Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- The Detective

Mystery books are always hot in my classroom.  The danger, intrigue, and suspense are enticing to tweens and there is an abundance of titles out there that keep tweens turning the pages.

  • The 39 Clues (The Maze of Bones, Book 1) by Rick Riordan and the second book, 39 Clues: One False Note by Gordan Korman are the most popular books in my classroom right now. Eventually a 10 book series, The 39 Clues, is the story of two orphans who are swept into a worldwide hunt for the story of their family.  When their Aunt Grace dies, they discover that her will is not the typical will.  Instead, she gives her descendants a choice- take 1 million dollars right now or take a clue.  Grace is the last matriarch of the Cahills, the world’s most powerful family. Everyone from Napoleon to Houdini is related to the Cahills, yet the source of the family power is lost. 39 clues hidden around the world can reveal the family’s secret, but no one has been able to assemble them. Whoever does find the 39 clues will win much more than 1 million dollars.


  • The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney- I still remember reading this when I was in middle school.  Man, did I love it.  A decade later, I wasn’t sure if my students would connect with it.  It turns out I didn’t need to worry at all- this is another series that never stays on my library shelves.  For those who haven’t read the book, it’s absolutely fascinating.  When Janie finds her own picture on the back of milk carton, labeled as a missing child, her entire world is turned upside down.  Who are her parents?  Are they really her parents?  Is her whole life a lie?  This is a page-turner that tweens don’t want to put down, and I haven’t had a single reader give up on the series after one book- they all read the entire series!


  • The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright-  This is a mystery that I see many of my students reading and rereading.  Many of them read it as a class novel in 5th grade and choose to reread it again at some point during 6th grade because they enjoyed it so much.  A quick summary (courtesy of Amazon)- The attic is always a great place to look for nuggets of one’s family history, but when 12-year-old Amy explores her great-grandparents’ attic, she uncovers clues to a chilling family secret. As Amy and her Aunt Claire sift through clothes, trinkets and other memorabilia, Amy comes across Aunt Claire’s long-forgotten dollhouse, a finely crafted replica of the house they are in. Aunt Claire seems unusually distressed about the dollhouse and Amy is determined to find out why. The real fun begins when Amy learns that the dolls in the dollhouse move of their own willAand that they seem to be trying to tell her something. After a little sleuthing at the local library, Amy learns that her great-grandparents were murdered years ago and that Aunt Claire’s fiance (who died in a car accident that same night) was the prime suspect in the unsolved case.  Chilling!


  • Silent to the Bone by E.L. Konigsburg- What happened on November 25, 2:43 P.M. to cause Branwell Zamborska to become stop speaking? All anyone knows is that he called 911 because his baby sister stopped breathing, and when he was unable to speak to the operator, Vivian, the English nanny, said that Branwell had dropped the baby and shaken her. Branwell’s best friend, Connor, begins visiting him at the juvenile hall, where he has been sent while Nikki remains in a coma at the hospital. Working out a code they both can use, Connor begins the long process of trying to communicate with his friend to find out what really happened. Connor knows that his best friend didn’t hurt the baby, but how can he prove it to everyone else if Branwell won’t speak. This is a realistic mystery that kids won’t want to put down.


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Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- The Struggling Reader

Sometimes the hardest tweens to shop for are those who read below grade-level.  They long to read the books that their peers are reading but the fact is they have note reached that level yet.  And they don’t want to read “baby” books.  Below are a few books that my struggling 6th grade readers are really enjoying this year.


  • Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little by Peggy Gifford- Moxy Maxwell is a procrastinator (much like my students). She was assigned Stuart Little for summer reading, but it is still unread on the last day before the first day of school. Sound familiar? Moxy won’t be allowed to play the eighth daisy petal in the water ballet at the local pool if she hasn’t finished the book by the time Mom returns home. Moxy is trying to read. Or start to read. But things keep getting in the way! First, Moxy’s room must be cleaned, Then the dog has to be trained. She also takes time to ponder the idea of inventing a hammock that automatically stops swinging when the person gets off. She decides to plant a peach orchard). And all of her procrastinations are documented by her brother, a budding photographer. The book has great photos and a lot of white space, perfect for struggling readers! Plus, it’s hysterical.


