Tag Archives: middle-grade readers

Re-Engaging Disconnected Readers

Amy Vatne Bintliff is a teacher and researcher who has taught language arts and reading in traditional and alternative programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She has developed a wide array of programming for students who struggle with school. A passionate advocate for human rights and multicultural education, she believes strongly in listening to the voices of adolescents.

Amy VB

Amy is a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching and the author of Re-Engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning Through Restorative and Social Justice Education (Peter Lang Publishing 2011).
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I sat down to chat with Amy, who is working on a new edition of the book, adding a new chapter about her recent work with middle school students.

What turns kids away from reading?

For many students, the hectic schedules that they lead turn them away from reading.  They are so busy with athletics, jobs, etc. that they just don’t build in the time.  And then when they do have time to read in class, they often feel sleepy.  That makes sense, right?  We know that most adolescents need more sleep. Feeling that they just aren’t good at reading also causes disengagement.  I find that many students get one MAP score or STAR score back that is low, and their self-esteem just tanks.  No matter how much I tell students that those scores don’t represent their complete lives as a reader, they internalize those scores and carry a feeling of defeat with them.  That turns students away.

Why do you think books with social justice themes are appealing to students and how do you use them in the classroom?

I began using human rights education and social justice education early on in my career partly because that’s where my own passions are.  But then I began really observing how active my students were when they were discussing or debating themes of injustice.  Nearly every young person I have taught has felt the sting of injustice in some way.  At the start of the year, we begin debating what is meant by the word “justice” and “injustice”.  We look at modern texts, such as opinion editorial pieces, plus brief excerpts by philosophers, such as Aristotle.  Then we read about people like Martin Luther King Jr., Mark Twain, Septima Clark, and others involved in social change.  We also each write a personal essay, journal or poem about times injustices have impacted us.  I also directly teach my students different frameworks depending on the text and student interest.  A few of the frameworks are:

Generally, students are presented with the frameworks and then have time to discuss them, choose an article, standard or stereotype that they want to explore more deeply, and present a group or individual project.

I then find some strong examples from literature, usually our class reads aloud to start with, so that we can explore with new eyes.  We then use the frameworks to analyze literature, current events, and our own responses to them.  Students begin to actively engage with text because they have a new vocabulary to back up their thinking.  When we get to Close Reading activities, students can say, “I found a gender stereotype here” or “What’s happening is going against the message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.  They feel empowered.  They also feel moved by the very human stories involved in the work.  Finally, we create service projects that allow students choice.  For example, last year, my students chose to teach Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-bias Standards to 4th graders.  The service portion of a reading classroom engages them and helps lessen the feelings of sadness, anger and helplessness often associated with reading about social justice themes.

What is the role of diverse books in engaging young people?

Diverse books allow students to create imagined dialogue with people outside of their normal daily interactions.  These imagined dialogues decrease fear and build connections.  It builds capacity, teaches background knowledge, and allows students to reflect on how they are similar or different from narrators or main characters.  Diverse books also teach students that one person’s story does not represent a whole race, gender, etc.  As a teacher, I reiterate that each time we explore a piece of literature.

 What are some of your favorite books to reach disconnected students? 

The graphic novels, March Book One and March Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell are fantastic!  Students who never read full books in the past completed both.  What I love about these graphic novels is that they tie to other social justice texts or current events.  Even though the books may take some students only a matter of days to read, there are many weeks worth of connections and discussions to stem from the graphic novels.  I love that the history re-connected not only struggling readers, but also students who generally weren’t enjoying traditional history texts.

march 2 March 1

I have had great success with the novel Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes.  There is so much to talk about in this book such as bullying, coming of age, poverty, and equality.

ninth ward

I also love poetry books.  Some of my favorites poets for middle school students are Naomi Shihab Nye, Walter Dean Myers and Gary Soto. Paul Janeczko’s book Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades has some good teacher resources.  Also, many of the poets have lesson plans on their websites.

Reading Poetry

In a classroom with students at a range of reading levels, how do you both challenge advanced readers and engage those that are struggling?

I think one of the key things is to engage students with concepts and philosophies that are challenging no matter what their reading level.  If the theme of a story, such as injustice, is carefully selected, students can work with partners, or solo, on the text.  You then need to create space for dialogue so that all students have equal opportunities to share their thinking.  I also help students select books that match their interests and push students to new levels when they are ready.  My reading students select their books of choice and I build in time for independent reading in a comfy part of the classroom.  I work with three rotating stations:  guided reading where I teach new strategies, a writing station and an independent reading station.

