Ten (Plus Two) Tried-and-True Read Alouds for Middle Grades by Melanie Roy
Before becoming a librarian two Septembers ago I was a fourth grade teacher for seventeen years. My favorite part of the day, the non-negotiable, the very best way to build classroom culture, was read aloud time. My kids knew that no matter what our day looked like we would carve out 20 minutes every day for this sacred time of day. Read aloud time gave everyone a level playing field to access text. It gave us inside jokes. It gave us a shared experience we could refer to and I could use to model reading and writing strategies.
I had three read aloud rules:
- I only read one book by an author. My job was to get students hooked and then they could devour the rest by the author or in the series.
- If a student had read the book before, they had to vow to not give away the ending because that ruined it for the others, even if other students begged to find out.
- Students did not do notebook entries or any forced writing about the read aloud books. Read alouds were strictly for enjoyment. Nothing sucks the joy out of reading like asking students to take out a pencil and start writing every time they read.
I’d like to share with you some books that are tried-and-true for middle grade students. The titles I’m going to share are not the latest and greatest to hit the kid lit world. However, they are gems that children should be exposed to. I know they are winners because students would plead with me to read more or groan when a chapter ended. I know because if I was going to be absent they’d ask me to leave something different for the guest teacher to read. I know because the librarian would comment that there was an influx of demand on a particular author or series from my students when they got hooked. I know because many students checked the book out of the library so they could read ahead when they simply couldn’t take waiting to find out. I know because countless parents over the years said at conferences, “I don’t know what magic you do in this class but my child has started to love reading. Thank you.” A simple thing really, that 20 minutes a day. But it makes all the difference.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
What a great way to start off the school year. Peter Hatcher’s toddler brother Fudge drives him crazy. Children can identify with sibling issues and they laugh at Fudge’s antics. It is a great way to let readers become familiar with a family so that they have the confidence and curiosity to continue to read the rest of Blume’s Fudge books. We know that students who are not entirely confident as readers do well with familiar characters and series. By reading this aloud you’ve put a plan into place for those readers.
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
There’s a reason this won a Newbery honor in 1984. It is so well written! I’m a huge proponent for historical fiction because when you’re able to walk in someone else’s shoes you have a deeper understanding of the historical events. Students learn what it was like for Native Americans when white settlers began staking claim on the land they lived freely on for so long. Speare makes the reader sympathetic to both the Native Americans (Attean and his family) and the white settlers (Matt and his family), and by the end of the story students realize that deep down we are not that different from one another. Elizabeth George Speare is an absolute master at her craft.
Eating the Plates by Lucille Recht Penner
I was always dramatic when selling this by telling kids I was sorry we would be reading this during their snack time because they were really going to lose their appetite quite often. Then you’ve got them hooked! At times this book is so disgustingly gross that it will definitely leave your students with a greater appreciation for the Pilgrims. This nonfiction book gives great information such as passengers choosing to eat in the dark so they wouldn’t have to see the grubs burrowing into their ship’s biscuits. Students enjoy learning about the voyage over and the early days in America. Some adventurous eaters even want to try their hand at the traditional recipes featured at the end of the book. A definite must read before Thanksgiving break!
The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket
This book is the fifth in the Series of Unfortunate Events but I like it so much better than the first as a read aloud. It’s incredibly funny, particularly Sunny’s strings of nonsense words that her older siblings interpret as very smart, adult-like language and the ridiculously cruel and far-fetched rules at this boarding school. Again, reading this allows the kids to become familiar with the Baudelaire orphans and then they have 12 more to read on their own. It has given many of my students a solid reading plan for a few months! On a side note, I always thought this book begged to be read with a British accent so that’s what I did. Of course, this is not a must.
The BFG by Roald Dahl
How do you hook reluctant readers? Get them to laugh. Roald Dahl is so skilled at this. There is no way you won’t have your students eating out of your hand when you read the “Whizzpoppers” chapter. Roald Dahl’s books are not dauntingly thick and they’re interspersed with illustrations which are two positives for our reluctant readers when they try his books themselves….which they inevitably will!
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
Some of the most satisfying books are the ones where the main character changes the most. Esperanza was born into a wealthy family in Mexico where she had servants and a very sheltered existence. All this changes when her Papa dies and they need to leave Mexico for America. Now Esperanza must learn to live much differently. Historical references such as the “Okies” coming to California due to the Dust Bowl make for very good discussion. Tip: Ask a student volunteer to keep track of the chapter titles on a piece of paper each day. At the book’s end, discuss why the chapters were named what they were. The kids will come to realize that the chapters are named according to the produce the migrant workers are picking. I’ve also tied in Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse and Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp by Jerry Stanley for classes that really wanted to explore the time period further. This book makes my heart happy every time I read it. Its message is one for both kids and adults to remember: never be afraid to start over.
