Friday, March 18, 2011

Secret Weapons: Choosing the Right Books


As a teacher and reading zealot, I swear by the mantra, "The right book for the right child." This directive is a fishing how-to, the intent being to hook a young reader. Or a non-reader, actually. I want that kid who doesn't reach for a book to start reaching.

When a child has specialized needs and interests, finding the right book can be a little tricky. The other day a fellow teacher asked me to suggest a book for her student who's a teenage father. I could picture a book cover, but I couldn't remember the title or the author. It wasn't till I got home that I was able to track the thing down on Amazon: Angela Johnson's The First Part Last.

Sometimes choosing the right book feels like an art form. Ask any librarian! But I think it's an art you can learn, or certainly get better at. Here are some examples of book picks for my recent and current students, who are mostly teens, but include younger kids, as well. (I'll change the names for privacy purposes.) You should know that I'm a full-time home teacher for the school district, working with students in grades K-12 who are homebound for two months to a year with serious medical conditions such as cancer.

Eddy—He's a second grader who thinks that reading is hard, especially when he's faced with an entire page of prose. He'll say, "That's too long. You read it." But his skills really aren't that bad. Eddy likes video games about Spiderman and Batman. My four-pronged approach is this:
1. Read him a good picture book to start each class session.
2. Have him read the stories in the required reading book by taking turns—he reads the left-hand page, I read the right-hand page. Humor him when he wants to trade pages because his side is longer.
3. Leave him a Let's Read and Find Out science book for homework. Have him read 1/4 to 1/3 when it becomes apparent that reading an entire book in one fell swoop is overwhelming.
4. ESPECIALLY—give him Jarrett J. Krosoczka's Lunch Lady series to read.

Bingo! This kid is simply nuts about Lunch Lady. I want him to do math, but he just wants to sit and read Lunch Lady to me. He finds little inside jokes and recounts them. He especially likes the bit in Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shakedown when a camp counselor says, smiling, "Shouldn't we tell them the story about..." and in the next frame gets this diabolical face, yelling, "The Swamp Monster?!?" (I'm paraphrasing because my student still has the book!) Anyway, Eddy likes to hide in doorways and act out that part for my benefit.

"Okay," I say, "you can read Lunch Lady to me now, and then we'll do some more math." And this reluctant reader will read to me from Lunch Lady for 15 or 20 minutes straight before he gets tired. Plus I have him read more for homework. There are five books, and I wish there were more. But I'm thinking Zita the Spacegirl next. After that, I'll try weaning him away from graphic novels with Captain Underpants.

One more thing—today when I got to Eddy's house and walked in, the first words out of his mouth were, "Do you have another Lunch Lady book? Because I know you told me to read 10 pages, but I finished the whole book." I said yes I did and continued getting ready to start class, but he said, "Can I see the new book? I just want to see it." He felt a lot better once he'd seen the book and held it in his own two hands. Like I said, crazy mad book love!

Carolina—She's an eleventh grader who likes literature and wants to be an architect. Carolina had already read three of the four Twilight books when I met her. I brought her some Sarah Dessen books, Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, a couple of other YA paranormals and school romances, and a book about American architecture to go with our study of U.S. history. I also got her some books about the first woman doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell, because she wants to write a paper about her.

As part of our American Literature class, I've supplemented our readings from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau with excerpts from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard and with the poetry of Mary Oliver.

When a student is already a reader, you want to focus on broadening their horizons. Don't forget nonfiction and poetry!

Jeffrey—This student just turned eighteen, and he's not that interested in reading. But he told me that he did get into James Patterson's books for a while. In short, Jeffrey likes mystery and suspense. I brought him a few different things: The Bourne Identity, The Hunt for Red October, and Hunger Games, for example. I also got some Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. He is currently reading Christie's And Then There Were None, which, I told him, is probably the most famous mystery ever written, apart from the Sherlock Holmes stories. (Okay, and Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." I know!) At first the old-fashioned setting was off-putting for him. I told him to give it another chapter or two and then we'd switch books to something he likes better. (This is an important rule. And if they just plain hate the book, I drop it right away.) But he got hooked on the story, and now he's enjoying it very much.

Then a few days ago Jeffrey said, "Oh, my younger sister really likes The Hunger Games." She's fourteen. She saw him reading and wanted to read something, too. Jeffrey's sister asked him about the stack of books I had left with him, so he suggested she try The Hunger Games. Now she wants to read all three books! This reading bug is contagious...

