And they all lived happily ever after. Everyone loves a story that ends that way. But what about the stories that don’t? Can we love a story that doesn’t have a happy ending?
Yes, we can. We should at least try. Books can provide a wonderful means of escape, but we shouldn’t live on a steady diet of that type of reading. We need books for escape, but also to challenge us or to get us to face reality. Some of the stories that do that the best are those without happy endings. One such story is Emil Sher’s YA novel Young Man with Camera.
I want you (yes, you!) to read Young Man with Camera, so I’ll try to not give away too much. It gives a very realistic picture of the worst kinds of bullying. The protagonist is drowning in circumstances not of his making, but doesn’t grab the life preserver in front of him. As an adult long removed from situations like those in the story (and thankfully never involved in anything as intense), I wanted him to react like an adult. But he’s an adolescent and reacts like one. Mr. Sher’s characters are complex, just like real kids. And just like real kids, they don’t always make the best decisions. But the decisions they make can sometimes be explained by their life experience and what they’re dealing with.
I don’t want to give the impression that the ending is one of hopelessness and despair. While giving a more realistic picture of bullying than most adults are probably comfortable with, it allows its intended audience to see a glimmer of hope at the very end of the book. And when I say see, I mean it literally. The story is told in both powerful words and photographs. I encourage you to read a Q and A with Mr. Sher by children’s publishing powerhouse Scholastic, Inc.
The closest thing I can remember reading in my youth with a similar ending is S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I’ve expounded before on my fascination with that book. The class/clique conflict grabbed my 13-year-old heart and wouldn’t let go. It’s the first book I can remember reading where characters who came close to being like kids in my school and my neighborhood didn’t get a happily-ever-after ending. I was in tears by the time Johnny said, “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.” It was perfect. I’d read Romeo and Juliet and other tragedies in Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, but those settings and characters were so far removed from my late-1970s life as to not have nearly the impact of Cherry and Dally (not a perfect analogy, but you get it if you read it).
Not-happy-endings aren’t confined to YA novels, nor should they be. I don’t suggest you sit little ones down in front of cable news so they can see what the world is like. But it’s not a bad thing if they get a little peek of reality now and then through story books. That’s especially true when a loving, trusted adult is there to help them work through what they read or hear in the book. These books don’t usually just plop down a sad ending and leave it there. Rather, they give their little readers a picture (literally and/or figuratively) of some of life’s disappointments, often with coping tools built in to the story.
An excellent book for this is Suzanne Collins’ (yes, she of Hunger Games brilliance)The Year of the Jungle. It’s a poignant autobiographical story about life for little Suzy while Daddy is in Vietnam during the war. Through brilliant storytelling and illustrations, you get a sense of the concern and confusion that fills the heart and mind of a child in this situation, including when Daddy returns home but is not quite the same. I’ve shared this story with my second-graders for the past couple of years. We have a lot of military families at school so I was interested to see how the story would be received by my young audience. Every time I’ve read it, the response has been positive. They ask a lot of questions and make insightful comments.
Don’t be afraid of a character who doesn’t live happily ever after. Go with them on their journey. Share their heartache, get mad, cry – whatever the story moves you to do. If it at least makes you think or at most makes you confront an issue, you’ll be better off for it. You can always comfort yourself with some fun escapism afterward.
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?
Here it is, the end of summer. While I’ve enjoyed these mostly schedule-free days, I am looking forward to seeing my students again. One of the things I enjoy most about being an elementary/middle school librarian is introducing our students to new books every year. As of this writing, there are 145 brand new, never-before-checked-out books ready to go from shelves and spinners to the hands of (hopefully) eager readers. Of course we still love our old books just as much. As I tell my kids, an old book is new to someone who hasn’t read it yet. But that’s a post for another day. Today it’s about the shiny, new volumes.
Specifically, it’s about what I read this summer. More specifically, it’s about my five favorites. For the purposes of this post, I’m only referencing middle-grade and YA books. We have some awesome new stuff for the younger students, but they’re easier to persuade. My toughest customers are my upstairs kids.
In our school, grades 4 through 8 are in classrooms on the second floor of the building. Something about going up one flight of stairs changes some of my sweet, compliant(ish) primary-grade patrons. Yes, many remain dedicated readers who can’t wait to get downstairs to the library for their next book. However, with each succeeding grade, there are those who may range from picky to aloof to downright disdainful when it comes to reading.
I’ve been at this long enough to know not to take it personally. It’s the natural order of things. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up without a fight. And if I’m going to win any of them over, I have to be prepared. So I read. And read. And read some more. So far this summer, I’ve read 11 of our new middle-grade/YA books (I have two left in my pile, so we’ll see how that goes). There’s not a single one I didn’t like, but I didn’t love all of them. I loved five of them, roughly 45%. Not bad. So here they are, in no particular order, except for my absolute favorite which I’ve saved for last.
