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READALICIOUS! Books for Tweens

My All-Star Read-Aloud Lineup to Start the School Year

A student wrote this note of warning to my incoming class of sixth graders. I keep it taped, front and center, to my desk.
A teacher friend who is switching grades this year asked me about good read-aloud books for middle grades. I’ll get to my all-star lineup in a moment, but my best advice, whatever you choose, is: “Hook ‘em and leave ‘em hangin’!“ Ham it up, then stop reading at just the right moment, and they’ll beg for more.

I know some people would rather listen to fingernails on a chalkboard than be plopped alone in front of a classroom full of adolescents, charged with having to entertain that tough crowd. Not me. Reading aloud is, by far, my favorite time of the school day (for my students, too, I hope). There’s a thespian ham in me, and I love that feeling when I look up from the page and see 30 kids hanging on my every word!

Before I get to those enthralling titles, let me put this misconception to rest: Sixth graders are not too old for read-alouds—even with Mom and Dad or older siblings.

Over the years, I have had the great pleasure of putting books into the hands and minds of tweens of all dispositions and skill levels, and read-alouds are a key to that success. At my school, kids know that, when they walk into Ms. Hopping’s room, I will read to them, and then they will read, too.

My mission to hook kids with the right books is unflagging, but I have also found that, when students reach sixth grade, a new level of maturity and readiness propels some of them headlong into the world of reading. At that special moment, I feel blessed to be there to guide the way.

However it happens, one of the most humbling and satisfying things that a parent can say to me is, “You got my kid to read. Thank you!”

If you’re a parent or teacher new to read-alouds, pick up Jim Trelease’s Hey! Listen to This for grades K through 4, and Read All About It! for fifth grade and up. These wonderful collections include ear-friendly short stories, chapters from novels, poetry, and even newspaper articles. If you never had the pleasure of hearing Jim speak passionately about reading (he retired in 2008), he still imparts wisdom and resources through his website.

So, what are some of my favorite read-alouds?

The start of school conveniently coincides with Major League Baseball’s race to the World Series (go, Detroit Tigers!). What a perfect time for HONUS AND ME by Dan Gutman.

Despite my “hook ‘em and leave ‘em hangin'” rule, I can’t resist finishing this one aloud because it has everything: adventure, baseball action, mystery, time travel (back to the 1909 World Series, Tigers versus Pirates), and yes, even a little romance!

Also, Honus and Me is the first book in a series, and as soon as I finish, there is a mad scramble to my FREADOM classroom library to grab the next book in the series. I can’t keep these books on my shelf for the rest of the year!

Next up: With Halloween fast approaching, how about a vampire story? I hear many of you groaning. No, really! You (and they) will like this one.

THE INK DRINKER by Eric Sanvoisin is a short story that opens as our book-hating protagonist is spying on customers in his father’s bookstore. When he sees a mysterious shoplifter apparently suck the ink out of a book with a straw, he is compelled to chase after the thief. Of course, the chase leads straight to the… cemetery!

The story is clever and engaging, and the illustrations are a big hit with the kids. They will clamor for the sequel, A Straw for Two. My sixth graders will often choose to read The Ink Drinker to their reading buddies and siblings.

After vampires, it’s time to sink your teeth into something a bit meatier. Suzanne Collins (of Hunger Games superstardom) has a lesser known debut novel called GREGOR THE OVERLANDER. My kids are hooked by the time I get to chapter 2.

Gregor and his two-year-old sister, Boots, have fallen thru a grate in the basement laundry room of their New York City apartment building. When they finally hit bottom, they come face-to-face with an intrusion of four-foot cockroaches.

“Yes, I see, Boots. Big Bug!" said Gregor in a hushed voice, wrapping his arms tightly around her. “Very… big… bug.”

That’s where I close the book. The kids are properly hooked and left hanging. The uproar of protests to keep reading is music to my ears.

Of course, I protest that it’s time for spelling, but ultimately, I “let them convince me” to continue through chapter 3. That’s when Gregor and Boots find themselves on an athletic field during a strange sporting event. They look up to the ceiling and discover the “athletes”— a dozen bats with 15-foot wingspans!

The payoff is that I am on my second full set of this five-book series called the Underland Chronicles—the first set having been read and worn to pieces.

Finally, here’s a totally different experience: Reading M.T. Anderson’s WHALES ON STILTS aloud will make your kids laugh aloud. It’s a tongue-in-cheek, pure-fun spoof on hero action adventures. (Writers, especially, be sure to read his interesting description of how this strange and funny tale came to be.)

The story opens with Lily Gelfety accompanying her father to his job at an abandoned (!) warehouse for “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” There, he helps create the benign sounding “cetacean pedestrian opportunities” (a hilarious opportunity in itself for vocabulary expansion!).

Shy, unassuming Lily quickly figures out that her father’s half-whale, half-human boss is up to no good. Of course, good ole Dad is clueless. Lily is not comfortable with saving the world by herself, and so she enlists the help of two hero friends, Jasper Dash and Katie Mulligan, to help her foil the boss’s evil plot.

That’s my read-aloud line-up to start this new school year. I'll post more favorite titles as the year progresses.

How about you? What read-aloud books do you enjoy—as reader or listener?
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