Everything changes in middle school. It happens in a blink of an eye, almost as if kids walk through the front door as children and then walk back out nearly grown. Middle school readers need books that grow with them – just not too fast.
Readers at this age are hanging out at the corner of middle grade and young adult. Many have the skill to read YA books, yet some kids are at different places socially or emotionally and don’t resonate with YA themes. Older middle grade books are a great match for readers who crave great stories, characters with whom they can connect, and thought-provoking issues, yet aren’t quite ready for the more challenging subject matter and language of young adult books. How can those of us who parent, teach, and write for these readers help them find books that appeal to their growing interests and tastes and are a good fit developmentally?
For help, I turned to Chris Gustafson, National Board Certified library teacher at an urban middle school here in Seattle. Chris reviews books on the Whitman Library Blog and compiles the annual Wildcats Read list, fifty books she knows will appeal to the range of middle school readers.
How do you know that a student is a still good candidate for older MG books and not ready for YA?
Seattle’s own book guru, Nancy Pearl suggests two questions that are a great help here. Start with, “What’s the last book you read that you really liked and was just right for you?” Then follow up with, “What made that book just right?”
A student may have mentioned Number the Stars in answer to the first question. But if what she really liked about it was the adventure and the friendship between the two girls, then she doesn’t necessarily need to be steered toward more World War II historical fiction. I have a student who was very clear about what she wanted – “Romance, no sex.” I made a list just for her [See it here!].
How do you shape your book talks for these readers?
This issue crops up primarily in sixth grade, though occasionally it continues into seventh grade. However, my purpose statement for book talks at any grade is the same: “How can you choose a book to read that will help you meet your reading goals?” As I share each book, I’ll emphasize challenging features – length, multiple narrators, getting to know a different historical period, or figuring out a story-within-a-story structure. I’ll mention a book’s topic so that students who want to avoid gangs, romance, or divorce, for example, can steer clear.
What are some MG “hidden gems” on your shelves that you know students will love once they try them?
Peak by Roland Smith. From Indiebound: After Peak Marcello is arrested for scaling a New York City skyscraper, he’s left with two choices: wither away in Juvenile Detention or go live with his long-lost father, who runs a climbing company in Thailand. But Peak quickly learns that his father’s renewed interest in him has strings attached. Bigstrings. He wants Peak to be the youngest person to reach the Everest summit–and his motives are selfish at best. Even so, for a climbing addict like Peak, tackling Everest is the challenge of a lifetime. But it’s also one that could cost him his life.
When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt. From Indiebound.org: Toby Wilson is having the toughest summer of his life. His mother left for good; his best friend’s brother was killed. Then Zachary Beaver, the fattest boy in the world, arrives in Toby’s sleepy Texas town. And it’s Zachary Beaver who turns the town of Antler upside down and leaves everyone, especially Toby, changed forever.
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. From Indiebound.org: Meggie lives a quiet life with her father, a bookbinder. But her father has a deep secret–he possesses an extraordinary magical power. When a mysterious stranger arrives, Meggie is plunged into intrigue as her father’s life is put in danger.
One Small Step by P.E. Kerr. From Indiebound.org: It’s 1969, and thirteen-year-old Scott is doing all the things that normal boys do — and also flying airplanes with his Air Force flight instructor father. When Scott successfully crash-lands a training plane, NASA takes notice. They hope to recruit him for their top-secret space program, which will launch a test flight to the moon before the first lunar landing. This craft was intended to be piloted by chimps, but one chimp had to be dismissed, and now they need a quick substitute — who better than a boy aviator?
Crunch by Leslie Connor. From Indiebound.org: Dewey Marriss is stuck in the middle of a crunch. He never guessed that the gas pumps would run dry the same week he promised to manage the family’s bicycle-repair business. Suddenly everyone needs a bike. And nobody wants to wait.
The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages. From Indiebound.org: In this award-winning debut novel, 11-year-old Dewey Kerrigan is traveling west on a train to live with her scientist father, but no one will tell her exactly where he is. It is 1943 and her destination is New Mexico, where scientists are working on the Manhattan Project.
What works at your school to get students excited about reading?
- Book Clubs: Students begin the year in readers workshop working individually, but by mid-year when book clubs get started, there’s a lot of excitement about reading and talking about books in small groups. I have students do a book pass (read for two minutes in each book before making their book club choice) so that they will get a taste of all of the books. Students often will come back later to books that interested them during the book pass.
- Books on the Wildcats Read list are selected to appeal to the wide range of reading abilities and interests at Whitman Middle School. When talking to me about books on the Wildcats Read list, students frequently say they would never have read the book if it had not been on the list. They often add that they are pleased that they tried something new. I work hard to make the list inclusive by race, ethnicity, gender, genre, and difficulty. Once students started reading The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, The Great Wide Sea, The Rock and The River, Leviathan, The Demon King, and The Indigo Notebook from the Wildcats Read list, word of mouth has kept these books moving in the library.
- Teachers Who Lead the Way: It’s highly motivating for students when their teachers talk about their own reading.
In our school, many teachers post an “I’m reading now . . . I’m planning to read next . . .” list outside their classrooms so that everyone who passes by can check it out. And students do! You can also be a strong advocate for reading when you have books in your classroom, and you listen to what kids are telling you about them. Read at least some of the titles your students are reading. Encourage your students to set goals for themselves as readers and share your own reading goals. If you haven’t read everything on your shelves, read enough so that kids think you have. Ask every student, “What are you reading now? What are you going to read next?” Take your students to the library for book talks and checkout. Watch where they go when choosing books on their own. For example, you might learn that it’s at this stage that boys often move to non-fiction.
Thank you, Chris, for helping us navigate this important intersection where middle grade meets young adult! Visit Chris Gustafson on the Whitman Library Blog and check out her recommendations on the Wildcats Read list!
Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. She is webmaster of the Literature Circles Resource Center and co-author of four books for teachers on literature circles. Her debut novel, Something to Hold, will be published by Clarion Books in December 2011. Visit Katherine at her author website http://katherineschlicknoe.com or at Seattle University.