Teachers Write 7.11.15 Weekend Reflection with Meg Frazer Blakemore & Laurel Snyder

In the past, we’ve taken weekends off at Teachers Write, but this year, I thought we’d use the time for a little reflection and discussion of the issues that connect us as writers, readers, and teachers. Today, we welcome guest authors Meg Frazer Blakemore and Laurel Snyder.

Meg lives in Maine and is the author of acclaimed YA and middle grade novels like The Water Castle, The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, The Friendship Riddle, and her latest, Very In Pieces.

Laurel calls Atlanta home. Her latest novels include Bigger Than a Breadbox and Seven Stories Up, and she has a lovely picture book from Chronicle coming this fall – Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova.

Meg and Laurel join us this Saturday with a thoughtful conversation about books for kids and “reading up.”  They’d love for you to share in the discussion in the comments today!

Meg: My first novel was YA, and I’ll be publishing a YA this fall, but in between I’ve written three middle grade novels. Right around the time I first started writing middle grade, I also shifted from being a high school librarian to a middle school librarian. As a high school librarian I was a big proponent of authentic portrayals of high schoolers in YA literature, and when I moved to middle school I felt the same way: books about middle school should portray middle schoolers authentically. The problem I ran up against as a writer and a reader was that middle grade books are marketed for an 8-12 audience. How could I write authentically about a twelve or thirteen year old — a middle schooler — while still making it appropriate for an eight year old? As I was mulling over all of these issues, I saw that you, Laurel, were doing a panel discussion at NESCBWI with Aaron Starmer and Kate Milton called “The Blurry Edge of Thirteen.” I went and participated in a great discussion about that issue, and I hope we can have a similar conversation with the participants of Teachers Write. Do you want to start by talking about your own feelings or thoughts on this tricky situation?

Laurel: Sure! And I should say that it’s an ongoing evolution for me. I find I’m more and more engaged with this topic each year.

When I began to write middle grades seriously about a decade ago, my goal was to write the kinds of books I loved best as a kid. I loved the humor and wild language play of folks like James Thurber and Edward Eager best of all. So THAT was what I was shooting for, and if you look at my first two novels, Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains and Any Which Wall, you’ll see that pretty clearly.

But as I began to interact with kids more and more (as an author and a mom), I found myself feeling frustrated by the way we parent our kids today. There’s this overwhelming hunger to keep them “safe” from fear and sadness, to sculpt an ideal experience for them.  But that in no way prepares kids for the real world.

Then I found myself remembering other books I’d loved. The Egypt Game. Dicey’s Song. A Candle in Her Room. Books that delighted me in a different way. Books that matched me as I got a little older. As I hungered for something beyond whimsy.

So that’s what’s happening with my own writing. Each book seems to go a little further. I’m still invested in magic, language play, and childhood. But I’m really interested in trying to bring some gravity and grit to the magic. To recognize and honor the emotional complexity of what it means to be a 12 year old kid.

I wonder, what do you think the HARM is, really?  I’m not sure I believe a book can hurt a kid, even if it does scare or educate them about the world.

Meg:  What I really liked about what you said is that you write to “recognize and honor the emotional complexity of what it means to be a 12 year old kid.” I think we don’t alway recognize that because we don’t want to imagine our kids going through that kind of turmoil, but they do. And books give them a place to ask and answer questions. Are You There God It’s Me Margaret was such a touchstone for me as a fifth grade girl, and as I was working on The Friendship Riddle I kept asking myself, “What would Judy do?” Like, “Should I include a scene about the awkwardness of shopping for a first bra? Well, what would Judy do?” And I did include it, because it is a very important moment in a girl’s life. And, I don’t think talking about bras, or mentioning periods, is harmful to an eight year old who might also pick up the book — or to a boy. In fact, it’s probably good for boys to read about these moments in a girl’s life.

It’s interesting, when we got into this discussion, I was thinking about the twelve year old child, and how he or she deserves a literature that reflects an accurate twelve year old experience. But I think we also need to have some respect for the eight year old who might self-select a more “advanced” (thematically and content wise) middle grade book.

Laurel:  Absolutely!  One of my pet peeves is the idea that a book is “inappropriate” for a kid if it contains unfamiliar or confusing words or ideas or relationships. Is there a better way for a kid to learn a new idea?  Is there a better way to be scared or saddened or confused?  Books are a perfect form for introducing new things. They’re a healthy way to learn the world.

I’d love if people wanted to share their own moments like that– particular books that they remember introducing an unfamiliar idea!  I remember how A Tree Grows in Brooklyn blew my brain open, taught me so many harsh, brutal, daily things about a period of history I’d only seen through rose colored glasses. We need All of a Kind Family AND A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. You know?

Meg: I agree — I would love to hear what books the Teachers Write participants remember as mind-opening or reassuring during their own early or pre-adolescence. Also, how do these issues play out in your classrooms with your readers?