In your video (embedded below), you talk about including physical activities in the reading classroom. Can you elaborate on that?

Movement is essential when working with reading students!  I have a whole array of brief “brain games” that I use between station rotations.  I play the game with them, so we build trust by laughing, setting game goals, and getting blood flowing to the brain.

Where can our readers find out more?

Teaching Tolerance’s Appendix D–A tool for selecting diverse texts

The Advocates for Human Rights—Free resources and lessons

The Howard Zinn Education Project—History resources that are great to use with historical fiction

Booklists from Teaching for Change and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).

The Real Life of the Middle-Grade Reader

I love writing for the middle-grade reader.

There’s something very appealing about this audience. They’re old enough to understand humor and even sarcasm (in fact, some eleven-year-olds I know are Kings and Queens of Sarcasm).  By age nine, many children have mastered the mechanics of reading and they’re ready for challenging new vocabulary and themes that stretch their minds.

And best of all, middle-grade readers aren’t ready for all the angst, sexual issues, cussing, and violence that those Young Adult authors have to face head on when writing for teens. Right? I mean, the middle-grade genre is all about best friends and dogs and family vacations and…


If you dig, even not too deeply, you’ll probably find an interview in which I’m quoted saying something very similar to the previous paragraph. But I now know that when I had those thoughts, I was thinking about the middle-grade books of my youth, not today’s middle-grade kids.


My local school district has an “Intermediate” building for 5th and 6th graders. Last time I was there, I was surprised that most of the library books I saw being toted around by these ten- to twelve-year-olds were YA titles. They were devouring “The Hunger Games” and going ga-ga over “The Fault in Our Stars.”  Why weren’t they reading middle-grade books? Why weren’t they reading my books? Aren’t these the very students I (and other middle-grade authors) write for?

To find the answers, I think we have to look more closely at today’s nine- to twelve-year-old.  Here are some interesting facts* about the MG audience. Our MG audience:

In middle childhood, children might:

  • form stronger, more complex friendships and peer relationships
  • feel very emotional about those friendships
  • encounter higher levels of peer pressure
  • notice bodily changes and have unanswered questions about their bodies
  • begin to develop body image issues such as eating disorders
  • feel the pressure of harder classwork and academic challenges
  • begin to see themselves apart from their family unit
  • experience fears such as: fear of disappointing parents or parents finding out about negative behaviors or thoughts
  • experience anxiety over their social standing
  • become more aware of community threats and dangers such as violence

Whoa. That’s a heavy list for kids who haven’t even hit their teens yet. But it’s reality and it’s our audience. These are the children for whom we write.

So, what does this mean? No more dogs and best friends and family vacations? Of course not. But what it does mean is that we shouldn’t shy away from the reality that is life for today’s middle grader. Sometimes parents go to prison. Aunts and uncles can be alcoholics. Preteens think about their sexuality. Gangs and violence don’t suddenly appear after age 13. Nine- to twelve-year-olds sometimes live in homes or communities that are dangerous.

It’s okay to address the tougher side of preteen life. As storytellers, we can choose the right measure of tact, honesty, and humor to soften the blows of middle grade reality.


What are your current favorite middle grade titles? I’d be willing to guess that beneath the general premise there are some serious issues which today’s middle graders understand all too well.

What do you think? Share your comments below!

*facts listed above come from:



Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. She shares The Mark Boney Promise with young people at school and library visits in an effort to bring more kindness to classrooms everywhere.  Find Michelle at www.michellehouts.com. On Twitter and Instagram @mhoutswrites and on Facebook as Michelle Houts.


Indie Spotlight: Curious Iguana, Frederick, MD

Crious Iguana logo
I don’t know which is a greater delight to feature, a veteran independent bookstore that has survived the ups and downs and dire predictions of the last few years, or one that is new and also doing well. Today we’re talking with Marlene England, co-founder and co-owner with Tom England of Curious Iguana (www.curiousiguana.com) in Frederick, Maryland.
(Have you ever noticed how founders of independent bookstores like to give them animal names: Blue Manatee, Bear Pond, Flying Pig, Mockingbird, Velveteen Rabbit? )

MUF: Marlene, your shop has been open just two years, and already it is thriving! Tell us how you came to found Curious Iguana and what you think accounts for its early success?
Marlene: My husband Tom and I opened Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts in September 2000, and a couple of years ago we started dreaming about what a new curius iguana frontretail adventure might look like. Children’s books had been a consistently strong category at the Bear, so we originally planned to open a children’s bookstore. But the message we heard over and over again from our customers was how much downtown Frederick needed an independent bookstore for all ages, not just kids. When we found out a larger retail space was available around the corner from Dancing Bear, we relocated the toy store there in the summer of 2013 and opened the Iguana in the Bear’s former location just two months later.

