Reading List for Middle School Students, please add!
I been teaching for thirteen years, but only four of those years have been in a Language Arts classroom. I am an avid reader, but even in middle school I read beyond my years and probably was not reading appropriate material for my young age. I remember reading a lot of short stories in middle school Language Arts classes, but don't remember reading any novels. In my personal reading, I was addicted to Lurlene MacDaniel, Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Rinaldi, any young adultn historical novels, historical adult romance novels, and the Sweet Dreams series.
The following is a list and review of books I have studied with my middle school students and several books I would like to read with my students. I welcome any and all feedback, especially if you have read the books on my wish list and could share your experience with them OR share about books you have enjoyed teaching your own middle school pupils..
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
I read this novel with a rural classroom of students as the book was on the 8th grade curriculum for the school system where I was teaching. Even though it is set in the 60s, my students found it easy to relate to.
The Bare Minimum of the Plot: The plot revolves around two groups of young people, the Greasers and the Socs. The Greasers are the stereotypical poor kids from the wrong side of town, while the Socs are the rich, privileged kids with futures. I don't want to tell you too much, since when I read this with students, I was reading it for the first time, and the discovery was rather exciting when done in tandem with my students. Anyway, these two groups are in conflict, but the bigger conflict is the choices the characters must make.
Reaction: The students enjoyed reading this novel. In true adolescent fashion, they enjoyed the minimal curse words and giggled over questionable items, but they still were able to make connections, comprehend what they had read, and were able to discuss the events of the plot well. One of my colleagues (at our urban school) this year taught the book to ONE of her classes, and the students were so engaged, talking to others outside of class, that her other classes begged and pleaded with her to read it, too. How can one say no when students want to read literature? My students even approached me with a "when can we read it?", but unfortunately, with two weeks left of the school year, I didn't think we'd finish it that quickly.
Connections my students made:
- Young people in cliques and gangs.
- Crossing boundaries into another clique or gang
- Sibling relationships and raising younger siblings
- Overcoming stereotypes
- Is fighting a viable option when conflict arises?
- Predicting what would happen if the book continued. Where are they now?
Age-Appropriate: The characters in this novel are as young as 14. There are a few mild curse words and a reference to getting a girl pregnant. Some of the characters smoke and some carry weapons.
My Rating: A
Octavian Nothing by M.E. Anderson
The Asonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Vol I: The Pox Party by M.E. Anderson
I have rave reviews about this novel. I read this very long masterpiece with a combined grades classroom in a Montessori school. The language is eloquent with difficult vocabulary, but a wonderful example of fictional narrative writing. The brilliant facets of this novel was how it was able to be connected to math, science, American Revolution history and slavery history, philosophy, medical ethics and animal testing, education, self-advocacy. It was so cross-curricular and the plot was both fabulous and frightening.
The Plot: Octavian is the narrator and he begins his story in Boston prior to the American Revolution. He is living with his mother, a Princess, in a lavish mansion with private tutors in all subjects where the tutors are part of a cadre of researchers who are studying the species of humanity. A violin virtuoso and a scholar, Octavian is ignorant to the fact that he is actually a captive in this mansion. He is dressed in finery, eats luxuriously, and treated well. He discovers he is actually a slave and his masters are studying if Africans are human or animals. This fascinating novel delves into how his master and tutors teach him and then strip him of his humanity.
Reactions: My students struggled with the vocabulary and the book's verbosity, but it was such a gasp-worthy book. In the first chapters, I asked my students to describe Octavian and they all said he was white and European. They were shocked to find out he was black and a slave. There were moments of disgust, outrage, laughter, tears, and many engaging discussions. We tied this to a PBS special on Mandela (prior to his death) and an activity about cages from Maya Angelou's "Caged Bird" poem. We tied this to narrative writing, both factual and fiction and were able to discuss it when we discussed the American Revolution in history and scientific theory and ethics in science class. We even had Socratic discussions about the ethical and philosophical quandaries posed in the book.
