Reading for Pleasure, Not Purpose

At a recent book festival, I noticed a tween girl eying my table. Finally she walked over, picked up one of my books, and began reading.

When her mom approached, the girl waved the book over her head like a flag. “This one!” she begged her mom. “Please?”

Her mom smiled patiently. “Let me have a look,” she said. She flipped through the pages as if she were searching for something. “What’s the lexile?” she asked me.

“Lexile?” I repeated, even though I knew what the word meant.

She began to explain the concept of “lexile,” then gave up. “What grade level is this book for?” she asked, sighing.

“Fourth through seventh, mostly,” I answered. “Although some third graders read it, and so do eighth graders. There’s really no rule.”

The mom glanced at her daughter, who by then was at the other end of my table, flipping through another book. “The reason I ask,” she murmured, “is because my daughter is a very advanced reader. She’s in the fifth grade, but she’s reading on a tenth grade level.”

My heart went out to this mom, because I know what it’s like to have a kid who’s an “advanced” reader. Advanced readers tend to be voracious ones, the kind of kid who brushes her teeth with a toothbrush in one hand and a book in the other. It’s a full-time job supporting a book-addicted kid’s reading habit. And finding appropriate books can be an adventure: you don’t want your kid to read books that are too babyish, because they will bore her, and possibly turn her off reading. But at the same time, you don’t want her to read YA books that may be intellectually more stimulating, but too mature in other ways–too dark, too edgy or too sexually explicit. After all, your fifth grader is still a fifth grader. A kid, not an adolescent.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned as a parent, a teacher, and an author: if we want our kids to become lifelong readers, we need to let them read for pleasure. This means allowing them to make their own reading choices (within reasonable limits). And we need to support their choices, not pluck books from their hands in the name of lexiles and reading levels.

Because why does any kid choose any book? Maybe she likes the cover, or the title, or the plot summary on the book jacket. Maybe she likes the author’s style, or finds the main character someone she’d want as a friend. One of my totally unproven (and unprovable) theories about MG reading is that for many kids, especially the “advanced, voracious” ones, reading is a social experience, a chance to hang out with the characters, empathize with them, laugh with them, learn from their triumphs and blunders. And to do any of that socializing in a meaningful way, they need characters they can relate to– which usually means kids roughly around their own age.

But what about the parent’s responsibility to educate her child? Is there anything wrong with a mom leafing through her daughter’s book to check if its language is rich, and enriching? No, of course not; but a kid’s pleasure reading shouldn’t be evaluated on the basis of: Does this book contain vocabulary words? Some of the best-written books don’t even have “big” words–The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to give one example. And some of the worst books are bursting with pompous verbiage and gobbledegook. The best middle grade fiction does so much more for kids than just expand their vocabulary.

I recently came across an article about a study conducted by Britain’s Institute of Education, which suggested that children who read for pleasure have a more advanced vocabulary as adults than non-pleasure readers. “The long-term influence of reading for pleasure on vocabulary…may well be because the frequent childhood readers continued to read throughout their twenties and thirties,” said the researchers. “In other words, they developed ‘good’ reading habits in childhood and adolescence that they have subsequently benefited from.” For older kids (age 16), reading “highbrow fiction” made the greatest improvement in adult vocabulary; but for the ten year olds, it seems the frequency of pleasure reading, and not the level or “lexile,” may be the most significant factor. To me this suggests that if you want your fifth grade kid to continue developing her already precocious language skills, let her choose her own books. A brilliant piece by Valerie Straus in the Washington Post makes several suggestions for strategies which encourage reading autonomy in the classroom, as well.

And in case you’re wondering what happened to the mom and the daughter at the book festival: They stepped away from my table, talked it over, and returned to buy the book the daughter had chosen in the first place. When I signed it for the girl, I wrote: “Keep reading!” But something told me that advice wasn’t necessary.

Barbara Dee is the author of the middle-grade novels THE (ALMOST) PERFECT GUIDE TO IMPERFECT BOYS, TRAUMA QUEEN, THIS IS ME FROM NOW ON, SOLVING ZOE and JUST ANOTHER DAY IN MY INSANELY REAL LIFE.  Find her on the web at and on Twitter @BarbaraDee2.

Make Soup, Not War

The holidays are almost upon us, and no matter what you celebrate this season, you can bet there will be food involved. Beyond simple sustenance, what and how we eat play an important role in our relationships with others. This month’s National Geographic, which focuses on food, emphasizes “the power of a meal to forge relationships, bury anger, provoke laughter.” Likewise, when presented in literature, food is often a symbol of communion between characters, communities, and even cultures. As Thomas C. Foster writes in his book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, “…breaking bread together is an act of sharing and peace, since if you’re breaking bread you’re not breaking heads.”