Aiden—He's not my student, but his mother used to be a secretary in our office. She was worried that her son didn't like to read, so she e-mailed me four or five months ago and asked me for book recommendations. Since Aiden is ten, I suggested Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. Well, I saw Aiden's mom this week, and she told me with breathless excitement that he's read all four of the Wimpy Kid books cover to cover. (Of course, I let her know about Book #5, "the purple one.") She went on to tell me that Aiden is now competing fiercely in his class's reading contest: whoever reads the most books wins a prize.

Max—A seventeen-year-old who didn't like most of my book picks, but I kept trying. I eventually succeeded with a combination of poetry (by contemporary teens, see my post about that), Simone Elkeles's Perfect Chemistry, and Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's Dash and Lily's Book of Dares. I knew we were getting somewhere when Max reached the end of Dash and Lily and was cranky because it was over and he wanted to know what happened next.

Zoe—The daughter of another teacher, this ten-year-old girl has learning disabilities, and she used to really despise reading. When I suggested to her worried mother that she might like the Babymouse series by Matthew and Jennifer Holm, my friend was a little dubious. (Graphic novels?) But I pushed it, and she said she'd give it a try. Well, a few months later Zoe's mom was raving about these books! Zoe fell in love with them and read all ten, the first interest she'd ever shown in any books, ever.

David—A twenty-four-year-old studying for the GMAT (the test for getting into business school). I agreed to tutor him for a few weeks at the request of a friend. He was definitely having trouble, and I pointed out that one of his challenges is that he's not a reader. I put together a reading "starter kit" for him and suggested he vary his DVD habit by reading every other night and watching movies the off nights. His reading kit contained: Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's book about climbing Everest; In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules by Stacy Perman; and a stack of magazines including Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, and Discover.

Keep in mind that a lot of boys are not into fiction, but feel like it is shoved down their throats all through elementary, middle, and high school. If they prefer nonfiction, run with it! In particular, consider books about science, sports, and cars. (Because yeah, a lot of boys really do love that stuff, just like many little girls gravitate toward Fancy Nancy.)


Of course, readers have different reasons for being reluctant. The two most common are lack of ability and lack of interest. In the case of lack of ability, the endless well-meaning pushing of books by teachers and parents can become a real burden, such that kids can become downright phobic about reading. I have a relative who couldn't read as a child, and when the umpteenth person, his grandmother (who happened to be a reading specialist), sat down with him to show him how, he said, "Look, Grandmother—Mom's tried to teach me to read, and Dad's tried to teach me to read, and all my teachers at school have tried to show me how to read, and it's not going to happen, so please don't bother."

The punchline of this story is that he learned to read when he was ten because he fell in love with Louis L'Amour's westerns.

One more pointer: the reading phobic kids are really attracted to thin books. Much less scary!

The children who simply think reading is a dull business are a little easier to hook. You just have to find the book that knocks their socks off. I make some kind of general pitch, too. I tell them they'll do better in school if they read for pleasure. I tell them I take a book when I have to stand in line at the post office. But most of all, I tell them they just haven't met the right book yet, and that I feel their pain if someone made them read books that bored them.

I also mention that books can be as much fun as movies, if not more so. For that matter, the question I use to start my "book diagnosis" is, "What are your favorite books?" And when kids shrug, I say, "Okay, what are your favorite movies and TV shows?" This helps me pin down the right genre(s) even for non-readers. I like to keep in mind, too, that most fiction readers prefer either realistic fiction or sci-fi/fantasy. (Though I consider high-action spy books another sort of fantasy, to tell you the truth!)


Now, while book picks should be lovingly handcrafted for the specific student, there are a few sure-fire hits that seem to appeal to a lot of kids, particularly if they're not into reading. I call these my secret weapons. Here are some key titles:

For Grades 1 and 2

Go, Dog. Go! (The perfect book for beginners. It's long, so break it up and let kids explore all the miniature stories at their leisure. Hop on Pop is another goodie.)

Green Eggs and Ham (Not necessarily The Cat in the Hat, which is more difficult.)

—Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel (Brilliant, but a bit gentle for the rowdier kids.)

—Fox books by James Marshall (More action-packed than Frog and Toad. Also funny!)

—Let's Read and Find Out Science books (Terrific second-grade science titles, like the one where you follow a hamburger to see how digestion works.)

—Lunch Lady series by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Offer to help readers with the occasional hard word.)