- Why do parents lie to their children?
- What would you do to protect a parent in danger?
- American Revolution and slavery
- Is racism still alive today?
- Ethics in science testing/ animal experimentation
- Scientific inquiry
- Personal connections: what would you do?
- What makes a good teacher and a bad teacher?
- Is utopia possible?
Age Appropriate: Octavian begins his story from birth until his teen years. He discovers a locked room that has a naked picture of his mother and it labeled with "homo Africanus" and all her body parts are labeled. People and animals are abused and there are references to sex when his mother is propositioned and when a fellow slave asks him to translate a Latin porn. There is minimal bad language.
My Rating:" A+
Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser
Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser
Several years ago, a small group of my students read this novel in their literature circle and raved about it. I found a class set of it in my library and read it with one class of students. I have mixed feelings about it, but I enjoyed reading it and I definitely know my students were engaged.
The Plot: Tara discovers at a young age that she is different from her peers. She hears the childish chant "Step on a crack, break your mother's back" and finds herself having to repeat it every time she walks outside and needing to count all of the cracks on the sidewalk. Her unusual behaviors affect her schooling, her family, and her relationships. Misdiagnosed for several years, her condition worsens until she meets someone who can help.
Reaction: The story is very well told and the students wanted to know what would happen next. I was the only embarrassed one in the room when the Department of Education came in and observed me the day we read the chapters on drug abuse. (Thankfully, the DOE said I led an engaging discussion on difficult topics with students who behaved maturely.) The students liked the character Tara and were able to relate to her, although not to her specific troubles. They could relate to stress in a family and being annoyed by a sibling's behavior and they discussed each chapter with interest and had intelligent comments to make. The only negative reaction I heard was that the ending did not have a solid resolution, a happy ending and the students expressed their dissatisfaction with my book choice as it was the second book we read without a "normal" ending.
- Drug Use and Abuse
- Child Abuse
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Teen Pregnancy and Contraception/Premarital sex
- How honest should parents be with their kids?
- When should you stick up for someone?
- What makes a teacher good or bad?
- Should non-family members be let in on family problems?
- Medical conditions and what should be medicated?
Age Appropriate: The character, Tara, ranges from elementary to high school age, and the students could relate to the ages and classroom experiences of Tara and her classmates. There was quite a bit of cursing as one of Tara's compulsions is to pray and cross herself whenever she hears a curse word, so her mother and friends provide the cursing for this proclivity to manifest itself in the book. Tara's mother admits that she used to do drugs before she had kids. One of Tara's friends has sex and Tara freaks out and takes her to a pharmacy to buy condoms. Tara's friend gets pregnant. There were some uncomfortable moments to read, for me as the teacher, but my 8th graders handled it all with maturity, so this may be a book that you need to know the climate and maturity of your classroom before you delve into it.
