What happens to our middle school readers?

One of my former students, a freshman now, came to visit last week.  She had lots to say about high school, most of it positive, but when I asked her what she’s reading these days, she shrugged. "I don’t have time to read with all the homework. We got assigned Of Mice and Men for English, but I only read part of it," she admitted.  "I got a good grade on the test, though."

Two years ago, she was one of my readers…one of the kids who passed books around with her friends. One of the kids who finished a book every few days and came into my classroom asking "What else do you have for me?"  She hasn’t read any books this year.

"Do you want to borrow a really good book?" I asked her.

"That’s okay," she said. "I won’t have time to read it, seriously."

I nodded.  "I’m giving you one anyway."  I reached behind my desk, where I had my copy of this…

Lucy Christopher’s STOLEN isn’t on my classroom bookshelves because as much as I love it, I feel like it’s just a little old for most of my 7th graders right now.  But I knew it would be perfect for my former student.  I gave a quick book-talk… I told her how much I loved this book…how a girl is kidnapped from an airport when she’s about to leave on vacation with her family, how the kidnapper, who is very good looking, drugs her coffee and she wakes up in the Australian Outback, a captive. I told her how beautiful the writing is, and how troubled I was when I found myself empathizing with the kidnapper, just as the main character seemed to be falling for him, too.

"Just take it," I told her, "and keep it until a vacation or something when you have time. It’s okay."

She left, headed home to work on math homework, and I went home, too, a little sad.

On Saturday morning, this note was in my in-box:

OMG, so i started the book you gave me last night at 7pm and COULDN’T put it down! so i finished it at like 3 in the morning, because like if i didn’t finish it, i wouldn’t have been able to sleep. at all. this was such an amazing book!  so, thank you so much for getting me back into reading… 🙂

It made my whole weekend.

But it also made me a little melancholy, wishing there were more freedom for our high school kids to choose the right book at the right time. Is Of Mice and Men the best choice because it’s Steinbeck?  Because it’s considered a classic?  And is there room to talk about student choice in higher level English classes?  I hope so.  Christopher’s STOLEN isn’t a light, fluffy read. It’s full of SAT words.  It’s sophisticated, intense, and thought provoking.  And besides that, she actually read it.