In this electronic age students have a plethora of options from which to choose in spending their free time. There is a lot of good writing out there but there is also a lot of mediocre writing. When a parent asked me why I had Twilight posters and books available for my students, I asked him why that was a concern. He responded that he didn’t think they were very good books and shouldn’t I be encouraging my students to read more complex texts and more titles from the “classic” canon. I responded by asking him if he always read books that were appropriate to his profession and if they were all complex and challenging. He did not. So I asked him why could the same not apply to students.
IF we want our students to be reading consistently, and IF we want them to be lifelong readers, shouldn’t we allow them to read what they CAN and WANT to read? By allowing them to choose books that we may not think are “complex” or “good” writing (which is mostly subjective anyway), we show them that their reading choices are valid and we encourage rather than stifle their desire to merely read. My contention is that encouraging students to create a Reading Life for themselves, we are opening the door to limitless possibilities for complexity, variety, and quality of text that would not be there if they are only given the GOTTAS. You remember the GOTTAS… You gotta read this book. You gotta write this paper. You gotta complete this project. CHOICE is one of the most powerful weapons we have against mediocrity and complacency in the classroom. Giving students a choice in what they read, what they write, and how they show understanding is the way to ensure that students will be active participants in their own education.
For that reason, I have termed some books GATEWAY BOOKS. These are the books and series that, while they may not be excellently written, have plot holes the size of Mac trucks, and be written in a formulaic way, they provide a path to better literature once the student is hooked on reading. These are my choices for the best GATEWAY BOOKS for middle school readers.
The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett.
While these books are very formulaic, they do have some great literary elements. They promote endurance in reading with length of individual titles as well as length of series. Snickett (Daniel Handler) includes complex vocabulary that he explains in context. They contain familiar characters that students identify with and enjoy reading about. And all the elements of plot are there so that students are quite familiar with the structure by the time they complete or tire of the series.
The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer
The much criticized vampire series is somewhat sensational and the writing is nothing to rave about. But talk about appeal. As the sparkly vampire craze has spread across the country and world, students have begun reading these 400+ page tomes out of pure interest. And while the plot holes throughout the series are GIGANTIC, reading such lengthy books is creating much needed endurance for students who have to take 4+ hours of reading assessments. Inevitably readers want Something Else when they finish with Meyer’s series and I’m only to happy to oblige.
The Clique Series by Lisi Harrison and Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard
The premise of these series is a little cringe-worthy: “common” girl is thrown into the world of the filthy rich and must navigate the social structure and all its unwritten rules. The books are similar in theme to Mean Girls sometimes, but there are a myriad moral and ethical lessons to be learned throughout the series. Envy, jealousy, bullying, loyalty, trust, and modesty are all addressed at different times and in a way that many readers will relate to.
The Alex Rider Series by Anthony Horowitz
Teenage James Bond, anyone? This series has great appeal for boys who are usually more reluctant readers. Again, formulaic storylines come into play but the gadgets and action scenes are great. Plot twists abound forcing readers to pay attention to detail and while they are a little predictable, they set the stage wonderfully for Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum.
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series by Jeff Kinney
Again, a series that takes root with boys but is appealing to both genders merely by its adherence to reality. Greg struggles with most of the typical tween issues and students relate to the sibling and best friend struggles throughout the series. They also contain an element not to be overlooked: humor. Again building stamina through the length of the series, this provides hours of reading practice. The illustrations also add an element of visual literacy that is becoming more important in our digital age and sets the stage for interest in graphic novels (which are quite complex) as well as multi-media acumen.
So, the next time your student asks for a series that makes you want to cringe, think about how much more they’ll want to read when they’re finished with that 11th title. That’s when we hand over the big guns!