My Rating: B
Read 180 graphic novel
Books on My To-Teach List
- Neither This Nor That - by Aliya Hussein (A story of an American girl who is Muslim and Indian and how she finds identity and balance in a a culture that doesn't always mesh with her ethnic background and religious convictions. A truly beautiful story that had me crying in public, researching to find out more, writing the author, and caused me to just one to sit down and have tea with the characters. Vivid.) My Rating: A+
- Flowers for Algernon - by Daniel Keyes (Scientific studies on a mentally challenged man, Charlie, and a mouse named Algernon pose a question on can intelligent quotients improve? what is friendship? and ethical scientific inquiry. I fell in love with the characters.) My Rating: A
- The Kitchen House - by Kathleen Grissom (Set before the Civil War, a young girl's family of indentured servants dies on their passage to America. She inherits the indenture and the master of the plantation gives her care over to the house and kitchen slaves. Possessing a color-blind heart, Lavinia becomes an unusual family member to a group of blacks. The conflict begins when the master's family decides to handle Lavinia's care and she is thrown into the question of what creates family? This story is both heartwarming and heart-wrenching. I read it in two up-all-night reading orgies and found myself yelling at the characters, biting my nails, and texting the friend who recommended the book "How could she? Doesn't she know what we know?" Some of the concerns I do have with teaching this are the un-detailed rape of one of the slaves, two characters' addiction to opium, violence and the N word, and several murders. Despite that, the book gripped me and I want to share it with my students.) Rating: A+
- Cast Two Shadows - by Ann Rinaldi (Caroline's home in South Carolina has been taken over by British soldiers during the American Revolution. A Loyalist family, Caroline is forced to change allegiances when atrocieties can no longer be ignored. She joins the American cause. In the midst of this, she reveals her mixed heritage and that she is a quarter black, a granddaughter to one of the slaves on her father's plantation. This story explored the concepts of family, race, war, right and wrong, honesty, loyalty, and patriotism.) Rating: A
- A Child Called It (Six years ago, students of mine recommended this book they were reading in their English class. I put it on my list, but didn't read it until a student handed me her library book and told me she wanted to discuss the book with me, so I should really read it. I was gripped by this factual account of an abused child who was largely neglected by family and teachers. Threads of hope and resilience are weaved into this inspirational and maddeningly sad at times novel.) Rating: A
- The Absolutely True Diary of A Part Time Indian - by Sherman Alexie (Before Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Sherman Alexie wrote this quirky, semi-autobiographical, fiction novel about a boy growing up on the Indian reservation. Filled with humor and cartoon drawings, the narrator tells of the hopeless and despair of growing up Indian and the lost dreams when poverty and poor resources cause ones to give up. A teacher tells him he's too smart to be at the "Rez" school and our basketball playing protagonist walks, catches rides, and travels many miles to the all-white high school so he can get a better education. The book is filled with tragedy, loss of friendships, identity, plights of the Indian people, symptoms of poverty, and the writer's humorous ways of dealing with touchy subjects. (There is an uncomfortable chapter on masturbation, so I probably would wait until I taught high school to teach this...) ) Rating: A
- Freedom Writers Diary - My colleague and I showed the movie to our students to introduce journal writing, telling one's story, and narrative writing. Our students requested to read the book and I have not actually read it, so if you have feedback, please share your thoughts. Rating: ?
- The Fault in Our Stars - John Green (Hazel is a cancer patient struggling to handle day-to-day existence. Her mother encourages her to make friends at support group and she meets a boy who captures her intellect and interest. I loved the witty repartee in this book. It was fast paced, caustic, funny, and sad. A student of mine read it this year and mentioned it, and we ended up discussing it several times during individual study time. She asked if we could read it as a class and I had to put her off as I was unsure if it was appropriate for middle school as the character calls her support group an emotional "circle jerk" and there is a sex scene between two of the characters.) Rating: B
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
All of my classes this past year began our literary journey with Frederick Douglass' narrative for daily read-aloud and discussion. A friend recommended the book to me over the summer and I checked it out of the library and fell in love with the message. I accepted her challenge to use it in the classroom and began reading it the first week of school with my 8th graders. We used it as a mentor text for narrative writing. The chapter lengths were manageable and the writing is superb. My students did struggle with the vocabulary, but we created a vocabulary wall with over 250 words! I wanted my students exposed to Douglass' writing style as well as the story, so when I recognized the need to differentiate the text, I used the Read 180 graphic novel for my special education students and emerging readers and read specific sections of the harder text so they could experience the beautiful language.
The Plot: Frederick Douglass is a slave sharing his story of family divisions, cruel and kind masters and overseers. At a young age, an owner's wife began to teach him the basics of reading while she taught her own son. This was put to end when the owner said education gives slaves ideas. Douglass, then, found ways to trade food to boys he met so he could learn to read and write. He taught himself to read, shared an amazing story from a slave's perspective, and eventually became a speaker for abolition.
