This quarter, my students are focusing on non-fiction texts – historical non-fiction. They are reading to learn, writing to explain, and learning how to write without plagiarizing. It is a fun unit, but it is also a lot of hard work. I feel challenged to keep their independent reading alive, so I began to think of ways to add a little sparkle to the reading parts of language arts. This one is super simple.
It starts with just a pile of colored paper and some really good books. The goal is to have students recommending books to other students. So we are starting Top Ten Lists for the books we have read. I’m calling them Class Favorites because I wouldn’t want to limit their lists to just ten. I have a sheet of colored construction paper with a genre written across the top. See, I told you it was simple. And I made one for each genre or category we read most – realistic fiction, fantasy, dystopian, sports, poetry, romance, mystery and historical fiction. Anything that my students will read gets a sheet. And the sheets are hung around my room. If a student has a favorite book, the title goes onto the list for all to see. And read. I anticipate adding sheets to sheets to sheets. I certainly hope I do.
I went first. I will share with you those book titles because aren’t we always looking for a reader to share titles with us? My absolutely best source is Twitter. There are teachers in our grade levels talking about great books all the time. When a book shows up over and over, I research it a little before I buy it. I try to be diverse in my selections as in I try to choose different genres. I try to think boys/girls. I know that is sexist, but I have boys who will not read anything but football. And some years I have no boys who will read baseball. And they just don’t read a lot of romance. So I need to pay attention to the trends and really THINK about what my boys are reading. Girls are easier. I’m a girl. Go figure. So here we go.
One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus
I read this book on our Snow Day because I had included it in my Winter Reading Goal slide from my earlier post. And I could not wait to read it. It did not disappoint. It is gooood. This was one of those books that just kept showing up on Twitter. I read it to be sure it was clean enough. There is just practically nothing clean anymore, so I have to settle for clean enough. It is. Kids are more mature these days. I keep telling myself that, anyway. And I remind you – I teach eighth grade. Many are GT eighth grade and they choose things like Moby Dick, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Sherlock Holmes. Those are just the current ones. My girls just read Speak. Sold is in my classroom library for a literature circle. So when I talk books with them, I often look toward high school books more than middle school books. We just need to know our kids.
Anyway, back to One of Us is Lying. This is the story of four students who get put into detention and claim they were framed. While they are there, one of them dies. They all become suspects in the murder. It is AWESOME! There is the young adult connection – your students can connect with these kids. They are these kids. Or they know these kids. So the book is very realistic fiction. And it is mysterious – we don’t know who is lying and who isn’t. Secrets are continuing to be revealed. You really won’t see them coming. There’s some teenage romance and lots of drama. There is bullying. Your kids will love it. Warning: there is a sex scene, but it is short and not detailed. There is one other thing, too, but I can’t tell you what it is because I want it to be a surprise. This book is full of surprises. Go for it.
The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban
This was a student recommendation at the end of school last year, and I kept putting it off. I picked it up right before school started and finished it just before I met my new students. I book talked it and they read it. A lot. It has many of the elements of One of Us Is Lying that made it so good. A young man goes off to boarding school to complete his last two years of high school. The twist here is that he is an albino. So he deals with fitting in, making friends, and surviving school. The book begins with a mystery. Something happened that everyone in the book knows about, but we don’t. There is romance, the cool kids, rule breaking – the lives of teenagers. And then there is the title. It is an assignment. Think The Outsiders. Read this one. I think it was clean…
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
And while we are talking about boarding schools, read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks! I have had this book for a few years, so it isn’t new. Available in paperback. This one is about a girl at boarding school who hacks into the boys’ private society and takes it over. But they don’t know who she is. More importantly, they don’t know she is a she. She directs their actions using a computer and sends them out to do her bidding. Again, we have mystery, romance, and drama. But the fun of this girl outsmarting the boys who feel superior to her intelligence due to their gender is just a great read. E. Lockhart is one of my favorite YA authors – We Were Liars is hers, too.
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
I have to laugh at myself on this one. I heard about The Serpent King on Twitter. Everyone was raving about it. I thought they were fantasy freaks. You know – a reptile comes to life with super-human powers and rules over a make-believe kingdom.
Really. That’s what I thought.
So, it’s not. Its about a teenage boy whose father is a fundamentalist, serpent-handling preacher. His flock believes that if you handle the deadly snake and it bites you but the venom doesn’t kill you, you are a child of God. Only he had a very un-preacherly problem with a young girl and was hauled off to prison. He is an embarrassment to his son, and he has left his wife and son with no means of support.