  • Clementine by Sara Pennypacker- Clementine will remind older readers of Ramona and Junie B. Jones. Always getting into scrapes, she only has the best of intentions. For example, who hasn’t cut their friend’s hair in order to get glue out of it? Clementine takes it a step further (and better) by drawing hair back on her friend’s scalp. In flaming red marker! Readers will be laughing out loud while reading this book!


  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick- Last year’s Caldecott winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a gorgeous and stunning book. It’s also perfect for struggling readers. The story is told in words and pictures. Flipping through the book is almost like watching a movie. The illustrations sometimes go on for 50 pages and if you don’t read the pictures, you won’t understand the story. The perfect cross between a novel and a graphic novel, this 544 page book is just perfect for older readers who struggle with typical novels. And the heavy tome makes them fit right in with their peers.


  • Just Grace by Charise Mericle Harper- Just Grace is in class with three other Graces. Hence the “Just Grace” moniker. Her adventures are reminiscent of Ramona and Moxy, with plenty of laughs and scrapes to get into (and out of).  This is the beginning of a great series that readers won’t want to put down!


  • The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick- Ten-year-old Victor has no success trying to do the same tricks as his hero, Harry Houdini; no matter how hard or often he tries, he just can’t escape from a locked trunk, or hold his breath underwater, or run through walls. Then he meets the magician himself in a crowded train station, and some time later receives a mysterious locked box engraved with the initials “E. W.” Victor can’t figure out who E. W. is and, annoyed, puts the box away without a second thought. Many years later, after he grows up and has a son of his own, he learns that Houdini’s real name was Ehrich Weiss. Remembering the box, he rushes home, opens it, and that night, he locks himself in the trunk–and escapes in less than 20 seconds. The book includes a small biography of Houdini and is perfect for magic-lovers.

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Writing Letter-essays

One of my favorite reading units is Letter-essays.  Based on Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers, letter-essays are letters that students write to me on a rotating basis about the book they are reading or have just finished reading.  I love the interaction that the letter-essays breed and the growth I see in them across the school year is phenomenal.

This year I started my letter-essay unit about 3 weeks later than last year.  My students need more scaffolding this year and I felt it would go better if I had a little more time to work up to it with them.  I am also altering my unit a bit.  For the first time I am using Lucy Calkins’ Literary Essay unit of study to guide the unit.  While my students won’t be writing literary essays, the unit of study provides a perfect backdrop for the letter-essays.  It does a great job of getting students to think about their reading and start responding to it deeply; something they haven’t done much of until now.  

It’s always a struggle in the beginning because students are used to answering straight comprehension questions about their reading.  Thinking deeply is difficult, but the results are always awesome!  At the end of this week I will introduce an example letter-essay from a former student and have students begin writing a rough draft of their first letter-essay.  By Winter Break the students will have a schedule of due dates and the first letter-essays will be due in mid-January.  After that, they will write me a letter once a month, which I will respond to.  

For the first time I am considering having students write letter-essays to a classmate also, on the alternate weeks.  I think it is so important for students to see the social connections books bring us, and letter-essays are a non-threatening way to do this.

Summit and Catherine Hardwicke Part Ways for Twilight Sequels

I know I have a lot of Twilight fans reading the blog feed.  I was very surprised when I opened my favorite Hollywood gossip page and read  that  Catherine Hardwicke, director of Twilight, has been fired.  Deadline Hollywood ( updating page with new announcements as they come) says “Summit Entertainment Co-Chairman/CEO Rob Friedman just phoned me to say: ‘Catherine and Summit have agreed to part ways on the sequel because our visions are different.’”    Within minutes of reading the gossip online, Summit made an official announcement.  

I still haven’t seen the movie, but I find this news fascinating.  I know that Nikki Reed and Kristen Stewart made it quite clear that Hardwicke was the reason they signed on for the movie in the first place.  I wonder how they are taking this news?  

As Harry Potter fans know, different directors don’t necessarily effect box office results when a movie/series already has a rabid following.  But if any of the actors choose to leave, that might make a bigger difference to the tween fans.  Honestly though, my students are obsessed with the character and the stories- not the actors and actresses on the screen.  I doubt they would even notice!