Reactions: As I mentioned, my students struggled with the vocabulary, but where riveted by the story: the injustices, the cruelty, the hope, the self-advocacy. I heard students bringing up the narrative in the hallway and other teachers passed along that they mentioned it in other classes. Student discussions were engaging and passionate. The students were able to connect some of Douglass' experiences with their own lives AND in our ensuing novels and Socratic discussions, referred to the narrative multiple times. "Hey, Chiko teaches others to read just like Frederick used to teach his slave friends!"
- What's your story?
- Self taught
- Self motivation
- Right and wrong?
- Christian values
- Is racism still alive?
- Civil War tie in
- Personal Narrative writing
- Biography vs. autobiography
- Music and poetry
- Family connections
- Friendships across boundaries
- We tied this text, also, to several wonderful videos on both Frederick Douglass and slavery in the south.
Age Appropriate: We follow Frederick from age 4 or 5 to adulthood. There are a few "damn"s and the N word is used. There is reference to master slave sexual relations and there are some violent episodes of assault and murder.
My Rating: A+
Who was your favorite author in Middle School?
Finding Miracles by Julia Alvarez
I discovered Julia Alvarez in our literature textbook and a friend shared a lesson plan with Alvarez' "Names/Nombres" narrative. I loved the instant connection of teachers mispronouncing names and researched more works by this author in hopes of finding literature to appeal to my Latino students. I found Finding Miracles and read it over the summer. I enjoyed the issues of world cultures and issues, dictators vs. democracy, adoption, family, and the ambiguities in the story, and because I'm a fast reader, I didn't notice that the 10 chapters were rather long: an average of 27 pages! One of my classes read this book this past year.
The Plot: Milly is an adopted girl living in Vermont and passing as Caucasian. She has hidden her adoption from her school friends, but a visiting student notices her unusual eyes and befriends her. She struggles to identify who she is in a cross culture world and travels to her place of birth to find answers.
Reactions: Students enjoyed Alvarez' "Names/Nombres" and attempted to give Finding Miracles a chance. We had many interesting discussions, but unfortunately, the book dragged. Students could relate to the characters and topics and were eager to discuss, but the action of reading became tedious because the chapters were so long and the story moved slower than I remembered when I read it. It was such a good, well-written story, but it failed to capture my students' engagement. Around the mid-way part, when I felt students were dropping like flies, I stopped and asked for a class community meeting. I gave them the option of stopping the book and finding a more interesting one. Out of 26 students, three requested to give up on the book, while the other 23 told me quitting was for losers, we have to finish what we start, and as our teacher you have to help us keep persevering. As a result, we continued trudging and the students continued to make an effort to read and discuss. At the end however, the lack of a resolution distressed them and we had to discuss that life isn't always fair and people don't always find the answers they're looking for.
- Latino culture and heritage
- Skin diseases
- Foreign issues
- The wisdom of "old" people
- Race relations
- Self discovery and identity
- Pandora's Box
- Stepping out of a comfort zone
Age Appropriate: The character was in high school and there is a chapter where she discusses periods and PMS. There is minimal cursing.
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
A few years ago, my students asked me what my favorite book of all times was. I replied The Power of One and raved about it. My advanced kids found several copies during a library day and asked if they could read it for their literature circles. I agreed.
The Plot: An English Boy, Peekay, is living in South Africa during WWII and apartheid. He is the only English boy attending a Boer boarding school with angry,anti-English Dutch boys. He is bullied and picked on and develops an unusual relationship with a chicken, a boxer, and a German piano teacher. He learns that even though he's little, he can still fight for himself. Through piano studies, prison boxing, prep school and encounters with diverse characters, Peekay discovers his own voice and power.
Reactions: I have read this book around six times and I re-read it when the small group said they would read it for lit. circles. The group of six students (4 girls and 2 boys) reading it were riveted to the novel. Sustained Silent Reading time, usually quiet, were punctuated with gasps, whispers of page numbers, and some tears. Other students wanted to read it, but I knew its complexity and graphic depictions would be too much for their maturity and reading levels. The students reading it were frequently caught in other subjects hiding the novel in another textbook and continuing to read. One young man came to me during independent study time and said "I finished the book last night. My group is only halfway through. If I can't discuss this with someone right now, I will die!" When a character was hurting, my students were hurting. When injustice occurred, my students were infuriated and they couldn't patiently wait for lit circle discussion times. It was an annoyance and a pleasure to pull them back to Social Studies when three of them would be huddled in a corner and protesting "but page 74!" This is definitely an engaging novel.
