Tag Archives: children’s books

Short But Meaty: Middle School Books for Less Prolific Readers

You may dream of reading thick classics of literature, long YA historical novels, and piles of other great works in middle school. But not all kids are up for those choices. Some kids read fine but rebel at required literature. Others have reading issues. Others excel at nonfiction and want to keep their required books as short as possible. Basically, there are lots of reasons that the dream of starting in on the canon of Western lit may not be happening at your house like you anticipated.

And so I give you an alternative to giving up: the short but meaty middle school novel. Middle grades and young adult novels started becoming tomes in the wake of Harry Potter two decades ago. But many older classics are shorter. What follows is a list of twenty books that are all about 200 pages or less (page counts can vary greatly by edition, obviously). All of them have rich themes, language, or both.

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Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Pages: 143
Difficulty: This book is fairly easy to understand.
What it’s about: A boy becomes friends with a new girl who lives nearby and they invent an imaginary world together, where she encourages his love of art and imagination.
Why it’s worth the read: This book tends to starkly divide readers, which is interesting in and of itself. The very jarring, sudden death of one of the main characters causes some readers to feel betrayed by the quiet narrative up to that point. However, the author wrote the book that way on purpose to try and reflect her own child’s experience of a friend’s death. There are class and economic themes as well as family relationships all worth discussion, but the main theme of grief is the reason to read this story.

47281Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Pages: 137
Difficulty: This is a very easy read in language and style.
What it’s about: This is the story of how a Danish girl and her family help their Jewish friends escape to safety on the eve of being rounded up by the Nazis. It’s one of the gentlest Holocaust related novels you’ll find.
Why is it worth the read: The writing isn’t a standout, but the themes around the Holocaust are really important ones and discussion of the true story of how the people of Denmark saved so many Jews from the Nazis is a really inspiring story. It’s told with such a child’s innocence and exploring how that innocence changes during the novel is an interesting topic of discussion.

22232Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Pages: 186
Difficulty: This is a fairly easy read.
What it’s about: A formerly homeschooled girl begins attending a suburban high school and really shakes things up. The narrator slowly develops a crush on her but has to figure out how important fitting in is to him.
Why is it worth the read: The tension between conformity and individuality is basically the tension for all middle schoolers. Discussing Stargirl and Leo’s various choices is one of the meatiest discussions you’re likely to get at this age for many kids.

3636The Giver by Lois Lowry
Pages: 208
Difficulty: This book is very much on the easy end.
What it’s about: A boy grows up in a seemingly perfect society and is chosen to become the next Giver. However, as he acquires knowledge his peers and even parents lack, he may never fit in again.
Why is it worth the read: The ideas and themes that are thought provoking and discussion worthy in this dystopian novel. Imagining a world without color and passion can spark discussion, as can the costs of living in a utopia where everything is orderly. What are we willing to give up for such a world? What is the value of conformity? The ending of the book is nebulous (there are sequels, though they don’t pick up the story right away) and talking about why the book ends where it does is also worth the time.

18131A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Pages: 211
Difficulty: It’s not a hard read, but for a novel that has a great deal of plot, it also has a lot of discussion of ideas, which may not carry all readers forward very easily.
What it’s about: This book is difficult to describe. In a nutshell, Meg, her brother, Charles Wallace, and her new friend Calvin, are taken by three mysterious alien women to help save Meg and Charles Wallace’s father, who is being held captive on a strange, evil planet.
Why is it worth the read: There’s an amazing looking film adaptation coming soon! If that’s not enough, the ideas about good and evil are thought provoking and worth discussing. Readers may identify with how Meg often feels like she’s not the special one. Exactly what makes IT so evil, and what makes the darkness so pervasive and how we see it in our own world are all wonderful discussion topics. The science tie ins to dimensional theory and hyperspace may also hook some readers.

598117Sounder by William Armstrong
Pages: 116
Difficulty: The language in this is pretty simple, but the fact that it’s slow moving in places as well as a small amount of colloquialisms and dialect can make it a little harder for some readers.
What it’s about: This is a coming of age novel about a black boy in a sharecropping family. He and his dog, Sounder, survive hardships after his father is imprisoned.
Why is it worth the read: This Newbery gem isn’t read like it used to be. However, its depiction of racial issues and poverty in the Jim Crow south still have a lot of resonance. Reading this book and pairing it with some modern discussion of how small tickets and fines can keep poor people always under water would be a good way to bring the issues even more to the forefront. The language is stark but beautiful, so it’s also worth a read for the writing. There are many other great books by African American authors that are commonly read in middle school, but most of them are a lot longer. This is one of the shortest books on this list.

1852Call of the Wild by Jack London
Pages: 172
Difficulty: The vocabulary level and excellent descriptions make this a difficult read for many kids. It’s a good stretch book for middle schoolers.
What it’s about: Buck is a well cared for city dog who is sent to the Alaskan wilderness and must learn to survive.
Why is it worth the read: Obviously, this book is worth a read for its status as a classic. It’s a good choice for nature lovers since the power and cruelty of nature are major themes. The descriptions of the landscape are excellent, as well as Buck’s transformation as the story goes on. The whole theme of survival of the fittest is one that’s full of meaty discussion potential.

84981Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Pages: 132
Difficulty: This book is fairly easy.
What it’s about: The Tuck family has the ability to live forever. A young girl, Winnie, joins them, but learns that their lives are not all others might imagine.
Why is it worth the read: Babbitt is just a great storyteller and created a very good fable in this book. The language is easy to read but rich with metaphors. The book begs the reader to consider immortality for themselves and what they would do in Winnie’s place.

