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READALICIOUS! Books for Tweens

A Hot Summer Dive Under the Old Oak Trees

As part of the Kid and Tween Summer Reading Program at our local Livonia Public Library, we decided to invite kids and tweens to share their favorite books outdoors, while we teachers shared ours. With sweltering heat on the chosen day, we wondered how many kids would choose to dive into a pool rather than dive into books for this first-time event.


SUCCESS: We drew more than 75 eager readers, a thrilling turnout that tells us we should do it again, though maybe combine the pool party concept with our read-a-thon. Thank goodness for oaks and other large shade trees.


Our intrepid readers ranged from 3 years old to a newly graduated eighth grade girl, who took turns reading aloud with me (pictured). To kick off the event, a couple of us teachers met with kids and parents in the library to help them pick out books and get a library card if they didn't have one.


Then, we gathered groups outside under the shade trees to talk books. One student was very excited to be reading the classic science-fiction series A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle after having seen the movie. A Star Wars fan shared Who is George Lucas, by Pam Pollack, from a very popular biography series.

Thanks to these avid readers, I learned about books new to me, including a mystery series that Grace, a third grader, was really, really, really into. Her mother mentioned that she had bought it at a home show, like a Tupperware Party, and I asked her to send me the details.


The 21-book series is called EJ12 Girl Hero, about girls saving the world, and is a bestseller in Australia. For example, in EJ12 Girl Hero 1: Hot & Cold, someone seems to be melting the polar ice cap, and special Agent EJ12 (Emma Jacks) needs to crack the codes, keep her cool, and put the evil-doer's plan back on ice.


This series is perfect for newly confident chapter book readers. The author, Susannah McFarlane, also wrote the EJ Spy School series, co-authored the popular Boy vs Beast series, and wrote the delightful Little Mates series of alphabet books.


Several of the teacher's brought books to raffle off—a brilliant move. Kids took turns grabbing freebies of popular titles like the Dog Man books Dav Pilkey (the Captain Underpants author), the Arf books by Spencer Quinn, the Teacher from the Black Lagoon books by Mike Thaler, and the graphic novel Smile by Raina Telgemeier.

I introduced a few of the books I have read and recommend so far this summer, my prime time to refresh and restock and renew my FREADom Classroom Library for the next group of incoming sixth graders. Here are reviews of three titles.


WISHTREE by Katherine Applegate


Quick take: An old, neighborhood oak tree named Red has seen it all. Loved it.


Applegate has a talent for rich language and telling stories from unusual points of view. She won multiple awards (Newbery, Christopher Medal, California Book Award, Cristal Kite) for The One and Only Ivan, narrated by a captive gorilla.


The Wishtree narrator is an old red oak, named Red, who teams up with a crow named Bongo to grant a girl's wish for a friend. There are two separate problems going on. First, the girl wishes for a friend and Red wants to grant that wish for her. The second problem is that the woman who owns the property that Red is on wants to cut the tree down.


Sounds simple, but the wish, the grant, the whole scenario leads to a complex effort to save Red from being cut down.


Red can be quite philosophical but with sense of humor that will help kids develop an appreciation for language. Take this exchange from chapter 11, when Red tells Bongo his/her age, precisely two hundred and sixteen rings old:


"Another sproutday," I said. "I still feel like a sapling."

"You don't look a day over a hundred and fifty," Bongo replied. "Best-looking tree on the block."

"I'm really" - I paused for comic effect- "getting up there."

Bongo, who was perched on my lowest branch, sighed. A crow sigh is unmistakable, like a groan from a tiny, cranky old man.

"Tree humor," I explained, just in case Bongo had missed it, although of course she hadn't. Bongo misses nothing. "Because, you know, I'm so tall."

"Really, Red?" Bong stretched, admiring her lustrous blue-black wings. "That's the best you got for me this morning?"


In large part because of the language, this book is a really fun read-aloud.


THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND, by Kamkwamba and Mealer


Quick take: Autobiography of a 7-year-old from a poor farming family who became an inventor. Inspiring.


The young reader's edition of this New York Times bestseller tells the story of William, age 7, and the only boy in a large farming family in a Malawi village. 


At a very young age, William starts dismantling and repairing radios and this tinkering leads to his fascination with the way all things work—especially electrical power. William thrives on education and looks forward to attending secondary school, where he can learn about science.


But then, tragedy strikes the village in the form of a heart-wrenching famine, which is difficult to read about. William is forced to drop out of school. Through his eyes, the famine gives us a personal connection and puts a human face on a problem far too many children in this world endure, but William and his family work together with dignity to make it through to the other side.


During this difficult ordeal, William devotes himself to improving his family's situation by constructing a windmill made out of scavenged materials. He devours science books from the library. Using diagrams and pictures, he's able to comprehend the ideas, if not the exact words of texts, which are written in English.


His devotion to learning is remarkable and unquenchable! In 2007, he unveils his creation but there is no word for it in his native Chichewa language. So, he calls it "electric wind"—a windmill for generating power.

