I sat down this morning with my son’s school librarian, Michelle Lombardi, who is both a neighbor and a bibliophile. She has been media specialist at Upper Arlington’s Jones Middle School for two years and I’m bending her ear today to find out what the middle grade reader is into at the moment. The middle grades, approximately from ages eleven to fourteen, appear to be a vacuum in terms of book consumption. Or any consumption. These kids are too young (mainly) to have bank accounts, debit cards, state IDs, even in some cases phone numbers that would allow them their own purchasing. They are also a bit of a “high risk” group in terms of research. Not being adults, they’re considered vulnerable to manipulation if folks make a study of their habits, be it in reading material, preferred cold cuts or whatever, so almost everything I’ve found has come to me anecdotally. This is going to be a really not very science-y article, in other words.
In my defense, I have a preteen. He’s a twelve-year-old and he does have a public library card and a smart phone, and for now I feel OK asking him what authors he prefers. He’s into Ransom Riggs and the unnamed auteur of the Pseudonymous Bosch series, but also he loves sword fights and end of the world (Maze Runner) dramas where teens are in peril for their lives.
Though Ms. Lombardi and I are agreed that the apocalypse has been overdone of late, the fantasy warrior, especially the female variety, shows no sign of disappearing. Witness the ascent of Cassandra Clare’s sword-wieldery and the prolific Kristin Cashore. But the lady swashbuckler has some stiff competition from fantasy’s angels and fairies. Holly Black still wins big in this category as does Tamora Pierce.
A surprise to me was the sudden resurgence of an older middle grade series, The Babysitters Club, which is being re-issued in graphic novel form by writer/illustrator Raina Telgemeier of Smile fame. James Patterson’s graphic novels also fly off the shelf at Jones Middle, helping encourage reluctant readers, especially. Humor, the speed of his pages as well as Patterson’s skill at male and female points of view help these titles reach nearly all comers.
What doesn’t go so fast from the fiction shelf? Classics. Though Steinbeck and Dickens remain on the curriculum, they are not the authors of choice among preteen and teen browsers. The Diary of Anne Frank remains a noted exception, accessible again and again for straightforward poignancy. A newer tale like Carl Hiaasen’s eco-fable Flush is a more modern classic that Ms. Lombardi sees checked out over and over among middle schoolers, and which now is a required title for 6th grade.
When I asked how to involve shy readers at the library, Michelle has an excellent experiment – speed dating with books. She places six or seven volumes on a table, each with a short summary and a score card. Students are tasked with filling out a card for each book in terms of cover art, engagement with the summary, the first page hook, and any other details taken from five minutes’ assessment. At the end of the session each student has a high scoring book – their date for the month!
How can we know as adults that young teens get something from their book choice? Michelle suggests they do a blog response or record a video summary of key events. Series work well with this response activity. Lisa Graff’s small town adventures (A Clatter of Jars and A Tangle of Knots) are a fine example as is Neal Shusterman, whose futuristic society “unwinds” puberty in troublesome teens (Unwind).
If you’re unsure whether a certain title will give a child nightmaers, Ms. Lombardi suggests Common Sense Media (https://www.commonsensemedia.org/reviews/category/book), Booklist (http://www.booklistonline.com/default.aspx?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1), and Kirkus Reviews (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/indie-reviews/) which rate titles with ideal age ranges. Better, by far, though, is to observe a child’s interests. Let the hobbies of the individual lead her to a great book. Karate, guitar, trapeze, mummification, stand-up comedy all find their way into books. And if a child is nervous talking about books in class, invite him to a book club on line or at the library. Michelle runs one at lunchtime which includes regular Twitter posts to showcase student participation. Kids vote on every title. Several of their choices are already on my to-read list: How to Steal a Fortune by Jude Watson, River Runs Deep by Jennifer Bradbury, and A Monster Calls, if I can keep from falling to pieces, by Patrick Ness.
Thanks Ms. Lombardi! I wish I were thirteen again.