231804The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Pages: 192
Difficulty: Some of the bygone language may throw kids off, but overall it’s not a very difficult book.
What it’s about: This is a story of 1950’s era teenage gangs. When a fight leads to a death of a rival gang member, the main characters have to deal with consequences of their actions.
Why is it worth the read: The themes of violence and youth are still ones that resonate today, especially with class overtones like in the novel. The extent to which people are a product of their environment and to which they can change their fates is also a theme. It’s also still just a compelling read for many kids.

4381Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Pages: 158
Difficulty: The language is somewhat old fashioned and may be difficult for some readers. The themes are definitely more adult than some other books on this list.
What it’s about: In a future dystopia, the main character has the job of burning books. However, as the story goes on, he begins to question whether or not that’s right.
Why is it worth the read: The themes definitely hit you over the head in this one. There’s nothing subtle about book burning as the story’s central plot. Even the melodrama in the characters’ personal lives is over the top. However, sometimes over the top is good for readers this age. And no one does over the top but thought provoking like Bradbury.

13642A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
Pages: 183
Difficulty: The language in this is definitely a stretch for some readers.
What it’s about: This is a coming of age story about a young man named Ged who becomes a wizard. He must grow up and undertake a quest to defeat a mysterious dark force that’s after him.
Why is it worth the read: This story is so dripping with archetypal plots and characters that it nearly bursts at the seams with them. It’s incredibly well-crafted and the writing is strong. However, introducing students to these recurring archetypes in writing is a must and this book is one of the best for doing that. Reading it will enhance any fantasy reader or movie watcher’s enjoyment of the genre by deepening their understanding of it.

18553The Cay by Theodore Taylor
Pages: 105
Difficulty: The old fashioned style of this book and the dialogue written in dialect may make it a slight stretch for some readers.
What it’s about: A boy is shipwrecked and blinded and must turn to an impoverished West Indian man to help him survive.
Why it’s worth the read: I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of this novel, but some people really love it. Taylor does a great job of building up the adventure and survival elements of the story and those are things that many students love. The racial and class issues at the heart of the story are obviously worthy of discussion. In some ways, the story feels a little pat by today’s standards, so that’s definitely something to bring up in thinking about the book as well.

87226Crash by Jerry Spinelli
Pages: 176
Difficulty: This is a pretty easy read.
What it’s about: Crash and Penn, two seventh grade students, are opposites in almost every way. A series of events bring them together and force Crash to change his bullying attitudes.
Why it’s worth the read: This book covers a great deal of ground in short time. There are references to literature, history, and religion. There is a lot about friendships and bullying as well as family relationships. Penn’s religious beliefs are worth a discussion. It’s also just a very identifiable “everyday kid” novel for most middle schoolers.

15595The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman
Pages: 128
Difficulty: The language is very sparse and easy, however, some of the style and historical terms might throw off some readers.
What it’s about: A young, homeless girl in the middle ages is taken in by a midwife and trained, but she may lose her confidence before she ever delivers a baby.
Why it’s worth the read: This book has one of the most amazing, beautiful passages in a children’s book about confidence and the loss of it. While the story is from the middle ages and the details are true to life then, the author does an amazing job of making the themes feel very contemporary and very much something middle schoolers will identify with, especially girls.

139253The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Pages: 110
Difficulty: This is a surprisingly easy read, though the style is probably different from what most students are used to and smatterings of Spanish may throw some students off.
What it’s about: This book is a series of short tales about a Latina girl growing up in Chicago.
Why it’s worth the read: The writing is often lyrical and compelling. The story looks at coming of age issues like identity through a different lens than most other novels. Racial identity and immigration are both strong themes of the book as well as women’s roles. It’s very short, but it packs in a lot of worthwhile topics to consider.

39963A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
Pages: 160
Difficulty: The language isn’t too difficult, but it’s not a breeze either.
What it’s about: These are short tales about a brother and sister and how they spend summers with their grandmother during the Depression.
Why it’s worth the read: This is a hilarious book. I can’t think of many books better for looking at characterization and humor in writing. The writing makes a great creative writing model as well.

24780The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
Pages: 190
Difficulty: The old fashioned language is denser than some students may expect, though the plot is straightforward.
What it’s about: Taran is an assistant pig-keeper who gets swept up in a quest and a fight against an invading bad guy with a prince when his magical pig is kidnapped.
What it’s worth the read: Like A Wizard of Earthsea, this book is a classic of fantasy and reading it brings a better understanding of the conventions of the genre as well as archetypes in literatures. It’s also just a very well crafted, well-written, classic quest story. It’s a good book to read for sense of place as the writing vividly brings to life a world that only exists in imagination.

24783Westmark by Lloyd Alexander
Pages: 184
Difficulty: The language is slightly dense. Some students may struggle with it.
What it’s about: This is a fantasy story without magic. In Westmark, Theo becomes a wanted man through a mistake and ends up traveling with a con man and a homeless girl who is more than she seems.
Why it’s worth the read: This series explores ideas related to the Enlightenment in a sort of fake European country of the 1800’s. It especially looks at what makes good governance, why freedom of the press is important, and how power corrupts. What people can morally do to survive when hunted by the law unjustly is also explored. This first volume of a series just touches on those issues, but it does it within a lively story and a short page count.

Homeless BirdHomeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
Pages: 192
Difficulty: The writing is pretty easy in this book.
What it’s about: A young girl is sent to an arranged marriage in India, but when she becomes a widow, she has to figure out how to make her own way, even though she’s still only a child.
Why it’s worth the read: Whelan is really good at conveying complex historical and contemporary themes in a simple way through a straightforward story. This is no exception. Gender, religion, and tradition are all strong themes in this book. The symbolism of the title and the various homes that Koly finds are good ways to look at symbolism. It’s excellent for learning about one side of contemporary Indian life (it would be wise to pair it with something else, such as a film, that shows other aspects). There are literary allusions to the great writer Tagore and reading some of his poetry would be a good tie in for the novel.

