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READALICIOUS! Books for Tweens

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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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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My ARC (Advanced Reader Craze) Book Club is Born!

Reading incentive: Three unopened boxes full of unpublished books, sitting on a shelf in very plain view.
Reading incentive: Three unopened boxes full of unpublished books, sitting on a shelf in very plain view.

A few days ago I put a bug in the ears of a couple of my most rabid readers. I told them I wanted to start a book club at recess for books that aren't published yet.

Aren't published yet? How is that possible? Like, we'd be the first ones to read them? grin

I pointed to three unopened boxes of ARCs—Advanced Reader Copies—and explained what ARCs are and why publishers and sometimes the authors themselves send them to book reviewers and bloggers.

I added that I had no idea what book titles were inside the boxes (knowing full well that last year's ARC box contained quite a few super hits).

I left the mystery boxes in plain sight on a shelf and let the ear bug go to work. I watched and listened for an hour or so as the whispers went 'round. still grinning
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Battle of the Books: A Stampede to Read

Today was a rowdy day at St. Michael's school in Livonia, as fourth to sixth graders assembled and cheered en masse not for a sporting event, but for books! Today was the annual unveiling of the eight Battle of the Books (BOB) titles (listed below).

I LOVE this magic ooh-and-ahh moment, described in last year's Battle of the Books post, especially because it's immediately followed by a stampede to read as teams vie to absorb as many facts as they can in preparation for the February competition.

This year, after serving as a judge for a long time, there's a ME in team. On top of my Quiz Bowl and Green Team activities, I'm coaching an eager team of eight sixth graders from three classes—so eager, that they've already whipped through a couple of the short books, even before our first official team meeting. Heck, we don't even have a name yet!*

Girls and Boys, Reading Together?

My soon-to-be-named team is a 50-50 mix of boys and girls, which is exciting because the past years' winners have split sharply down gender lines (pretty common in the tween years). Five years ago, an all-girl team of excellent readers won the competition as fourth graders, and then fifth graders, and then (with everyone futilely gunning to topple them!), again as sixth graders. A three-peat! After the super girls graduated out of the arena, different all-boy teams won for two years in a row.

Who will be next? A mixed team, I hope. My mixed team!

BOB is a friendly competition, of course, designed to maximize the fun in reading, so I plan to keep practices and lunch meetings fun and light, with lots of games and laughter. I think of those lunch meetings as a book club, a social reading experience that's as important for the friendships as it is for the learning. I've created a bookmark for each team member, with their name and the eight titles on it, as a personal souvenir of their reading journey.

My only concern is that they're reading too many books too early. I know. That's a problem? But, with the competition a few months off, I'll have to make sure they don't forget the details, so I'm already in full coach mode, preparing practice drills and thinking about strategic scrimmages.

Our Eight BOB Books

Looking at this year's list, I find a few titles I haven't read in a while and it seems geared a little more to the lower grades (with one noted exception), and that's fine. More kids will read more of the books, and have fun doing so. Here's what's at the top of our to-read list for the next three months, with a few early thoughts.
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The Goldilocks Rule: Choosing a Book That's Just Right

My sixth graders started a Word of Mouth wall to share their favorite titles—totally their idea.

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. Read More 

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Battle of the Books: Titles Unleashed!

This year's titles for the Battle of the Books competition have been announced! The parent in charge went with tried-and-true classics, which the kids are devouring in preparation for the February finale quiz event.

Book List

    • Elephant Run, Roland Smith (he offers a board game and quizzes about this World War II novel on his website)


    • Number the Stars (also set in WWII), Lois Lowry



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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 Carrots-and-Sticks (Gotta Have Sticks!) Reading Incentive Program

Leave a comment or email me if you'd like a copy of my Book Buddies reading incentive contract.

At times, getting tweens to read is like bleeding a stone. Sometimes, you just have to cram books down their metaphorical throats and make them read. You just do.

That’s the sticks half of my carrots-and-sticks reading incentive program and, say what you will about bribes and rewards and force feeding, it’s worked well for me for the past 20 years.

I call the program Book Buddies—corny, I know, but books are our friends (I tell my students) and a local business called Buddy’s provides the carrots in the form of coupons.

My biggest stick is: The program counts toward their grades. Here’s how it works.


Each September, my students sign a contract to read a minimum of one book per month from October through April. That means everyone must read at least seven books at their reading level. That’s seven whole books. For the whole school year. And for some kids, that’s a struggle, believe me.

For each book completed, students will fill out a verification slip with their name, the book title, the author, and a parent/guardian signature.

At orientation night at the beginning of the year, I speak to the parents at great length about reading. I give them some ideas for discussing books with their children—a great family dinnertime conversation. Christopher Paul Curtis in The Mighty Miss Malone would call this “Chief’s and Children’s Chow Chat”!

Of course, the kids are welcome to pledge and read as many books as they like each month. Last year, one girl logged an astonishing 119 titles. My classes as a whole (85 students) read 1,752 books!

I have actually had parents call me to complain that their kids were reading too much and not getting chores or homework done, or not getting enough sleep. Other kids aim a little higher than they can reach with their monthly goals. That’s why I make those goals eligible for negotiation and adjustment, even though the contract is a “legal document.”

That sounds like a stick, doesn’t it?
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A Top 17 List: Sixth Graders Read, Rank 1,752 Books

When you want to know what books kids like, ask some kids, right?

This past school year, I did more than ask. We listed, tallied, and ranked all the books everyone in the class read from September to May. The results, listed below, surprised me a bit in terms of which books kids choose to pick up.

First, the raw data. Last year was impressive: 85 students read 1,752 books. One young lady accounted for 119 of those titles! Of the top 10 readers, four were boys.

To compile the data, I asked the 85 sixth graders to rank their 10 favorite books from the titles they read, from 1 (top choice) to 10. Some students had only read seven books (the minimum required by my Book Buddies incentive program), so I told them to add three titles they enjoyed in fifth grade.

We awarded a book one point for each time it appeared on someone’s top 10 list. If a book appeared as one of the top three on a list, we gave it two bonus points.

The students insisted on being able to list a whole series, instead of one book, as a choice. So, just like the individual titles, I awarded points for a series mention and created a mixed list—single titles and series.

I now present you the finalists in order of popularity. I’d be curious to hear from other sixth grade teachers how our list compares to yours and from sixth graders about their thoughts on the list.
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