10 Middle Grade Books That My Students LOVEKelly Wickham
One of the things I dearly miss about being in a classroom on a regular basis is teaching students with a book. I used to give “Book Talks” when I wanted to sell a kid on something that I thought he or she should read, and if I was still a classroom teacher, I would be using those amazing book trailers, too. Book Talks came after I spent time reading the newest books on the market. I thought about it after I got an advanced copy of of Louis Sachar’s book Holes. Every Tuesday in my classroom was a Silent Reading Day and while my students read, I read. After attending a reading conference, I picked up Holes, and, as I read, couldn’t help myself from laughing aloud. I did it so much that it disturbed my students who kept asking me, “What is SO funny?” Instead of stopping on occasion and reading them short passages, I read the entire thing to them over a couple of Tuesdays. It took us a month, but since it wasn’t available for them yet, I knew they couldn’t check out a copy from the library.
They raced to my class on Tuesdays. They loved it. I assumed that they wouldn’t appreciate being read to, but I quickly learned that they LOVED it. As a whole class, we roared at some of it together. They gasped when they learned the warden was a woman, and we talked a lot about life, equality, mythology, building character, and the injustices that span generations. It was a pivotal moment for me because I learned that the non-readers, the ones who fake reading each week, simply hadn’t found the book that would do it for them.
Instead of chalking this up to a fluke, I started selling them books. The sell, I learned, had three equal components.
1. You have to be excited about a book.
2. You have to find a book that speaks to them and not down to them.
3. You had to use books with characters that they could either completely identify with or at least have empathy for in order to sell it.
In my career of teaching for the 12 years before I became an administrator, these are 10 books that had all those qualities for me that connected with some of my students. All student names are changed to movie stars that they reminded me of at the time. You know, to protect their privacy.
Edited to add: Be sure to check out Megan Jordan’s post on How To Start a Book-to-Movie Club with Your Kids.
The Giver by Lois Lowry 1 of 10
The year, I had Anna Paquin in class (remember, this isn't the actual actress, just an actress my student reminded me of). She was smart, always finished her work, and seemed to be well read the moment I met her. When we did our literature circles, Anna and two other girls had all read every selection I had. (There was a book closet I could get books from, and I went in to choose them for my class.) I offered them the chance to visit the library and find a book there were 3 copies of, and they came back with 4. They had chosen The Giver, and Anna dropped the extra copy on my desk."Here, read this with us," she demanded.
Anna's Lit Circle ended up selling the book to the entire class that year (1995) and made me realize how powerful a book this is. Quickly, they learned that the utopian/dystopian theme wouldn't work, but they also helped me teach this book in the future. I never read the last chapter aloud because it had, at the time, an ambiguous ending. Anna led the debate about what happened to Jonas, the main character, and it's one of those teacher moments one has when everything we think we know has to be reassessed. For that reason, I will always love this tender book.
Teachers: For a fantastic comic artist rendering of The Giver, click here.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon 2 of 10
This one year, I had Halle Berry in my class. Really, she looked just like her. Adorable pixie-cut for hair, nearly always smiling, and your typical girl next door. A friend of mine in Amsterdam suggested I read this book, and I hadn't had a chance to recommend it to a student until Halle walked in my classroom. Even though she was always smiling, I knew she was on the spectrum, but I couldn't really ask that question until I was certain. Halle was a doodler, always drawing in class, and seemingly like she was in her own world but never distracting others. When I handed her this book, she laughed that the dog on the cover was upside down.
It's the story of master mathematician, 15-year old Christopher John Francis Boone, who narrates in an odd way. British author Mark Haddon refuses to label Christopher as Autistic or having asperger's and that fit Halle, too, because I never did find out. However, she did appreciate all the drawings and graphics in the book. After reading it, she asked if she could sometimes turn her work in like that instead of "always with just sentences." Maybe this book changed me more than her.
Bonus points: knowing that the title of this book comes from a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker 3 of 10
One year, I had a Nick Nolte in class. No, really. He was constantly disheveled, late to every class, and habitually absent. That was to say nothing of his hygiene. In any case, he was a troubled kid who, I noticed, stole books from my classroom library. When I caught him doing it, I told him I realized he wanted to save face or something but that mostly I didn't care. I only cared that he returned them if he wasn't going to properly check them out so I could keep track.
Nick didn't steal The Color Purple, I gave it to him. I desperately wanted him to read it. Before he was finished, he stayed with me at lunch one day under the pretense of having a lunch detention with me. (He couldn't be seen actually staying with me on purpose.) He asked why Celie, the main character, only called her husband "Mister_______," and I said it was because, at first, she barely knew his name because he just picked her as a wife considering he couldn't have her sister. He symbolizes the uncompromising preeminence in her life. He's both a nothing and an everyman for her.
Nick never returned my copy, and when I saw him writing in it, I decided it was a foregone conclusion. I knew he loved that book because he told me so on numerous occasions. I was never going to see it again, so I underlined one sentence in the book for him:
"I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it," Shug says.
Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes 4 of 10
I met author Nikki Grimes at a reading conference and asked her to sign a book to one of my students. He had a creative name that I don't want to betray here, so let's call him D'Artagnan (you know, from The Three Muskateers). She wrote something on a piece of paper after I spelled it for her and tucked the paper back behind the table from which she was signing books. "What are you doing with that paper?" I asked her. "It's such an interesting name that I wanted to remember it in case I use it for a future character in my books."