77 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.11.15 Weekend Reflection with Meg Frazer Blakemore & Laurel Snyder

  1. Good morning Meg and Laurel,
    Your conversation was a informative. When I grew up, I wasn’t a reader. I think if I had the opportunity to be introduced to the great literature out there today, I would have been a better reader growing up, but I didn’t really read until I took a Children’s Lit class in college, and at the same time was teaching a enriched reading class for gifted learners. Boy, did I read that year!

    The only book I remember sharing secretly among my classmates was Are you there God, It’s me, Margaret? because of some of the content. We just didn’t talk about things when I was growing up. Everything was a secret, only to be shared with your very best friend.

    I think books open the door to discussion with some kids, and others need to know there is a way out of their problems. Reading how others survive their issues is critical today. Surviving…perseverance… Gaining an appreciation for the human spirit…encountering these carries across all cultures.

    Somewhere I read that when we write about the goals and motivation of our characters, they should be basic, instinctual. The terminology kind of hit me in the face… I know those aren’t the exact words, but basic needs are what every reader connects with. So, when we are writing for kids at these ages, the “firsts” are key- first period, first boyfriend/girlfriend, growing bodies, family dynamics, questioning everything, fitting in. These are the topics that will draw in the reader.

    In class, we use Number the Stars, Call It Courage, Long Walk to Water, and a variety of picture books- Kadir Nelson’s Mandela and Heart and Soul, to name just a few.

    I think I went on a tangent- sorry. Trying to reflect quickly before I lose internet connection.
    Have a wonderful weekend!
    Looking forward to next week’s postings. 🙂

    1. I agree with this idea that books can serve different purposes for different kids, and also that it can be very hard to predict what a kid will need or take from a book at a given time. Which is another reason to give readers more freedom to find what they need.

    2. You’re saying so much good stuff here, and I think you’re so right, that we tend to focus on “first” experiences for kids. But it has me thinking about the seconds and thirds. The third boyfriend. The NEXT best friend, etc.

  2. Oh, girls….this is a subject near and dear to my heart from my growing up years to my current jobs as a Mom of tweens/teens and a MS Teacher Librarian.
    As a girl I was a voracious reader…burned through my small town library’s fiction section, my neighbor’s harlequin romance shelves, my great-grandmother’s condense reader’s digest books…and more! I DID learn lots that my parents weren’t ready for me to learn in books. Fortunately, for me they had NO IDEA…they were just happy to see me reading.
    As a mom….I am very liberal about what my kids read. I do try to check in and ask open ended questions to generate the tiny bits of discussion they will give me. And, I push books at work and to friends on social media all the time.
    So many young kids these days are reading John Green novels and books that I wonder if they are ready for. But, like you say, books are a safe place to learn/explore. I know that from experience.
    My ONE crit for MG fiction isn’t so much the writing….but the cover art. There are GREAT MG novels that many of my students won’t pick up because the book looks too young. Even at 11 y.o. kids want to imagine that they are sophisticated and look for covers that show what they want to be. Some of the hi-lo urban fiction has gotten it right…and I”m glad to see that.
    Well, enough rambling from me. I am a crazy early bird (but in bed by 9 pm) and often comment early on TW. I really, really look forward to discussion on this topic.

    1. Another side to this issue is that YA has grown more sophisticated and has come to really represent those high school lives. So, if middle grade is still being kept young, but YA is shifted up, that leaves a gap for middle schoolers to fall through.

      When I see middle schoolers reading those upper YAs, I am not concerned that those books will harm them, but sometimes I do want to say, “Wait! It will mean so much more when you are older!”

      1. I totally agree with you. Hopefully, the kids reading them will become such strong readers that they will re-read them someday instead of watch the movie and stop!
        I think that the cover art has LOTS to do with how sophisticated a book can seem to a middle schooler. It feels so silly to type this. I totally preach not judging a book by it’s cover…but it’s really important to lots of kids.
        Also, I teach many students who are learning English. Many of these kids have lived some really rough/tough/complex lives before coming to my MS and with expectations of being a “middle schooler in a middle class suburb”. So, I look for books that appeal to their level of maturity and reading level. It’s not easy. When I find a good title….I try to buy several and put some on our free shelf because they don’t come back!

        1. I so appreciate your thougtfulness about students learning English. Sometimes we just think about level of language. Focusing on subject-matter, genre, life experience is so important. Thank you for this reminder.

      2. Books can provide so much. I feel that kids take as much as they need. We all can view something differently. I read Wonder to my third grade class and I know kids got different effects from it. Many bought the book and others read in class to reread alone.

    2. TOTALLY AGREE. I sometimes wish they’d all just get plain brown covers. I’ve struggled hard with covers, how they divide and brand books by gender, age, and interest. It kills me.

      ANd yeah, I was the kid that read Helter Skelter in 6th grade. I remember being baffled by The White Hotel in 9th. I survived… (and reread both books later)

    3. Ha ha, Linda! I totally read all of my grandmother’s Harlequin Romances when I was grown up too! Much to my mother’s chagrin. She wouldn’t let me check out YA books, like Forever by Judy Blume from the library, so I raided grandma’s bookshelves. Kids WILL get an education one way or another.