165149The Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi
Pages: 176
Difficulty: The language is fairly simple in this plot driven story.
What it’s about: A Korean family struggles with what to do as World War II ends and their country is divided, with them on the wrong side of the line. It’s written like a novel, but it’s actually a memoir of the author’s childhood.
Why it’s worth the read: This is a great look at history that has deep connections with current events today. It’s also a good story of political oppression and how individuals deal with it.

 

 

 

What We’re Reading

Read Alouds
The Austin Family books by Madeleine L’Engle
Loyal blog readers may recall that last year I held down my children and forced them to read L’Engle’s most famous work, A Wrinkle in Time, and they really disliked it. It was the moment I had to really face that they simply wouldn’t love the books I had loved. But luckily, I tried again on the L’Engle front (I was a bit obsessed with her as a middle schooler and the heartbreak at their refusal to enjoy her work was intense) to much, much better results. L’Engle’s Austin series, about a contemporary family and their everyday struggles, has been a much bigger hit here. The books focus on one of the middle children, Vicky, and her struggles to grow up and find her place in the world. In Meet the Austins, the family temporarily welcomes an orphan, Maggy, who was raised very differently than them.  They struggle to adjust her to their small town, positive thinking lifestyle. In The Moon By Night, the family takes a cross-country trip to visit Maggy in her new California home, all while Vicky is trying to figure out her place in the world. Vicky is twelve in the first book, but nearly fifteen in the second. There’s a romance with a young man, Zachary Gray, who they meet camping and who follows the family from campsite to campsite, in part to romance Vicky. He’s much more grown up and pessimistic than Vicky or her family and it creates one of the primary tensions in the book. We’ve just started the final book in the original set (there are a few others with Vicky that L’Engle wrote at other times), A Ring of Endless Light, which deals with the approaching death of Vicky’s grandfather while she helps a young scientist study dolphins and deals with Zachary’s attentions again.

The books were contemporary to L’Engle’s time as she wrote them, but that was the early 1960’s and they now read like historical fiction in many ways. References to “phonographs” and other outdated technology litter the pages, as well as early 60’s fears about nuclear war and slang vocabulary like “slob” and “beatnik.” Overall, the kids have loved the books. They have sparked lots of discussions about the philosophy shared in the books, the quotes, and the attitudes of Vicky and her family. The family are religious and artistic and thoughtful so there is often a great deal of food for thought. The rich, meandering sentences have also been great for longer dictations. However, the time period is also occasionally a barrier. The kids were shocked by the idea that it might be seen as acceptable in any way for a seventeen year old to follow a younger teen around the country when her parents didn’t approve and she was ambivalent. “He’s a stalker!” they said, something I’m guessing previous generations of readers didn’t take from Zachary’s behavior. In general, the romantic element of the story has been a mixed element for my 12 year olds, but that’s more of a reflection of their age than anything else.

Mushroom’s Pleasure Reading
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
Mushroom has really been tearing through books lately and he read this one with a great deal of focus and interest. It focuses on our very own fair city in the 1960’s and features a work of art we’re well familiar with, The Throne of the Third Heaven, which we’ve visited many times at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The book explores an imagined friendship between the main character, a young boy who has just lost his father, and the “junk man” who is working on his artistic masterpiece. This book, which had a touch of deep thinking and a lot of interesting issues, was right up Mushroom’s reading alley. He had read a review of this one and wanted to read it right away.

BalletBoy’s Pleasure Reading
Click Here to Start by Dennis Markell
I picked this new book up a couple of months ago in Portland (it’s not a trip to Portland unless you get to go look at books in Powell’s!). It’s about a boy who uncle leaves him a treasure in his will, but only if he can find it in the escape room style game that he turns his apartment into. I like that this genre of fun, light mystery books for kids has been growing lately. Books like this one, the Winston Breen books, and the Lemoncello’s Library books are perfect for a certain sort of reader. Click Here to Start has an added video game motif running throughout the story. A perfect light read for both Mushroom and BalletBoy.

Graphic Novel Reading
Red’s Planet by Eddie Pittman
Pittman is a former Phineas and Ferb writer and artist. The story here, about a girl from Earth who accidentally finds herself in space, dealing with a motley crew of characters, is reminiscent of Zita the Spacegirl. The full color art is lovely and imaginative. So… you’d think with a pedigree like that and an appealing story line that this would have been a huge hit here, right? Meh, the boys said. It was just okay. I also felt like there was some magic missing in this one, though I can’t say exactly what. Overall, though, I think it’s as much that Mushroom and BalletBoy are starting to outgrow this particular level and style of graphic novels (just as they have really hit boom status in the marketplace). So I’ll say highly recommended… for the 8-10 year old set.

BalletBoy’s School Reading
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
This was a challenge book for BalletBoy. One of his school topics this year, chosen by him, was time travel, so it seemed like the time was ripe to do a classic novel like this. He didn’t love it and there were a lot of moments that we had to pick through it and discuss what was really going on. I remember reading it when I was younger and the narrative is unsatisfying in places, especially the abrupt resolution. However, the issues it brings up are interesting, with the two strains of humanity developing into the Eloi and the Morlocks. And Wells does a good job with the reveal of the time traveler’s realization of who the Morlocks really are. Overall, I’m glad I assigned it.

