” and it’s one that benefits my students and my own two children. (I don’t purchase new clothes or anything else for myself more than 2 times each year, and it’s usually around my birthday and Christmas because of gift cards.) my husband has talked with me about this, and I have shared why I do it. Without the latest and greatest books, I don’t think I’d have as many kids reading on their own. Yes I do book talks and share what I read constantly, but having the titles available is the most important part. I know I will continue purchasing as I do now, and I am perfectly ok with that!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lisa Dennis March 15, 2017 at 9:51 am Reply

      Priorities, right? My husband knows…and would probably benefit from talking with your husband! They could be in a spousal support group. Lol. Thanks for sharing…we go bust together! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Amy Estersohn March 15, 2017 at 9:17 am Reply

    Also Lisa we should talk AMERICAN STREET and THE HATE U GIVE at some point. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lisa Dennis March 15, 2017 at 9:33 am Reply

      I just finished In Cold Blood and picked up The Hate You Give. Yes! Let’s chat!! 😃


  20. Amy Estersohn March 15, 2017 at 9:15 am Reply

    Some suggestions:

    – Purchase classroom library copies of books via Scholastic Reading Club. It’s going to sacrifice quality but the price point can’t be beat. They have appealing titles through high school available. Make off with your bonus points, too: https://clubs.scholastic.com/

    – Go to Scholastic’s Warehouse Sales with empty boxes. They have warehouse sales seasonally and the prices/selection are delicious. Depending on where you live, warehouse sales might be hard to get to … I am in metro New York City and I’m used to having everything come to *me.* My nearest Scholastic Warehouse is an hour away. No matter, we are best friends, Scholastic Warehouse and I.

    – Befriend every librarian and bookstore owner you know. Often they have ARCs that they can’t circulate or sell. Offer to read and review it for them. Then gift the copy on to a kid or put it in your informal lending library.

    – Attend lots of conferences.

    – Sit on book award committees.

    – Have lots of friends in the library and publishing world.

    – Attend webinars hosted by School Library Journal, follow up with individualized ARC requests.

    – Purchase in paperback.

    – Look for local grants (e.g. PTA, Lions, Kiwanis)

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Kristin March 15, 2017 at 9:01 am Reply

    Awesome post! So glad to know I’m not the only one with a book buying “problem” 🙂

    My big question is management–I have so many books either signed out or just missing and I don’t know if I’ll get them all back. Part of me is glad because clearly my students are loving the books but I also want to ensure that other classes and other years of my English 9 classes will be able to experience some of these amazing titles. How do you deal with the logistics of your classroom library?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Amy Estersohn March 15, 2017 at 9:08 am Reply

      I used to have an elaborate tracking system…. I’ve given up. I still have a formal checkout procedure (write me a post-it, put it in our class inbox), but I don’t check up as aggressively.

      I think Kylene Beers said that 20% of your library should disappear every year. Maybe she didn’t say that and I’m making it up. Either way, book loss is the cost of doing business, and it’s important to consider OUR cost of tracking it all.


    • Lisa Dennis March 15, 2017 at 9:08 am Reply

      Thanks, Kristin! My management is sort of old school, and not able to get back 100% of books, but it is better. I have library cards and pockets. When students speed date books, I have them put cards and pockets in new or unpocketed books. They sign them out and I have an old CD box with alphabetical index card dividers. Kids sign their name and the day they are signing out the book, and put the card in the box. I can assess a school fee for the Amazon price if the book never returns. Again, not perfect. Without actual library sensors and such, books do go walking. I just try to replace them with donated or used copies. I know there are technological check out systems too. I just never kept up with the cataloging as well. Good luck! P.S. I also use guilt tactics. Poor (literally) Mrs. Dennis. You wouldn’t want to steal from your beloved English teacher, would you?! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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