“Reading is Moxie for the brain.”
Well, that’s how one student put it. Reading is a crucial component to growing up, and fostering a love of reading is one of the most enjoyable tasks I get to take on each year. One way to promote reading? Let young people read. What they want, when they want, how they want -- feet up on the countertop or nestled in a beanbag chair, just let them read.
PBS recently published the Great American Read list for 2018, the top 100 books most beloved by readers. If you haven’t checked it out yet, I encourage you to do so. But that’s not why I’m here; I’m here because my students have a list of their own. Between my two classes, roughly 55 kids, over 1,000 books have been read during the 2017-2018 school year.
Can you say #Proudteachermoment? Students have read varying genres, in book clubs and independently, they’ve talked about their reading and they’ve interpreted their reading artistically. The key? They’ve always had the choice of what to read, and we’ve celebrated reading all year long. Now, they want to bring those choices to you and your family as we launch into summer!
This is a countdown of the top 10 books in my middle school language arts classroom this year. From Beloved to Can’t Live Without, these books should be added to all to-be-read lists today.
10. Need by Joelle Charbonneau
What the kids have to say: This is the best book because it has a lot of suspense and it keeps you on the edge of your seat, you want to keep reading it. All middle schoolers should read this book because it is a good learning experience and it can connect to real life situations. It shows how really dangerous the world can be and you should never cave into peer pressure.
What the teacher has to say: This is one of those books that keeps you guessing the whole way through. Students are instantly engaged with this book because it takes something relatable, like social media, to the next level -- not necessarily in a good way. It’s a book that when looked at through a deeper lens has so many different ideas about relationships, self-esteem, choices, growing up, and overcoming obstacles all tucked neatly into a mysterious plotline with many twists and turns.
9. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
What the kids have to say: It's so different and outlandish that it's actually more relatable than most books about life and its troubles. It's such a sad main storyline that I feel as if we've all experienced it before!
What the teacher has to say: A Monster Calls is a haunting story that bridges the gap between two different realities. The illustrated edition is incredibly engaging and students are drawn to this book because it presents themes such as self-awareness, family, and relationships in such an authentic way. Connor is living through his own experiences with his mother’s pain, and while it’s heart wrenching, it’s a must read! It should also be noted that A Monster Calls was on the list for Global Read Aloud in 2017.
8. A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
What the kids have to say: A Long Walk to Water was the best book I read so far this year. The reason I think that is because the lesson it teaches is unforgettable, it is really eye opening. It really shows how lucky we are.
What the teacher has to say: A Long Walk to Water was our Global Read Aloud book choice for our 7th grade classes in 2017. It certainly kept the 7th grade captivated, but the quote above is actually from an 8th grader. A Long Walk to Water is a story, based on true events, that addresses the ongoing water crisis and the fallout of the war ravaged country that is Sudan. Told in two perspectives, Nya and Salva show students another side of the world, literally, and ask that they walk several miles in their shoes. It’s truly an unforgettable book and must read for all middle schoolers.
7. The Leaving by Tara Altebrando
What the kids have to say: The Leaving is a good book because it's suspenseful. You're trying to figure out who kidnapped these 5 kids, and they all remember a specific something. It was a really popular book in our classroom, and if you like mysteries then The Leaving is a good book for you.
What the teacher has to say: I picked up The Leaving upon recommendation by a student. It’s not a book in our library, and in fact, I wouldn’t say that it’s an overly popular read in general. It’s worth being picked up and it certainly took the classroom by storm this year. If there’s one thing to say, it’s that this book took me by surprise. In the first fifty pages or so, I felt like I was dealing with a sci-fi abduction story, then when I gained my bearings, I realized this is a mystery that could be all too real. Multiple missing kindergarten aged children, no clues, and then they suddenly they return years later as teenagers with few memories of what happened. What happened? Where is the fifth child? How will the town recover? These are just a few of the questions I asked myself as I flew through this multi-perspective thriller of a story. To top it all off-- I found it on the bargain shelf at our local bookstore!
6. We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan
What the kids have to say: We Come Apart is a book that will stick with me forever. The book deals with love and overcoming challenges that are often at the fault of others, which is relevant to teens in this day and time. I also fell in love with the diverse characters, who surprised me with every move they made.
What the teacher has to say: Books in verse are a great way to get reluctant readers to find passion in reading. We Come Apart is a book told in verse in the perspectives of Jess, a socialite with a shoplifting problem, and Nicu, an immigrant from Romania scrapping metal to make money for his family. Two characters that come from different worlds form an unlikely bond as they complete court mandated community service. Yes, this book may be on the edgier side, but there’s nothing in the story that you can’t see on the news or hear in on the radio. I think We Come Apart is the perfect example of a diverse book that teaches kids how to be inclusive in a world that often promotes or demands exclusivity. We need more books like this one reaching the hands of our youth.
5. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
What the kids have to say: All the Bright Places is the most remarkable book I've engaged myself in this year. The theme this book gives out is so relevant and important for teenagers to understand. Depression-- depression needs to be talked about because a lot of the time, there are not happy endings. This is an outstanding realistic fiction story about two very unique people. The book is in both perspectives of the main characters Theodore Finch and Violet Markey, where they both talk about the everyday struggles they have to deal with and that it makes it way easier to go through them together. This book is like a diary with the characters thoughts splattered on the page, and that's what makes it so special.