Our local community, as well as out-of-towners who visit Frederick, has demonstrated so much love and support for the Iguana. I think it helps that Tom and I already had strong ties to the community—because of the toy store, we were a known entity and never the ‘new kids on the block,’ so to speak. We are also extremely fortunate to have a fantastic team of booksellers who are curious (of course!), passionate about reading, and dedicated to providing exemplary customer service.

MUF: The shop name is wonderful, as is the subtitle, “get to know your world.” In what ways do you encourage young readers to do that?
Marlene: We are very thoughtful in our selection of books, being sure to include titles that are diverse and globally focused.

MUF: How do you choose the books you carry at Curious Iguana?Marlene: It’s a team effort that involves staff (particularly Kari, our children’s book buyer), publishing reps, online research, recommendations and reviews from other indie bookstores, and lots and lots of reading!

MUF:As middle-grade authors, we’d love to know what titles old or new, fiction or nonfiction, you find yourselves recommending most to 8-12 year olds these days?  Crious Iguana CartwheelingCruous iguana echo
Although classics are always a staple, new midgrade fiction is flourishing at the Iguana. Kids seem to be really interested in strong, Curious Iguana revolution
character-driven stories—books that open their eyes to the experiences of others and help them understand the world around them. Wonder (RJ Palacio) is still a big hit, but also Echo (Pam Munoz Ryan), Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms (Katherine Rundell)Curious Iguana Butterfly Hill, El Deafo (Cece Bell), Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson), The Crossover Curious Iguana War(Kwame Alexander), I Lived on Butterfly Hill (Marjorie Agosin), Revolution (Deborah Wiles), and The War that Saved My Life (Kimberly Brubaker Bradley). We’ve been really impressed with our midgrade readers—their appetite for reading, their interest in heavier topics.

MUF: Have favorite middle-grade authors appeared at Curious Iguana? Do you have other activities or events designed to appeal to this age group?

Marlene: Last year, we hosted Tom Angleberger (of Origami Yoda fame) and were filled to capacity. I’m not sure we could have squeezed one more person in the bookstore! We’ve also welcomed Deborah Wiles (a longtime friend of our bookstore and toy store) and Grace Lin (who braved treacherous weather to greet 60+ fans on a very snowy Saturday morning).curious iguana Lin Several of our middle-grade customers attended a Q&A with a panel of authors from We Need Diverse Books, and we have hosted a Kids Go Global book club for ages 8-12, as well as several intergenerational book discussions at the Iguana and at our county libraries for middle-grade readers and their favorite adults.

SRO crowd for Origami Yoda

SRO crowd for Origami Yoda

MUF: Curious Iguana is a “benefit corporation.” Please tell us what that means for you, for your customers, and for the recipients of your donations.
Marlene: All benefit corporations have unique goals and objectives; ours is to be a successful business that also makes a difference in our world—that’s why we donate a percentage of monthly sales to global nonprofits that are making a world of difference. Recent recipients include Kiva, The Malala Fund, Room to Read, CamFed, and Children of Promise, Children of Hope, a nonprofit in the Dominican Republic that was started by a longtime customer and friend. This commitment to giving back helps us keep our priorities straight. It’s a constant reminder that helping others is a big part of why we do what we do. Our customers seem to respect our vision and appreciate that the money they spend at the Iguana is having a broad impact far beyond downtown Frederick.curous iguana interior

MUF: If an out of town family on a day trip visits Curious Iguana, would there be family-friendly places near buy to get a snack or meal? Are there other unique Frederick sights or activities they shouldn’t miss?
Marlene: Definitely! Our historic downtown is a thriving ‘Main Street’ community with all kinds of independent specialty stores and restaurants. There really is something for everyone. Of course, we’re just a tad biased and would encourage visitors to stop by our sister store, Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts, just around the corner from the Iguana. Many families add some history to their shopping and dining with a visit to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, which is also located in downtown Frederick. Two helpful websites to check out when planning a trip to Frederick are http://downtownfrederick.org and http://visitfrderick.org.

curious iguana round logoThank you Marlene, for telling us about your bookstore and its mission!  Readers, have you visited this popular shop? (Hmmmmm. I wonder if Curious Iguana is acquainted with Reading Reptile?  Seems like they might have a lot  in common. )

Sue Cowing is author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012}.