- World War II
- Boxing and sports
- People who come into your life and change you
- Heroes and inspirational figures
- Your personal voice
- Right vs. wrong
- Running away from trouble
- Fighting for justice
- Good and Bad teachers
- Questioning teachers
- Adolescence and Puberty
Age Appropriate: The first chapter of this book, Peekay discovers his "acorn" is "hat-less." His words, not mine. He never uses the word penis. The book is bloody and violent with curse words and a chapter when Peekay hits puberty where all he can do is masturbate. The students reading this were mature for their age, and I was at a school where families could discuss books and movies and such, and I was not teaching the book. They chose it. I am not sure if this could be taught to a whole class, even though I believe the messages transcend the adult content.
Power of One
Trailer for The Power of One. (In usual format, it is different than the book!)
Zlata's Diary by Zlata Filipovic
This book was mentioned in Freedom Writers and happened to fit in our unit of narrative writing. I was given a class set in a grant I wrote, and all of my classes studied this book.
The Plot: Zlata shares her story of growing up in war torn Bosnia in diary format.
Reaction: At first, my students thought it was irrelevant and dated. Who likes Madonna and Michael Jackson anymore, Miss? And one day, one of my students asked abruptly "Why should I give a s*** that she's running from shells when I've got drive-bys in my neighborhood?" I replied how interesting it was that he could relate to her fear of being senselessly hurt or killed. I shared that I have never been near a gunshot or bombing and so I had to use my imagination and empathize with a character I didn't necessarily understand, but how "cool" it was that he knew what she was experiencing first hand. He blinked for a few moments and then shared some of his feelings living in a dangerous neighborhood and the gang wars that are so similar to the civil wars faced in Bosnia. This led to a greater class interest as students living in the same neighborhoods made connections. Zlata's story crosses cultures as many of my students - black, white, Karenni, Burmese, Latino - understood how safe worlds can rapidly become unsafe and innocent people can be at risk of injury. After this, the biggest complaints were that Zlata had a better vocabulary than my students did and that Zlata remained mostly cheerful. I had my students put themselves in Zlata's shoes and write some entries comparing their day to Zlata's. I also had them write as if the events were happening to them and allowed them to use the words they would use to describe their feelings and reactions.
- History of Bosnia's Civil War
- Children of war
- Handling stress
- Journal writing
- Losing electricity
- Losing a friend to gang violence
Age Appropriate: This is probably the most age appropriate of all the books we've read together.
Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins
Upon learning I would be at a school with a large Burmese/Karenni population, I discovered this gem of a novel online.
The Plot - Part I - Chiko is a Burmese boy who lives with his mother. His father, a doctor, is in prison for treason because he dared to treat an enemy of the state. Chiko loves to read and sees an advertisement to become a teacher. At fifteen, Chiko answers the ad and finds himself forced to join the Burmese army. Weak and athletically illiterate, Chiko is ill-prepared for the fighting lifestyle or mentality. He actually has compassion for the Karenni people and makes an enemy of some of his fellow soldiers and commanding officers. Chiko meets Tai, a boy his age who has street smarts. The boys agree to exchange knowledge: reading for fighting skills. Chiko and Tai are selected for special assignments.
Part II - Tu-reh is a Karenni boy whose father is active in resisting the Burmese efforts to rid Burma of village tribes. Tu-reh longs to join in the missions to gather supplies and kill Burmese soldiers. Tu-reh joins his father on a guerrilla mission and finds four dead soldiers and one who is critically injured. Tu-reh's father asks him what bamboo is useful for and the boy responds that bamboo can be used for building, cooking, food, medicine, and weapons. The father then says he chooses to be bamboo and gives Tu-reh the choice to leave the wounded Burmese soldier to die, put him out of his misery by killing him now, or carrying him to the Karenni healer hidden in the woods. His father leaves Tu-reh to make the decision of life or death.