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
This 2000 Newbery award winner takes readers on a journey with Bud from his days in an orphanage and a brief stay with a foster family to his quest to find his father. Set in the Great Depression, this story will make you laugh and pull at your heart strings. Students get a kick out of Bud’s “Rules and Things for Having a Better Life and Making a Better Liar out of Yourself” and his interactions with some (funny)teasing adults. Your more sophisticated readers may venture off to read Christopher Paul Curtis’s other books including The Mighty Miss Malone, the backstory of Deza Malone, a girl Bud encounters along the way in his journey.
The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone
Set in Maine during World War II, this story of British girl Felicity Bathburn will take you on a mystery you cannot wait to solve. Felicity’s parents Winnie and Danny (yes, she calls them by their first names) drop Felicity off at her grandmother’s house so they can get back to their important secretive business during the war. This leaves Felicity and her trusty bear Wink to fend for themselves with relatives she has never met: “The Gram,” her uncle Gideon, and her aunt Miami. Although she misses her parents and England very much, she is also eager to figure out the mysteries in this house. Countless boys and girls enjoyed this story. The good news: there is a sequel called Romeo Blue that is equally as good. It’s always great to have the sequel available in your classroom library for the many who will love this book.
Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia by Barbara O’Connor
Looking to do an author study? Look no further than Barbara O’Connor. Her books are so kid-friendly they’ve turned many of our reluctant readers into honest-to-goodness readers once they’ve had a chance to try her books. For the past decade Barbara has come to our school for a fourth grade author visit and the school goes wild! I like to read aloud Fame and Glory to kick off the author study (probably because I get to read aloud with a Southern accent). It gives us a shared experience which helps me to model what I’m looking for when students think about plot elements such as theme with her other books.
Lonely Burdette Weaver wants more than anything to get noticed in her town and to get to Disney World. When new kid Harlem Tate arrives at school Bird thinks she’s figured out how to accomplish her goals. She needs to convince Harlem to be her spelling bee partner so they can win the trip to Disney World. Will Bird and Harlem win the spelling bee? Sometimes life can be unexpected but you get exactly what you need.
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
When starting a poetry unit long ago I heard a student mutter, “Poetry’s for girls.” I immediately stopped what I was doing and went to fish out this book from my Sharon Creech bucket in the classroom library. We put everything away and I read aloud this book. (It will take you one class period).
Over time I got more calculated about it. I gave out copies of every poem referenced in this book so that students were familiar with the poems before I did the read aloud. That’s when I got the eyes lighting up and the nodding of heads when the poems showed up in the read aloud. We also talked about all the literary tools in a poet’s toolbox before reading this story so that they couldn’t help but yell out, “That’s onomatopoeia!”
By the time you’re through reading this, students will be chomping at the bit to try their hand at some of the types of poems Jack writes in the book. I dare you to read it aloud without crying in front of your class. I always figured students needed to see that I’m human and that it’s okay to express emotion. Sharon Creech is such a gifted writer that you can guide your students towards Hate That Cat, the sequel, as well as many of her other incredible titles.
My Name is Sally Little Song by Brenda Woods
Sally and her family are slaves on a plantation. But soon Sally’s family finds out that the master plans to sell Sally and her brother. The family decides fleeing to the “Big Swamp” where they’ve heard Native Americans will take them in is a better outcome than being split up as a family for good. Will Sally and her family flee without being captured? Students are riveted by their situation. It’s another great way to let students walk in people’s shoes to see what life was once like in our country. If your students like the writing of Brenda Woods, they may also enjoy The Red Rose Box, Saint Louis Armstrong Beach and The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond.
Sahara Special* by Esme Raji Codell
After Sahara’s father leaves them, Sahara is so torn apart that she has stopped doing school work although she is a very intelligent girl who wants to someday be a writer. Sahara’s mom doesn’t know what else to do so she tells the school to hold Sahara back. Sahara starts another year in fifth grade but gets a new teacher from “somewhere else.” This teacher is different than any teacher Sahara has met before. Miss “Pointy” knows how to deal with all the characters in Sahara’s inner-city Chicago schoolroom, including Sahara. And sometimes one teacher can make all the difference.
As an adult I appreciated that this author drew from her teaching experience in Chicago to write a very real school story. It was a chance for my students to see that children can have a much different school and life experience than their own. Students who enjoy this book can read Vive La Paris, the companion book that follows classmate Paris McCray. Esme Raji Codell went on to become a librarian and has a very comprehensive blog you should know about.
I realize my picks are heavy on historical fiction and laughter. I’d love to hear your favorite read alouds. What works for you and your students?
Melanie Roy is a former 4th grade teacher and current teacher librarian for grades 4 and 5 in Barrington, RI. She is passionate about turning every child into a reader for life. Although she no longer has her own classroom to read aloud to each day, she happily reads aloud to her three-year-old son every night. You can find Melanie on Twitter at @mrsmelanieroy or visit her library blog at www.hmslibrary.com.
*This book is one I would pull off the shelf to read aloud ONLY if the class was mature enough to handle it. There are a few swear words within so I’d always start out by saying, “I like to stay true to a book when I read it aloud. Therefore, I will be saying some swear words because they’re in the book. Do you think you can handle that?” One mom reports that to this day her daughter’s favorite book is Sahara Special, partly because her teacher read aloud language that was not school appropriate.