The New Middle School Novel: Part 1

We teach books for a variety of reasons - because they are sitting there in tubs in the library, because it's what the other teachers teach, because it's what we read in middle school.  And that's fine.  But there are no hard and fast rules saying we have to keep teaching certain books because of tradition.  Just because the teacher next door has been teaching Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry for twenty years doesn't mean you have to as well.

If you're bored with teaching the same novels year after year, afraid the class sets in the library aren't complex enough to meet Common Core Standards, or simply have students protesting your novel choices, you're in luck. I've got the scoop on the new middle school novels to teach.

Here are five modern middle grade / young adult fiction novels you can use next year (or right now!) to switch things up and delight your students all while meeting the complexity requirements of Common Core.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
Recommended Grades 5-8 - 128 pgs. - 720L

What it's about: This New York Times bestseller is a juxtaposition of two stories, told in alternating sections, about two young children living in Sudan: a girl in 2008 who walks for hours each day to fetch water for her family to survive, and a "Lost Boy" in 1985 who walks across the African continent to escape the Sudanese Civil War.

Why it's Common Core worthy: While the Lexile level is on the low end and the writing style fairly simplistic, the novel is high on qualitative measures.  It requires extensive background knowledge of the Sudanese Civil War and the issues related to it, and the dual narrative voices also adds complexity.  Makes excellent cross-curricular connections to science and social studies issues such as war, water shortages, water-borne illnesses, and immigration/refugees.

Why kids like it:  It's short, so it's not overwhelming.  Students love the two narratives and how they come together in the end. Connects very well with EL and immigrant/refugee populations.  It's also based on a true story, and kids love learning about the real person behind the character.  I have used it for two years in a row and my kids just devoured this book.

Teaching Tips: Show one of two documentaries about the Lost Boys of Sudan before starting the novel: God Grew Tired of Us or The Lost Boys of Sudan.  I have film guides for each documentary in my store! Also, check out my A Long Walk to Water novel unit on TPT!

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Recommended Grades 5-8 - 272 pgs. - 800L

What it's about: In this New York Times bestseller and National Book Award winner, ten-year-old Ha must flee her beloved city of Saigon as the Communists take over in the final days of the Vietnam War.  After a grueling escape via navy ship, Ha's family is sponsored to Alabama, where they must start a new life in a very strange country.  Written in verse, this beautiful coming-of-age novel chronicles one year in Ha's life, and is based on the real experiences of the author.

Why it's Common Core worthy: This novel is written in verse, making for a highly complex narrative.  There is an abundance of figurative language, symbolism, and rich imagery throughout the poems, and students must be able to see how the poems connect to tell a cohesive story.  The vocabulary is challenging due to its use of Vietnamese and cultural words, and the story connects well with cross-curricular studies of war and immigration/refugees.  Requires background knowledge of the Vietnam War.

Why kids like it: Although many students scoff at the poetry at first, they find that this novel reads extremely fast and tells a great story.  It's also perfect for EL/immigrant populations who can relate to the feeling of learning a new language and starting over in a new country.

Teaching Tip: There is a fabulous audiobook version of this novel.  I always do in-class reading with the audiobook read aloud of this novel, because I think it's important for the students to hear the poetry.  Also, the narrator correctly pronounces all the Vietnamese words, which I certainly can't do! You can find the audiobook at a local library, on iTunes or Amazon, or through a free trial subscription of Audible to play through your iPhone.  View my Inside Out & Back Again teaching products here.

Trash by Andy Mulligan
Recommended Grades 7-8 - 240 pgs. - 850L

What it's about: Raphael, Gordo, and Rat, three "dumpsite" boys survive by scavenging through trash day after day, looking for anything of value to sell.  One day, the boys come across a very mysterious and special package that the police comes looking for. Deciding to secretly keep the package, the boys are then launched into a dangerous and terrifying mystery.

Why it's Common Core worthy: The story is complex due to the weaving of the narrative from multiple first-person perspectives and the mystery that must be unraveled.  Connects well to studies of trash, waste, and environmentalism in science and impoverished areas in social studies.

Why kids like it:  Kids will love the mystery, action, and suspense of the novel and also find the idea of children living and working on a garbage dump fascinating.  They also love hearing the story come together from the perspective of multiple narrators.

Teaching Tip: The author never discloses the location of novel's setting - we only know that it is an unknown third world country. This is a great opportunity for inferring - have students log clues to the setting's location (such as geographical features, cultural words, city names) and do some research about third world countries and make an inference about where the book is located.

Note: The book is written in British English (the spelling can throw some students off if it is not discussed in advance), and if I remember correctly, I think there was maybe one inappropriate word in the book.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Recommended Grades 7-10 - 378 pgs. - 810L

What it's about: In this New York Times bestselling dystopian future, the districts of Panem must send young tributes every year to compete in The Hunger Games, a televised yearly fight to the death, as penance for a long-ago rebellion.  When Katniss Everdeen's younger sister is chosen as tribute, she volunteers in her place to represent her district in the games.  (Does anyone these days NOT know what The Hunger Games is about?!)

Why it's Common Core worthy: Symbolism abound! Almost everything, including character names, is heavily symbolic and open to interpretation.  This novel is rich with deep issues ripe for analysis and discussion: reality tv, violence on television, sacrifice, and governmental control.  Don't be turned off because it is a pop culture phenomenon - it is a deep novel just ready for literary analysis.  I tell my kids that you might have already read or watched The Hunger Games... but have you analyzed it from a literary perspective yet? Nope!

Why kids like it: It's The Hunger Games!!! Duh!! :) For my students, this was the best part of my entire class.

Teaching Tip: Before reading the novel, read the short story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson. It pairs perfectly and sets the stage for a nice compare/contrast lesson between The Lottery and The Reaping. I also love to do an entire dystopian thematic unit, having students create their own dystopian societies in an essay, and reading dystopian fiction for their independent reading assignments.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Recommended Grades 5-7 - 315 pgs. - 790L

What it's about: All August Pullman wants is to be considered a normal kid, but since he was born with a severe facial deformity, all he seems to do is stand out. About to attend school for the first time after years of homeschool, August must learn to accept and embrace his differences and all that makes him special.  Wonder has quickly become a #1 New York Times bestseller and beloved by teachers and students across the country.

Why it's Common Core worthy: The story is told from a multitude of different perspectives that weave the narrative together and expose many different sides of the novel's characters. It contains many flashbacks and addresses significant themes that are ripe for discussion.

Why kids like it: It's an uplifting book that deals with issues of bullying, friendship, and beauty, and students will find themselves rooting for Auggie's success.  The author has a great sense of humor and students will fall in love with all the different characters.

Teaching Tip: Randomhouse has a "Choose Kind" campaign inspired by the books.  Check it out, and have your students pledge to choose kindness! This would be a great opportunity to bring in an anti-bullying and kindness service-learning project at your school.

Any successes teaching these novels? Please leave a comment! And stay tuned for The New Middle School Novel: Part 2 - Five more book suggestions for novels to teach! 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Erika. These are great suggestions, some of which I've never seen.


Jasper Roberts Consulting - Widget