Middle schoolers. I love them. They can be a jumble of hormones, feelings, doubts, defiance, humor, ambivalence, aloofness, and questions. Little by little they’re leaving behind childhood for the teenage years. The late Sister Helene Fee, IHM, was principal of our school for many years and encountered more than her share of middle schoolers. She used to hand out to their parents a wonderful little essay called “The Cat Years” during the back-to-school meeting in August. It sums up what those parents were about to experience.
I see a version of “The Cat Years” in our library. Students who couldn’t wait to check out a book from pre-kindergarten all the way through fifth grade now come to the library and look at me like I’m insane when I suggest they use silent reading time for silent reading.
I’m not talking about children who have learning differences that make reading difficult. That’s a much more complex topic. I’m talking about those who read with little or no difficulty but who have lost their interest in reading. For parents and teachers, getting those 11- to 14-year-olds to read can be a battle, but it’s a battle worth fighting. It doesn’t have to be all-out war. Here’s what we can do to give ourselves an edge in the battle.
Take away the no-time excuse. This one is probably the most prevalent and yet the easiest to fix. Everyone has 20 minutes to read most days of the week. If a middle schooler can’t eke out that kind of time, perhaps parent and child need to sit down and see where their time is being spent and what can be juggled or cut out.
Eliminate distractions. Most people (myself included) have nearly uninterrupted access to electronic distractions. We can watch TV pretty much anywhere at any time. That goes for playing video games and browsing social media. If this is the culprit robbing your child of reading time and attention, consider placing limits. You might be the bad guy temporarily, but it’s for a good cause.
Provide access to reading material. You needn’t break the bank buying books. Public and school libraries can be your best friend. Make a date to browse the stacks for favorite topics, genres, and authors. Too busy to browse? Let your child spend a little time at home on your public library’s online catalog and make a list of titles, authors, and call numbers so you can get in and out quickly. Or, check a list of recommended titles like those you can find on Goodreads.com.
Give the adolescent people what they want. I seldom ask students of this age “What do you like to read?” The answer will often be a stonewalling “Nothing.” Instead, I ask them about hobbies and interests, likes and dislikes. With that information and a catalog search, we usually find a winner. Once you have that, pile on.
If they like graphic novels, find as many as you can. Sports? Mike Lupica might become their go-to author. Video gamers might like a fiction series with dystopian themes like The Giver, The Hunger Games, Legend, Fever Crumb, or Shadow Children.
Make reading socially acceptable. Lots of kids this age don’t want to be seen as uncool and sometimes (to my amazement) reading gets tagged as uncool. It doesn’t have to be that way. Try adding a social aspect to make reading more appealing. Get together with other middle-schoolers and their parents for occasional book swaps, or start a book club. It can be as infrequently as monthly or quarterly. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are tried-and-true ways to make this happen.
Share the books you loved at that age. I am thrilled beyond words that our three copies of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders have been in almost constant circulation since last spring. I told some sixth-graders that when I was in junior high (the prehistoric version of middle school), I holed up in my bedroom and read that book in one day, and then cried my seventh-grade eyes out. That got the ball rolling. Now it’s making the round with eighth-graders. I’m trying to get them to read Betsy Byars’ The Summer of the Swans, but the dated cover makes it a harder sell.
Read together. Try to find the lovable puppy hiding beneath the surface of that aloof cat. I know this is something I beat into the ground. It’s been in past posts, and will be in future ones. Believe it or not, they want to be read to. I have proof.
For a back-to-library assignment, one of the things I asked my seventh- and eighth-graders to do was to write what they would like us to do during library time this year. I was pleasantly surprised that many students said they wanted me to read to them.
Communicate and investigate. Talk to teachers, librarians, and other parents of middle schoolers to see what has worked for them. Investigate blogs and articles. If you’re having this issue, you know many other parents have faced the same problem. Kids continue to read so someone somewhere is having success.
I love a good quote about reading. Even more so when it’s from a great author like Kate DiCamillo who said, “Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift.” And what parent would miss the opportunity to give such a gift?
One of life’s greatest pleasures is a beautiful picture book. That’s especially true when it’s the kind that can be enjoyed by children and grownups alike. Novels are great for losing yourself in words and ideas. But there’s something about combining words and ideas with gorgeous or unique illustrations that makes the picture book experience extra special.
Of all the things I love about my job as an elementary/middle school librarian, a particular favorite is that I have the opportunity to share new picture books with my young students, along with discovering new authors and illustrators. With so many wonderful books to choose from, it’s easy for the older ones to get pushed aside and forgotten. That is a mistake. It’s our duty as parents and teachers to make sure those classics don’t end up on the ash heap of picture book history.