Several middle-grade books feature food and meals in ways that create bonds between characters and cultures. Some even include recipes for parents, teachers, and librarians, who may want to join with their own children or students by reading, cooking, and eating together during this holiday season—or any time of year.

53494In Sharon Creech’s Granny Torrelli Makes Soup, twelve-year-old Rosie has had a falling out with her best friend, Bailey, who is sight impaired. The story begins in the kitchen as Granny and Rosie slice carrots, onions, mushrooms, and celery and simultaneously swap stories about their lives. Granny tells about the best friend she left in Italy. And Rosie explains how Bailey is angry with her for learning Braille. By the end of Part One, Rosie realizes Bailey’s anger stemmed from the fact that reading Braille was his special talent. Rosie then brings soup over to Bailey’s house as a peace offering. In Part Two, the recipe for friendship and bonding includes homemade cavatelli, tomato sauce, and meatballs. As Granny, Rosie, and Bailey mix the ingredients, jealousies are revealed and life lessons are learned. Exact measurements aren’t listed in the book, but it’s clear that Granny Torrelli’s instructions for making soup and pasta are surefire recipes for reconciliation between Rosie and Bailey.

imagesIn Donna Gephart’s How to Survive Middle School, eleven-year-old David Greenberg is having a rough time. When the story opens, his mother has already moved to another state. After that, his best friend abandons him, a bully targets him, and his pet hamster dies. Still, the one constant in his life is his grandmother. She’s always there to comfort him, not only with words, but also with her kugel, blintzes, and famous apple cake. And, although there are awkward family dinners in David’s house and in his friend Sophie’s house, as well, the close connection between food and friendship is apparent when David eats two pieces of Sophie’s strawberry-rhubarb pie and slips the third piece in his pocket. At the end of the book, Gephart includes the recipe for Bubbe’s Jewish Apple Cake—sure to comfort the characters at your table.

imagesRose Kent’s Kimchi and Calamari demonstrates the deep connection between food and culture when Joseph Calderaro, who was adopted from Korea by an Italian family, begins researching his background for a school essay assignment. But how can a calamari-eating, cannoli-loving fourteen-year-old find his Korean identity when there’s no information about his personal heritage anywhere? One way is to lie about it, which he does. But another way is to embrace his ancestral culture over dinner with a neighboring Korean family. Joseph bonds with them over sticky rice, bulgogi, and kimchi. As he comes to accept the fusion of his Korean origin and his Italian upbringing, he proudly describes himself as, “One hunk of Joseph slapped between a slice of Italian bread and a mound of Korean sticky rice.” Finally, he has the topic for his essay: “Joseph the Ethnic Sandwich.” While the book doesn’t contain the directions for cooking kimchi or calamari, plenty of mouth-watering Korean and Italian recipes are available on the Internet for hungry readers.

images-1Dumpling Days is Grace Lin’s third novel about Pacy Lin. In this one, Pacy travels to Taiwan for a month for her grandmother’s birthday celebration. And while it’s sometimes difficult for Pacy to navigate her new surroundings, peach buns, soup dumplings, and other delicacies definitely have the power to bridge the gap between cultures. A recipe for Chinese Dumplings can be found at the end of the book.

Other middle-grade novels about food:

The Teashop Girls by Laura Schaeffer—recipes for tea, sandwiches, and scones are included in the book.

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman—recipes can be found on the author’s webpage under Extras.

Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath—recipes are included at the end of chapters.

If you have a favorite middle-grade novel with food and/or recipes, feel free to serve it up in the comments section. In the meantime, happy reading and eating!

Dorian Cirrone is the author of several books and short stories for children. She blogs about reading and writing (and sometimes eating) at Hop on over  for writing tips and occasional give-aways.

On Discovering a Passion for Middle Grade

I’ve always been a reader. And I’ve always wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t always know I wanted to write for children.

I signed up for a creative writing class the first quarter it was offered when I was in college. And I took that class very seriously. I wasn’t there to fulfill a gen. ed. requirement. I was there because I wanted to be a writer.

But I had a problem with that first short story assignment. I couldn’t come up with a good story idea.

All my life I’d been writing stories about characters who were around my age. They grew as I grew. Now that I was in college, it was time to write something bigger and deeper than I’d ever written before. Something that would catch my professor’s attention and show him how serious I was.