      Not too surprising that I became a librarian. As a parent, I don’t censor reading, but I do have my daughter use Common Sense Media and NoveList to read about a book (or movie) that might be too mature. More than once she has opted out of reading/viewing things on her own. She’s 14 now and just the other day said she used CSM to vet a movie before she watched it. (Yay!)

  3. Greetings, interesting subject. As a kid growing up I leaned towards the mysteries. Nancy Drew. Trixie Belden. It’s funny as an adult I read more MG then when I was a kid. I think for MG an author who I love to read and deals with issues like homelessness and divorce and absent parents and so on is Joan Bauer. I like her style of not sugar coating how life can be, yet her stories are edged with hope and I think it’s important to give that to our MG audience. Not be glossy but give hope. Isn’t it marvelous how much hope a book can give? And yes, I think cover art is very important.

    1. I’ve had editorial conversation about this very thing– the hope at the end. It’s so important (like Pandora’s Box). But sometimes, in books today, it goes too far, and everything gets fixed. Which makes a book into a fantasy. Because of course in real life, the bullies don’t all suddenly turn and love the geeky new kid.

      I thought El Deafo did a SPECTACULAR job with this very thing. Hope being the thing inside the main character that makes them wake up strong enough to live/feel better. Not hope that the world will be different on Tuesday.

  4. Hello all! Great discussion this morning. I was one of those voracious readers growing up who read everything. I moved up to the high school library this year but was a middle school librarian for 13 years and certainly can agree to what has been mentioned already by those early risers! In middle school you definitely see a wide range of sophistication among the children. What some are ready for, others are not. For me, it is FAR better to “meet” those difficult/”older”/troublesome characters or situations in a book than in real life. It gives opportunities to consider your thoughts & feelings about them and can promote important discussion. With that said, I always told my MS students that we purposefully owned a wide range of books—and while every book has its reader, it isn’t always a book that will appeal to YOU for whatever reason–and that the beauty was they could shut the book, turn it back in, and either read it later or not if they found they weren’t ready for that book yet. As a mom of a 13 year old, I allow pretty free-range reading, but do check in with her and talk about them. And the book covers? SERIOUSLY correct statement. So many gorgeous books will not be touched by kids over 10 due to them looking like “little kid” covers. Kids DO judge books by the covers (of course they do! we ALL do! especially if we are just allowed a quick run in the library to grab something!) and kids don’t want to “read down”–at least not in front of their peers!

    1. We all judge books by their covers! I know I do. Which is why it’s so frustrating when they get categorized for us. I always feel embarrassed when I ignore a book because it looks too commercial or romance-y or something, and then when I read it I fall in love.

    2. I love that you give permission to kids to stop reading if a book isn’t calling them. I don’t think many kids had this permission when I was growing up. If you didn’t love it, you just suffered through.

      1. It’s so important. Whenever I do author visits, I stress to the kids that they don’t have to like my books, just because we’re hanging out. “PLease please please, know that you have every right to dislike a book. Just take some time to think about why that is!”

        Critical thinking for the win.

    3. I am coming to this conversation a bit late and I’m not sure you will go back and read this but I need to thank you, Sonja, for putting into words exactly how I feel about limiting book selections for children. I have tried on a few occasions to articulate why I think it’s up to the child to decide if they will read a certain book that some adults may deem too mature. I’ve jotted down some notes from your post so that I’m ready the next time I enter into this conversation 🙂

  5. Interesting conversation I am junior high school English teacher in a suburban school. I grew up rather sheltered on Long Island but luckily my parents allowed me complete freedom in book selection as I did with my own children My first memory of a book that really made me think and transformed me was The Diary of Ann Frank. I was about 9 years old and had never heard of the Holocaust or of girls having their periods. After reading this book I asked a lot of questions and did some research using my parents’ Colliers’ Encyclopedia. I really believe this book shaped the way I view the world

    1. I think so many of us have “most important books” from that age. EVERYTHING is an exploration at 9. We’re all such sponges as kids.

      I love that you learned about menstruation from Anne Frank. My next book, The Orphan Island, has a scene like that, and it’s middle grade. That feels like the kind of “reading up” risk we’re talking about, but if 8-12 isn’t the age to learn about that, when is?

  6. Good morning,
    I teach MS ELA and the students always talk about the books they like to read. The pattern I have noticed is towards dystopia and fantasy and even some supernatural. At this age group, how do you create novels that are engaging, maybe a bit frightening, but still appropriate for the age group? How do we write about what is hiding under the bed for early adolescents?

    1. I guess I feel like we all write the book we can best write, and trust that kids will set aside the books they don’t want to read, or aren’t ready for.

      That’s the crux of this for me. That learning to set aside a book is an important skill.

      I read a book of Holocaust stories as a kid, at too early an age. It stands in my memory as a HUGE moment. Of realizing I didn’t want to read all of the stories. Some of them I could handle and others I couldn’t. That kind of self-care is very important, I think. Adolescence is when it’s best learned, because the world gets WILD in those next few years. Kids really need to be able to walk away from the moments they aren’t ready for. Because there won’t be a nice adult at the keg party to say, “I don’t think you’re ready to make out with THIS boy, but maybe you can kiss THAT boy, over there.”