Mushroom’s School Reading
The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane by Russell Freedman
This was a Newbery honor book from several years ago. It was a great length with the right level of text for Mushroom covering the lives of the Wright Brothers. It interweaves the Wright brothers’ quotes and photos into the text. I assigned it as part of Mushroom’s study of the history and science of aviation, one of his big topics for the year. He read it fairy quickly and retained the information well. However, if this review sounds lackluster, it’s because the book was really just okay all the way around. The old photographs throughout the text were nice, but the book design feels woefully old fashioned compared to the layout of newer nonfiction books at this level. And we agreed that the text just wasn’t that amazing. I would like to see more nonfiction books under consideration for the Newbery in general, but we’re a little unsure what made this one such a standout.

Farrar’s YA Reading
American Girls by Alison Umminger
This YA novel was an interesting tale. Fifteen year old Anna “borrows” her step-mother’s credit card to run away and stay with her sister in Los Angeles for the summer. Back at home, things are a mess with her parents, her school, and her best friend. In LA, her older sister, an actor, helps her stumble into making some money doing research for a director who is filming a movie inspired by the Manson girls. She alternates time doing her research and hanging out on the set of what is basically a Disney sitcom, flirting with one of the stars. To say that there’s a lot going on here is an understatement and by no means are the loose threads all tied up in the end. The setting is a bit wild, as are all the Hollywood characters and the background information Anna keeps reflecting on about the Manson murders. I can’t say I loved this book, but in the end, it was a compelling story. Anna was believable and I liked how she kept managing to do all the wrong things by accident and with good intentions. I think that’s pretty much what being a teenager is like much of the time. Definitely a teen read what with the references to abuse, drugs, and other vices, but Anna herself is pretty tame and there’s nothing graphic going on here.

The Book of Marvels

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You may know that some homeschoolers have a bit of a mania for old books. In a lot of circles, older = better. I’m not of that mindset entirely. For one thing, a lot of old books are riddled with racism, sexism, and incorrect or outdated information. Others just aren’t that great and never really were. But every once in awhile, we find a gem.

The Complete Book of Marvels by Richard Halliburton is such a gem. I picked it up to possibly read bits of as part of our geography unit this spring and I have fallen in love with it a little bit. Halliburton was a well known name back in the 1930’s when he was writing and traveling constantly. However, he disappeared (and almost certainly died) in an accident in the Pacific Ocean just before the US entered World War II and his name was mostly forgotten. Now, this book, a compendium of his greatest two-volume work, is tragically out of print.

The book covers several dozen “wonders” all over the world. Halliburton gives background or history about the place and then launches into a sort of second person plural voice, guiding “us” by saying where we step, what we see, what smells waft past us, and how we got there. He has based his telling on his own experiences, of course. The wonders themselves range from places of great natural beauty like Victoria Falls to modern cities like New York to ancient ruins like the Great Wall of China and famous castles like Carcassone. Many of Halliburton’s choices are unexpected. I have to admit that even as a pretty well-versed traveler, a few were basically unknown to me.

It’s a snapshot of the world between the wars. He visits the Soviet Union, colonial Indochina, and even meets Ibn Saud on the outskirts of Mecca. We liked looking at the chapter about our own city, seeing the Mall with just a few scant museums, the patches of trees that are long gone in aerial photos, and the general sense of the city of eighty years ago.

It’s important to note that Halliburton was a man of his time. He assumes a white, Christian, American audience. Multiple echoes of subtle racism pop up throughout. For example, the Europeans of Pompeii are “just like us” but the daily life of the Aztecs was “savage.” Non-white groups often get labeled with wilder adjectives in Halliburton’s writing. It’s something to discuss if you’re attempting to be a culturally sensitive reader but except in a few places, it was manageable as long as we could discuss it and the quality of the book overall offset my problems with it. However, there’s one chapter where I nearly lost my taste for his work. Don’t read the chapter on Timbuctoo. I pre-read it aghast twice. It’s a pretty bizarre tale that involves him alternately trying to indulge and beat (yes, hit) two children who are supposedly slaves (I say supposedly because while I’m sure slavery continued in Timbuktu even after the French outlawed it, I’m not sure if these children were really slaves or not given the story). It’s a pretty ghastly tale, not so much because anything extraordinarily bad happens (beyond the extraordinary evil of slavery in the first place) but because of the complete offhandedness and supposed humor with which he tells it. While he meets with Ibn Saud and marvels at the wonders of India or Japan or other non-white cultures, Halliburton comes off as open-minded and trying his (somewhat limited old time southern American) best to understand and respect the cultures he encounters. But when he goes to the heart of Africa, it all goes out the window and he’s baldly racist.

Luckily, the focus is mostly on the wonders themselves and, in the case of the architectural wonders, the civilizations that built them long ago. What does it feel like to climb Mt. Vesuvius or fly over Mt. Everest or emerge through the doors into Reims Cathedral? What does Angkor Wat really look like? What gives the spray from Iguazu Falls feel like? These are the sorts of questions that dominate the book and are definitely without issue. In those places, the text doesn’t feel old or stilted or out of date at all. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve read a chapter only to have the kids say with wonder, “Can we go there?” It’s because he makes the reader really want to see these places. The language has made wonderful dictation and copywork passages as well. He is a great writer with such vivid descriptions. I can easily see why he became a celebrity at one time.

I know that as classics go, Around the World in 80 Days is a common one to tackle with a geography study. We did read that as well recently. However, this book has been more fun in many ways. It covers more places. And because it’s mostly episodic, we have skipped our way through it a little bit, not reading absolutely everything. Since the book is out of print, if you’re in search, I would say $40 is a steal (that’s about what I paid), but it routinely costs more than double that so check your library. It joins the ranks of other great vintage books we’ve discovered through homeschooling like Grammarland and Builders of the Old World.

