By day, I’m a middle school reading teacher, so I’m right on the front lines of finding books for kids to read, encouraging kids to read, and even sometimes forcing kids to read. So what I am actually seeing kids read? Here are five books or series that I have, with my own teacher eyeballs, seen kids sitting down, with the book open and their eyes moving from left to right across the page, really and truly reading.
1. Skinny by Ibi Kaslik. I teach middle school, that amazing, horrible time when little kids start to become adults, and girls that age resonate deeply with the issues of body image and eating disorders. Skinny tells the story of two sisters, Holly and Giselle, and how they cope with their father’s death. Giselle’s way of coping leads to her developing an eating disorder. Holly has to cope with both her own grief, but also her sister’s slide into depression and anorexia. Every middle-school girl I’ve seen read this book has said, “It’s amazing!” That, by the way, is lofty praise from a middle-schooler.
2. Divergent Series by Veronica Roth. The series, consisting of titles Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant, is a dystopian tale set in a post-apocalyptic Chicagoland. In a society where everyone must conform to one of four social groups, each with its own characteristics and roles, the Divergents, who do not conform to a type, are seen as a threat to society. The books were already being turned into films before the third book had even been released, so I had a lot of kids wanting to read the books to prepare for seeing the films. Having a film made of your book is apparently a good way to get people to read it.
3. Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. I have a hard time keeping these books on my classroom library shelves. I don’t mean they’re constantly checked out; I mean they WALK, permanently. Occupational hazard. This series of many books tells the misadventures of the Wimpy Kid, whose real name is Greg. Kinney is on to something here, too. Boys, in particular, adore these books. From a teacher perspective, I think it’s because of the little cartoons that illustrate the story and provide a context for increased comprehension. Kids pick up the books, thinking that they’re easy to read. The reality is that, for middle-schoolers, they’re at or above grade-level. Well done, Mr. Kinney. This teacher salutes you, and I’ll keep replacing these books as fast as they fly off the shelves and never reappear.
4. The First Part Last, by Angela Johnson. Girls love to check this out. It’s short, for one thing, so it looks easy to read. There’s a really good-looking African –American young man on the cover, holding a baby. Charming and dear. Thing is, Bobby, the protagonist, is a high-schooler whose girlfriend is pregnant. They honestly explore options—keeping the baby or giving it up for adoption. While their friends are concerned with dates and grades and the prom, they’re facing much more serious issues. It’s an honest and forthright tale, and Bobby doesn’t pull any punches as the book’s narrator. Anything more gives away the dramatic twists that turn his whole life upside-down, so I’ll stop there. Kids love this book, though.
5. Any book about sex. Or periods. Or penises. I kid you not. Kids are so needy for information about the changes they’re undergoing, about biology, about reproduction, about pregnancy, about STDs, and about “doing it.” We have an awful lot of abstinence-only states and districts, and kids need more than that. They need facts, and they need to know that no matter what they’re feeling and experiencing, it’s okay, and it’s normal, and it’s been felt and experienced by someone else before. Boys, in particular, need to understand about enthusiastic consent and what is and is not okay behavior in dealing with others. So the information kids are not allowed to get in their health classes, I make sure they have access to. I am very particular about what information I provide. I want it accurate, honest, and unbiased. It starts like this: a group of boys is all huddled up around a book, pointing and giggling at the illustration of the erect penis or the Fallopian tubes. Eventually, though, I’ll see of them sidle over to his backpack and slide the book into a pocket, too embarrassed to come over and check it out from me. Maybe I’ll see it again, and maybe I won’t. Doesn’t matter. Kids need this information so badly, and they need access to good books if no one else is going to teach them.
I have almost 2,000 books in my classroom library, and I am continually scouring store shelves for more. I’ll be keeping an eye out for what kids are reading, and I’ll come back with another installment!