      1. Excellent point – I hadn’t thought of saying no to a book as linking to the ability to say no in life. But it’s true, this is how we learn to pay attention to ourselves, in the little moments along the way.

    2. Right now I am working on a sci-fi that is a utopia, as opposed to a dystopia, but of course there is still conflict and some really scary stuff going on in terms of genetic (and other!) manipulation. While revising, I thought a lot about why I thought this was an important topic for today’s kids to read about, and what they would be interested in in this type of book. My answers guided my choices. One key point for me was that if I was going to raise these issues, I also wanted to give the kids (the characters and the readers) the power to solve the problem. I think is similar to what Laurel was saying about how problematic it is when everything is “fixed” by the end of the book — that’s not satisfying at all and disempowers kids.

  7. Good morning! As an interventionist, I often find myself suggesting that readers use their Lexile levels as a guide only after they have identified their interests. Cover art makes a huge difference for these readers.
    I wonder, as authors, do you consider that your audience might be older high school students or English Language Learners attempting to read their first book from cover to cover?
    Thank you for joining us today?

    1. My own kids read a lot of graphic novels, and I’m struck by how well suited GNs are for an older reader, so much of the time. I think MG struggles with how to leap up in age/topic, to engage these readers, who don’t care about the tooth fairy anymore.

      I do think there are a lot of great books out there for them. (though yeah, the covers rarely indicate that) The question is how to work sophisticated ideas into simpler text. I think a lot of novels in verse accomplish this. It’s interesting how the more innovative forms are better at this, generally.

      The Lexiles are DOOM for that though. It’s heart breaking to ask a reader what kind of books they like, and be given a Lexile number. Makes me want to cry.

      1. This can be such a struggle. How do we get kids into books that they want to read topically and that aren’t so out of reach linguistically that they won’t continue it. I’ve definitely faced this as a MS SPED teacher.

      2. Thanks for responding. Yes, I think Lexiles can be doom, but sharing them and using can be framed in a way that allows developing readers to believe that they can find something interesting that they can read.

        1. Oh, please don’t misunderstand me! I don’t mean they aren’t tools to be used. I just mean that when I meet a random kid, and that number is how they define “books I want to read” it’s sad for me. I had to buy a book for a family member (12 years old) who reads at a college level. She wanted to nothing to do with anything below her Lexile, because she wouldn’t get credit for it.

          At the amazing children’s bookstore, my only options were Death in the Time of Cholera or the Annotated Wasteland.

          That isn’t how we make a reader, you know?

          1. I guess the main thing is that Lexiles in the hands of a thoughtful caring teacher (like you!) are a totally different thing. But I can see a scenario where someone shoves a book at a kid that’s way below interest level, without thinking about how that will reach (or not) the reader.

            1. Laurel – We’ve definitely experienced this is our own household. Time and again we are reminded to have our children read “age-appropriate” books within their lexile. Yet, it’s not always what they are interested in. Lexile as ONE tool is valuable. But sometimes it can go too far. I appreciate your thinking on getting to the heart of what kids WANT to read. And thank you for the comment above about how you approach being a guest author and letting kids know they don’t have to like YOUR books. That’s so freeing, and probably piques their interest.

              1. I have a hard time giving myself permission to stop reading a book! I’ll mostly keep reading, even if it’s just to say I read a book on Goodreads toward my goal. 🙂 But what’s the point, when I could be reading so many other good books? Good reminder for everyone. And you’re right that kids need explicit directions that they’re allowed to stop reading a book.

            2. Thanks for expanding. I totally get it about levels and cringe when I hear stories of teachers telling kids to not read outside of their level–especially in elementary school. I have enjoyed reading your responses today, and I apologize for sounding defensive in my first comment.

    2. I have a friend who is a high school librarian who had great success using Jack Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt with a group of special ed students. Similarly, books like Holes or Kate Messner’s Wake Up Missing might be considered MG, but still have a lot to offer a high school reader. I admit this isn’t something I really think about when I’m writing, but I think a good teacher or librarian will be looking at a wide swath of books for their readers, and hope that mine would meet some of those needs.

      1. I think the last line you wrote is so important. I teach second grade where the children are turning 8 and beginning to read \”chapter books\”. Some are still extremely young and naive at 8 years old. On the other hand, some 12 year olds are experimenting and dealing with mature issues. I think that this 8-12 age range can be troubling because a child can fall into a book that they are not emotionally mature enough to handle. That is where the adults in that child\’s life (teacher, librarians and parents) can support the child to make good choices that fit them both in terms of reading ability and where they are emotionally and in terms of maturity. I am not condoning censoring but rather knowing the reader and guiding them to books that they are ready for at that point in their lives.

  8. Thank you for this weekend discussion. I loved Nancy Drew as a kid. And then just dove in to reading. What I remember most isn’t the exact titles but the wonder of being at the library. Ours was set in a Redwood grove. It had a tree growing right through the middle of the outdoor deck. And a fireplace. I felt so safe there, fingering through the cards. I could stay there for hours. I still go to the library with my kids. Often I just wander, not there to check anything out, just to be surrounded by the shelves.