Still, interesting news…

Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- The Twilight Fanatic

The symptoms are clear.  Your tween reader is suddenly in love with an older man.  A much older man.  His name is Edward Cullen.  Or maybe your teen suddenly asks about becoming a vegetarian.  You know, like the vampires.  Before you know it, you’ve been dragged to a midnight showing of Twilight and you have no idea what has gotten into your tween!

These symptoms have been manifesting themselves in my classroom for weeks now.  Boys and girls alike are working their way through Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (The Twilight Saga, Book 1) series.  But what do they read after they finish the addictive story of Edward and Bella?


For the reader who is now obsessed with vampires:

  • London, 1850 (The Vampire Plagues I) by Sebastian Rook- Set in London’s Victorian Age, an enormous ship has just reached port. From its hull, a flock of bats ascends and disappears into the streets of London. Jack plans to board the ship, in search of food or money to steal. Instead, he meets a boy who is running for his life! The boy recounts horrific tales about a vampire plague that’s killed the entire crew. Jack immediately vows to vanquish the creatures and this is the first book in a series. Great for those who love the vampires in Meyers’ books!



  • Cirque Du Freak Boxed Set #1 by Darren Shan- Soon to be a feature-length motion picture starring John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek, Cirque Du Freak is the story of a young boy who visits a freak show and must become a vampire in order to save his friend’s life. Sufficiently gory and creepy in turn, this is a series that rarely stays on the shelves in my classroom library. With the movie being released in 2009, it will only grow in popularity!


For the romance lover:

  • The Luxe by Anna Godbersen- Like Gossip Girl, only set in the 1890’s, this luscious tale of murder (or so the reader thinks), love, class, and wealth is full of ballrooms, gowns, and illicit romances. My Meyers’ fans are passing this series around and loving it!


For the “I love Stephenie Meyers and Gossip Girl/The Clique” reader:

  • Blue Bloods (Blue Bloods, Book 1) by Melissa de la Cruz- This story features a group of attractive, privileged Manhattan teens who attend a prestigious private school. Sound familiar? Schuyler Van Alen is 15 and the last of the line in a distinguished Manhattan family. Schuyler and her friends Oliver and Dylan are treated like outsiders by the clique of popular, athletic, and beautiful teens made up of Mimi Force, her twin brother, and her best friend at their school. Little do they know that they are all more connected than they realize. What they have in common is the fact that they are all Blue Bloods, or vampires. They don’t realize that they aren’t normal teens until they reach age 15. Then the symptoms manifest themselves and they begin to crave raw meat, have nightmares about events in history, and get prominent blue veins in their arms. Their immortality and way of life are threatened after Blue Blood teens start getting murdered by a splinter group called the Silver Bloods.


The “I will read anything Stephenie Meyers says is great” fan:

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins- When Stephenie Meyer mentioned on her website that she loved Suzanne Collins’ new book, The Hunger Games, teens all over the world began clamoring for copies. What they didn’t know is that booksellers, librarians, and teachers had already been talking about the book and building buzz for a possible Newbery Medal or Honor. A phenomenal book, tweens won’t be able to put The Hunger Games down! Katniss is a 16-year-old girl living with her mother and younger sister in the poorest district of Panem, the remains of what used be the United States. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, “The Hunger Games.” The location, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed. When Kat’s sister is chosen by lottery, Kat steps up to go in her place. A frightening combination of Survivor and American Idol, you won’t be able to put this one down!



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Dog Lost by Ingrid Lee

I first got wind of this book at a publisher’s preview back in May. When I discovered it was nominated for a Cybil Award in the Middle Grades category, I was excited that I would get the chance to read it.

Dog Lost is the story of a boy and his dog. But it’s more than just a fluffy animal story. Mackenzie lives with his dad, and he certainly isn’t a good dad. An alcoholic who hasn’t been the same since Mack’s mom died, he comes home drunk one night and dumps a puppy on Mack’s bed. Mackenzie is stunned, as is the puppy who has never had a decent home. The two quickly become inseparable, with Mack making sure Cash the puppy never bothers Dad.  Best friends from the get-go, the two spend hours at the park, chasing squirrels, and just cuddling at night.  Mack isn’t sure why so many of the neighbors in his run-down neighborhood run the other way when they see Cash coming, because she is just a big love-bug.

What Mack doesn’t realize is that Cash is a pitbull.