Reading Nonfiction

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A year ago, I got the kids the Horrible Geography box set from a used bookseller. These are some of the least known of the “Horrible” books and have a different author from any of them, but they’re in the same vein. Chapter books with wacky facts and silly titles that are meant to appeal to kids who like a good offbeat story.

I asked Mushroom and BalletBoy to read one for school and it was a huge bust. They hated it. They hated it because they were really struggling with reading nonfiction. I was seeing it across the board as I tried to get them to read things like The Scientist in the Field series or other longer nonfiction books. They simply couldn’t keep focused on most of them.

This came as a big surprise to me. Neither of my boys are precocious or voracious readers, but they were able to tackle meatier fiction books on their level. And we had been reading aloud piles of nonfiction for years. They always seemed to retain something from it, interrupting to discuss and ask questions that indicated they understood it. This was not to say they’re perfect listeners or anything, but I didn’t realize we’d have so many problems with nonfiction.

It was very frustrating. However, I decided to dial us back and focus on that skill. How could I help them get better at independently reading nonfiction and showing that they had grasped what they read? I ended up trying a variety of things and it meant taking them backward to simpler materials.

A few weeks ago, as we started a unit on geography, I asked the kids again to pull one of those unread Horrible Geography books off the shelf. This time, each kid took the book and flew through them in just a few assigned reading sittings then gave me a quick oral narration that showed they had understood what they read. That’s when I realized we had really come a long way on this issue and I’m pleased with what we did.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve been using to help them get better at reading nonfiction:

We backed up to much, much easier nonfiction.
While reading aloud more complex works was an exciting element of hitting the middle school years, I realized they just weren’t ready for reading the same things on their own. Thus, we went backward to reading things like the Who Was biographies, the Adler Picture Book Biography series, and other such simpler fare. I had to recognize that while these seemed too easy for them, a lot of the books I wanted them to read actually had higher reading levels, more like 7th and 8th grade. Plus, when you need to back up, it’s good to find your footing at a level where you can get really comfortable.

We focused on shorter readings.
Most of the read alouds we were up to were things we read over at least a day or two, but I realized for nonfiction practice, the shorter, the better. So while things like the Who Was books were good, they were actually too long in some ways. We needed things that were just a couple of pages. One great source for super short nonfiction pieces are some of the Cricket magazines, such as Muse and Dig.

I resorted to workbooks.
When it became clear that to BalletBoy, the “main idea” was whatever he took from the reading, however obscure the detail, I decided it was time to do some really basic work and bought a Main Ideas and Summarizing workbook during Scholastic Dollar Days. We didn’t even get halfway through with it before he had dramatically improved. Sometimes, it just takes a worksheet.

We used narration.
I started requiring more narration, both written and oral about everything they read. I also insisted that narrations contain the main ideas of what they read. Previously, I had been okay with more meandering narrations or narrations that focused more on their own reactions or on details they found interesting. I pushed them to do narrations that contained more summary and had them redo a lot of narrations for awhile.

We did more buddy reading.
While using worksheets was useful for BalletBoy, Mushroom needed a lot more of this technique. He’s not quite as strong a reader and tends to skip words when he’s flustered so making him slow down and read aloud was good, as was reading alongside him to help him when he got stuck.

We moved into articles for adults.
As they got a little better at reading, instead of moving to longer and more complex children’s books, we moved into reading news articles, typically about science or culture. While written for a general adult audience, these pieces were shorter and that was the key. They couldn’t read a long National Geographic article, but they could tackle a three or four page article from National Geographic’s History magazine, which turned out to be a good resource. Sources that have “Article of the Week” links were also good since they were specially chosen news articles for the classroom. Keeping things short meant they could read and not get lost in what they were reading about, even if the language and topic got a little more complex.

I let them pick their reading.
Practicing this skill was more important than me assigning specific readings and having some level of control can go a long way, so I usually gave them some level of choice about what to read. Even when I wanted them to read about a specific subject, such as last semester’s dinosaurs unit, I would spread out an array of different books for them to choose from. That’s one of the benefits of a decent library.

My 16 Favorite Fantasy Books and Series for Kids and Teens

If you read my post last week, you’ll know that I recently had to come to terms with the fact that Mushroom and BalletBoy, while they may enjoy an occasional jaunt through a fantasy novel, just aren’t true aficionados of the genre and might never be (though apparently I can hold out hope that they’ll learn to appreciate it better). Still, I was a complete fantasy nut as a kid so I give you my absolute favorites. Most are from my own childhood though a few are newer, but even those appeal to the middle school reader in me. They’re in no particular order below. Note that these aren’t “the best fantasy books ever.” They’re my favorites, particularly my favorites for younger readers.

A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle
I waffled about listing “The Time Quartet” (or Quintet) but decided that really, for me, it was all about these two books, which stand alone just fine, while the others are fine, but nowhere near as good as these two. In the first one Meg and her little brother Charles Wallace travel through other dimensions to rescue their father, who is held captive on another planet. In the latter, Charles Wallace, now a teen, travels through time Quantum Leap style while Meg, now a young adult, helps him from the present by linking to his mind. Both books are completely genre-breaking and weird by any summary, but both work and spoke deeply to me as a kid about good and evil. L’Engle’s liberal Christian theology bleeds through in both.
Perfect for: About age 10-12, when kids are first ready to think deeper about stories.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can deal with the darker themes. Planet in particular has some violence and a couple of shocking events, though nothing gory.