    1. I still go back to the three Pratt (Baltimore) libraries that were home to me in my youth. I can’t go back to my bedroom, and look around, but I CAN go to the library, you know?

      1. What a thought. It is like going home. Something else I have loved to do is visit the bookstore in any country I’ve visited. They are all so different. And is some places bookstores are more for expats than local communities. but you have me thinking – what if we started visiting the world’s libraries.

  9. I read Bridge to Terebithia and Where the Red Fern Grows in 5th grade and they both had a profound effect one me as they were really my first encounters with death. They were also two books where I was connected deeply with the characters, making the unexpected (for me at that time anyway) deaths that culminate both titles. (My niece just had a very similar experience with John Green’s Looking for Alaska.) Those two titles probably really helped me when both my grandfather and my dog, who had been with me my whole life, died within the next year or so. They stick with me to this day, autographed copies of both on my shelves, and I often recommend them to current students.

    1. Oops, it only published the last line of my post.

      What I’d meant to say is that I stumbled on a book, in the year my parents split up, called Tina Into Two Won’t Go. The book was about a girl whose dad essentially kidnapped her after a divorce.

      This was my secret fantasy, about which I felt super conflicted. In the worst year of my life, I couldn’t tell ANYONE (because as kids do, I knew it would rip my mom apart to confess this thought). But the book was a companion, and I got to live out that doomed fantasy a little bit.

      (I haven’t reread that book, ever. It’s too hard to think about it)

      1. I haven’t read that book, but I imagine wish-fulfillment wasn’t the author’s intent. But you took what you needed from it. That’s why I think adults trying to make broad statements about what is appropriate for readers can be so off the mark: there’s a personal relationship between reader and book that depends on an interplay between reader, text, and situation. Trying to predict the experience is pretty tricky.

        1. Yes, exactly! The reader finishes the book. And each reader finishes it differently.

          For the record, it wasn’t a fantasy in the sense that it worked out well. But I got to sort of play out the wish, and then come back home alongside Tina. Does that make sense?

      1. I think it’s important to remember that we read kidlit with all this adult baggage. So in some ways it can be harder on us than it is on them. We read as parents, lovers, people who read the news. They read so differently. With another set of issues.

        I had several people tell me they couldn’t read Bigger than a Bread ox, because as divorced parents, they needed to believe their own kids weren’t experiencing something so hard. And that’s fine. I didn’t write it for them. But I wanted to explain to them that it was a much harder book on a divorced mom than on a kid, for this very reason.

        1. I loved reading Bigger than a Breadbox. My parents went through a divorce when I was in 6th grade. Reading this book as an adult, made me wish this book was available to me during that time in my life. I connected to this book on so many levels. I recommend this book to students all the time. Some students even said my parents are divorced too and that led to great conversations.

          1. Thank you so much, Kara! It’s always heartbreaking and huge for me when kids share their own stories as a result of reading it.

  10. Before we can help kids choose books that will be of interest to them we must make sure we are well read in all areas. I tell my parents and students at the beginning of the year that I have an extensive classroom library (1200+ books) and that I am sure I can find something their child will like. I also tell them that I am not going to police what their child reads. If they have things they don’t want their child to read they can meet with me privately. I do listen to parents. Sarah Littman’s book “Want to go Private” is an example. I had a student check it out. She didn’t feel comfortable and told her dad who immediately called me. He thought I’d given or recommended she read the book. He didn’t want her knowing that you could end up getting into trouble and even raped by entering chat rooms then making bad choices. On the other hand that parent talking with a friend about the book prompted another call. The second parent wanted the book to use as a vehicle to have those discussions with their child. We must do book talks to entice kids to read, we must know what their likes and dislikes are so we can get them to try something new while feeding them the things they like.
    You can’t put an age limit on books because we read “The One and Only Ivan”. One of my parents recognized it from her child’s elementary school library. I didn’t have to answer the parents concern because a student did. They told the parent that it was a great and easy book to read with real world ethical issues that dealt with the rights humans have to interract with animals. Books need to meet students where they are. They need to touch on subjects in a manner that makes kids willing to take a risk reading it. I will stop now because it is a topic I could spend hours on. For those teachers out there I would recommend starting a blog where you review the books you read and give students and parents access to find great books. During the school year I have what I call “Student Saturdays”. I post student reviews on Saturday so they have a buy in to the whole things.

    1. I totally agree with everything you just wrote. How has been the response to your Student Saturdays? That sounds like something I would love to try!

      1. Students who didn’t want to do a review will jump at the chance to write a review that they can tell friends and family is published on a website. I give them the date and URL so they know to look for it. Their review must contain a short summary with no spoilers, connections, opinions, recommendations and anything else they want to say. Parents love it because often this is what drives a kid to read a book when they usually don’t. Besides, I often find reviews of books I’ve not read. If a student owns the book I ask to borrow it. For some reason it blows a kids mind for a teacher to borrow a book from them. I also keep a sheet on one of my cabinets for them to write recommendations for the teacher. I’ll do anything to motivate my students.

