Category Archives: Middle Grade

The Next Chapter

BookshelfThis is a note I post for parents who use my class website. Please feel free to copy it and share it as you wish.

Reading Chapter Books

Reading chapter books is different from reading picture books. At the heart of it, there are two reasons to read fiction: comprehension and entertainment. To help your child/student understand and enjoy chapter books, there are a few things to think about.

First, chapter books are more complicated than picture books. Many picture books are simply concept books. This means there is no story. There are just some ideas about a topic, like counting or feelings. Chapter books are almost always stories, and the reader has to know how a story is put together. So, the reader has to know about the setting, the characters, and the time. The reader also has to know about story beginnings, middles, and ends. As well, in chapter books, the problem and solution part of a story is very important, and it takes much longer for the problem to be fixed. Many chapter book series are quite formulaic, even beyond the typical progression of the story arc in a novel. Beginning and reluctant readers will often latch onto a series because this familiarity makes reading each successive book easier.

Second, there can be two stories that happen at the same time. This means that there are two problems to think about, and sometimes two main characters. Keeping these problems straight can be hard for people just starting to read chapter books.

Third, the length of a chapter book needs good memory skills, so that the story events and details can be remembered for the whole time it takes to read the book.

Fourth, depending on the book, there can be a lot of extraneous, superfluous, and diverting information that the reader has to filter through. The more descriptive the writing, the more outside of the reader’s experience, and the more purposely obtuse details (in the case of mystery and suspense), the more difficult (and one might argue more enjoyable) the read.

The increased complexity and depth of chapter books makes them a challenge, but the plot complications, older subject matter, and rich language make them an experience for all young readers to aspire to. And each experience makes the next one better.

Here are some tips for kids reading chapter books.

Talk about what you are reading as you read. When you talk about your reading, you give your brain extra practice remembering what happens. This will help to keep the whole story in the memory for the whole time it takes to read the book.

Visualize (picture) the characters and setting as you read about them. The pictures will help you remember these important parts of the book.

As you start each chapter, think about what you read in the chapter before. This is really good if you have just picked the book up again after a break. If you can’t remember what happened before, reread the last few paragraphs you read, to remind you.

Make sure you understand what is happening. Books are supposed to make sense. If things don’t make sense, you probably read something wrong, or remembered something wrong (or you’re reading a badly written self-published book – or a badly written professionally published book authored by a “celebrity”). Go back and reread the part that is confusing you. If that doesn’t help, reread the part that makes you think the new part is confusing. For example, if you read a part that says your character is angry at his friend, but then you read a part where he and his friend are happily playing together, maybe you missed something, or misunderstood something you read. Read both sections again, to figure it out.

Always remember that the character has a problem to solve. If you think about that problem and how everything that is happening helps to solve the problem or makes the problem worse, the story will be easier to remember and more enjoyable to read.

Smarter Than Your Average Orphan

imageThe Mysterious Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart

As a teacher and an aspiring children’s writer, I read a fair bit of children’s literature, though, ‘literature’ is not the word I would use to describe some of the drivel that’s been published lately. For example, I recently read a Middle Grade fantasy that was completely ridiculous in its entirety. It was populated by cliche characters and preposterous situations, and had absolutely no grounding in reality. It was one massive contrivance that made me angrier with every page turn.

But, I’m not interested in wasting a reader’s time with long descriptions of what not to read. Rather, I would like to share books that I enjoyed, so that I can promote good writing over the pulp fiction din that currently clangs from the presses of a desperate-to-sell publishing industry.

The first book I’d like to write about is The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. It is Middle Grade, which means it’s aimed at children in and around grades 3 to 6. There are several books in the series, including a prequel, and they seem to be doing well.

To impress upon you how much I enjoyed it, I read most of it over two days.

I will not give you a plot synopsis or spoilers, except to say that a handful of exceptionally gifted orphans are recruited to save the world.

I will tell you that the author knows his audience, as he gives exactly what they are looking for in an adventure. His characters are very relatable, despite being so unusual.

Some of the situations are over the top, but not beyond the stretch of a healthy imagination. And, though some of it is predictable to one with thousands of plot lines pinging in his head, much of it is fresh and inventive, and even surprising.

What I appreciated most, however, is that these children are not operating alone. These kids, who are all geniuses in their own right, in the middle of a perilous mission, still require adult support and guidance to get the job done without dying.

This author acknowledges that these kids are being put at risk, and he doesn’t belittle or diminish the danger at all. Also, he doesn’t just have the children dumbly stumble into the danger and decide to pursue the adventure because of some unwarranted, arrogant belief that they are superior to any adult, or, worse, out of boredom. Nor does he have them appeal to all the grownups, only to be ignored or abandoned (Shades of Jacob Two Two). They are recruited by adults, to do something adults can not do, and their abilities and strengths are all the more valued because of this.

One day I’ll write a post about just how ridiculous I think it is to exorcise positive adult influences from children’s books for the sake of empowering children. But for now, let me say that The Mysterious Benedict Society is a well written novel. It has a good, literally fantastic plot. It is written in elevated language, it includes some puzzles, and it demands some thinking from the reader. It has great characterizations (though a bit Dahlesque). And it has a couple of nice surprises at the end.

If I like it…

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