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READALICIOUS! Books for Tweens

The "Rock Star" President

At the beginning of every school year, one of my student survey questions is:

“If you could talk to any person from history, who would it be? What three questions would you ask?”

Out of 64 students in my 2013 class, 13 chose Abe Lincoln—more than any other historic figure, including good old George Washington (tied for runner-up, with eight votes).

Why is Lincoln such a history rock star for tweens?

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Rascal, A Memoir by Sterling North

Have you ever spotted a book that you read as a kid and glowed uncontrollably? That warm, fuzzy feeling is what I hope to capture in a time-release bottle every time I recommend a title to my sixth graders. I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised when it happens to me.

The most recent wave of tender nostalgia struck me at the sight of the 1963 memoir Rascal, by Sterling North. I was a little wary of rereading it, worried that the story and the characters hadn’t aged well and I’d be crushed. I wasn’t.

Rascal is refreshingly wholesome. It’s the perfect antidote to today’s relentless fervor for dystopian worlds, zombies, and vampires. Read More 

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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 FREADom Library Gets a Reality Check

My FREADOM classroom lending library is back in action! Teenagers Sam and Maddie and a very hard-working sixth grader from last year, Maggie, put in a full day's work to help me set up the entire book center anew. Thank you, ladies!

This year, I removed a gigunda box of books to make room for new titles—more nonfiction (for Common Core informational reading), the latest award winners, and favorites from the giant stack I've been reading all summer.

Marrying Books to Make Them Multiply

I played a lot more matchmaker this year—pairing nonfiction and historic fiction titles on the same topic. Once kids are mouth-agape about a subject, I plan to keep producing variations and fresh takes for them to gobble up.

A timely nonfiction book, in the face of this summer's severe drought, is Jerry Stanley's photo-documentary Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp, which I wed to the historical fiction book Out of The Dust, by Karen Hesse. Hesse's title was #7 in popularity out of all the titles my students read and ranked last year.
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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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NPR Top 100 Teen Books: My Picks

NPR published a final list of top 100 teen books, based on audience voting on a pre-selected list.

Teen isn't tween, and I draw that line sharply in this blog. (My sweet spot is ages 10 to 12.5—the upper half of middle grade, if you go by publishing categories.)

Even so, these 10 teen titles were my choices in the initial voting (out of hundreds of titles). The number in parenthesis is the place they came in on the NPR final list. Eight out of 10 made it!

1. The Book Thief (10)
2. The Giver (11)*
3. Go Ask Alice (35)
4. Harry Potter series (1)
5. The Hobbit (5)
6. The Pigman
7. Stargirl (37)
8. To Kill a Mockingbird (3)
9. Tuck Everlasting (30)
10. The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic

*They included the "series," but these titles are really companion books.

Go Ask Alice is definitely teen, not tween, and has a history of being censored in schools, along with some controversy over authorship and authenticity. (It's a work of pure fiction.) But, the book made a big impact on me when I read it in my teen years.
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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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The Yankee Book Swap Game!

Stymied! Which book gift to unwrap? And will she hang onto it or will the next player purloin it?

How to exchange classroom gifts any time of year without spending a penny!

My students wanted to exchange gifts this Christmas, but I didn’t want to lose class time for literature or pressure anyone into spending money. Rather than say no, I took their request as a challenge: How can I make gifting meaningful, fair, fun, and money-free?

Borrowing an idea from some east coast in-laws, I came up with a Yankee Book Swap game (alternately called a White Elephant or Thieving Secret Santa Game). Here’s how we do it—and this year's most coveted titles. Read More 
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