    2. I think student book reviews are such a great idea. As a librarian, I know that if I can get a kid to recommend a book it’s much more likely to go out than I do it — even with my best booktalking skills. Your students sound really lucky!

  11. The book that hollowed out my heart and made me weep at age 11 was “The Yearling” by Marjorie Kinnon Rawlings. In my safe secure suburban home in England I couldn’t imagine such a tragedy as having to (spoiler alert) shoot your pet. I jus finished”Circus Mirandus” by Cassie Beasley and admire the way she does not shield her main character from personal tragedy. Protecting our kids from sadness is a mistake I think. We try to protect them from so much these days I wonder how they are ever to become resilient.

  12. Thank you so much for your open conversation about books. This line resonated with me as I hear this many times from teachers and sometimes administration \” One of my pet peeves is the idea that a book is “inappropriate” for a kid if it contains unfamiliar or confusing words or ideas or relationships. Is there a better way for a kid to learn a new idea? Is there a better way to be scared or saddened or confused? Books are a perfect form for introducing new things. They’re a healthy way to learn the world.\”

    Two of the books that are well loved in our school are My Brother Sam is Dead and Sophia\’s War. Both contain advanced, but important themes and lessons for students to learn. The kids become entrenched in the characters\’ stories. Teachers have created lessons to accompany these whole class read alouds through amazing professional books such as Notice and Note, and Falling in Love with Close Reading. Students are learning to use effective close reading strategies together and then applying them to their own independent books. What could be better way to motivate kids to read and LOVE reading? Using these powerful strategies have taken the students understanding of the books to whole new levels. However, a few parents complained about the books because there are some graphic scenes- but IMPORTANT scenes- they felt were inappropriate for 5th graders. The immediate responses, from some, were to take these books out of the curriculum. Kids should not be reading them. I whole-heartedly disagree. Through appropriate supports students should read these books. The teacher is simply the guide and facilitator as kids read. The life lessons learned from both books are life changing for the kids.

    I think as teachers we need to embrace books that take us out of our comfort zone and read them with our students. Kids want to read books that are relevant to their lives and teach unforgettable life lessons. Yes, there are the staple books at my school- Stone Fox, Riding Freedom, Pinballs, Trumpet of the Swann, and Mr. Popper’s Penquins. I am not taking anything away from these books, but I believe that we need to expose students to other new books! To build a classroom community of readers, the teachers and students alike need to discover new books, and new authors. A friend of mine will read books, he hasn’t read yet, out loud to the students so they can see his authentic responses to a brand new book. I thought this idea was amazing! So many teachers feel the need to screen the books before hand (which is totally fine) but how cool is it to experience a book together?

    Books that come to my mind that I want to introduce students and teachers to are: Wonder, Out of My Mind, One for the Murphys, Fish in a Tree, Bigger than A Breadbox, The Meaning of Maggie, Rump, Echo, Almost Always, All the Answers, and the Year of Billy Miller (just to name a few!)

    I remember listening to my teachers at various grade levels read aloud the following books and positively falling in love with the characters, themes and plots:
    Bridge to Terabithia
    The Pigman
    The Outsiders
    The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
    Number the Stars

    These books made an imprint of my life as a reader and a writer. Yes, some of the themes may have been more advanced for me as an elementary student; however, I am forever grateful to those teachers who took some risks and read these books out loud to us each and everyday.

    Have a wonderful weekend!


    1. I love all these books too, so much.

      ANd in a way, it’s even harder for picture books today. I remember sad picture books as well, and don’t see them very often anymore.

    2. This is such a great book list. I just finished Out of My Mind on audiobook and it blew me away. I have goosebumps just thinking about it. I listened with my 6 and a half year old son and, frequently, my three year old daughter. It was really interesting to watch how they reacted. As far as my son is concerned, Melody is his new friend. He kept talking about what he would do in each situation. For my daughter, the book was about Melody’s sister Penny. When we got to the end (semi-spoiler alert!) and I realized what was about to happen with Penny, I stopped the CD, but they begged to listen. So I told them what I thought was going to happen, we listened, and we discussed it. All three of us got so much out of this book because we worked through it together. I think this book — and your whole list — would be perfect for class sharing.

  13. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon” blew me away. I grew up in a conservative Christian household, and I never thought about the kind of effect the spread of Christianity would have had on other world religions. It was an eye-opener. That being said, I am still a Christian, though a far more open-minded one. Being exposed to these new ideas didn’t take away my faith, but it reframed how I choose to express it and made me more respectful with differing beliefs.

    I kept my elementary school librarian busy. I wanted sad books. I wanted books that wrecked me. I read lots and lots of Patricia Hermes.

    Regarding the lexile discussion, I was a library volunteer for many years, and I saw the fire go out of too many early readers because the only thing available in their “zone” was too mature for their interest level. By 4th grade, most were done. It made me sad. The school uses lexiles differently now. It’s best when it’s part of a whole toolbox.

