Let Teens Pick Their Own Books!

 A recent New York Times article on school reading has been making the rounds among librarians, teachers and parents.  In “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like,” Motoko Rich reports on the “reading workshop” model of engaging middle school students in reading.  Unlike the traditional assignments, where the whole class reads and analyzes a classic book together, this approach encourages kids to choose their own titles.  “If your goal is simply to get them to read more, choice is the way to go,” says one literacy professor.
 At local middle schools, even kids with assigned reading can participate in a voluntary reading program. Café Book, a collaboration between the public library and eight middle schools in Fredericksburg, Stafford and Spotsylvania, encourages seventh and eighth graders to read from a list of twenty new books, discuss them during lunch periods, and vote on their favorites.

 This year’s list of titles ranges from the speculative to the creepy to the laugh-out-loud funny.  In the last category is the latest book from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, “Science Fair: A Story of Mystery, Danger, International Suspense, and a Very Nervous Frog.”

 Toby is a typical eighth grader at a suburban middle school where the annual science fair is highly competitive. “The winner last year had created, through genetic manipulation, a mutant gerbil with an extra pair of eyeballs located on its butt, so it could go through a maze either frontward or backward.”  When Toby discovers that the science fair is actually being used to overthrow the United States government, hijinks ensue.  The far-fetched plot includes bumbling terrorists, super-competitive parents, smelly cheese, a principal nicknamed The Armpit, and three uncool friends who are pursued by the FBI as they try to save the United States from destruction.  Kids who like humor and action won’t be daunted by the book’s almost 400-page length.

 Some books sell themselves with a great premise. In “The Comet’s Curse” by Dom Testa, a comet passes by earth, releasing a toxin that is killing everyone over 16.  In a desperate attempt to save humanity, scientists send 251 teens out into space in search of a new home for the human race.  The ship has not gone too far when sensors detect an extra person on board.  Could it be a toxin-carrying adult?  And who is leaving those creepy messages, like “This is a death ship”?  Chapters alternating between the voice of Roc, the on-board computer, the scientists on the space station, and the teens on board tell a story that should prompt lots of discussion.

 Nora Raleigh Baskin’s “Anything But Typical” is told by an autistic sixth grader who tries his best to live in the world of what he calls “neurotypicals.”   While Blake struggles to do what his aides and therapists have taught him – “Look people in the eye when you are talking (even if this makes it harder for you to listen)” – he thrives in an online writing site.  Here he posts stories and strikes up a friendship with a fellow writer, but the prospect of actually meeting her throws him into a panic.  Blake and his family are fully developed characters, and the story ends realistically – no sugarcoating here.

 Café Book kicks off next month.  To see the complete list of this year’s choices, log on to Teens.LibraryPoint.org.  


Originally published in the  Free Lance-Star on September 8, 2009.