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READALICIOUS! Books for Tweens

Check Out a Sixth Grader! And Other Creative Ideas on Teaching with Photo and Picture Books

My FREADom classroom library has a good selection of photo books and Caldecott winners to inspire future creatives.
Recently I attended the Buy Michigan Now Festival in the small, charming town of Northville. Always on the lookout for new books, sure enough, a title caught me eye and the charming, engaging author reeled me into his world.

Wayne Brillhart is a photographer and author from Hartland, Michigan. His latest story book, The Deer with the Purple Nose features some extraordinary photos of the state's indigenous wildlife. (Check it out on Amazon: The Deer with the Purple Nose.)

As a photographer, Wayne has traveled the globe, but he tells me that it was in his own backyard where he discovered stories to tell with his pictures. More than a collection of photos, The Deer with the Purple Nose is a fun mystery told from the point of view of Wayne's English setter, Purdy.

As Purdy attempts to solve the mystery of why Dottie the deer has a purple nose, the dog engages with all manner of Michigan wildlife: a groundhog, raccoon, chipmunk, and 10 species of birds. The storyline supports Rachel Carson’s idea that children have a natural interest in the world around them, but that interest needs to be cultivated and nurtured. (It's well worth exploring her book on the topic to learn more: The Sense of Wonder).

Okay, so I really like this message and this book, but the story is aimed at young kids. How can I use it with my sixth graders without them feeling like they're being babied? (Babying is like death for a tween.)  Read More 
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Top 20 Books for Ages 10 to 12.5 (Whittled from NPR's Top 100 Books for Ages 9-14))

I love NPR's Top 100 Ultimate Backseat Books for tweens. I also love that the responses to the list are so passionate and insightful (don't skip the comments!). It's a wonderful feeling when books and reading generate animated dialogue.

I do sympathize with one commenter who said she wished reviewers would fill in more detail, especially when it comes to age appropriateness. The NPR lists spans a Grand Canyon of development—ages 9 to 14. (They generated a separate book list for teens, which I blogged about last year.)

In my sixth grade class, I navigate a tremendous, tumultuous gap in maturity among 11 years olds—let alone between 9 and 14. That's the nature of the tween beast.

When selecting reading material for my FREADom classroom library, I carefully assess issues with language, violence, death, religion, and more on a case by case basis. Adults in a child's life need to be aware of what children are reading, and that's part of my mission.

That said, my number one goal is to put good books in the hands and minds of tweens. So, I decided to narrow down the list and recommend one or two books in each category that I have personally read and that are suitable for ages 10 to 12.5—my sweet spot. I went for variety, including books that appeal to both boys and girls and, in some cases, that I know to be incredibly popular with my tween crowd.

Choosing wasn't easy (all of the books are worthy), but here's what rose to the top.  Read More 

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The "Rock Star" President

At the beginning of every school year, one of my student survey questions is:

“If you could talk to any person from history, who would it be? What three questions would you ask?”

Out of 64 students in my 2013 class, 13 chose Abe Lincoln—more than any other historic figure, including good old George Washington (tied for runner-up, with eight votes).

Why is Lincoln such a history rock star for tweens?

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Rascal, A Memoir by Sterling North

Have you ever spotted a book that you read as a kid and glowed uncontrollably? That warm, fuzzy feeling is what I hope to capture in a time-release bottle every time I recommend a title to my sixth graders. I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised when it happens to me.

The most recent wave of tender nostalgia struck me at the sight of the 1963 memoir Rascal, by Sterling North. I was a little wary of rereading it, worried that the story and the characters hadn’t aged well and I’d be crushed. I wasn’t.

Rascal is refreshingly wholesome. It’s the perfect antidote to today’s relentless fervor for dystopian worlds, zombies, and vampires. Read More 

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Let the Battle of the Books Begin!

Battle of the Books turns reading into a rowdy costume party! Meet the members of the Pillow Readers team.



One evening in February, well past Halloween and not exactly Mardi Gras, our school gymnasium looked like a costume party. Six grey-haired old men hobbled in on canes, followed closely by a bevy of beautifully adorned Greek goddesses. Some hooded grim reapers crept in next and then—what were they? Pillow people?

What whipped these kids into a costumed frenzy? I’m proud to say: books. At this highly anticipated event, the school’s fourth through sixth graders compete to answer questions about eight books in our annual Battle of the Books quiz competition—BOB for short.

Preparation for this year’s BOB begins right now, at the start of the school year. I help choose the eight book titles and we keep them under tight wraps until December. The trick is to find books that appeal to ages 9 to 12 and provide a range of reading levels. You don’t want fourth graders feeling frustrated. (I’ve provided a sample book list at the end of this post.)

