Books from the High School Library

The kids at my school are required to read books outside of class for English credit. The idea behind this is that if they read more they will like reading and become better at it, but the kids in my classes generally think the requirement is torture. The high school uses the Accelerated Reader program to gauge whether or not the kids actually read and understood the books. They read the books and then report to the school library to take tests on them. They have to get at least a 60% on the test at our school to get any credit for having read at all.

The 60% can be particularly frustrating for the kids with whom I work. For many of them, reading is the problem. While it’s true that some of them don’t even try, many of them are what were called in my reading methods class “word callers.” They’ve got the phonics down, but they struggle so much to get the words sounded out that they lose the meaning of the text in the process. That means they have problems passing the tests. So, how can I help them?

When I taught junior high English, I tried hard to read the things my students were reading so that I could recommend books to them. That quickly became an undoable project, but I did amass a list of favorites that have served me well over the years. I have found that if I recommend books that I have actually read to the kids, and if I can read enough of the book to them to get them started, they might actually finish and pass their tests.

One of the authors that consistently makes the grade with both boys and girls is S. E. Hinton, who wrote The Outsiders. She wrote a lot of other books too, like That Was Then, This Is Now and Rumblefish, but she’s best known, I think, for The Outsiders. Since the books are about gangs, the boys are amazed when I tell them that S. E. stands for Susan Eloise and that The Outsiders was published when Hinton was seventeen. What draws them to her stories, I think, is the social division that occurs in high school. Our school has its own version of Greasers and Socs, the groups that appear in Hinton’s stories. Even if it didn’t, there’s not a kid alive who doesn’t know how it feels to be on the outside of something looking in. For my kids, what they’re looking in on is, in many cases, success in school. Hinton’s books let them know that they are not alone.

The majority of my students are boys which, since I am not, can create a problem with my recommending booksl. There are some tried and true authors that seem to relate to the better readers, though. Among them are Gary Paulsen and Gary Soto. Paulsen’s adventure stories appeal to the boys, and Soto writes about experiences common to adolescent boys.

The girls are a little easier to please. Most of them will read books by Lurlene McDaniel, Mary Higgins Clark or Nicholas Sparks. I haven’t read any of McDaniel’s books, but I can see from the covers that she writes about kids who face life-threatening diseases and sometimes do not survive. According to our school librarian, by the time some of our girls graduate, they have read every book of McDaniel’s that the library holds.

Recently I forgot my own book, so I decided to check some out from the library. The first book was Paint the Wind by Pam Munoz Ryan. The book is rated for ages 7+. In it, an orphaned girl who has been living unhappily with her father’s mother finds happiness when she goes to live with her mother’s family. This book is a quick and simple read, but the fact that it has horses in it would attract a lot of the girls in my classes. Part of the story is actually told from the horse’s point of view.

The second book I checked out was The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E.L. Konigsburg. I was familiar with Konigsburg, having read her book A View from Saturday aloud to my junior high classes. In her newer book, junior high student Amadeo Kaplan wants to make a name for himself by finding something unique. Amadeo makes friends with his neighbor, Mrs. Zender, a former opera singer, and with William Wilcox, whose mother is liquidating Mrs. Zender’s estate. Mrs. Zender has a story to tell about many of her belongings, and so the mystery unfolds… The book is recommended for ages 10-14, but I think it’s one of those books that people of any age would enjoy.

The books in the high school library, especially the Accelerated Reader books, are often not books that I would chose for my pleasure reading. I happen to agree with the idea that more reading makes for better readers, though, so I will continue to try and keep up on what’s available there so I can recommend books to “my” kids. We live in an age where I think that sitting down and reading a book is becoming a lost art, and I, for one would rather it didn’t. This is what Francis Bacon had to say about reading:

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted;
nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed,
and some few to be chewed and digested:
that is, some books are to be read only in parts,
others to be read, but not curiously, and some few
to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

If you don’t read a lot of books, how will you know which are which?



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January 2008
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