—Geronimo Stilton series (Not my favorite, but cute. More to the point, lots of kids love them and will read all 30+ books as if they were eating potato chips.)

—Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey (I cringe when grown-ups question the quality of these books or object to the potty humor. Don't they know any 8-year-old boys? I'll just add that the vocabulary is surprisingly sophisticated—tell young readers you'll help them with any hard words.)

—Shel Silverstein's poems, e.g., Where the Sidewalk Ends (Nice little pockets of text, weird and funny and subversive.)

Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown (Very reader friendly. And short—again I say, reluctant readers' faces light up when they see short books.)

—Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne (A bit bland, but many kids will glom on and read all zillion of them, which is excellent.)

For Grades 3-6

—Roald Dahl's books, especially Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach (Still grabbing kids after all these years!)

Holes by Louis Sachar (But explain the flashbacks first, or kids may get confused.)

Grossology by Sylvia Branzei or Oh, Yuck! by Joy Masoff (The science of snot. And so forth.)

—Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney (Hilarious and hugely popular.)

—Babymouse series by Matthew Holm and Jennifer L. Holm (Graphic novels with girl appeal.)

—DK's Eyewitness series (Nonfiction; see their Eye Wonder books for younger readers.)

For Grades 6-8

—Gordon Korman is my favorite author for hard-core reluctant readers in this age group. Try his easy-but-suspenseful On the Run and Island series, among others. (On the Run skews a bit younger. It's like The Fugitive with kids.)

—The Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine (You'd be surprised how many 15- and 16-year-olds still list these as their favorite books. Think of them as a gateway drug: use them to work up to the really good stuff.)

—Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief and sequels (These books are grabbing the attention of a lot of kids who haven't been that interested in reading previously, much like the Harry Potter books did 10-15 years ago.)

For Grades 9-12

—Sarah Dessen's books for teenage girls (My favorites are The Truth about Forever, Just Listen, and Along for the Ride.)

—Alex Rider spy series by Anthony Horowitz (One British boy who's a reluctant spy.)

—Cherub series by Robert Muchamore (A team of young Brits who are spies.)

—The Hunger Games books (Boys and girls like these, the hottest thing since Twilight.)

I recommend five pages a day as a starting point for reluctant readers. Taking turns (whether pages or paragraphs, but usually pages) is a good way to launch a super reluctant reader. Even if you don't specifically ask them to read independently, you can mention, "Oh, If I'm not around, you can read a little on your own if you want to. You'll have to tell me what happens next if you do that, though." Or I'll say lightly, "I'm assigning you 5 pages, but if you want to read a few more pages because it's just getting to the good part, that's okay." Like they won't be in trouble if they do that! I always ask kids to tell me what's happening in the book each time we meet. It's important to listen with sincere, even avid interest when they come back and report the latest goings-on in their book. It's like book gossip: "Really? So what happened when Violet ate the gum?"

Of course, the obvious academic justification here, besides reading comprehension, is that summarizing is a pretty useful school skill. For those adults who worry that "reading for pleasure" is just too fun and want kids perusing War and Peace at the age of nine to prove their giftedness, lighten up! If it helps, you can replace the term "reading for pleasure" with "reading practice," but don't tell the children. I can assure you that kids who read are better writers because they've seen thousands of models of how sentences and paragraphs should be constructed. They are also clearly better equipped to handle the mountains of text that will come their way in high school and college. But this really only works if they are happy readers, choosing their own books and finding their own satisfying paths through the realms created by the wizardly shelves of libraries and bookstores.

By the way, my mom used to read aloud to my younger brothers and sisters even when they were in their teens. (I was off at college!) Everybody really enjoyed the ritual and warmth of sharing a story.

One thing I'll emphasize is that I'm very casual about all this, like a good co-conspirator. And I always bring at least six books for a student to choose from. I pitch each book, usually letting the child read me the flap copy. Then I let them make their selection, pointing out that they can keep two or three if they want till they've read enough to make more of a decision. If it turns out they don't like any of them, I ask a few more questions and try again.

Welcome to the club, kid.

See my previous post on this topic, "Ten Books at a Time." And I have an Amazon Listmania list which includes additional titles: "Children's Books for Reluctant Readers."

Note for Worried Parents: Perfect Chemistry has some violence, drinking, and a brief teen sex scene. Sarah Dessen's books occasionally have mild references to sex and teen drinking. The Cherub series is pretty frank about teen sex, especially in the later books, though it's not nearly as important a plot component as the sometimes-violent (or video game-esque) military-style spy action. And, as most people know by now, The Hunger Games trilogy is quite violent.