What the teacher has to say: Theodore Finch and Violet Markey are my two favorite characters that appear together in a book. That’s quite a thing for me to say as an English teacher. Another unlikely pair, they would have never spoken had it not been for a tragic decision they both were about to make on the same day at the same exact time. Needless to say, Finch talked Violet off a ledge -- literally, and they developed a friendship that took them across miles and milestones in their lives. This is perhaps one of the most harrowing stories I’ve ever read, but it’s real, raw, at times comical, and most importantly, it talks about issues that are sometimes hard to discuss. This is a book that I think parents should read at the same time as their children, because it presents opportunities to tackle those tough conversations and to learn from the choices that Violet and Finch make.
4. Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson
What the kids have to say: I loved this book because the topic of the book was one that most authors are scared to touch upon. It spoke of the struggles that the main character had to go through and the trauma she experienced. It is a powerful book that opens the eyes of many readers, including myself.
What the teacher has to say: This is not a book for all middle school aged children. In fact, the written novel is taught at our local high school. With that being said, Melinda Sordino is an 8th grader going into her freshman year when her life changes forever. She enters high school friendless, isolated, and frankly -- traumatized. The graphic novel portrayal of this story allows students to fully come to grips with this story of what it truly means to find strength in moments of weakness and hope in moments of despair. Melinda is inspiring for so many girls around the world. I would recommend this book for mature readers in 7th and 8th grade, so please be aware before buying!
3. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
What the kids have to say: On the outside, Orbiting Jupiter is a devastating story about mistakes, consequences, and misfits. As I looked deeper into Jack and Joseph's lives, though, I found a moving, passionate treasure about friendship, family, differences, and love. This book is unique in the sense that I felt Jack trying to understand who Joseph was; I felt Joseph's pain when he lost the love of his life; I felt the comforting connection between Joseph and Rosie the cow. I cried, I laughed, and I sobbed, but it was worth it.
What the teacher has to say: I’m not sure I could say it better than my students. Orbiting Jupiter is set in Maine, so it’s easy to visualize the back roads, the brutal winter, and the main character Joseph who’s been dealt a bad hand so far in his fourteen years. Joseph is in the foster care system and is placed with the Hurds, a family of dairy farmers. It’s easy to judge Joseph from the start, and Gary Schmidt writes to ensure we do just that, but we quickly feel ashamed that we judged this boy so soon. Isn’t that the lesson we all have to learn a few times before it sinks in? It’s important to reserve judgement until we truly get to know a person, and even then, always give them the benefit of the doubt. This is a quick and engaging read, and while it deals with some mature topics, it’s real life, and real life needs to be taught.
2. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
What the kids have to say: Salt to the Sea is one of the most exceptional books I've read this year. I'm not one to love books, but I had my head stuck in throughout the whole story. I really, really enjoyed the switching of characters, since I stayed engaged and wanting more! The background information is really great knowledge especially since our unit on the Holocaust. I vouch for this book and I know you'll enjoy it too!
What the teacher has to say: I have now noticed that all of the books on this list other than Salt to the Sea are realistic fiction that are definitely more relevant in terms of time and place. While this is historical fiction, it definitely feels real, and it certainly takes readers on a journey. Salt to the Sea comes in at number two on this list because it truly is the whole package. It has applicable themes like survival, relationships, and making choices, but it also teaches about World War II, the holocaust, and parts of that time period we may not know as much about. Sepetys crafty use of language and strong character voices, yes -- this is another multi-perspective book, makes it a book that no one can put down. There’s a character for everyone in this book, it’s a must read.
1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
What the kids have to say: I think there is so much emotion that goes into the story and the depth the author puts into the characters. It also gives you an insight on the sad things that are happening in the world such as riots and shootings. Not only is that part strong but the main character has so many feelings that the author wrote about as well. There's sadness, frustration, happiness, excitement, confusion, all packed into one book, and that is why I enjoy it so much. The Hate U Give is action packed, strong, and full of emotion through the whole story.
What the teacher has to say: The Hate U Give is number one on this list and number one on my personal list too. Starr Carter’s story is more than one about being an outsider in her neighborhood riddled with gang strife, it’s about learning to become a person you are proud of, not a person that other people want you to be. Starr teaches readers lessons that teachers and parents spend years trying to instill in kids. Starr Carter is a teenage girl overcoming tragedy and finding strength when she needs it the most. I’d be proud to know and teach Starr Carter, and perhaps she could teach me a thing or two.
So that’s the top 10! In true Maine fashion, these kids compare reading to Moxie, and I can’t say I disagree. For some people they like to read books that hit you head on with an abundance of flavor, sometimes good, sometimes well. . .bad. For others, reading gives them energy. And still for some others, reading is an iconic experience -- much like drinking a Moxie in the backwoods of Maine in the late afternoon.
Maine Public Educator Kelsey Stoyanova teaches Language Arts & Writing at Reeds Brook Middle School in Hampden and is a regular contributor to Raise Your Voice.