He also doesn’t know that the town is about to pass a law outlawing pit bulls.

Mack loves Cash and Cash loves him right back.  She is nothing but a gentle giant, and a baby at that.  But when his dad is drunk and angry one night and goes after Mack, Cash immediately jumps between them.  Growling at dad to protect her best friend she puts herself in danger.  Dad grabs Cash, stuffs her in the trunk of his car, and drives to an empty field where he dumps her.  Mack is heartbroken and Cash is lost and alone.

While Cash and Mack are separated for the next year and a half, the pit bull law is pushed through the town legislative bodies, Cash survives on her own (making new friends and enemies), a neighbor continues his dogfighting ring, and a downtrodden neighborhood narrowly avoids two tragedies.  

This is a beautiful, heartfelt book that will connect with any animal lover.  I think I can even get some of my sports fans to read, thanks to Michael Vick’s recent dogfighting conviction.  Dogfighting and pit bulls have been in the news a lot over the past year and this timely book will force readers to really consider their position on both.  And anyone who has ever had a pet will identify with the relationship between a boy and his dog.

Poetry Friday

For this week’s Poetry Friday I decided to do a meme I have seen floating around the internet.  I love music and poetry, and this seemed to combine the two in a fun way.


“Be Pete Wentz” Meme
Put your player on shuffle.
The first lines of the first twenty songs that come up are your “poem/song”
The 21st line is the title.


I don’t get many things right the first time

You say you’ve turned it off,
I’ll take you just the way you are.
I dont know why I act the way I do,
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.

Baby look at me,
Walking along beneath the lights of that miracle mile.
I set out on a narrow way many years ago,
I said I wanna touch the earth.

I see your face in my mind as I drive away,
Tired of my beeper, tired of my phone.
Katie you’re a brave girl, and I know its only just started.
Pray God you can cope.

Today was the worst day, I went through hell,
the holidays are here again, the world is white with snow.
It’s astounding, time is fleeting
By the look in your eyes I can tell you’re gonna cry.

Oh, why you look so sad?
This boy here wants to move too fast,
Another summer day
There’s a blue rockin’ chair, sittin’ in the sand.

Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- Non-fiction

For some reason, we always seem to skip over non-fiction when we buy books for children. Yet it is one of, if not the, most popular genres when you ask kids what they like to read. So with that in mind, here are some favorites from my classroom library!

  • Albino Animals by Kelly Milner Halls- My students are obsessed with this cool book about albinos. Full of pictures, some of which are a little creepy (it’s the red eyes!), kids won’t be able to put this one down. The chapters are arranged by animal category (reptiles and amphibians, sea mammals, and so on), and Halls cites real-life examples of albino animals and discusses the special concerns that albinism raises in each one. And this Language Arts teacher loves that a glossary and bibliography are included!


  • The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose- This is the story of the first modern endangered species in America, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. In 1800, the large and impressive woodpecker lived in the southeastern United States, from Texas to the Carolinas and as far north as Indiana. By 1937, it could be found on only one tract of land in northeastern Louisiana. Its last confirmed sighting was in Cuba in 1987. The story is full of suspense and intrigue and is difficult to put down. There are original archival photos included, along with paintings (the Ivory-billed woodpecker was a frequent model for artists). A great book for any kid who loves animals, endangered species, or the environment.


  • The Devil on Trial: Witches, Anarchists, Atheists, Communists, andTerrorists in America’s Courtrooms by Philip Margulies- For some reason, court trials are absolutely fascinating when you are in middle school. aturing five famous trials, this book examines the way our right to a fair trial can be threatened, when people are tempted to abandon their principles in the name of safety. Trials included in this book include the always-popular Salem Witch Trials, the Haymarket Affair Trial, the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, the trial of Alger Hiss, and the recent trial of Zacarias Moussaoui


  • Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past by James M. Deem- Perfect for that one child in your life who is fascinated by gross and/or morbid things. In 1991, mountain climbers on the Niederjoch Glacier on the Italian-Austrian border came across something gross: a body. It had been a very warm summer, and five bodies had already turned up in the area (sadly common on mountaintops). But something here was different. The materials found with the body suggested it might be very old, perhaps from the 1800s. But radiocarbon dating proved the iceman was 5,300 years older, from the Copper Age. He was named Ötzi and he is the oldest human mummy preserved in ice ever found. Deem takes the reader on a fascinating journey as you learn about the mummy and the scientists who studied him.


