Saturday, February 6, 2016

Beloved Authors of Room A7

Readers of this blog are most likely people who like reading.  Voracious readers, even.  YA enthusiasts  You grapple with complex storylines, love an unreliable narrator, and discuss world building and character development.

My students...not so much.  They place into my class by testing at two or more grade levels below their current grade.  Most of these seventh and eighth graders are reading in the 3rd and 4th grade level.  Some are as low as first grade.  These kids are not learning disabled, and while many of them are Latino, they no longer are in ESL classes, if they ever were.  

They just don't like to read.

So they don't read.  So they get further behind.  So they feel dumb.  So they resist reading even more.  You get the picture.

(This is a generalization, by the way.  I have some kids who love to read, and just need additional time and practice.  I even have a few kids reading above grade level, who are in my class for who knows why, and refuse to leave because they are so happy to sit and read and have it count for school.)  

I am getting better and better at finding books and authors that will grab my hesitant readers.  Length is one factor.  It doesn't matter if it's fascinating and totally at their reading level--if it looks like War and Peace to them, they won't pick it up.  Relatability is also important.  Only the most confident readers show any interest in fantasy, which kind of kills me.  But I get it--dealing with world building on to of everything else is just too much.  Humor can be a big draw, but so can creepy, and even sad.  I have one boy who went straight from Orbiting Jupiter to A Monster Calls and into The Crossover before finally asking me to steer him towards something that doesn't end in death.  

Popular authors shift over time.  I couldn't pay a kid to read Twilight these days, and I'm sure in five years some of today's hot books will languish on the shelves.  But for right now, these are my sure-fire authors.  Some you will be familiar with.  Others may surprise you.

1.  Raina Telgemeier.  She is IT, as far as most of my girls and many of my boys are concerned.  Smile remains the most popular of her works, but Sisters, Drama, and even the Babysitter Club adaptations are in constant rotation.  These are the books that never make it back to my bookshelves, but get handed from hand to hand.  I've gotta say, Smile made a graphic novel believer out of me as well. 

2.  Jeff Kinney.  There was a day a few weeks ago when fully 50% of my sixth period class was reading a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book.  With a new one out just before Christmas, kids were intent on finishing it before their buddies did.  Those who missed out on one of the classroom or school copies were returning to previous favorites while they waited.  Greg continues to crack them up.  

3.  April Henry.  I'd never heard of this author until very recently. She was a speaker at an Oregon Council of Teachers of English presentation I went to in October.  She writes "clean" thrillers for YA audiences.  I read one, but haven't been able to read any of the other four we have in our classroom, because they are constantly checked out.  The books have local settings, and her characters even attend my old high school, so that's fun.  Despite the lack of sex and swearing, they are intense and exciting--perfect for the age group I work with.

4.  John Green.  Green's novels are not always so appropriate for middle school, but since his books started being adapted for screen, the kids are eager to read them.  I have them on my "PG-13" shelf and they get heavy use.  The reading level is pretty challenging, but kids who have seen the movies first are able to work through them.

5.  Matt de la Peña.  Like most of my students, I was introduced to Matt's work through Mexican Whiteboy.  The provocative title catches kids' attention, and many of my students said, "Hey, that's what I am too!"  Further upping the ante was the way I'd lean confidentially towards them and say, "It has some kind of...inappropriate language.  Do you think your parents will be okay with you reading it?"  Who can pass up THAT sales pitch?   Then we started reading his other work.  Then I met the man himself at NCTE and came home with pretty much everything he'd written.  Then Last Stop on Market Street won the Newbery, and prompted us to write about our lives as bus riders.  One of my 8th grade boys spent the first 14 weeks of class plodding through a book about Marines and their dogs.  Then he picked up The Living, read it in two weeks, and went straight on to the sequel without even taking a breath.  He is an author whose voice and heart pulls readers in regardless of what genre he's writing in.

6.  Margaret Peterson Haddix is another example of a versatile and compelling author.  Many of my students came to me knowing her Shadow Children series, but not knowing she's written other works.  One class voted to read Found, the first in her The Missing series.  It was new to me, and we got caught up in the mystery together.  When we finished it, I bought the rest of the series so kids could keep going.  The same class then chose Don't You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey as their next read-aloud.  Instead of a sci fi adventure, this one is realistic fiction in journal format.  "I don't think that's my kind of book," warned one of the kids who'd voted against it.  "Just sayin'."  When I paused after our first day's reading, guess who was the first one calling out, "Nooo!  One more chapter?"  I grinned at her and said, "Haddix got you again, didn't she?"  I found out that the author is visiting our area and organized an optional evening field trip to see her speak; 28 kids gave up their evening to come see and hear her.

7.  Rick Riordan.  I read the first Percy Jackson years ago, since the kids were into it, and it didn't do anything for me.  But interest in his work continues strong, with kids at all stages of his multiple series.  I went ahead and got his latest, which is probably the biggest book that gets checked out in my classroom.  Then I started reading that first Percy book to my daughter at her request, and discovered it is far more fun and exciting than I'd remembered.  Maybe I was bringing the wrong attitude to it before.  At any rate, if his name's on the cover, kids will check out the book.  I must have a dozen of his books in my "catalogue," but none on the shelves.

8.  Francisco Jimenez.  I've been a fan of The Circuit since reading the title story way back in the late 1990's.  He's an easy sell for my first and second generation immigrant students.  He's telling them their family history--AND the books are short and episodic, making them unintimidating.  "This book helps me understand what my parents have gone through," said one student.

9.  Alan Sitomer.  Titles like Hip Hop High School and  Hoopster don't appeal much to me (although I did really like The Secret Life of Sonia Rodriguez), but who cares?  My students are drawn to them.  It seems that any given year, there's a boy who has discovered Sitomer and his enthusiasm attracts the attention of others.  Coert Voorhees is the read-alike they move on to from there.

10.  Dave Pelzer.  I do not read his books.  I just can't read a true story about child abuse, and I find it a bit squirmy that he has a whole series about his life as a victim and survivor.  But kids eat it up.  It's not just struggling readers--A Child Called It is both the book our school library owns the most copies of, yet it is almost impossible to get a hold of.

It will be interesting to look back in a few years and see which authors are still on this list, which have faded off, and who has replaced them.  It's also interesting to think about how different this list might look if I taught fifth grade, or tenth.

What authors were popular when you were a middle schooler?  I remember reading a ton of Anne McCaffery and Judy Blume, and that V. C. Andrews was popular as well, although I found her books waaaaay too creepy.  


  1. I wonder if kids relate to Hatchet by Gary Paulson? I always loved survival stories and this is one of my favourites.

    1. In other years Paulsen has definitely been a top author in my library. I have a bunch of his books--he is even 1/3 of a post I wrote recently about the three Garys of middle school lit! I think Hatchet has gotten many a kid excited about reading.

  2. For me, everyone was OBSESSED with The Hunger Games in middle school. A lot of people were reading Rick Riordan, too, but that was NOTHING compared with The Hunger Games craze. There was a Hunger Games club that 30+ people regularly attended to have debates about pretty much anything (but especially Peeta versus Gale). My school used to have the first book as an option for the dystopian lit unit, but they had to take it off because everyone had already read it and was choosing it so they wouldn't have to do any more work.

    Thanks for visiting Lost in My Library!


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