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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!

Before class, I had placed a different book on each student's desk. Unbeknownst to them (unless they read this blog), the titles were carefully chosen from my FREADOM classroom library for maximum "speed date" appeal (a few fail-safe recommendations, coming up).

I explain the rules:

1. You will speed date the book on your desk for 2.5 minutes.

2. When the bell rings, pass the book to the next student and receive a new title.

3. Repeat five times. That’s five books in 12.5 minutes!

Indubitably, some kid will exclaim, "Do I have to read this book?" I catch a whiff of frustration, a little anxiety, which means the time is ripe for the floodgates to open:

"Do we have to answer any questions?"
"Do I have to write anything down?"
"What exactly do you want us to look at in this book?"

My answers: “No, no, no, and whatever you want.”

The point, of course, is to lower the bar of entry to reading. The aim is to make it fun, fast, easy, and permissible to take a pass on a book. All they have to do is sample the merchandise.

Once the Speed Date is underway, students examine covers (front and back), flip through the guts, and some even read the first page or two.

My reward: When “Do I have to read this?” changes to “Can I read this one?” Why, sure.

The final bell rings, and some enraptured students are so oblivious that they keep reading. That's when I start sign-up sheets for "checking out" the books that have been "dated"!

Attractive Speed Date Titles

Speed dating works. One boy read the opening line to Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book:

“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife."

No way was he going to pass this alluring book to someone else. But since the rules demanded otherwise, I suggested writing down the title in his reading journal and reassured him the book would be available in my classroom library all year.

I’m confident this young man will enjoy reading about Bod (short for Nobody), the main character who is orphaned as a toddler (hmmm, something sinister to do with that knife) in chapter 1. Bod, oblivious to his situation, wanders into the local graveyard and is protected by its "citizens." What odd things a human can learn when raised by spirits!

Then there is Ida B and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World, by Katherine Hannigan.

The title grabs 'em right away. They look at the back cover and discover that Ida B. believes there is never enough time for fun. What kids doesn't agree with having fun (especially at the start of a new school year)?

I'm personally gratified when they choose to read this language rich novel. Ida B.’s lively and creative personality grabs readers right away. She lives on a farm with her folks and is so in tune with the land that she seeks advice from trees. She climbs into the worn branches of one tree that is "older than old," and the tree sends her a short message: “Hard times are coming.”

Turns out, the tree is right. The first big change comes when home-schooled Ida B. has to return to the “Place of Slow but Sure Body-Cramping, Mind-Numbing, Fun-Killing Torture" again.

Events spin out when her daddy informs her that they must sell off property. Ida B. decides to harden her heart—not an easy state to maintain.

Sports-minded students receive a short book about soccer: Tangerine, by Edward Bloor. But then, in the micro-seconds of speed-dating, they realize this book is about way more than soccer.

What a twisty-turny novel about a super soccer goalie who has to prove himself at a new school after he moves to Florida (hmmm... tangerine growing area). The twist: Paul happens to be legally blind! And he doesn't remember how he came to be that way, at the age of 5! The turn: Paul can "see" through his older brother Erik's lies. Erik, it seems, is the real sports hero in his parent's minds.

Books about animals are always popular for speed dating. This year, veteran author Jean Craighead George’s novel The Cats of Roxville Station filled up her dance card.

Young Ratchet the cat is hurled off a bridge into the Olga River on page one. She discovers that she’s landed at Roxville Station—home of Queenella and her clowder of feral cats.

So begins a surprisingly realistic story about how Ratchet finds her way to the top of the pecking order, with a little help from Mike, a human cat lover. Unfortunately, Mike's mother hates cats. He and Ratchet make a special connection, and Mike works hard to earn her trust.

I’m glad to say this is not a “shaggy dog ending.” A deeper theme resonates when Ratchet realizes that Mike is her First Home, her safe place.

In the classroom and perhaps at home (parents? are you up for it? a book party, perhaps?), I have found speed dating to be a powerful tool for getting books into eager sixth-grade hands, as they rush to the FREADOM Library to check out titles.

I revisit this activity throughout the year, using it to illustrate a variety of concepts we are analyzing in class such as dialogue, first lines, and settings. (More blog posts coming up!)

This first speed date of the school year was successful, but I still have my work cut out for me. A few students took only a cursory look at the books, flipping them over once like a dead fish. But, no worries. I’m up to the challenge!

Teachers, parents, other educators: Have you tried book speed dating? What other strategies engage tweens in literature? How do you prime the pump? I would love to hear from you.

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