El Deafo by Cece Bell
I wasn’t sure what to expect from El Deafo, a graphic novel memoir, but was intrigued by the title and the cover illustration (yes, I’m a book-cover-judger). My interest was also piqued by the fact that author/illustrator Cece Bell was awarded a prestigious 2015 Newbery Honor by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). This is a big deal. This is the first graphic novel to earn this distinction. Newbery books get a lot of attention and a lot of readers. This honor can only help the format. If you aren’t familiar with graphic novels, you can read more about them in my previous post, “I Was Wrong”.
I read El Deafo in one evening. Yes, graphic novels are generally quick reads, but I couldn’t put it down. Bell tells the story of how, as a small child, she lost her hearing and gained a superhero alter-ego. It’s fantastic. If you’ve been unsure about graphic novels, this one is a great introduction. It’s quirky and relatable at the same time. It shows that differences are nothing to fear, but it’s not heavy handed about it. The illustrations are perfect for the story. Cece and the other characters are portrayed as rabbits. This may sound odd but once you start reading it, you won’t give it a second thought. You’ll be too focused on Cece’s story and themes familiar to anyone who’s ever been a child, like friendship and identity. Bell is deserving of the Newbery honor, as El Deafo really is a “…most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” (“Welcome to the Newbery Medal Home Page!” http://www.ala.org). You can learn more about author/illustrator Cece Bell here.
The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis
I’m a longtime fan of Christopher Paul Curtis. He is a gifted storyteller and a master of historical fiction. What he can do with words is practically magic, as you can see from this picture, which is page 119 of The Madman of Piney Woods. This story is a companion to his 2008 Newbery Honor winner Elijah of Buxton, but you can enjoy Madman without having read Elijah.
Although it’s historical fiction (set in Canada in 1901), themes of friendship, family, loyalty, and prejudice make it something with which many middle-grade readers may identify. Madman’s two protagonists, Benji and Red, tell their stories in alternating chapters. Some young readers don’t like this method of storytelling, but it’s brilliantly done here. Though Benji and Red’s stories intertwine, they each have separate points of view which are best expressed in each boy’s first-person voice. It’s the best way to gain an appreciation for each boy’s different experiences and how they lead them to the same place. It’s a suspenseful story, as well. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the outcome for potential readers, so I’ll just leave you with this plea to read it. Curtis really is a word magician. Here’s a terrific interview with him from earlier this year that gives great insight into the man and the author.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
I love a story written entirely in free verse poetry and authors who convey the beauty of words so naturally that their readers are enveloped by it. And I love a memoir. Brown Girl Dreaming has all of that, and more. In Woodson’s own words, it’s the story of “what it was like to grow up an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and my growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement.” (www.jacquelinewoodson.com)
A big part of this story’s appeal is that, although set in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it is relevant to children of the 21st century. In addition to the societal themes, this story is very much about family, friendship, and realizing one’s gifts. The free verse writing also makes for a quick read, so a middle-grade reader who may be put off by 319 pages need not be. Get to know Jacqueline Woodson here.
.The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley
The Dumbest Idea Ever, as it turns out, wasn’t. This is another memoir in graphic novel form (see El Deafo, above). It’s an engaging story about how high school student Jimmy Gownley became graphic-novelist Jimmy Gownley. It’s a great story for kids who dream of a career as an author and/or illustrator, but also for anyone who simply has a future goal that seems unattainable in his or her young mind. Gownley went on to become the author/illustrator of the popular Amelia Rules series and founder of Kids Love Comics, which uses graphic novels to promote literacy.
On a big-picture level, The Dumbest Idea Ever is a realistic look at the transition from middle to high school. Jimmy assumed this was going to be an easy transition but circumstances worked against him. He had to struggle to find his place. The graphic novel format makes it accessible to students of all abilities, and is a great way for readers to make self-to-story connections about goals, disappointments, and perseverance. Gownley doesn’t preach, he just tells (and shows) what he experienced, and what generations of kids have experienced at that time in their lives. It’s a charming story with a bittersweet epilogue that many students will enjoy.
Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan
My favorite book of the summer is about a harmonica. Okay, that’s an oversimplification. But even though I don’t know much about the instrument and have no talent for music, after reading Echo, I wanted to learn to play the harmonica (your ears are safe; I never actually attempted it). It’s practically the protagonist of the story. Practically. Actually, three children from different places and slightly different times and very different circumstances are the protagonists. The harmonica, though, is the tie that binds their stories together. It seems enchanted to the point that it literally and figuratively saves lives.
