Ten Texts to Get Kids Talking by Emily Rietz
Middle school students are in what some consider to be the armpit of human development – necessary, yes, but you don’t necessarily want to spend time there; it’s sticky, awkward, and sometimes smelly. Their hormones are going crazy, they are hyper-concerned about how others perceive them, and they are often reluctant to risk in classes. Just this past week, I launched a mini-lesson that went something like this:
Me: Ok, kiddos, so yesterday we worked to grow theories about characters using the lessons/changes/issues grid. Would someone be willing to summarize that work for us, remind us what we did?
Me: Anyone? Bueller?
Me: Right…so think back to your texts from the last round of social issues book clubs. Tell the person next to you about the character who faced the greatest personal struggle and where that problem exists in the real world.
Kids: (immediate, loud buzz and on-topic conversation)
This moment reminded me yet again that more than any part of my teaching practice, the texts I get into my students’ hands matter most. They open the door to community and conversation. They allow kids to see themselves in the safe space of a character. They help them picture the kind of people they want to be in the future and the type of world they want to create.
The following ten texts are guaranteed to get kids talking and maybe a little more comfortable in the armpit:
Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks
This short, dystopic picture book packs a big punch. The layout and illustrations are breathtaking, the language is gorgeous, and the story is powerful.
La Linea by Ann Jaramillo
A brief and honest novel about the complexity and risk of immigration. This is a great title for book clubs because it reads quickly, has compelling characters, and doesn’t sugar-coat. My kids love it.
Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper
This is my favorite of Sharon M. Draper’s books to date (though Stella by Starlight is sitting on my desk!). Kids tell me that what sticks with them the most about this book is that fact that Draper doesn’t hold back on the horrific details of the Transatlantic voyage and slavery in early America. The villains are deplorable, the protagonists are strong and honest, and Draper’s craft is exquisite.
Science Fair by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Warning: this one is weird, but captivating and perfect for predicting work. It also makes an excellent (albeit long) read aloud. Terrorism, science fairs, Star Wars, levitating frogs, and slap-stick – what more could kids ask for?
“Holding” by Lois Lowry
Featured in Am I Blue?, this short story is brilliant and raw, telling the story of Willie, a teenage boy returning from the funeral of his father’s partner. Students will connect to Willie’s struggle in “holding back” with those closest to him as they consider what it means to have courage and live in the truth.
Hate List by Jennifer Brown
Brown’s novel about a school shooting is emotionally exhausting, fast-moving, and brutally honest. Told from Val’s point of view through flashbacks and in real-time, the story examines themes of trust and loyalty and what one does with profound grief. It’s a heavy, heavy read, but one that will stick with readers.
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
This book is so intense and so important. The majority of this novel is told in transcript from cassette tapes created by Hannah Baker, a high school girl who has recently committed suicide. Asher’s Hannah is vivid and haunting and helps kids experience bullying and bystanders in new ways. Three reading notebook excerpts on this book: “This is probably the best book I’ve ever read.” “I just couldn’t stop reading it.” “This book made me re-think myself.”
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Our sixth graders read this gem in a whole-class novel study. It’s tender, beautifully written, and brave. It is an empathy-building book and a must-read. From Goodreads: “In Caitlin’s world, everything is black or white. Things are good or bad. Anything in between is confusing. That’s the stuff Caitlin’s older brother, Devon, has always explained. But now Devon’s dead and Dad is no help at all. Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger’s, she doesn’t know how.”
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
This dystopic thriller is mind-bending for kids. It’s also graphic in moments, but exceptionally compelling. Following the second Civil War fought over reproductive rights, both abortion and adoption are illegal in this society. However, between 13 and 18, parents of “problem kids” and wards of the state can be “unwound,” transplanting all their organs so that life doesn’t technically end. The story follows three kids on the road to unwinding and their fight to survive.
“Binta y La Gran Idea” (visual text)
When I need to mix things up and deliver a lot of content in a short amount of time, a provocative visual text is my go-to. I learned about this text from Bohmer and Bohmer’s For a Better World, and my students love it. This short, Oscar-nominated 30 minute film by Javier Fesser tells the story of Binta, a grade school girl from Senegal. It’s not only beautiful, it is also heart breaking and hopeful. Students will connect instantly with the strong children in this story while they wrestle with issues of socioeconomic equality, education, and gender. Full film is free on YouTube!
Emily Rietz believes that books help us understand and change ourselves and our world in a way nothing else can. She just began her fourteenth year as a teacher and currently teaches 7th and 8th grade language arts at Trinity Episcopal School in Charlotte, NC. She feels privileged to spend her days reading and writing with students and her nights reading with her three year old son. She also loves sharing her reading life on Goodreads.com (@Emily Rietz).