But that is just the background. The book is the story of the main character, Dill, and his friendships with two very interesting characters who march to the beat of different drums. One girl and one boy. They move around the fringes of their high school, outcasts to many of the in-crowd. They want a future, though – one that does not include the little town where they are living. And they want to live their dreams. The Serpent King reminds me a little of John Green’s Paper Towns. This book is sad and sweet and funny. It will play with your emotions. And you will remember these characters and recognize them in your students. An added bonus is the strong girl role model found in Lydia, Dill’s best friend. Zentner has also written Goodbye Days. I need to remember to order that book…it looks really good, too.
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
I have had this book in my classroom library for years. I thought it was about drug abuse and all sorts of creepiness that did not appeal to me. I thought it was twisted. LOL. I am living proof of the adage Don’t judge a book by its cover, aren’t I? I gave away several copies of this book when we Skyped with the author, and thought before I handed it out, I should see how much twisted stuff was really in there. Turns out it was the funny story of a teenage boy and his angst over a beautiful classmate. The edginess is that Tyler spends an awful lot of time with mentions of his awakening sexuality. Laurie Halse Anderson takes on serious subjects – rape, suicide, PTSD, bullying – but she is just funny. Her writing is real. Her dialogue is authentic. Her own humor comes through and creates lovable characters. I loved Tyler. There is a scene where the family shows up at the boss’s house for a party that will make you laugh and cringe at the same time. Definitely for eighth grade and up.
The Burn for Burn Trilogy by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian
I am a huge Jenny Han fan. Her books have been hits with my girls for the past few years. She is really a favorite and knows how to write for her YA audience. The Summer I Turned Pretty – also a trilogy – is chic lit meant for eighth grade girls. Summer love. Coming of Age. Romance. Burn for Burn is more complex. My super-duper Media Specialist recommended this book to me. Han and Siobhan Vivian wrote this trilogy together, and it has an extra edge. More mystery. And some great surprises. The premise is three girls united by a desire for revenge against the friends who have wronged them. There is still romance. And the characters are so likable. And beautiful. And rich. Kat, Lillia, Rennie, Reeve – even their names are beautiful and rich. They all live on an island which is – you guessed it – beautiful and rich. And it is connected only by ferry to the mainland. What could go wrong? If you have read Vivian’s The List, you will feel her edgy contributions to Han’s romance. You will not see what is coming. Be sure your girls don’t read them out of order! Secrets must remain secret until their time has come. Oh, you are going to love these books.
Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
I couldn’t write about books for young adult readers without a couple of sports books. These are two of my personal favorites.
Stupid Fast is football. It is about a boy who is not an athlete who grows over the summer. He gets really big and can run really fast. He starts to get a lot of attention. From the football coach, players on the team, and girls. He decides this is not a bad turn of events. The book is funny and realistic. He has choices to make. He has a crazy mother and a little brother who likes to set things on fire. The boys in my classes who won’t read much will read this. Girls like it, too.
The Crossover is basketball. And it is Kwame Alexander. This is one of my favorite books of all time. I had heard about it – who has not? – on Twitter. I read it and went out to buy twenty copies of it. In hardback because I could not wait for it to come out in paperback. I talked my daughter into buying half of them because I had to have them.
See, I had this class of mainly boys. African-American boys who lived for basketball. But they didn’t live for reading. I could not get them to read anything. I needed something to build a reading community for these guys. When God gave me The Crossover, I knew what to do with it. So I book-talked it and explained the story. They gave me the look. The you-know-I’m-not-going-to-read-this look. The have you lost your mind? look. But they did hear the one word I needed them to hear. Basketball. I did not use the other word. Poetry. I’m not stupid…
This book is the story of twin, junior-high school, basketball phenoms. One has dreads. One has a girlfriend named Miss Sweet Tea. They have a mother who is the assistant principal at their school and a father who was an amazing, basketball-playing athlete until his health cost him a professional career. He has taught his boys everything he knows and they are taking their team to state. They are a family that loves each other. The father is my favorite character. He is beyond adorable.
I cannot tell you everything this book is. It is written in poetry. Alexander raps. His poetry plays down the pages of the book. There are charming pages of definitions. There are play-by-play basketball games. The book is divided into quarters – like a basketball game. There is the girlfriend. And laugh out loud humor. And dramatic moments that you will not be expecting. My boys didn’t stand a chance. I read it aloud as they followed in the book. They needed to hear it because kids who do not read need to hear good reading out loud. And this book begs to be read aloud. The poetry just dances. I told them I couldn’t read the rap. They believed me. So in a group, they got up in the front of the room and rapped the rap pages. They laughed and we cried and they did not dread reading. I cannot tell you that I turned them into a group of avid readers. But they will always remember reading The Crossover in eighth grade.
P.S. I forgot to tell you that the girls loved it, too. Some of them were also basketball players – and for the rest I pointed out that I was white, didn’t play basketball, a girl, and I loved it. They were an easy sell.
That’s all for now. I will come back with more. And please leave some of your favorite titles in the comments. So many books, so little time…