Feel free to suggest other sure-fire book picks in the comments!

Suggestions from the Comments

—From GreenBeanTeenQueen: Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis, A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban, and The Wedding Planner's Daughter by Coleen Murtagh Paratore (for tween girls); Found and other Margaret Peterson Haddix books (for tweens); Michael Carroll's Quantum Prophecy series (for teen boys who are reluctant readers); and The Agency series by Y.S. Lee (for teens who want mysteries).

—from YNL (Pink Me): "Other secret weapons: Ellen Hopkins for teen boys, The Far Flung Adventures as bridge books out of Magic Tree House and into longer stuff, and the very YA-looking cover on the exciting middle grade Super Human by Michael Owen Carroll. That one will interest young people who really really want to be moving into stronger stuff but who are only ten years old."

Playing by the Book recommends another book about teen fatherhood, Malorie Blackman's Boys Don't Cry, and provides a link to a podcast with the author.

—Tammy Flanders of Apples with Many Seeds adds: "I too recommend Margaret Peterson Haddix as well as Gary Paulson and Jon Scieszka, especially for boys."


GreenBeanTeenQueen said...

This is a fantastic post! Some of my secret weapons are: Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, A Crooked Kind of Perfect and The Wedding Planner's Daughter (for tween girls). Maragaret Peterson Haddix for tweens, especialy Found. Michael Carroll's Quantum Prophecy series for teen boys who are reluctant readers. The Agency series by Y.S. Lee for teens wanting mystery. And many of the titles you suggest!:) I'll try to think of some others!

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, Green! I've popped your suggestions into a note at the bottom of the post. I especially like The Agency series, of the ones you recommended.

Anonymous said...


There's a boy at the library just lately who's just discovered the Lunch Lady books VERY enthusiastically, and his grandmother is thrilled because he'd been struggling with his reading so. He got to the end of the last book we have and was so excitedly saying "But there IS another! It says so in the back of the book! 'Tune in for the next book!' it says!" It was pretty awesome, though sad to disappoint him.

Geronimo Stilton is also INCREDIBLY popular at my library, which stunned me because I've never heard anything about it anywhere else! Magic Treehouse also. I really need to talk somebody into getting Babymouse for our library-- I think it would be a smash. But right now I can't even order the YA books which are technically supposed to be my specialty, since we're not getting ANY MORE BOOKS until we move... sometime in the next couple months...

Kate Coombs said...

Amy--You so, so have to get Babymouse!!

And tell that kid the next Lunch Lady book is coming out on September 13; I just looked it up and will be letting Eddy know the next time I see him.

Gerb said...

I love your book recommendations, Kate. You are amazing. Someday I will know as much about kids' books as you do (no, I won't.)

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, Linda!! :)

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post - you serve such a broad age range! Baby mouse is one of my secret weapons- I don't know what it is about slightly LD kids and baby mouse, but it has worked for me often!

Other secret weapons: Ellen Hopkins for teen boys, The Far Flung Adventures as bridge books out of Magic Tree House and into longer stuff, and the very YA-looking cover on the exciting middle grade Super Human by Michael owen Carroll. That one will interest young people who really really want to be moving into stronger stuff but who are only ten years old.

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, YNL! And thanks for the additional ammo.

Playing by the book said...

Re books about being a teenage father, do you know Malorie Blackman's Boy's Don't Cry? You can hear her talking about it here:

Kate Coombs said...

PBB--Oh, that looks good! I'll add it to the suggestions. Thank you.

MonsterAteMy said...

Great post!
Wishing you would add the "share" buttons so I could link easily to this... :)

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, Monster! I'm not sure how to add the "share" buttons [blush], but I'll check it out.

Brimful Curiosities said...

Bookmarking this post and forwarding it to our school librarian! Love your description of how you conduct a "book diagnosis."

Tammy Flanders said...

Love your list and suggestions. This was a great reminder of some good reads and why they work with kids who don't read -- for whatever reason.
I too recommend Margaret Peterson Haddix as well as Gary Paulson and Jon Scieszka, especially for boys.
Apples with Many Seeds

Kate Coombs said...

Thank you, Brimful C and Tammy. I've got Blogger working again now because I switched my browser to Firefox, so I'll add your suggestions, Tammy.

Anonymous said...

Late to the game, but wonderful! Thanks for posting this.