This story is an important reminder of how vital it is to ensure that even the poorest children receive an education. How can the world afford to let so much potential human resource go untapped?




Quick take: For fans of slightly creepy mysteries.


This is Miller's debut novel, published in 2017, and the main character, Elizabeth, reminds me of the plucky protagonist Miss Penelope Lumley in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, by Maryrose Wood. The language and setting give both novels a Victorian feel.

Elizabeth's mother has left, and her father, a botanist, has grown sullen and distant toward his only child. He decides to relocate the broken family to his childhood mansion: Witheringe House (Wuthering Heights redux?). Tagging along is Elizabeth's brave, strange companion, Zenobia.


Funny thing is, no one can see Zenobia. (I found it a bit unsatisfying that this oddity is never really resolved in the story.)


A classic fog envelopes the travelers as they arrive at the old homestead, greeted by a housekeeper named Mrs. Pursewell, who, much to Zenobia's envy, has the uncanny superpower to seemingly appear and disappear in rooms at will.


While Zenobia is determined to discover a spirit presence in their new abode, Elizabeth happens upon a copy of her father's first book, The Plant Kingdom. Elizabeth is determined to read what Zenobia refers to as an "impossibly dull" book.


In the meantime, the girls explore the grounds and the off-limits wing of the house, and we are treated to the inevitable mysteries such a creepy house has to offer: an ominous overgrown maze of hedges, a smiling gardener with a talent for grafting plants (except that her father does not employ a gardener), and the mysterious appearance of a young girl's image in the vine pattern on the nursery wallpaper.


Could The Plant Kingdom in her father's "dull" book be a real and exciting place after all? 

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More ARC Reviews: Tweens Tell ME Which Books are "Suitable"

The moment I open a fresh box of unpublished books, a box that has been sitting around mysteriously in plain view to build anticipation and pique curiosity, I let my squad of volunteer have at it. A reading frenzy!

The sixth graders in my Advanced Reader Club (ARC) get to choose which books they want to read, screen, and recommend (or not) for my FREADom Classroom Library.*

But, not every review copy finds a reader and not every chosen book gets a review.

A great cover, an intriguing title, a favorite author, an exciting plot description, an addictive genre can all compel tweens to dive into a book. But will they sail through to the end? Or abandon ship?

Unchosen and unfinished books get tossed back into the box.

Here, in this third post on the 2017 selections, are seven books that made it past the first two hurdles—pick me, read me (ALL of me).  Read More 

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ARC Reviews: My Tweens Take on the World's Bestselling Author

The world's bestselling author, James Patterson. (Photo from Jimmy Books website.)

On JIMMY Patterson dot org, the middle grade website of author JAMES Patterson, who claims to be the world's bestselling author (350+ million sold, a Guinness record), the mission is clear:

We want every kid who finishes a Jimmy book to say, "Please give me another book."

That's one of my missions, too, of course, but it's easier said than done. Do "Jimmy books" measure up in the eyes of sixth graders? Three of my ARC (Advanced Reader Club) screeners weighed in on three titles under this relatively new imprint.

Here's what they reported to me, when asked if I should include the books in my ultra-picky FREADom Classroom Library (little space, niche focus on ages 10.5-12, books that are worthy and suitable).  Read More 

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The 2017 ARC Reviews Are In! Just in Time for Censorship Week

Two years ago, in 2015, I started the ARC, the Advanced Reader Club in my classroom, which quickly expanded to include other sixth graders, at all reading levels, and then, last year, even my principal!

My trustworthy sixth graders (and principal) were granted privileged access to advanced reader copies of books yet to be published (thank you, publishers, especially Scholastic) in exchange for telling me whether the books are suitable for my locally famous FREADom classroom library.

Beyond a mere book report, I hoped they would give me the thumbs up, thumbs down on putting a NEW book on my classroom shelves, likely in place of another OLD book since space is limited.

Suitable? What do I mean? What can sixth graders handle? What CAN'T they handle? Questions abounded, good ones, interesting ones... questions that we probe each year during our Book Censorship Unit in September. I love it.

As I start the new school year, I have a box full of ARC reviews from my former brilliant readers who are now seventh graders and thus out of my sphere of influence. THANK YOU, to all who voluntarily participated.

Now, with pride and uncertainty (I have not read all the books), I'd like to report to you, internet at large, their findings.

Which books are safe, intriguing, appropriate, WORTHY of my classroom library, which is resurrected and curated each year with painstaking care?

Let's start with a report from good student Leah...  Read More 
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The Last Surviving Novel: Summer Reading

What I mean by a high-interest article from Newsela.
What I mean by a high-interest article from Newsela.

Every June, I send the parents of the fifth graders—soon to be my sixth graders in the fall—a list of fiction and nonfiction books for summer reading. These can't-miss, super high-interest titles appeal to a range of tweens, specifically at ages 10-11. My speciality!

This year, my list contained one title, a novel. More about that book in a moment. The rest of the recommended reading section featured selections from an online service called Newsela.