Reaction: I assigned this book to two of my classes. When I introduced the book, one outspoken student declared that she doesn't read and she won't read this book because "I don't even like bamboo!" I told her to give it a chance and read the first two chapters. In Chapter 2, Chiko flashes back to soldiers coming to the door to take his father away. The chapter ends with a knock on the door. When I closed the book, my outspoken girl yelled out "who said you could stop reading? Who's at the door? What happens?" (You teachers out there are seeing my inner smile.) I said we would find out next class. Every day that we read, both classes demanded that we read "just one more chapter." They were captured by the story and fell in love with Chiko. They laughed with Chiko, celebrated his successes, and worried about his mother and father who we didn't read more about. Students talked about this book in class, out of class, and some of them "stole" their copy from the classroom to read at home. When Part II began, several students said they didn't want to read about Tu-reh because they didn't like him because he'd be on the opposite side of the war as Chiko. When a favorite character is the wounded one Tu-reh must save or kill, a student started to cry, while another declared "If Tu-reh kills him, I will reach into this book, and rip off that little f***er's head!" while glaring at the book. At the resolution of the book, I had students with teary eyes and smiles and the atmosphere reeked of a family reunion as they learned the fates of characters they came to love.
- Child soldiers
- Children of War
- Burmese/Karenni culture
- Authority figures who abuse authority
- A time to heal, a time to kill
- Wisdom of elders
- Friendships and loyalty
- Symbolism of bamboo
- Parents in prison
- Learning from friends
- Chiko taught soldiers to read just like Frederick Douglass taught slaves to read
- Protecting parents
- Promises to parents
- Civil wars
- Figurative language
- What makes a person "smart"?
- What would you do?
- Who are you more like?
Age Appropriate: Absolutely! Some fighting, but no sex, no drugs, no rock and roll!
Perkins has her own site with study guides, videos, and some great resources.
The author reads a chapter
Child Soldiers of Burma
If You Come Softly
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
An instructional coach recommended this book and I read it over winter break before bringing it to my Advanced Language Arts class.
The Plot: Ellie is a white, Jewish girl in New York City. Attending a private school, her world is impacted when new student, basketball player, Jeremiah Roselind, bumps into her in the hall. Jeremiah is smart, athletic, handsome, sweet, and black. Jeremiah is also the wealthy son of a film producer father and an author money who have separated and are living across the street from each other. The story is told from Ellie's perspective in first person and Jeremiah's perspective in third person.
Reactions: My students loved this book so much and mentioned it to other students than one of my other classes requested it. The book had many jumping points for discussions and an ability to go in depth with the story. (Unfortunately, my advanced class did not want to go in depth and didn't delve as far as they could have; whereas, my general education class wanted to go beyond shallow discussions.) Students liked both of the characters and laughed at appropriate places and wanted to discuss various events. Overall, they were engaged in the story and had some good discussions.
- Race issues
- Gay rights
- Interracial relationships
- Love relationships
- Families and broken families
- Teachers with biases
- Honesty and lying
- Judgmental people
- Cops killing people
- the future
Age Appropriate: The only two items that come to mind are Jeremiah's mother offers him a glass of wine (under-aged drinking) and Ellie's sister Anne is a lesbian planning a commitment ceremony to her partner (gay studies are uncomfortable for some families.)
So many wonderful books exist out there and I know I don't have time to introduce them all to my students. Here are a few I've had success with and a list of ones I would like to teach or would like feedback on. In addition, I've taught and loved Separate Peace by John Knowles, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and The Diary of Anne Frank. I hope that you find my reviews useful, but moreover, I hope you can point me towards other quality novels that are appropriate for this age group.
Thank you for any and all feedback!