    1. Oh, ME TOO. That book was a big wow.

      Have you read Hild, by any chance? Recent adult title, and they tried to sell it with “If you liked Game of Thrones…” But it reminded me of Mists of Avalon. A feminist take on that era– the pagan, post-Roman, and Christian worlds clashing. And there’s an interesting twist on how magic functions in the culture (but is really just higher learning/understanding. The magic of text in a non-literate world, the magic of learning to predict nature, etc. It’s an imagined early life of St. Hilda!

    2. Heather – I LOVED the Mists of Avalon. I read it much older, when I was pregnant with my first son. The same time I started the Harry Potter series. He bacame a HP fan and I’ve been thinking of recommending Mists to him- he’s 14. And thank you for the input about lexile. I’m very intersted in this topic. It’s becomes a big part of kids’ choice. For instance, our school library requires you to get books only within you lexile. I’m appreciating hearing other peoples’ experience around lexile.

      1. I am a rabid HP fan! I’ve shared it with my own kids (just started Book 1 with my youngest), and the kids at school are envious of my HP t-shirt collection.

        When my middle son started middle school, I gave him permission to get a bad grade in reading – I didn’t care if he took a single AR test, as long as he read. I pushed him too hard early on, and he was finally back to sneaking books under the covers every night and prowling my personal bookshelves for something good to read. I didn’t want to steal that joy from him.

        I talked to his teacher, as well. She was awesome. They give the kids their lexile information, but that’s all they do with it. He could read literally anything he wanted. He consumed more than 3 million words during his 6th grade year, all books he chose for himself.

        1. In my first year as a librarian, I was at a school where students had to pick a “just right” book. I’m all for kids understanding what book might be a good fit for them, reading-wise. But the library assistant and/or the classroom teacher would sometimes tell a kid to put a book back because it was too hard or too easy! Finally, there was a compromise–one just right book, and one free choice book.

  14. What I remember as reassuring and eye-opening at once was the scene in ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE when Alanna gets her period. It was reassuring, because it meant girls could be fantasy novel protagonists, too, even while dealing with normal girl problems, and eye-opening for the same reason. Frodo and Harry never had that problem!

    The other one I remember (per the Lexile discussion, above) was reading SHE SAID YES, a story about a girl who died during the Columbine school massacre. The book wasn’t a particular revelation, but I wasn’t sure what to circle for “how easy/difficult was this book.” 1 was “too easy” and 10 was “too hard.” I could read all the words just fine, but it was hard to read about a student dying in a school massacre. I circled two numbers and called it a day.

    1. Ha! That is a good response! I think with children’s and young adult literature those lexiles can be misleading because they don’t take into account thematic difficulty. And, while I know the CCSS definition does look at reader and task factors, it’s so much easier to fall back on numbers. That’s why I’m counting on good teachers and librarians to match kids with books in a way that no program can.

  15. As I kid, I vividly remember reading books like Blume’s – Forever – and Flowers in the Attic. I was young and curious and I appreciated the honesty and the glimpse into a not so perfect world. As a high school English teacher, my colleagues and I have to struggle and debate over certain texts and their appropriateness for our students all the time. Often our students will joke about the fact that all we read are “depressing” stories, until they start to write about those stories and realize how human they are and how much they can connect to these universal characters and themes.

    1. There’s a lot of pressure on teachers now, in so many ways. I volunteer in our school library, and I find myself a little terrified, when I rec a book for a kid. I know so many protective parents, and I don’t want to upset them. At the same time, I believe a kid has a right to read pretty much anything. Certainly anything in our well curated library!

    2. Oh, my gosh! I read ALL the FitA books! And My Sweet Audrina! I gave up when VC Andrews got to her Dark Angel series, but I loved those books! Mostly because I knew my mom would have a total stroke if she knew I was reading them!

      Regarding appropriateness, that’s a tough one. I, too, too feel like most kids are safe exploring anything in a school library. One of my friends wants to take her middle schoolers through The Good Earth. Some parents will opt out because it touches on prostitution and drug addiction. Those students will miss out on a beautiful novel.

  16. Wow, Meg and Laurel, this is an awesome post! I wish that I saw it before 10:14 on Saturday night. It has been a long day at the community pool (head lifeguard during the summer), and I was exhausted until I read your post. Now, I am excited.

    As a kid, I was a “Huck Finn to Judy Blume” reader. I read Huck Finn because the stories took me on an adventure. I read Judy Blume to learn about girls (I love that you wrote that in your post). I also loved the Hardy Boys. When I was in high school, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye. Today, I read only middle grade novels during the school year (to keep up with my sixth grade students that love to read) and adult literature in the summer (although I am also reading middle grade).

    In the classroom, I don’t shy away from anything. We read (and I cried) Surviving Hitler. We read (and I cried) Mockingbird. You see the trend. My students love when I read aloud because they never know what is going to happen. We read and then we talk. While reading Every Day After, we talked about depression, bullying, running from problems versus meeting them head on, and faith (believing in something). I truly believe that young kids don’t get these discussions in their daily life. Due to the amount that they see on social media, they need discussions like this.