Do you know how to get a kid to read every single subsequent book from an author? Tell them THAT story about them. D'Artagnan read every Grimes book from that point forward.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison 5 of 10
Look, sometimes my students have come to learn to love books because they're also MY favorite. I have no shame in that. As Donald Miller says, "Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way." When my students ask me about my favorite book, I always answer with this one. Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon has been my favorite for more than 20 years, but when I share it with them, I let them listen to it first. Morrison is one of many novelists who reads her work like no one else.
It opens with a man jumping off a building and a boy being born who is known, later, as Milkman Dead. Who wouldn't want to read a book about a character with that name? Flight, as a means to escape, becomes a powerful theme. Morrison opens with this quote: "The fathers may soar / And the children may know their names."
It is the first book I ever experienced. Not just read and finished, but experienced. In fact, I needed a day to recover once I finished it, which I know meant I loved it. Reluctant readers end up loving this book, too, because they've never connected to a book before and Morrison delivers.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie 6 of 10
This is the book I've given to countless students who end up in my office for some sort of discipline. (I define discipline as talking to students before they get in trouble, to counsel them to make better decisions. Consequences for poor choices is another matter.)
Students on the edge seem to really dig Sherman Alexie's book, so it's one that I keep on my shelves and just keep buying more of for the next one that needs it. It's heartbreaking and deals with Junior, a kid who loves drawing cartoons (give it to your artistic kids!) and leaves the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend a high school that's all-white. It also happens to have an Indian mascot. Rarely have I seen a book open more doors for conversations with kids. It's a coming-of-age book about breaking out and breaking free. Kids who have loved this book often have dealt with troubling, wordly issues: depression, abuse, poverty. Yet, Alexie's book speaks to them, and they know they're not alone. I can't recommend this enough.
Alexie is quite funny on his website and uses quotes that people say about him. For example, "Sherman looked more Indian when his hair was long. - Some woman on Facebook." Be sure to visit his page.
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli 7 of 10
There are few authors whose entire collections I've owned. Jerry Spinelli tops my list for YA literature collections. Kids love Maniac Magee for many reasons not the least of which is a character, Jeffrey aka "Maniac Magee," who changes an entire town that's divided by racial boundaries. Mythology and tall tales play heavy in Spinelli's book, but what makes kids love it is the underdog hero they get root for throughout the book. My younger students (grade 6) love it for the story, but my older students (grade 8) ended up loving it because of the life lessons.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis 8 of 10
Since the first time I've shared this book with students, it has been my favorite. I used to teach at a private school that was nearly all-white, and none of them had any experience with reading books about a main character that didn't look like them. It was the perfect opportunity to show them Kenny Watson, protagonist and hero of The Watsons go to Birmingham, 1963 by Curtis. Not only did they love him and his sense of humor, but reading about his antics and that of his oft-described "juvenile deliquent" brother, Byron, led to the more serious part of the book that describes the 16th Street Church bombing in Alabama. Curtis' book provides a historical backdrop for a real kid, just like them, and what it means to view history through his eyes.
It was the willingness of adults, especially those in power, to allow such atrocities that shocks students the most, and while they abhor that part of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., readers are more than willing to love Kenny's family through the violence in the nation.
See also: Curtis' Bud, Not Buddy
Push by Sapphire 9 of 10
Push, by author Sapphire, became the acclaimed movie Precious so named for the lead character. Claireece Precious Jones is a champion, especially to young teen girls, who see the hardships and, sadly, recognize them as their own. It is for more mature readers who can handle the abuse, rape, and abject poverty of this invisible girl who intensely desires love and notice. It has been a beloved book for reluctant female readers who tell me it's the first "real" book they've ever read. In the end, they still love Precious but are pushed toward their own senses of self in the process.
"Sometimes I wish I was not alive," Precious says. "But I don't know how to die. Ain' no plug to pull out. 'N no matter how bad I feel my heart don't stop beating and my eyes open in the morning."
It's not just about the heartbreak, but about the healing of it that makes students love this book.
Our Town by Thornton Wilder 10 of 10
Our Town is a play, an old one at that I used to teach to high school freshmen. The three-act play is set in a fictional town, Grover's Corners, and tells of the years there from 1901 through 1913. It's all about the average citizens, and their average lives, and the average idyllic scenarios that we like to wax rhapsodic about, but I found that when I gave it to a group of alternative students they loved it. (Part of my student teaching was in Urbana, IL, at an alternative school where students had been expelled from their traditional high school. It was an intensely draining part of my teaching, but I wouldn't be the educator I am today without that experience.)
In that urban setting, I was actually worried about teaching Wilder's book, knowing that they might not identify with any of the themes or characters. Yet, death, daily life, love, and marriage seemed quite within their realm of possibilities. One of the toughest kids I've ever had in class felt a kinship with Julia Gibbs, the mother of the main character. It was her dreams of visiting Paris dying that seemed to get to her the most. I asked what was so important about her, and Simone, my 8th grade student, said, "Not everyone gets what they want. I won't. She doesn't either."
Simone was the first student I gave a book to that began that tradition. Most teachers don't want to lose their libraries, but when kids love books the way I saw Simone love Our Town, it's hard to say no.
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