In this post, I’m going to share with you some of those classic picture books that should stay in our read-aloud rotations and find a place on our family bookshelves. There are so many of them, one post won’t do it (I feel another continuing topic coming on). The five covered here have publication dates spanning from 1932-1963, which means all of them are older than me. This bit of information, by the way, usually causes gasps of amazement among my little story time friends.
Ask Mr. Bear by Marjorie Flack (1932). This is not the book for which Marjorie Flack is best known (think The Story About Ping or any of the Angus books featuring a playful little terrier). In this story, a little boy named Danny is looking for a birthday gift for his mother, a very wholesome picture book theme.
His search takes him from one talking animal to another until he gets to Mr. Bear, who gives him the best idea of all. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that Danny ends up with the simplest and best gift. It’s a sweet and very relatable story, with a subtle anti-materialism message. The book’s illustrations really stand out because of the bright colors. Many of the picture books from this era contain illustrations in more muted tones. This one uses bright pinks, greens, and yellows that really catch the eye.
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrations by Robert Lawson (1936). Probably one of the best stories ever written that basically tells children “just do you.”
Big, strong Ferdinand the bull had no desire to be like all his peers and head butt his way to the great bull fighting rings of the big city. He’s the original stop-and-smell-the-flowers character. There’s a lot of political analysis that’s been done regarding this story that I won’t get into here. Just suffice to say that if Adolf Hitler hated it and Mahatma Gandhi loved it, it must be awesome. Leaf’s clever words and Lawson’s beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations combine for a charming tale.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Clement Hurd (1947). I probably don’t have to convince anyone that children need to know Goodnight Moon. This is the quintessential picture book.
Whether in paperback, board book, or hardcover, you’ve probably owned a copy at some point in your life. The sweet illustrations, the depiction of a bedtime routine, and the soothing rhythm of the words make it a perfect bedtime story for the very young. This is one that you’ve probably read so many times you know it by heart and you secretly find that it soothes you as much as it does most children. Like most enduring books, there’s so much more to this one than meets the eye.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962). What child doesn’t love a snowy day? All that bright, white frozen fluff to run and tumble in, sled on, and roll into a snowman, along with the promise of an unexpected holiday from school! The cover itself is suitable for framing.
The brightly colored illustrations bring to life every child’s exuberance that bubbles up when they look out the window and see a fresh, clean, snow-covered world. They want to put on snow boots and join Peter, the imaginative little boy whose feet go through the snow with “…his toes pointing out, like this…pointing in, like that.” This picture book is more than a delightful story with brilliant illustrations. More than 50 years later, it’s hard to imagine for those who didn’t live through the heart of the Civil Rights Era that The Snowy Day was also a picture book torchbearer, being “the very first full-color picture book to feature a small black hero” (amazon.com). Peter is an every-child who most children can relate to. God bless Ezra Jack Keats for bringing us Peter in this and subsequent books, and for finally opening a door to children’s literature that is hard to believe was previously closed.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963). If I’d have written this post more than four months ago, I would have put Where the Wild Things Are in the same category as Goodnight Moon – a book everyone knows and loves. However, while doing a classroom activity with my seventh-graders I was dismayed to find out that this Maurice Sendak classic may not be as widely known as it should be anymore. Many of those 12- and 13-year-old students were only familiar with Spike Jonze’s 2009 film version. I wanted to cry. But like any librarian in this predicament, I stopped the activity, got our copy of this timeless treasure, and read it to them. I did the appropriate voices and shared the beautifully bizarre illustrations. Such a wonderful story of reassurance can’t be allowed to go by the wayside.
All children need to know that no matter how “wild” they may be, they will always have a place where they are loved. And that supper will be waiting for them, and it will still be hot. And if that previous sentence doesn’t make sense to you, then you need to stop what you’re doing and read Where the Wild Things Are.
I hope this list gives you some titles to look for the next time you’re browsing your local bookstore or perusing the stacks at your public library. If you have special memories of any of these titles, please share them in the comments section.
I plan to use this space to periodically extol the virtues of my favorite children’s book authors. It was tough to decide who should be the first author featured, but I decided on author/illustrator Mo Willems. Prior to becoming an award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books, Willems was an Emmy award-winning writer for Sesame Street. As valuable as his contributions to children’s television were, we’re all fortunate that he switched gears and started writing books.
Mo Willems is a star in our school library and his books are always being circulated. I spend a few weeks with our pre-k students reading his humorous stories and talking about his delightful illustrations, beginning with one of the Pigeon books, moving on to Elephant and Piggie, a Knuffle Bunny story or two, and one of his wonderful stand-alone titles. If there’s time left at the end of the school year, we usually learn how…