The Young Wizards by Diane Duane
I found this series, which still gets new additions every once in awhile, when I was in college. It follows Nita and her best friend Kit as they become wizards in the modern world and have to deal with quests. The big good and evil themes are very present in these books and I love the way Duane blends the modern, urban world with those big good and evil battles. It’s also fun to see Nita and Kit take on evil across the galaxy and then come home to chores and sibling rivalry. A great bonus is that unlike many of the books on this list, this series does a great job with diverse characters and with gender roles. Kit is Latino. Later books have an autistic character who is handled very well. This series hasn’t been in vogue in awhile, but it’s so good.
Perfect for: Kids who ran out of Madeleine L’Engle books and want more in that vein.
Appropriate for: Any kid okay with darker themes like death.

The Crestomanci Books by Diana Wynne Jones
I read a tiny smattering of Jones’s work as a kid, but it was only later that I realized how much she had written and how amazing her books are. This series is probably her most accessible to readers who haven’t encountered her before, but it’s also my favorite. Crestomanci is an enchanter who helps regulate magic for the government, but in some of the books, as a kid, he gets into all kinds of mischief. All of Jones’s books wind you around through a maze and spit you out the other side. I especially love The Lives of Christopher Chant. For the most part, these can be read in any order, which is just an indication of what a great and slightly twisty writer Jones was.
Perfect for: Doctor Who Fans. Really, it has that feel sometimes.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can keep up with the plot twists.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This is the best Arthurian retelling in my opinion, beating out any others (and I read a lot as a kid) by far. In some ways, it’s just a straight retelling of King Arthur and his knights. In other ways, it turns the whole story into something completely new, a psychological exploration of power and justice. The opening section, about Arthur’s boyhood, shape shifting with Merlin, was reworked into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. For many fantasy lovers, White’s book stands with The Lords of the Rings and Gormenghast as some of the greatest British fantasy ever written.
Perfect for: A kid ready for a really dense read.
Appropriate for: The first section can be read as a standalone and is appropriate for anyone. The rest of the book isn’t graphic, but it is a lot more grown up and includes the affairs and jealousies of adult relationships and marriages.

The Hero in the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
It’s impossible to explain how much I adore these books. They’re connected only loosely as they take place hundreds of years apart. The first is much for traditional feeling fantasy, about a girl who fights dragons. The second takes place in a world where an imaginary British-like empire has conquered most of the magical lands without ever realizing there was magic in them. McKinley’s writing is rich and paints a vivid picture of Damar. The Hero in the Crown won a Newbery.
Perfect for: Me, age 12.
Appropriate for: There’s a veiled reference to sex in the first book, but it’s very veiled. Both books have romance as a central theme and feel very YA, but they’re not inappropriate for younger readers if they pick them up.

The Belgariad by David Eddings
This is a thick five book series originally written for adults but which is now being read by older kids and teens pretty regularly and sometimes sold as one big, fat volume. It follows a boy, Garion, as he realizes his destiny to fight a giant battle against a god. As an adult, I can see that Eddings’s world is problematic, in large part because it’s so segregated and borderline racist. The darker skinned characters are the baddies. And being good or bad is determined in large part by your race and culture. And while there are several strong female characters, it’s a man’s world rife with sexism. I have extremely mixed feelings about all that, but I also remember how much I enjoyed the vivid cast of characters and the epic qualities of the story. I think it’s still worth enjoying by kids who are able to understand what elements of the set up aren’t so good.
Perfect for: Slightly older kids who want to sink their teeth into a big fantasy adventure.
Appropriate for: Because these were first written for adults, there are numerous references to drinking (but note that characters generally suffer when they drink too much) and sex, though nothing graphic is described. Also note the above about sexism and racism. I wouldn’t suggest this series for a kid before they were ready to be a little critical of those elements, even if it was with guidance.

The Dark is Rising Series by Susan Cooper
This series is hard to explain if you haven’t read it. There are a couple of books about some average kids and another few that focus on a boy with magical powers to bend time and space. Along with an old man who is secretly Merlin in the modern day, they work for the side of the light and against the mysterious dark. Lots of Arthurian tidbits continually come into play. Mushroom and BalletBoy really liked the first book, where the average siblings find the Holy Grail, but they found the next one, about the magical boy, harder to enjoy. It’s my favorite. I loved that young Will had a secret identity and was sometimes normal and other times wise beyond his years. The jumps in time and place were interesting to me as a kid and, of course, those big good and evil themes came into play. This series has much denser and richer language than a lot of fantasy being written for kids today. Note that the film version of the titular series book is dreadful. Avoid at all costs.
Perfect for: Fans of rhyming prophesies in fantasy books, Arthurian nuts, fantasy weirdos. Really, these books are classics, but they’re also a bit hard to pin down.
Appropriate for: Any child who can keep up with the language.

Tales of Magic by Edward Eager
This series includes Eager’s wonderful classic Half-Magic, which is probably my favorite. In that book, four siblings acquire the ability to use magic wishes, but the wishes only ever work halfway, making them half invisible or sending them halfway on a journey. Later books include other sorts of magic that comes and then goes, giving the siblings a brief bout of adventure before their mundane lives resume. While the plots are fantastic, the siblings and their relationships feel very real. All Eager’s books feel very much like real magic games kids play come to life. This is one of the few series Mushroom and BalletBoy also genuinely loved, perhaps because they feel so much like real life with pretend.
Perfect for: Read alouds once your kids are really into their read alouds.
Appropriate for: Anyone at all.

The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
This series was an adult discovery for me. I only found it a few years ago, but I was blown away by its complexity and good writing. The main character, Gen, is the titular thief, who must steal something very important. To say much more would give away the first book, which is by far the best. As the series goes on, it changes, covering politics and intrigue as well as romance in the complex world Turner created. That world is very realistic with very few supernatural elements, making it mostly just an imagined universe and not a traditional fantasy setting.
Perfect for: Kids who want “good” fantasy YA.
Appropriate for: There’s nothing inappropriate, but the characters are all adults and the romance in the later books feels very grown up. I wouldn’t suggest it before 12 or 13 to most kids.