Ryan’s Echo is part fairy tale, part historical fiction, and completely mesmerizing. It may be a little intimidating for middle-grade readers at 592 pages, but it’s a magnificent story and worth the time and effort. For kids who would scoff at independently reading something this long (and even those who wouldn’t), it is a wonderful family read aloud. It has male and female protagonists. It has adventure, hope, despair, triumph, tragedy, music, magic, and relatable themes. If you can be brought to tears by a beautifully-told story (stop looking at me!), keep a box of tissues handy. Perhaps the biggest draw for me (though it’s hard to choose just one) was that I cared about Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy, the main characters of the three stories-within-the-story. Ryan portrays them in a way that makes them seem like flesh-and-blood people. I wanted things to turn out right for them, for them to no longer experience hurt or loss. I won’t tell you if I got my wish, but I will implore you to read this book so you can find out for yourself. I would also suggest that you consider other works by this award-winning author.
I hope you found something in this personal bibliography that captured your interest. What was your (or your young reader’s) favorite summer read? Let me know in the comments. Until next time, keep reading!
If this article does nothing else, the title will please the only three people guaranteed to read it – my husband and our two daughters. It’s not something they hear often from me. So I’ll repeat it; I was wrong.
I was wrong about graphic novels. I spent a long time turning my nose up at them, refusing to acknowledge them for the valuable resource that they are. I’ve learned my lesson. I promise to never again judge a book by its format. Graphic novels are not glorified comics that exist for lazy readers. Nor are they kid’s stuff or a literary fad.
Instead of simply explaining this change of heart, I’ll tell you what’s so great about graphic novels. First, we need to make sure we’re on the same page as to what a graphic novel is. Graphic novels combine original artwork and text in comic book style to convey a fictional story or factual information. As explained by the website getgraphic.org, graphic novels are not a genre. Rather, the graphic novel is a format that can be applied to any genre.
When giving any thought to graphic novels, many people think of superheroes like The Avengers or Justice League, but superheroes have had to make room on the shelf for other types of graphic novels. Of course there are science fiction and fantasy. But you can also find history, biography, realistic fiction, historical fiction, and even adaptations of classic literature.
While we’re changing perceptions, forget any age or gender notions. This is not strictly the domain of adolescent boys. Female authors, illustrators, and protagonists are becoming more prevalent in this format. Goodreads.com has a list of 470 adult graphic novels (though it does contain some middle-grade and young-adult titles). For children in primary and intermediate grades, longtime favorites like Captain Underpants, Fone Bone, and Wimpy Kid have been joined by a parade of new favorites like Big Nate, Cleopatra, and Squish. You can find many more here.
Graphic novels have found their place in classrooms and school libraries, and it’s not shoved on an out-of-the-way shelf far from the so-called real books. Always on top of developments in children’s literature Scholastic, Inc. began publishing its own line of graphic novels under the Graphix imprint ten years ago. Around that time graphic novels began to gain popularity among educators as a way to entice reluctant readers to pick up a book, or as a resource for ESL programs and ELL students. Studies endorse this use of graphic novels, including one that states that “…students appeared to have a better understanding of the storylines when reading graphic novels, and seemed more enthusiastic about learning.” (“Graphic Novels Support Reading Comprehension Strategies.” Neuronetlearning.com. March 20, 2013)
As they started gaining popularity with teachers, graphic novels also expanded their student audience. In our school, they are enjoyed by children of all abilities. About seven years ago (mostly thanks to Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series), I began to change my opinion of graphic novels when I began to see their universal appeal. Previously I dismissed them as brain candy — a quick, entertaining read of little educational value. I heard the reasons why our students enjoy them, and they are the same reasons for enjoying any literature. Our students find them funny or exciting or scary or touching. They love the protagonist. They despise the antagonist. Most importantly, they want to read more. And that’s really the goal here, to find something a child wants to – loves to – read.
I included two of our newly-acquired graphic novels on my personal summer reading list. Both are autobiographical in nature. I read Cece Bell’s Newbery Medalist, El Deafo and The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jeff Gownley. Of the 10 books I’ve read so far this summer, those two are in my top five. Both stories are witty, moving, and relatable.
I won’t go into all the ways graphic novels can benefit young readers. You can read some of that here. Maybe you still have reservations about graphic novels for your child. The crass humor some of them contain, though hilarious to 7-year-olds, can be off-putting to adults. If that’s the case, consider starting out with classics. In our library we have Black Beauty, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Swiss Family Robinson, and many more. If nothing else, a graphic novel may lay a good foundation if your child has to read the traditional novel later in life. Or maybe it will make him or her want to read it!
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 to draw Willems’ celebrated Pigeon.
