Hey Radical Nation: As you start to work on your holiday season shopping, I hope you’ll consider picking up a book for an important kid in your life, too! There’s something special about having your own books lined up on your own bookshelf. It sends the message that reading is important — that it is something that we believe in and invest in and spend time doing!
Have a middle school son, daughter, nephew, cousin or neighborhood friend on your shopping list? Need a few suggestions?
Here are some titles that have been really popular with my students this year:
Red Queen is a dystopian novel — which means it is set in a screwed up future world! In this world, people are divided into two classes: Those with silver blood and those with red blood. People with silver blood ALSO have remarkable powers that they use to keep those with red blood in their place. Discontent grows among the “reds,” and that discontent leads to a rebellion and the beginnings of a civil war. It’s the themes of fairness and justice that resonates with middle school readers — that and the incredible superpowers that the Silvers have! Better yet: Red Queen is the first book in a series — so if your kid digs it, there’s PLENTY more to read.
I like to describe Cinder — and the remaining books in the Lunar Chronicles series — as the book you would get if you mixed Star Wars with your favorite fairy tales. The story of Cinder — a cyborg with an evil stepmother who falls in love with the Prince of her kingdom — starts of the series. And while she’s unappreciated, Cinder plays a HUGE role in keeping the earth safe from Levana, the evil queen of the moon who has her heart set on world domination! The story is fast paced and full of characters that you learn to love and hate. That by itself makes it engaging to middle school readers. What’s REALLY fun, though, is finding the parallels to Star Wars — and there are TONS to be on the lookout for.
I’ve spent the better part of my career reading young adult literature and few stories have captured my attention like Steelheart. Another dystopian novel, Steelheart is set on earth in a time when ordinary humans have been bestowed with super powers. Some can create intense heat. Some can turn buildings to steel. Some can generate electricity or cause plants to grow at ridiculous rates. But here’s the hitch: Every time that one of these “Epics” uses their super powers, they grow a little more corrupt. The result: Tyrants who rule the world with impunity. That’s where the Reckoners come in. They are a small team committed to figuring out what the weaknesses of each Epic is and taking them down one at a time.
One of the concepts that we talk about at length in science class is that everything on earth — the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, the friends we have, the foods we eat — is made up of elements either on their own or working in combination with one another. Need an example? Water (H2O) is the result of Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms joining together. Kids are SUPER fascinated by this — mostly because they haven’t ever heard of most of the elements that we have on earth. That’s why The Elements by Theodore Gray is such a cool book. Gray worked to build an incredible collection of every day materials that are made of elements. Then, he photographed and wrote about his collection. This book is visually stunning and filled with just enough text to teach good lessons without flying over the heads of middle school readers.
One of the lessons that I try hard to teach my own daughter is that no matter how bad she thinks she has it, our life here in the United States really IS #blessed. Sometimes I think we forget just how lucky we are to have been born here. That’s why I love James Mollison’s Where Children Sleep. Mollison traveled all over the world photographing the bedrooms and detailing the lives of average kids in different countries. Readers can quickly see drastic differences between rich and poor nations — and that forces some pretty deep reflection. Given how passionate kids are about their bedrooms, this is the perfect book for introducing the notion that global poverty is real!
If you scanned the desks in my classroom, you’d see three or four copies of Spy School at any given time. It’s the story of Ben Ripley — a decidedly average middle schooler living a decidedly average life until he comes home from school one day to find a real live spy from the CIA sitting in his living room. Turns out that Ben has been invited to Spy School — a school for kids in grades 6-12 who have shown some real talent in the arts and sciences of espionage. What Ben DOESN’T know is that he has no real talent. The leaders of the school are just using him as bait to try to capture a mole that is trying to destroy the school from the inside out! I think Ben resonates with middle school readers simply because he is just like them: Funny and hopeful and struggling to be liked and falling in love all while trying to learn new skills in a new school. This is a light-hearted, funny series that is an easy read.
My students made me write about Deep Blue for one reason: I’m a dude — like literally all boy — and it is a Mermaid book. I know, I know: That sounds RIDICULOUS — and I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own. But I lost a book bet to one of the girls on my team and she chose this one for me. What’s REALLY nuts is that I’m LOVING it. It’s the story of Serafina — a mermaid princess who is forced to marry a prince from another mer kingdom to strengthen a family alliance. While performing her Doemii — the ritual required of princesses before getting married — assassins attack, Serafina’s mother is killed, and her kingdom is destroyed. The rest of the story is all about her attempts to rebuild her kingdom. While I haven’t finished it yet, I can tell you this: Every time I talk about this book in class, my kids — boys and girls — sit up and pay attention. It’s THAT good.
One of the messages that I try to get across to kids is that nonfiction stories are WAY cooler than fiction stories simply because they are TRUE. Sure, you can read about the heroic acts of Silverbloods, Epics or Mermaids. But you can ALSO read about the heroic acts of Louis Zamperini — a real live pilot during World War II who was shot down over the Pacific and forced to survive in a life raft surrounded by sharks and salt water for longer than any human castaway had ever survived before. And that was BEFORE he was sent to a Japanese Prisoner of War camp. Zamperini’s story is an amazing story of the human spirit and survival, but it can be pretty intense. Hillenbrand does a good job making it approachable in this young adult adaptation, but be sure to check this out if your child is a novice reader or still recognizing that war is a horrible thing.
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