Dragonsong and Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffery
Most of McCaffery’s Dragon books aren’t really for kids, though these two absolutely are and they’re also by far the best of the bunch. On a planet where the weather can be literally deadly if you don’t have proper shelter, Menolly lives alone and finds tiny dragons before moving to the Harper Hall to play music. Because these were a tiny duo of books (there’s also a third that’s nowhere near as good and follows another character) meant for younger readers inside a vast series, the world building is impeccable and complex yet totally accessible to new readers.
Perfect for: Girls who like music and dragons.
Appropriate for: Any age, but note that the other Dragonrider series have a lot more adult content and the final book is this trilogy, Dragondrums, also has a lot more romance, including a brief but not terribly veiled pre-sex scene.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
This was my real gateway drug into fantasyland as a child. Through the wardrobe I went and I never totally returned. The books follow the magical land of Narnia over time and the children from Earth who stumble into visiting there. I feel like it has to be said that the books are a Christian allegory, something that I didn’t quite get as a child, but which is beyond obvious as an adult. I don’t mind this most of the time. Lewis is an interesting Christian thinker and I appreciate the elements of Christianity he brings to fantasy. However, The Horse and his Boy is beyond racist and anti-Muslim. I think it’s worth just pulling out of the box set and hiding, to be honest. The final book is also a conundrum, being a book with numerous references to Revelations and an interpretation of both adult life and Narnia that never sat very comfortably with me, honestly. Still, the magic and story in the first books is so excellent. The messages about faith and belief were also ones that have stuck with me for a long time.
Perfect for: Reading aloud the moment kids are ready for it.
Appropriate for: Children before they’ve become too analytical. Seriously, I think these are better read before you can see the Christian allegory.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
I’m a bit too old to have read these as a kid. In fact, my own kids were tiny when I dragged them to a release party to get my copy of the final book. While I can only assume no one needs a summary, the series follows Harry, an orphan, as he attends a school for wizards and learns the tools he needs to take up his destiny and fight Voldemort, the wizard who killed his parents. Like everyone else, I loved these books and I even can say that (gasp), the fifth one where Harry is just so mad may actually be my favorite. Oh, teenagers.
Perfect for: Everyone on the planet, apparently.
Appropriate for: A lot has been made in many families about making kids wait on this series. While obviously there are some dark parts to the ending, the writing is much easier than many of the books on this list and the dark stuff is pretty mild when you come down to it. In some families, the kids are reading things I think are just as dark or even more so while being told not yet for Harry Potter. While I wouldn’t suggest them to younger kids per se, I think they’re fine for any kid who really wants to tackle them, even accelerated younger readers.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
This series is, for me, one of the best examples of classic fantasy ever written. It follows Taran as he goes from lowly pigkeeper to epic hero. The setting and characters are drawn from Welsh mythology and have a very pre-medieval feel. As a child, this set me off on a strange love of all things Welsh that I’ve never really given up. Just seeing a Welsh flag with a dragon on it still gives me a little warm fuzzy for no reason I have any right to. The final book in the series earned a well-deserved Newbery award.
Perfect for: Kids who have exhausted all the easy, breezy fun fantasy of today and want something with more depth.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot, which are a little dense by today’s standards. There are some darker themes and scary bad guys.

Moomintroll Books by Tove Janssen
These books are so odd and charming. I especially adore Comet in Moominland. All the books follow the odd Moomins, a family of funny looking creatures, and their various friends. It’s hard to say what happens in any of them exactly, because even though there are floods and panics and robberies and so forth, you come away from all the books feeling simply like you got to dwell in another place with some strange characters for a little while. And when I say strange, I really do mean strange. When they were younger, BalletBoy and Mushroom really liked these whimsical tales.
Perfect for: Read alouds for kids who like odd stories.
Appropriate for: Anyone and everyone.

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
In many ways, I like this series better than Collins’s much better known Hunger Games. It also uses many of the same themes about how much we control our own fates when others are trying to use us and the long term effects of violence on individuals. Despite those dark sounding themes, this is a story about a boy and his baby sister who stumble into an underground world populated by intelligent rats, mice, and bugs. The main character Gregor may be part of a prophesy. These books were obviously a more recent discovery for me, but I really love them. One of the things I love is that unlike so much fantasy, the book features non-white characters as the heroes, not the villains.
Perfect for: Animal fantasy lovers.
Appropriate for: Any child who can deal with some of the darker themes and violence. Note that even though the violence features animals for the most part, sometimes it’s pretty grim, such as a mouse genocide that Gregor sees from afar.

The Earthsea Books by Ursula K. LeGuin
In high school, an English class I was in used the first volume of these books as an introduction to archetypes in literature. It illustrates one of the great things about fantasy books: the metaphors and symbolism is often more overt and complex than in other works, making them excellent first books to deconstruct and discuss in depth. The main books follow the wizard Ged. I remember that as a young reader, I especially loved the power of words and names in Earthsea and the way the magic system worked. These are considered some of the most influential fantasy classics out there.
Perfect for: All fantasy lovers. They should be required reading.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot. They’re definitely intended for a YA audience, though there’s nothing inappropriate for younger readers.

 

Confessions of a Failed Geek: My Kids Don’t Like Fantasy

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Imagining… but maybe not swords and dragons.

In the last few months, a horrible truth has come down in our home. While the kids enjoy a little Harry Potter, like playing Dungeons and Dragons, and looked forward to seeing the new Star Wars, they just don’t care for fantasy.

