5 Top Middle School Reads
5 Top Middle School Reads are novels that students couldn’t detach from even after we finished reading them. Before I go over this list, I have some advice for how to engage students in reading. This is going to be a bit unconventional-but it works. When you are about to read a book to students, have students gather around the classroom in a circle-campfire style (no books, no notes). Now, in your best storytelling voice, tell students the story of the book. Tell the story well, or not at all. Allow students to ask as many questions as they want and answer their questions with enthusiasm.
Think about it. We punish our students with novels by assigning reading quickly followed by gauging them with questions, underlining, analyzing etc. Imagine the level of engagement from the start if you could tell the story of lets say, “Lord of the Flies”-a book that doesn’t gain engagement until Simon dies. This is an effective way to engage students with a book. We seem to think that students are going to have the same experience we did, BUT we are English teachers and they are bored. Telling a story (without expectations) is exciting, and students are pumped after. Then move into close reading of a short passage or read longer more engaging scenes. The first objective is for students to read. Set it up in such a way that allows for that to happen with ease. And let go of the idea that students must read everything-They really don’t!
It’s difficult to find engaging books for middle school students, because they have grown out of elementary school topics, but aren’t quite ready for high school topics. Plus, middle school teachers are requested, candidly, to stay away from high school books. 5 top middle school reads are novels that my students couldn’t stay away from even after we finished reading them. These reads are: “Ghost Boys”, by Jewell Parker Rhodes; “Hey Kiddo”, by Jarrett Kraskosca; “New Kid” by Jerry Craft; “The 57 Bus” by Dashka Slater; and “Rebound” by Kwame Alexander.
“Ghost Boys” by Jewell Parker Rhodes
“Ghost Boys” has one of the most powerful openings I have ever read in a book-and that was all it took to hook myself and my students.
“How small I look. Laid out flat, my stomach touching ground. My right knee bent and my brand-new Nikes stained with blood.
I stoop and stare at my face, my right cheek flattened on concrete. My eyes are wide open. My mouth too.
I thought I was bigger. Tough. But I’m just a bit of nothing.
My arms are outstretched like I was trying to fly like Superman.
I’d barely turned, sprinting, Pow, pow. Two bullets. Legs gave way. I fell flat. Hard.
I hit snowy ground” (Rhodes 1).
POWERFUL! RIGHT? The novel includes all topics that middle school students deal with such as: bullying, diversity, adversity, death, racism in the US, and friendship. The book is about a young boy whose life is cut short by a police officer. This story is different in that there is healing in the book rather than just revenge, or a lack of justice. Jerome the boy who was murdered becomes friends with Sarah, the police officer’s (who killed him) daughter. I was finishing up this book when George Floyd was killed, and it was helpful to just have finished a book about racism, murder, and healing. Students decided to do something peaceful and positive for George Floyd and had it not been for the reading of “Ghost Boys”, my students my not have found themselves in the right mind-set during such a tumultuous time.
It’s also important to talk about generalizations, and as a class we make a commitment not to generalize. Having said that, we do not ignore the fact that African American males are killed in high numbers, and we look at examples in the distant and near past. Lesson suggestion. Watch Vinson’s “I Pledge Allegiance” poetry slam on YouTube and have students have a class discussion about whether-or-not athletes should be forced to say the pledge of allegiance.
“The 57 Bus” by Dashka Slater
“The 57 Bus” alos has one of the most engaging openings I have read in a book. “In a moment everything will be set in motion. Taken by ambulance to a San Francisco burn unit, Sasha will spend the next three and a half weeks undergoing multiple surgeries to treat second and third degree burns running from calf to thigh.
Arrested at school the following day, Richard will be charged with two felonies, each with a hate-crime clause that will add time to his sentence if he is convicted…But none of that has happened yet. For now, both teenagers are just taking the bus home from school. Surely, it’s not too late to stop things from going wrong. There must be some way to wake Sasha. Divert Richard. Get the driver to stop the bus. There must be something you can do.” Sasha considers themself agender; neither female nor male, or both female and male. Sasha wore a kilt to school most days and it was lit on fire by Richard, who did not intend for it to light up the way that it did. Sasha went to private school and Richard to a public school in a dangerous neighborhood in Oakland. Richard had been in trouble before and worked hard to stay out of trouble now. What started as a prank turned into a felony hate crime. The controversy in the case is that the judge chose to try Richard as an adult, and added a hate crime clause to the charge. People felt that Richard should be charged for the crime as a minor and that it did not meet the criteria of a hate crime. Lesson suggestion: Use a newspaper article about this true story as the centerpiece of a lesson. Ask questions, have a class discussion.
