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READALICIOUS! Books for Tweens

How to Speed Date a Book

Okay, that's a squirmy title for a middle grade reading blog, but after having lunch with a friend who speed dates, I decided it was the perfect description of what I do on my first day of literature class.

I begin with a declaration: “Literature class, it’s speed dating time!”

Silence. Nervous glances are exchanged, a few questioning smiles, some giggles escape, girls and boys visibly lean farther away from each other, but no hands go up, no one questions the teacher or her odd statement.

I'm confident: My sixth graders are willing to go on any adventure with me. Right? So, I repeat, “It’s time for speed dating. Does anyone know what that is?”

This year, a brave girl raised her hand and explained: "People talk for a short time to see if they like each other. Then, when a bell goes off, they move on to new people."

Exactly! (Tee hee.)

That's when I spring it on these brand new sixth graders that they are about to speed date. But, I add with a deliberate pause, their dates aren't boys and girls (sighs of relief). They will be dating... books!  Read More 

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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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The Clockwork Three, by Matthew J. Kirby

Wow! Wow! Wow! This is the debut novel of Matthew Kirby and Wow! (I say again) it is terrific. It reminds me of so many stories, and yet the plot is unique. (My sister Lorraine passed along an ARC of Kirby's next book, Icefall, which I like even more; review coming soon.)

Three characters, Giuseppe, Hannah, and Frederick all live in a bustling, late-1800s port city bordered by McCauley Park, an area that has never been developed. Parts of the park are so wild that cougars still live there.

Each of the three characters needs something, and they can't achieve their goals without helping each other. Giuseppe (joo-SEP-ee) is a street musician who longs to return home to Italy. Fredrick is an apprentice clockmaker who wants to make journeyman (a step above apprentice) by creating the most amazing clockwork man (a type of automaton) the world has seen. Hannah has had to quit school to support her family as a maid in a fancy hotel. Her father is seriously ill, and she desperately needs money for the medicine to help him.

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The Cardturner, by Louis Sachar

That's my Uncle Bob, playing a family game of Michigan rummy. My mother's about to hammer down the ace of spades (left).


When I heard about THE CARDTURNER: A NOVEL ABOUT A KING, A QUEEN, AND A JOKER, the new book by Louis Sachar (Holes, There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, and Sideways Stories from Wayside School), I had to have a copy for my own bookshelf, let alone the classroom lending library.

Playing cards and board games was a central part of growing up in the Hopping household. To this day, whenever we get together, some game or another eventually comes off the shelf.*

THE CARDTURNER quickly pulled me into the not-so-great life of 17-year-old Alton Richards. What kind of a name is Alton, anyway! Alton drives a beat up car, has no money, no job, and suddenly, as summer vacation begins, he has no girlfriend.

On top of all that, his mother insists that he drive his very wealthy great uncle Lester to Bridge Club four times a week. Bridge is a "boring" card game that Alton knows nothing and cares nothing about. The truth, as Alton well knows, is that Mom wants him to be nice so that old Uncle Lester will remember them in his will.

Alton has been dealt a pretty crummy hand and is feeling a little "played" himself! Even so, he copes by maintaining a dry sense of humor.

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Operation Yes by Sara Lewis Holmes

Before handing this middle grade novel to a student, I ask a few questions:

What things are you are willing to say, “Yes!” to? Cleaning your room? Going to church on Sunday? Babysitting young children? Digging for a lost ring in the kitchen garbage? These day-to-day tasks are easy to agree to, and sometimes, just as easy to say no to. (I'd love to hear from some kid about that!)

But what if your parents say, “Yes” to something big that affects you directly—like serving in the military? How would your life be different?

What if your mom or dad were deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan? What if you had to move every couple years to a new military base; new home, new school, new friends? Would you even have close friends?



Author Sara Lewis Holmes is married to an air force pilot and has raised two children. She wrote OPERATION YES based on her family’s experience in the military.

In an interview with author Kathy Erskine, she said, “Much of my family’s real life is in there—including air shows, FOD [foreign object debris] walks, 'remove before flight' key tags, the sound of flight suits in the dryer, living on base, moving often, dealing with deployments, bravery, fear, uncertainty, hope, and the kindness of all the communities we’ve been a part of.”

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