Goldilocks had the right idea: Sit in the chair that is just right. Eat the porridge that is just right. Find a bed that is just right.
So... “Goldilocks” is my number one rule for reading: find a book that is just right for you.
Why number one? Because making good choices is the first crucial step to falling in love with reading. If kids enjoy a book, they’ll voluntarily try another one. And another one. A negative experience derails that happy train.
The Goldilocks Rule sounds simple, yet following it is a struggle for some of my sixth graders. An adult who knows a kid well can offer guidance, but one of my goals is to help kids discover “just right” books on their own. It’s an empowering quest made easier by these detective tips, which you could demonstrate using a book that’s unfamiliar to kids.
WILL YOU LIKE THIS BOOK?
Clue #1: The Book
Pick it up. Flip the pages. Do you like the way it feels? Some people even like to smell their books! (Seriously! A sensory experience is a comfy "welcome" to an object you're about to spend some quality time with.)
Clue #2: The Cover and Title
Does the image grab your attention? Does it seem "cool? to you? What’s this story about? It is a topic you’re interested in? What’s the genre? Have you enjoyed similar types of books?
Clue #3: The Author
Have you read anything by this author before? Is the book part of a series that you have been reading? If it's a new author (to you), what can you learn about him or her from the book?
Clue #4: Be an F.B.I. Agent
F.B.I. stands for read the Front, the Back, and the Inside flaps. Do they make you want to dive in for more?
Clue #5: The Five Finger Test
Open to a random page in the middle, make a fist, and start reading. For every word you can’t figure out, put up one finger. If you have four or five fingers up by the end of the page, chances are this book is too difficult. (Try it again next year.) No fingers up? It's too easy. One to three fingers up? Hmmm—this book is probably “just right”!
The 40-Page Promise
Once you choose a book, give it 40 pages before you make a judgment. Promise the author that you'll allow him or her a little time to hook you into the story. If, after 40 pages, you are not enjoying the book, choose something else.
Besides library and store shelves and online booksellers, where can kids find recommended books without having to wade through too many titles? Librarians and teachers pay keen attention to books of note and reviews, but do kids?
I sometimes steer kids to specific lists of award-winners, where they are likely to dig up something of both interest and quality after applying their Goldilocks detective methods.
Here's a roundup of the 2012 children's books that received starred reviews. A coveted star the book is exceptional in some way—a standout. But, I also caution kids that not every book is reviewed so a lack of a review or a star doesn't mean a book is bad.
The American Library Association website features an extensive list of lists: Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, Coretta Scott King Book Awards, John Newbery Medal, Notable Children’s Books, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, and dozens of others. THIS JUST IN: Here are the winners of the 2013 ALA awards.
For nonfiction (increasingly important under the Common Core Standards), the NSTA and CBC offer annual lists of outstanding science trade books. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids is a group blog of nonfiction authors, many of them with multiple middle grade books.
A Mighty Girl is a fairly new website that reviews books (and music, movies, clothing, toys, etc.) for tweens that (as the name states) have strong girl and women leads. The book section is broken down into top picks by age, genre, and format (such as graphic novel). It also lists the Newberys and other award winners.
THE WORD OF MOUTH TOP PICKS
A better and more social discovery method is word of mouth. I constantly encourage students to ask their friends what they like reading. This year, that suggestion led my class to create a Word of Mouth Wall. It's a place for kids to post a title, a rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 is the best), and a comment about the book—especially about who might like it and why.
Here are some top picks from our busy Word of Mouth Wall, just halfway through the school year. By the end of the year, I expect to run out of room!
- Two books by Wendy Mass: 13 Gifts was rated “It broke the charts!” and “Best book ever.” A Mango Shaped Space was rated 9: “This is a great book! It is from the perspective of a girl who can see shapes when she hears sounds and numbers and letters have colors. Awesome book!”
- The Warriors Series by Erin Hunt was rated 10 plus: “This is an awesome series!! Great for people who love cats!”
- The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen (first book in a trilogy) was rated 10: “This is a great book about three orphans who are training to impersonate a lost prince.”
- Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson was rated 10: “At the beginning it’s a bit gory, but if you like Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, then you’d like this book.” (Here's an an excerpt.)
- How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (first book in a series) was rated 10: “Very funny, cool, and a little weird, but very good.”
- Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz (first book in a series) was rated 1,000: “Great for anyone that likes adventure and a little bit of violence.”
- The Maze Runner by James Dashner (first book in a series) was rated 10: “If you like The Hunger Games you will love this book. Great for boys or girls.”
- The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick was rated 9: “It’s one of the best books. LOTS of pictures!”
- N.E.R.D.S. (National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society) by Michael Buckley was rated 10: “N.E.R.D.S. is a group of, well, nerds that are actually secret agents. They have special ‘upgrades,’ making this an action-filled and hilarious series.”
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien was rated “good as a seed pie for a Hobbit.” The student's comment: “Hard to read but a great book.”
What books are getting great word of mouth among your friends? Please chime in!