“Hey Kiddo” by Jarret Krosoczka
1. It’s a graphic novel and middle school students love graphic novels, 2. A coming-of-age book so students relate to it, 3. The book is about healing and our world could use more healing. A young boy who has to live with his grandparents because his mom is a heroine addict. The book looks at addicts through a different-more compassionate lens, and at those who are hurt by addiction. The book also has some awesome allusions such as “Wayne’s World”, “This is your brain on drugs”, and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No To Drugs” campaign. It is beneficial to teach the basic elements of a graphic novel and talk about shapes, and the colors the author chooses to use in the book. The best part is that although the boy’s mom eventually dies young, the main character turns out to be the author-a successful, graphic novel author and artist. It’s fascinating how the book takes a look at the family history which helps to give some context as to why Ja’s mom ended up as an addict. There’s one line in the entire book that is very telling. It discusses how Ja’s grandma had a miscarriage and it states, “it threw her”. In the book she sits slouching, in the dark at a table smoking while she set the kids in front of the tv to keep them busy. It foreshadows how Ja’s grandmother had a lack of coping skills, why his mom may not have gotten the attention and love that she needed, and how she may have ultimately ended up using drugs. This is a mature and essential revelation for teenagers. Lesson suggestion: Do a ‘Just Say No” to drugs campaign and choose different images, commercials, and slogans for today.
“New Kid” by Jerry Craft
“New Kid” another graphic novel, yet much lighter than “Hey Kiddo” is a student and teacher favorite. It’s about a boy in a new-private-middle school who deals with many of the issues that students deal with in middle school: bullying, fitting in, relationships, friendships, puberty, and racism. What I really like about this book is that the themes just mentioned are to the degree of making an impact on students without completely bringing them down. What I mean by this is that there is teasing and unkind words exchanged between classmates, but there isn’t a degree of bullying that students have to eat their lunch standing on a toilet, like there is in other books (Ghost Boys).
The main character, Jordan goes to an almost all-white-student body school as an African American, and he deals with students and teachers making comments such as, “I bet you’d be good at basketball”, followed with “I didn’t mean that because, well, you know”. Other than these frustrations the book is light-hearted, each chapter is a malapropism for a movie, and portrays the average middle school student’s day-to-day life. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s important to first begin by teaching students how to read a graphic novel: thought bubbles, gutters, panels, etc. prior to reading a graphic novel. Some ideas during teaching is to cut out a scene, mix them up, and have students decide how to put them in order. You can delete dialogue from circles, and have students predict based on the images, what is being said. Lesson suggestion; I have heard teachers talk about how students are not able to practice critical thinking by imagining up a scene in a graphic novel. You can give the students the dialogue and have them draw what they imagine the scene to be.
“Rebound” by Kwame Alexander
The last of the top 5 middle school reads is “Rebound” by Kwame Alexander-a brilliant author and poet! It’s a new and different way to read a novel in that it is multiple poems strung together through the duration of an entire novel. It’s a bit like a string of dreams, or memories. Kwame is a master at writing and uses multiple literary devices on each page. He shapes his poetry to match the topic of a poem, and he engages middle school students in ways that most poetry cannot. The main character, Charlie, in “Rebound” is dealing with a lot. He has to deal with the loss of his father as well as puberty and all that it entails for a boy in middle school. Charlie is struggling to get along with his mom, who doesn’t seem to relate to him on any level. The person who can-is gone-Charlie’s father and Charlie misses him deeply. After Charlie gets into trouble a couple times, his mom decides to send him to his grandparents for the summer. Charlie is unhappy about it, but it seems to be what he needs to get his smile and his confidence back. It’s a coming-of-age book that includes: family, friends, death, and sports: exactly what he needs after his painful loss. Lesson suggestion: take one poem and have students turn it into the parts of a short story: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
This blog went over the 5 top middle school reads. I believe if you try these books in the classroom you will find as much success as I did. The list again is: “Rebound” by Kwame Alexander, “Hey Kiddo” by Jarrett Krosoczka, “New Kid” by Jerry Craft, “Ghost Boys” by Jewell Parker Rhodes, and “The 57 Bus” by Dashka Slater.