  • The Way We Work by David Macauley- This is the book that any future doctor needs! David Macauley reveals the intricacies of the human body with detailed artistic drawings. The book is divided into seven sections – from the cells that form our foundation to the individual systems they build. Each gorgeous illustration details different aspects of our complex body structure, explaining the function of each and offering up-close glimpses and unique cross-sections and perspectives. Plus, it’s funny, too!


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Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- Read Alouds

I often get strange looks from other middle school educators when I tell them that I read aloud to my students everyday.  For some reason, adults have this idea that they should stop reading out loud to children once they are able to read for themselves.  This couldn’t be farther from the truth!  Reading aloud to your children is a great way to spend time together, have meaningful discussions, get to know your children better, and share a special bond.  (For more information on why all families should read aloud, at any age, check out Jim Trelease’s web site).

I always read a wide variety of genres to my students.  Some of the most popular read alouds include:


The Underneath by Kathi Appelt- The most recent read aloud we have completed as a class, this deeply complex novel is dark, moving, and full of hope.  My students were engaged in the story and our conversations ranged from the philosophical to the angry to the intense.

Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick- Every year my classes create Valentine’s Day Hope Chests for the patients at the Institute for Children with Cancer and Blood Disorders.  Before we begin the project we read Sonnenblick’s heartwarming and funny story about a middle school boy whose brother is diagnosed with leukemia.  While the premise is heartbreaking, Sonnenblick approaches it realistically and much the book will leave you laughing out loud.  A great conversation starter, this book is great for middle schoolers.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt- Would you choose to live forever, if given the choice? That’s the decision 10 year old Winnie Foster must make when she meets the mysterious Tuck family. Referred to as the greatest children’s novel ever written, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting will force you and your child to think long and hard about the road they would choose. (Keep in mind that the book starts out slowly, but it quickly snowballs and becomes a pageturner!)

The Giver by Lois Lowry- Another controversial book that will stoke some great arguments. Jonas lives in the Community, a utopian town where no one argues, no one fights, and everything is perfect. Or is it? Does a lack of choices mean perfection? Or is it all just a big lie? (This is a book chock full of higher level thinking. And be aware that the meat of the story involves human euthanasia, a mature topic).

Guys Write for Guys Read: Boys’ Favorite Authors Write About Being Boys by Jon Scieszka- Aimed at reluctant middle school boys, this books never fails to connect with my girls, too. More than 80 guys (from Lloyd Alexander to Paul Zelinsky) contribute very short stories/anecdotes about their childhood. The stories range from the grotesque to the heartwarming to the hysterically funny. Short story anthologies are great read alouds because you can pick and choose the stories to read and they don’t take a lot of time to get through. Perfect for the busy family!

Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson- Need a great adventure book to hook your kids? Having trouble finding a well-written adventure book that adults can enjoy as much as kids? This is the perfect book! .Tom is a kid. He lives on top of a rock, in an old house that’s literally chained to the ground. He’s not too thrilled that his mom is considering marrying her boyfriend, Jeff, a teacher from his school. When a new refrigerator is delivered on the same day that his mother ponders accepting Jeff’s proposal, Tom takes the large box and sets off sailing down the creek that runs through his yard. Rebellious and angry, he rides the current for miles, eventually falling asleep. He awakens when the water becomes rough and he is suddenly pulled under a ridge and into the bowels of the mountain. He is alone, and trapped. Save for a dog and a corpse to keep him company….I hesitate to summarize anymore of the plot for fear of spoilers. Tom is brave, scared, brilliant, naive, and in a million other ways a normal eleven year old boy. He is Robinson Crusoe. He is Odysseus. He is MacGuyver. He is eleven.

Writing Leads to Deeper Learning

According to a recent study by the National Survey of Student Engagement, when students are engaged in a variety of writing assignments, they are more likely to synthesize, analyze, and perform a variety of other higher level thinking.  While the study focused on college undergraduates, I can’t help but think that this must be true for younger students, too.  I see the results of increased writing in my own classes.  My students are more engaged, more knowledgeable, and more passionate when they write.  

So keep writing!


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