    In my middle grade manuscript there is a fight scene, and the main character walks away with some scratches and a bloody nose. A writing friend that read it really wanted me to take it out because it was so awful and middle school kids should not read this content. I did not tell her where the idea for this scene came from, but I wished I had because it came from personal experience. The main character’s action in response to the fight is what I want the reader to take away from the story. Who he turned to? What the conversation sounded like? What he did in the future when the bully approached? How he learned not to back down? I want to equip the young reader with the correct way to respond to a real-life issue (a middle school fist fight).

    Sorry for being so lengthy, but as you can read, I am passionate about your topic. Students should learn valuable lessons through reading, so that they can cope with the good and bad in the world. Thank you again, Meg and Laurel. You have both helped to put an exclamation point on a wonderful opening week of Teachers Write!

    1. Ohmygosh, I LOVE the idea of boys reading Blume to understand girls. I don’t feel like we had a literature when I was a kid that helped me understand boys. But I could have used it!

      Honestly, it’s impossible to worry about upsetting people. You just can’t go down that road. My second novel, Any Which Wall (which is an Edward Eager tribute book) caught flack for having a wounded dog in it. There’s a scene where the kids tend to the dog’s cut, and someone actually called the book “dark” because it alluded to the fact that someone had hurt the dog. It’s crazy. This book is SO FAR from dark. And I have another book, Penny Dreadful, in which a scene mentions that a kid has 2 moms. That’s IT. No politics, no lesson. It’s just a fact about this kid. But of course it gets many people very upset.

      So you write what you write, and hopefully, kids find it.

    2. I actually have this vague memory of my fifth grade teacher reading Are You There God? out loud to us since the girls were making such a fuss about it, but when I asked a friend in the class, she didn’t remember it. Still, I know some boys grabbed it, and we were mortified that they knew our secrets, but it probably made them more sympathetic (one of them did end up being my 5th grade boyfriend, so…)

      I agree with Laurel that you can’t worry about upsetting people, because no matter what you write it will upset someone. Really — and its usually the last thing you expected. Write your truth and you will be fine.

      P.S. I missed part of the conversation yesterday, too, because our family got a last minute invitation up to a lake, and summer is about swimming for me, so I took it. It was exactly what I needed to relax and enjoy the world. Which I think is another writing dictum: don’t forget to take care of yourself and the world outside of your head!

  17. I’m so glad I came in to this discussion because I often engage in an internal dialogue over what is appropriate in MS and YA reading, and what I can put into my own writing.

    As a fifth grade teacher, I was passionate about introducing my students to literature. The snippets of stories in our reading anthology books did nothing to satisfy my taste for a true literature, so I exposed my students to novel after novel. Sometimes, they were in the form of a teacher read-aloud, other times through Literature Circles.

    My students so enjoyed our read-aloud time, so over the years, I invested my own money and used points accumulated through Scholastic book orders to purchase class sets of a few choice books. One such book was Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. Like Andy shared in his post, I cried in front of my students while reading this book. At first they seemed shocked and awkward, but then it turned into rich, meaningful conversations about life and loss. Not only did we discuss the story, we also pondered emotions and how books can help us identify emotions we may not realize we are feeling.

    I think it was this book that really showed me how powerful literature can be when working with my students. I had reluctant, and even resistant, readers wanting me to keep reading at the end of our read aloud time. When I accumulated our class set, I would have students sneaking their books home to read ahead! It\’s a book I look forward to reading with my son, once he is old enough 🙂

  18. It is so great to hear authors, teachers and parents speaking with such wisdom about not talking down to children. They know the world has a darker side, what they need to know is that they can deal with it. Stories arm us against “things that bump in the night” whether that be simply growing up or some of the harsh realities of the world in which we live.

    In my experience as an educator and parent, it seems to me that children have a fairly good internal sense when something is more than they want to take on and they steer away.

    Teaching kids to respect their own barometer and giving them excellent stories on any topic that is meaningful to them are probably the best things we can do.

  19. I heard Judy Blume speak late last month and one of the things that she said was that when she was writing _Are You There God…_, etc., there really wasn’t even such a thing as YA literature and she never thought of her books as YA…. I like that.

    That said, as a high school sped teacher and mentor to a junior high teacher (our school is a Jr./Sr. High) these last few years, one theme that’s come up in our discussions is the phenomenon of young kids (seventh graders, so 12/13 year olds) being exposed to so many things, so quickly, through the internet and other media, that they really are not developmentally ready for (and they don’t know how to respond to/ filter/ make sense of for themselves… ) and this is reflected in their behavior at school and particularly (also) in their behavior toward one another through cell phones, social media, etc.

    I think that most of this exposure is through visual images, which are so much more plentiful than they ever used to be. I do believe, as others have stated here, that books might be _the safest_, most enriching, fun and appropriate way for kids (and adults) to explore, learn and think about things that are outside of our comfort zones, things we haven’t been exposed to yet.