The site features articles about current events and other topics, each one available to read at a range of reading levels (based on Lexile score). Students can self-differentiate by choosing their own reading level, and we can all annotate the text, sharing questions and comments. Call it social reading, a welcome approach since it's generally more fun to do things with others.

Kids take a quick, four-question quiz after reading an article, which allows me to automatically assess and track progress. The readings are short, and I assigned one article for every Monday over the summer. It started with Alex Honnold's first-ever free climb up El Capitan, the sheer cliff in Yosemite Park.

As for the lone novel on the list?  Read More 

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Return of the ARC (Advanced Reader Craze) Club!

I've already taught my class how to quickly evaluate books based on the cover art and copy. Let the reading frenzy begin!
As a blogger of books for tweens (ages 10.5-12, specifically), I spend my summers reading ARCs—Advanced Reading Copies—of upcoming books that aren't quite published yet. I try to sneak in a title or two during the school year, but time is precious when lessons are in session.

My goal is to find fresh books to add to my locally famous FREADom Classroom Library, a highly selective set that sixth graders can check out at will. I can't go by reviews or word-of-mouth; I have to read the books myself for levels of maturity, quality, appropriate themes, and tween appeal.

Falling behind a couple of years ago, I decided to take a risk and entrust this job to my best readers. I decided to give them books, unread by me, to evaluate for their peers. As I set out the crisp titles, to my glee, a READING FRENZY broke out!!!
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Dear Parents of Rising 6th Graders

Every June, I send home a letter for parents of my next year's class of 6th graders. On the first day of school, 2016, we'll have something to talk about, something in common, even if the tweens just do a few of these stay-sharp summer activities.

The reading list is at the core, a bit different each year and designed to provide a wide range of genres and levels—something to appeal to every kid.

Dear 6th Grade Parents,

I look forward to meeting everyone in the fall. In the meantime, here’s some information to digest over the summer.

First, a subject dear to my heart - literature! It is impossible to overstate the importance of reading. So, in 6th grade, as children’s author Gary Paulsen says, we will “read like a wolf eats.”
 Read More 

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Poetry? Fun AND Cool?

Yep, it's true. The key: Everyone loves a surprise. Close an envelope, tell kids there's something really amazing in there, and then give them strict instructions NOT to open it. BAM! They're hooked.

I adapted my ultra-successful poetry unity from this Poem in Your Pocket activity, by The Poetry Society of America.

Each sixth grader chose an envelope, sealed shut, from one of eight piles. Then, they had to wait ALL WEEK to open it. I caught many of them holding their envelopes up to the light to try and get a peek at what was inside.

One mom told me that she was duly chastised for trying to open it early: "Mom, we are NOT allowed to open that until Friday!" Here's how that long and suspenseful week unfolded.
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The Kid Who Wants to Tell You Something

So, I’m in my 26th year of teaching and I guess that means I’ve taught a lot of kids, seen a lot, done a lot, been through a lot. Many moments stand out: amazing, sad, touching, frustrating, mundane, hilarious….

The business of a classroom, first thing in the morning, is a relatively routine moment – teachers greeting, students organizing for the day. As any teacher will tell you, part of that routine is The Kid Who Wants to Tell You Something.

I’ve heard all kinds of things during that time:

Ms. Hopping, my cat had kittens.
Ms. Hopping, I went to the book store and got a boxed set of Harry Potter.
Ms. Hopping, my dog was hit by a car.
Ms. Hopping, did you see the Michigan State game yesterday?
Ms. Hopping, we won our hockey game last night, but there was a fight in the stands. Ms. Hopping, my cousin is getting married and I’m in the wedding!
Ms. Hopping, I'm going to Disney World over Easter Break.
Ms. Hopping, I went to the Tiger game last night.
Ms. Hopping….

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The ARC (Advanced Reader Club) Reviews Are In!

What's next for the ARC readers?

Last year, lightning struck when I figured out the time-efficiency equation that is crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing, as many of you know, means farming out to the general public a request for ideas, actions, or input that one person alone cannot possibly undertake.

I was that person. Faced with the perpetual challenge of keeping up with my ever-growing my to-read stack, which dwindles only slightly in summer and then mushrooms during the school year, I started an ARC: Advanced Reading Club in my sixth grade class.

The idea was to recruit my very best readers to help me prescreen, rate on a scale of 1 to 10, and review boxes of ARCs—advanced reading copies—from publishers and independent authors and filter out the definite "no's" (zero) while raising to the top the "yes, yes, yesses! (10's)" The first task was to determine if a book is "appropriate" for sixth grade (we talked about that a lot) and, secondly, merits a coveted spot in my FREADom Classroom Library.

The program launch was an enormous success, with the excitement and enthusiasm spilling over into the general population such that there was a bit of a feeding frenzy each time I opened a box. (Seriously! Read that earlier post!)

I promised to get back to you about what last year's ARCs found. Here's a selection of the very first reviews, in the words of the sixth graders, who clamored to be "the first!" to read books that hadn't yet been published. (But, now they are now!)
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