I have been trying to deny this for years. I’ve been pushing the Diana Wynne Jones, the Lloyd Alexander, the Gregor the Overlander books on them. They often tolerate it. Sometimes they find it enjoyable. But the truth has been written on the wall for a long time. The fantasy books get an, “okay,” but they would much rather hear The Saturdays, The Great Brain, a pile of historical fiction, a mystery novel.

I was a fantasy fanatic as a kid. I read nearly everything that was labeled fantasy on the children’s shelves – Narnia, Edward Eager, Robin McKinley, and so forth. Then I moved into the adult section and tried out books like the Dragonriders of Pern and The Belgariad.

The idea that fantasy is “just escapism” has been pretty well refuted in the last few decades as children’s and now young adult literature has become more saturated with it and even adult literature has leaned more and more speculative with writers like Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin as some of the most blockbuster bestsellers out there.

Fantasy was so influential in forming the way I looked at the world. Fantasy is big battles between good and evil. It’s big questions about right and wrong. It’s about power and responsibility. And it lays it all out in a way that’s more epic and more philosophically bare than most realistic fiction for kids. It’s not an escape from reality, it’s reality heightened for young readers, where you can really think about what you believe and challenge your imagination.

I can remember flying through and then rereading fantasy novels, especially in middle school. Obsessing over the details, copying the maps of imaginary places, and then dreaming up my own imaginary places. I can remember imagining, all Mary Sue style, what it would be like to be in these fantasy places, visiting Narnia, tempted by the Dark Side, tromping into Mordor, fighting the power of IT, training to battle dragons.

And now, I realized, my kids just won’t have those moments or anything like them. It made me want to cry.

But, gathering myself together. It’s okay. I would have groaned at some of the long classics and historical fiction that they actually adore. They adored The Secret Garden when they were little. They actually really enjoy classics that other kids often find sort of dull, like when we read Island of the Blue Dolphins. And far from shying away from tough topics, Mushroom’s favorite books are critically acclaimed books about tough topics like Mockingbird and Counting By 7’s. Those aren’t the sort of books I would have read at that age at all, but they’re undoubtedly giving him different perspectives on the world. They get excited about a new Penderwicks book and reveled having a new Calpurnia Tate book to listen to.

And while they may not be fantasy nuts, they don’t lack for imagination, playing out long soap operas of intrigue and love between their toys and coming up with elaborate spy, ninja, and mythology inspired games with their friends. For them, art, history, and politics can be just as much fodder for the imagination as Narnia or Middle Earth.

90 Second Newbery

90 Second Newbery is a film festival for kids to make very short movies telling the story of Newbery or Newbery honor winning books. The deadline for films is next week and the screenings start soon. You can find a list of them on the website. I already shared ours a few places because I was so excited by it and meant to blog about it earlier, but life interfered, so I’m sharing it here now.

We chose this as one of our big fall projects and it has been really cool to see the result. One of the most rewarding aspects was that after we sent in the link for the film, James Kennedy, who runs the festival, sent back really specific and positive feedback, which was very cool. Even if you don’t have time to participate this year, I would really encourage everyone to think about this as a project for the future. It involved so much good, positive, creative work and so many good discussions of literature.

This is the film Mushroom and BalletBoy made:

I’m still surprised at how much work went into this project. They’ve made little stop motion movies before as well as some little kid live action movies. Both the boys have a facility with iPad movie editing apps. However, they had never seriously attempted a project this ambitious. And everything, from the choice of the book, to the script, to the music and shots had to be agreed upon and it wasn’t always easy with two directors who had different visions.

The script was especially tricky. In the end, we used the script that Mushroom wrote. He had all these great phrases and moments in it, like a vision of Ivan saying, “Mack didn’t call the vet,” followed by silence to indicate how Stella died and the idea of using a news report to explain how Ivan ends up at the zoo.

Building the set for the stop motion of Ivan was even harder. We started with thin plexiglass walls for the stuffed gorilla playing Ivan, but the glare was terrible no matter how we set up the lighting and we finally had to lose it. We also tried using a green screen and even borrowed a real green screen from a friend, but again the lighting was never quite good enough to make the green screen look good and it refused to pan properly. In the end, the kids just printed out the image of the mall circus store they’d chosen to be Ivan’s dismal backdrop. The green screen was also supposed to be used for the news report, but all the takes didn’t work and we had to wrangle our friends from co-op into doing the report instead.

Filming the crayon drawings also was tricky at times. The Stop Motion app cut off the edges of drawings, which was okay for some scenes, but meant we filmed the final credits (no joke) more than half a dozen times trying to make them readable and not cut off.

Not long ago, I posted about how I think parents should help their children with their projects sometimes. This is a great example of that for us. I did almost none of the work for this movie. Probably the biggest thing I did was make a couple of the protest signs when BalletBoy was sick and they needed to be done so Mushroom could film with their friends the next day. But every other bit of work was completely the kids. Every photo, every bit of filming, every drawing, every idea for the movie.

Mostly what I did do was a huge amount of organization for them. I kept them on schedule. I typed up the handwritten script and helped them edit and revise. I encouraged them to pay attention to the details and redo things when they didn’t work or to let things go when they weren’t happy with the best result we could get. I mediated and suggested compromises between their different ideas. I highlighted the parts of the script that had been filmed to help them keep track. I set aside time for them to work. I played cheerleader and said how great the project would be in the end. And it is great.

I think kids need all kinds of projects. They need things where it’s really completely on them from start to finish. They need things where they have to follow someone else’s rules. They need things where someone shows them how much they can do with a little support. This was a project with a little support and I feel really positive about it and so do the kids.