Willems’ stories are more than merely amusing. They have a wittiness to them that children and parents can enjoy together again and again. These stories are funny, and everyone gets it. But it goes beyond that. They are remarkably relatable stories. I wasn’t sure how 20 four-year-olds would react to the humor in this year’s stand-alone title, That Is Not a Good Idea. It’s a little more subtle than Willems’ other stories. Also, it’s designed in a style reminiscent of silent films, something with which children born in 2010 are completely unfamiliar. But, like everything Mo Willems touches, this was comedy gold!
The Pigeon is the king of Willems’ characters (for sheer volume of works, Elephant and Piggie could make a play for the crown).
If you ever read a Pigeon book aloud to a child you’ll know why; the audience gets to be part of the story. And not just a little part. They get to take control of the situation, to tell Pigeon what he can and can’t do. NO, you CAN’T drive the bus! YES, you MUST take a bath! NO, you CAN’T stay up late! Now, that’s power! What little kid wouldn’t enjoy that?
As much as I love Pigeon (and I really, really do), I have a parental soft spot for Knuffle Bunny. The joys and sorrows of a little girl named Trixie and her plush-toy best friend bring back memories (flashbacks?) of our youngest and her baby doll – simply named Baby – being lost, cried over, found, brought on vacations, made part of a wedding, and so on. The bond between a kid and his or her first best friend is strong, and Willems demonstrates that beautifully. His signature cartoon-style illustrations are nicely balanced by the photo backdrops on each page.
Of his 45+ books, perhaps my favorite is a stand-alone, Leonardo the Terrible Monster. Willems’ signature muted colors are especially impactful with the larger-than-normal illustrations, and the old-fashioned lettering is a clever touch. Most of all, the story is brilliant.
It’s the laugh-out-loud funny tale of a monster who can’t seem to scare anyone. But it’s also a touching story of friendship. It’s an awesome read-aloud that I first shared with students many years ago. Those kids are well into high school now, but I still try to fit it in with my kindergarteners every year. I never get tired of sharing this story.
While on a recent visit to Atlanta to see the World’s Cutest Baby Niece (and her lovely parents, my brother and sister-in-law), my husband indulged me in a busman’s holiday by taking me to see Seriously Silly! The art & whimsy of Mo Willems at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. If you find yourself anywhere near Atlanta before January 10, 2016, go see it. It’s fun and charming, even if you don’t have small children with you. If you do, though, it has some cool activities to accompany the exhibit. And, of course, lots of great stuff in the museum gift shop!
Willems’ is branching out into chapter books. He’s teamed up with Tony DiTerlizzi and they’ll be releasing The Story of Diva and Flea on October 13, 2015. It’s great that little-readers-turned-middle-readers will have an opportunity to get mo’ Mo! Our school library’s copy is already on pre-order. I’ll let you know what I think once I’ve finished it.
As The Talking Heads’ David Byrne asks in “Once In a Lifetime”, “…Well, how did I get here?” I’ll tell you how. Books and children. Professionally, they’re my job. I’m about to begin my 15th year as an elementary/middle school librarian. Personally, they’re much more than that. Every time a child in our school library finds a book, an author, a series, or a genre to love it’s like they’ve received a wonderful gift. I love being able to witness that. But I felt like that as a mom before I did as a librarian.
My four siblings and I were raised by parents who were readers. My husband and I are readers. We’ve raised two bright young women who are readers. Good things come from reading. It’s an interesting coincidence that on the day I decided to finally make this blog happen, our eldest daughter is turning 25 (sharing a birthday with her beloved Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling). I’ll never forget when she read her first book (P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog, Go!), my sister Cara said “Now she can go anywhere.” Reading is essential to so much in life, but a love of reading helps us to really go places, often without leaving home (gentlemen, start your cliché counters). When our younger daughter conquered Robert Lopshire’s Put Me In the Zoo, we were just as thrilled to imagine how the world could open up for her. If you couldn’t tell, we’re big fans of the Dr. Seuss I Can Read It All By Myself beginner books.
In my mind, I’ve been fleshing out this blog for quite a while. Stick with me. I almost have a plan. I’ll share opinions and information (hopefully useful), talk about books, trends in literature, triumphs and tribulations of library life, and whatever else pops into my salt-and-pepper head related to such things. If you have a topic you’d like to see addressed here, let me know. I’m not an expert on anything and I don’t promise that I’ll get to it, but it’s good to get feedback.
Thanks for reading this introductory post. Now, if you don’t mind, I have some summer reading to do. I’m about to start reading Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth so I can give my students an honest opinion of it when school begins at the end of August. They can tell a load of garbage when they hear it, so I have to be authentic. If you want a summary, you can find it here: Scholastic’s summary of Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth. I’ll be sure to let you know what I think. In the meantime, you can follow me on Instagram (ans_library) and Twitter (@ANSLibrary).