Soon, our new students will form their teams of six and secure a coach (a parent or teacher). In our school, that’s 16 to 20 teams, with 96 to 120 students participating. No one is turned away, so some teams might have seven or eight members.

Each team chooses a name: The Book Bosses, Contagious Readers, Pretty Little Readers, Agent 00 Divas, the Grim Readers, to name a few recent ones. Then, kids design costumes—in some cases very elaborate—to go with their theme.

By December, teams can’t wait to report to the gym to collect their stack of eight books—an event in itself. I see fists pump and hear shouts of excitement every time kids realize they have already read a title. Sometimes, students argue over who gets to read which book first. (Be still my heart!)

When the dust settles, the real work begins. Over the next two months, teams meet at lunch, before school, and on weekends to write and answer practice questions, memorize the spelling of author names, and discuss the plots, characters, and settings of each book. By the time the competition rolls around, they know these eight books cover to cover.
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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? Read More 
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My FREADOM Library is Ready for Action

This Readalicious! blog sprouted from my FREADOM lending library—books for tweens I've read and highly recommend. I always wonder: Which books will see the most action this year?


It’s a late August ritual that I look forward to every year. I set up my entire FREADOM classroom lending library anew, unpacking the titles carefully put away in June. I reluctantly toss a dozen that are worn beyond even duct-tape repair and add fresh titles into the mix, including the books I've reviewed on this blog (see left column).

This year, the ritual took a couple days, including a marathon six-hour session yesterday, made manageable enjoyable when three students showed up to assist. These helpful kids were sixth graders last year. They wanted to make sure the incoming sixth graders have a nice, inviting library to peruse! Even sweeter, two of my helpers (both boys) are what some publishing experts would call “reluctant readers.”

Hmmm, I wonder. How "reluctant" can they be if they're volunteering a summer vacation day to help their former literature teacher organize her library? Perhaps my plot to get books into the hands of sixth graders is working!

Take a closer look at the photo, and you’ll see a few surprises. Read More 
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Hooked on History: Going for the Small Story

I am a die-hard history fan—gobbling up nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, and historical fiction alike. Other than literature, it’s my favorite subject to teach, and I try hard to rub some of that passion off on my students.

Jim Murphy's An American Plague (a Newbery Honor Book! a Sibert award winner! a National Book Award finalist!) is an excellent nonfiction book that deserves all those accolades. It's about the deadly yellow fever epidemic of 1793 that struck Philadelphia, then the capitol city of the new United States of America.

I loved it and planned to use it to talk about current events and the science of staying healthy (the H1N1 flu epidemic was in full scare). But, I was having trouble getting kids to read it.

What they told me was, “We want to read a story.” How could I argue? They wanted to read!!!

Then, a student clued me in to a "y'gotta-read-this" book on the same historic epidemic.

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Icefall, by Matthew Kirby

My Dad sure can tell a story! We’ll be on the edge of our seats one moment, wondering if he survived some brutal, post-war military exercise (and, duh, of course he did because he’s telling us the story, 60 years later...), and then laughing hysterically as he explains how he showed off for pretty Fräuleins on the German Alps (one hitch: the handsome American soldier didn’t know how to ski!).

I imagine author Matthew Kirby has a storyteller in his past. After reading his fabulous debut novel, The Clockwork Three, I was thrilled when my sister Lorraine came home from a middle grade author buzz panel at BookExpo America with an advanced copy of his second novel, ICEFALL.

Whoo boy. What a story!

Set in Medieval Norway, three Viking children have been spirited away to a hidden fortress for safety while their father defends his kingdom against an enemy warlord. The kids are in the care of trusted family servants and soldiers—or so they think. Winter is setting in (no small thing in the mountains of Norway). Supplies are low.

The plot gets spicy early with the arrival of the king’s special forces, a group of about 20 fearsome berserkers. Tagging along with the soldiers is Alric the skald, the king’s personal storyteller.

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The Last Newspaper Boy in America, by Sue Corbett

If you enjoy a little mystery in your realistic fiction, if you believe that everyone should have access to important events, if you enjoy cheering on the underdog... then THE LAST NEWSPAPER BOY IN AMERICA, by Sue Corbett, is for you. This book attracted my attention because I'm saddened by the decline of real newspapers (the kind I can hold).

The main character, Wilson Glen David the fifth, and his family live in the rural town of Steele—thus his nickname: "Wil of Steele." On his 12th birthday, Wil looks forward to taking over the family tradition of delivering the paper to Steele residents. Like his brothers, father, and grandfather before him, he has an uncanny accuracy for tossing newspapers from his bike. That skill should help him earn the money to buy a laptop computer.

Then, the news is released that the The Caller will be ending delivery to Steele. Wil gets to work to reverse that decision.

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