My third son began fourth grade last week. As we endured and enjoyed the back-to-school chaos, I remembered how Nancy Drew and Laura Ingalls helped me overcome my insecurities when the uncertainty of middle-grade overwhelmed me. They were the perfect friends for an awkward, shy girl.
But my boys don’t use characters from books as friends. To them, books are more like a distant great-aunt who wears too much perfume and threatens to kiss them. They know they are supposed to like her, but it goes against everything within them. In spite of that, they read. Not voraciously like I did, but I don’t complain. Too much.
Two things helped keep our thirteen and fifteen-year-old boys reading through middle grade.
1. We read to them no matter how well they read on their own.
2. We helped them to develop a habit of reading.
My older boys and I read books that had absolutely nothing to do with school assignments and we read nearly every night before bed. That time spent at the end of the day was often the opening to discussions about how things were really going at school. Bedtime may not have always been on time, but I’ll never regret a moment spent in a book-prompted discussion.
To refresh my perspective how to motivate my two younger sons to keep reading, I interviewed my freshly minted fourth grader about books and how he chooses them.
Me: How do you choose books when you are at the library or the bookstore?
#3: First I have to choose two chapter books that are one-hundred or more pages. Then after I pick those, I go to the part that has the war books and pick one of those.
The hundred- page rule is from his third grade teacher. Now that it’s become his rule, he will be in high school before he changes it. I have no idea where he gets that stubborness. Must be from his father.
Me: Do you read for fun?
#3: No. I read before bed.
Me: Does it ever become fun?
#3: Well, sometimes once I start reading and I really like the story, it is kind of fun.
Me: What makes you stop reading?
#3: I get tired.
Me: No. I mean why would you put a book down.
#3: Because it’s time to sleep.
Due to time constraints, this portion of the interview has been edited. Just know that I basically repeated the same questions in various forms with #3 repeating similar answers until I gave up.
Me: What is the best book you read recently?
#3: I didn’t read last week because we were out of town.
Me: I mean over the past few months.
#3: What day was that?
Me: (sighing) How about favorite books you read since Spring Break?
#3: Oh. I liked Bud, Not Buddy, the Wishbone book about Red Badge of Courage and *he says the name of my newly written book*.
Me: That last one doesn’t count because it’s not published.
#3: I think it counts.
Stop interview to get #3 a large bowl of his favorite ice cream. Did I mention what a nice boy he is?
Me: What makes you want to keep reading a book?
#3: If it’s funny or really exciting and I want to know what happens.
Me: What about book covers? What’s interesting to you?
#3: It depends on the book.
Me: Would you read a book with a girl on the cover?
# 3: Yes.
My brainwashing is working! That plus reading a few funny younger MG books with girls on the cover together last year. He loved Clementine by Sara Pennypacker and Sunny Holiday by Coleen Paratore. On the non-fiction side, he did a very nice project on another book with a girl on the cover, Anne Frank, The Young Writer Who Told the World Her Story, by Ann Kramer. That book inspired a very respectable self-illustrated “diary of a diary” project.
However, on the flip side, his other memorable book project was a graphic, three-dimensional representation of a battle scene from an older book, Wishbone Classic # 10, The Red Badge of Courage, by Michael Burgan made with army men, Imaginex figures with a few Star Wars guys thrown in for good measure. I drew the line at ketchup for blood.
Me: What do you think about e-books?
#3: You told me about them.
Me: Do you think it would be more interesting, the same or less interesting to read using an e-book reader like a Kindle.
#3: I think I’d like it better.
#3: It seems cool.
Me: Do you like books with pictures or no pictures?
#3: I don’t care.
Me: Thanks for helping me.
#3: Can I go now?
In spite of his tendency toward monosyllabic answers, #3 gave me some good information that will help me to help him find books that will keep him reading. We’ll try Elijah of Buxton, because of his love of Bud, Not Buddy which lead to another interesting book project—a diarama of the scene when Todd Amos crammed a pencil up Buddy’s nose. This was created with Leggos and paper cut outs with an artistic rendition of the look on Buddy’s face while the pencil was lodged there. Nice.
The other thing I learned from the interview was the bedtime reading routine still works. #3 associates reading with going to bed to the point he wasn’t able to separate it in our discussion. That’s good. I can be sure at least some pleasure reading will happen each day if I do my part to make sure bedtime isn’t too late.
The final thing I noticed was that #3’s favorite books were also ones that included book projects. They stuck in his mind and inspired creative and unique ideas. Curiosity has me wondering if connecting books to hands-on activities or related non-fiction will continue to motivate him. I’ll file that idea in the back of my mind for future reference.
Creative listening to what the middle-graders around us want to read will get books into their hands that may move them to stay up past bedtime reading or use ketchup and action figures to create an unforgettable book project and a great memory. Those positive reading experiences are one thing we can encourage to help keep them reading through middle-grade.
Joanne Prushing Johnson lives in Omaha, Nebraska and with her husband, four boys and oversized Golden Retriever which is a lot like juggling knives, fire and bowling balls only a little crazier. Help her combat the chaos at joanneprushingjohnson.com. Scary aunt and uncle photo courtesy of morguefile.com. Book jackets courtesy of indiebound.org.