Engage, Excite, Enrich: Selecting the Right Book
Once upon a time, there was a girl called Goldilocks. One day, she left her seat in class and wandered over to the bookshelves in search of something new to read. A gleaming golden cover beckoned, and she picked it up. "Too long," she murmured and placed the book back on the shelf. She picked up another, this one with a colorful cover. "Too short," she muttered, and placed it, too, back on the shelf. Finally, she selected a book with the picture of a gloomy castle on the cover, lifted it from the shelf, and declared it was "just right." However, after returning to her seat and reading the first few pages, she again returned it to the shelf. The book was not for her. Goldilocks turned to her teacher and wailed, "Where is the book I am meant to read?"
Where indeed is the book for Goldi? And for Brandon and Jessica and all the other students seeking that just-right book? How do we assist students in finding books that excite and motivate but are also appropriate and perhaps even a bit challenging? What factors play a role in this process? How do we gauge text complexity in meaningful ways so that we can be the person who helps students find books that will become part of their "just-right" reading lives? In a classroom that invites student selection, helping them make good selections is a crucial step toward encouraging reading and also toward creating more independent readers.
Some have been content to utilize software and applications to identify texts that are at the correct level of complexity. I view such programs with more than a little skepticism. Reading level, and even interest level, is not a significant factor when it comes to matching readers to books. If we relied on these scientific measures, we would not allow our youngest readers access to Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (a readability level of 3.4 is too far above grade level), or permit high school students to read the latest winner of the Printz Award, Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (it only has a 5.7 readability). Science cannot truly measure complexity. Where Things Come Back has two separate story lines that eventually intertwine, along with a savvy and quite literary narrator. The book demands much from the reader, and it delivers much as well. So if we do not turn to science, how do we assist readers in the search for those books whose complexity will provide a satisfying reading experience?
We need to begin with a thorough knowledge of books. That means, bottom line, reading as much as we can from the field of young adult (YA) literature. How to go about this methodically? There are resources that will guide us in the right direction. For example, if I am trying to locate books for reluctant readers, readers who might struggle with text due to learning difficulties or deficiencies in vocabulary, I would turn to the Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list from the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) of the American Library Association. The list, produced annually, recommends books that we might call Hi-Lo, high interest, low readability. Fiction and nonfiction have places on this list.
Outstanding Books for the College Bound is another YALSA list that would be beneficial to those students who wish to stretch themselves as readers. And the Printz Award, the YA equivalent of the Newbery, recognizes literary merit as well.
The International Reading Association’s Young Adult Choices List is a list of books that teens vote for as their favorite books annually. The same is true for YALSA’s Teens Top Ten.
In addition to these annual awards and lists, I follow blogs and Twitter feeds and Facebook postings from colleagues whose knowledge about YA informs the books they discuss. Jennifer Huber Swan and Donalyn Miller are two of those whose "reviews" I seek. I also maintain a blog and try to post about new books and their potential readership.
Knowing the books is essential. So, too, is knowing as much about the readers as I can. Helping readers find a book that is "just right" has been the topic of much of my teaching and my writing. And, now, having taught in a library science program, I also know it is about asking some good questions, sort of a reference interview/reader’s advisory approach. When readers seem to be searching for a book with little success, I ask some questions such as the following:
- What was the last book you read that you really enjoyed?
- Who are some of your favorite authors?
- Is there a particular type of book (genre, format, etc.) that you enjoy (or do not enjoy)?
- Do you prefer a funny book or one that is scary or one that is sad?
- If an author could write a book just for you, what would that book be like?
Finally, text complexity may mean different things to different educators. When I consider complexity, I tend to focus on literary elements such as plot, character, and theme. Here, then, in conclusion, are some recommendations of new books that provide text complexity within these three literary elements. Are these the just-right books for your readers? Some of them might be. However, only you know the needs and interests of your readers. Check out summaries and reviews. Better still, read these books yourself, always with that perfect reader in mind.
Chime by Franny Billingsley (Dial, 2011) was a finalist for the National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature Division. It is a complex tale of Briony, a teen who believes herself responsible for her sister’s mental disability. She also believes she is a witch!
I Will Save You by Matt de la Pena (Random House, 2011) is a tense psychological novel about Kidd, a teen who is haunted by memories of the past.
This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel (Simon & Schuster, 2011) is subtitled The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein. Think of this novel as the prequel to the Mary Shelley novel.
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler with illustrations by Maira Kalman (Little, Brown, 2011) is one of the 2012 Printz Honor books; it details the breakup of a relationship in an unusual style and format.
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2011) presents dual narratives, set 50 years apart, told in text and illustrations.
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) is the 2012 Newbery winner. It is the story of one fateful summer in the life of a character named Jack Gantos.
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey (Knopf, 2011), a Printz Honor book, focuses on Charlie, a 13-year-old, who becomes friends with Jasper Jones, an outcast in their small town.
Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach (Sourcebooks Fire, 2011) gives readers insight into jerk turned jock, Felton, who discovers his athletic ability.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carlson (Greenwillow, 2011), one of the finalists for the 2012 Morris Award, explores themes of religion, politics, and love.
The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf (Candlewick, 2011) is a novel in verse set aboard the ill-fated Titanic.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, 2011) explores the darkness that can sometimes overcome us when faced with difficult situations.
Hush by Eishes Chayil (Walker, 2010) tackles the complexities of an ancient religion and culture in contemporary society.
The Chronicles of Harris Burdick (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) is a collection of stories based on the original Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. Authors include Sherman Alexie and Lois Lowry.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente (Feiwel & Friends, 2011) turns what we know about fairy tales on its ear.
Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Lee & Low, 2011), winner of the 2012 Belpre Award, is a novel in verse about a teen who must take on very adult responsibilities.
Return to top