But what could I write about?

Days went by…and I had no story. I started dozens of stories, but each one fell apart after a page or two. None were good enough. Big enough. Deep enough.

My classmates started turning in their stories. They read them out loud in class and that just made me feel worse because all of their stories were beautifully written. They were full of imagery. They were deep and meaningful. So deep that I couldn’t even follow most of them as I listened them.

I still had nothing.

Not only could I not come up with a story of my own, I felt like I was too stupid to even understand everyone else’s story. I was never going to be an author.

Then another classmate stood up to read her story. Before she started she said, “I have to tell you my story isn’t like the rest of yours. I’m an elementary education major, so I decided to write a story about fifth graders.”

I didn’t expect much when she said that. But then she started reading.

I LOVED her story!

I laughed. I squirmed. I was right there, reliving my own fifth grade experiences as I listened.

It had never occurred to me to write a story for kids!

I went back to my dorm and started my own story for kids. Just to see what happened. I was amazed how the story just poured out of me. And I’d had FUN writing it! More fun that I’d had trying to write something “deep and meaningful.”

Next I started on a longer story. A novel. For 4th-5th graders. I discovered that our university library actually had a section of middle grade novels. For the elementary education majors. I explained to the librarian that I needed access to those books, too. For “research.” It wasn’t that I was going to read those books for pleasure or anything. It was for my creative writing class.

I rediscovered a lot of my old favorites down there in the basement of the university library. I checked them out and read them with more pleasure than I was willing to admit to. Then I started going to the city library…because I needed to see NEW books that were being published for kids. Again, “just for research.”

I was hooked! I’m not sure when I admitted to myself and everyone else that I wasn’t just reading middle grade for research. I LIKED middle grade novels. Today I read far more middle grade novels in a year than I do adult novels.

I don’t even remember the name of the elementary education major in my creative writing class. I never saw her again after that class, but I’ve thought about her often over the years. I’ve wondered if she ever published books for kids. Listening to her read her story out loud was such a turning point for me. It was when I discovered my passion for middle grade. And this girl, whoever she was, will never know she changed my life. I read kids books and write kids books because she “gave me permission” to when we were in a creative writing class together.

I’ve wondered whether others had a clear, defining moment when they discovered a passion for middle grade. So I asked several of my writer friends:

Dia Calhoun, author of After the River the Sun (Atheneum, 2013), said, “Late on evening in the Mills College library, I took a break from studying for my America Lit exam and wandered through the stacks. I found a little room, hidden away, its waist-high shelves filled with children’s books. All my old favorite books called out to greet me–The Little Lame Prince, A Little Princess, Heidi, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I spent the next two hours perched on a little stool, reading, reading, reading, full of joy. I knew I had come home.”

Peg Kehret, author of the recently released Dangerous Deception (Dutton, 2014) said, “I had been writing for adults and had published two nonfiction books, several plays and many short stories. I had written an adult mystery and sent it to an agent who returned it with a note saying, “Your heroine seems awfully young. Have you thought of writing books for kids?” Sadly, I did not take her advice and several more years went by. Then an editor who had published some of my plays asked me to write a book of monologues for student actors, so I began writing from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old kid. I was hooked immediately. When I finished that book I tried my first middle grade novel, Deadly Stranger. I was fifty years old when Deadly Stranger was published.”

Kirby Larson, author of the recently released Dash (Scholastic, 2014), told me, “The middle grade novels that I discovered as an adult and that completely turned me on to writing in this genre were those written by Betsy Byars. But please don’t make me select only one title! How could I possibly choose between the Bingo Brown books with their humor and Bingo’s first painful experiences with “mixed sex conversations,” or the offbeat but lovable Blossom family stories or the poignant, bittersweet and uplifting stories told in The Pinballs, or Summer of the Swans, or even the historical Trouble River? No matter the story, Betsy Byars turned it into a seven-layer cake of characters I wanted for my own friends; story premises that were fresh and original; snappy, realistic dialogue; settings brought to life with concrete and specific details (drinking lemonade from a sugar bowl; packing a paper bag suitcase); plot points triggered by previous plot points like tipping dominoes; situations that made me stop and think about what it means to be a decent human being; and, always, resolutions that grew organically from the story itself. I read and re-read her novels many times as I tried to teach myself how to write for kids and young adults. She’s a treasure!”

By the way, that first story I wrote for my creative writing class? It eventually became my first published short story.