Summary: Robin Perry is an eighteen-year-old kid from Harlem who has joined the army after the events of September 11, 2001. He is assigned to a civil affairs unit and is quickly given the name of “birdy” by his fellow soldiers. As his unit is given their assignments, Birdy quickly realizes that war isn’t exactly what he thought when he signed his name on the recruitment papers. Over the course of events and missions, he must grapple with his early idealism of the war and the realities of what he sees in Iraq.
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The primary focus of this book is on the daily life of soldiers on the ground in Iraq. The author doesn’t try to make political statements or attempt to ingratiate readers with any certain form or type of ideology. The story line is fairly straight-forward and revolves mostly around events involving Birdy as he completes his tour of duty in Iraq. The book has received praise from veterans of foreign wars as being very realistic as to how the regular soldier views and experiences war on the ground. Even though there is violence in the novel—it is essentially a war story—the action isn’t over the top and doesn’t come anywhere close to what middle school kids experience when they play their favorite shooter video games.
Why middle school kids should read this book: There is value in kids reading books about situations involving real-life events and decisions they may have to make in the future—as in “should I join the armed services or not?” Even though the action follows an eighteen-year-old young man, most middle schoolers will be able to relate to the main character. The slight age-gap will not be enough to dissuade most middle schoolers from picking up the book.
Discussion points with kids:
- How do the Iraqi people view the arrival of the American soldiers? Find two examples from the book to back up your claim.
- How does Birdy’s viewpoint on the war change from the beginning of the novel to the end of the novel?
- What is the role of Uncle Richie in the story? Why does the author include him in the novel?
- Look at the map in the beginning of the book. Spend ten minutes memorizing the names of the cities and rivers in Iraq and the countries surrounding Iraq. See if you can draw a map from memory. How close can you come to the real map?
- Do some research on the nation of Iraq. What is the history of the country? What events helped create the nation as it exists today?
Overall evaluation of this book: This is a very good book about a part of the world many Americans know little about. This novel neither glorifies war nor is an anthem to anti-war believers. It has more of a “this-is-what-I’m-experiencing” feel to it. Four Stars. ★★★★
Summary: Karana is a twelve-year-old Indian girl who has been left behind on a Pacific Island. As the villagers are leaving, she jumps from the ship, hoping to save her six-year-old brother. She fails in her efforts but now finds herself stranded. For the next eighteen years, Karana must learn how to survive by herself on the deserted island filled with wild dogs and other dangers. She must find her own fresh water, catch her own fish, and do whatever it takes to survive without anyone else helping her.
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book is widely taught and read in the elementary grades but I’m including it here because many younger middle school kids also immensely enjoy reading this book—and just in case your kids missed the story during their elementary school days. It’s a fast read, so don’t be surprised if kids are done with the story in one rainy afternoon.
Why middle school kids should read this book: The Island of the Blue Dolphins is slowly achieving classic status among media specialists (think librarians here). It’s the ultimate woman vs. nature battle in which everything is at stake. (Kids sometimes think about what it would be like if they had to live on their own and fend for themselves—this book lets them fantasize about it without having to do any of the difficult work of actually living on their own.) The pace of the story is not as frantic as those which are written today, but not everything kids read needs to have been penned at 100 miles-an-hour.
Discussion points with kids:
- What are the obstacles Karana must overcome to survive? List five of Karana’s biggest obstacles.
- What other books have you read that are similar to this story? How are they similar? How are they different?
- Karana is alone on the island. What does she do to avoid going crazy? List three specific examples.
- How does the author use the written language to make it appear as though you are on the island with Karana? Find three examples in the book.
- How is Karana different at the end of the novel than she was in the beginning of the story?
- After being rescued, what problems is Karana going to have living with people again?
Overall evaluation of this book: A short but poignant novel. Five Stars ★★★★★
Summary: Brian Robeson is a thirteen-year-old who is traveling on a plane to visit his father in the Canadian wilderness. Along the way, the pilot suffers a heart attack and the plane crashes into a small lake. Brian barely escapes with his life and finds himself stranded in the middle of a forested wilderness with little except a hatchet. He needs to build his own shelter, start a fire, find food, or he will die. Unfortunately, Brian knows little about surviving in a harsh wilderness with nothing but his wits to guide him. Brian spends the next fifty-four days alone, hoping a miracle will happen and someone will save him.
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: It is very rare for a middle school kid to not like this book. It has all of the elements for a great story—kid trapped in the wilderness, no possibility of rescue, no food, no shelter, and nothing but a hatchet to keep them company. Boys especially seem to be drawn to this story but girls have also really enjoyed this book. It is a quick read, so don’t be afraid to suggest this book to a reading-averse child.
Why middle school kids should read this book: It’s the adventure story of a lifetime—the prototype of man vs. nature dilemma that you probably still recall from your own school days. At its heart, however, this story is about self-reliance. How can that be a bad thing for kids to read and learn about?
Discussion points with kids:
- Why is this story called “Hatchet?”
- What would have happened if Brian had been forced to survive the winter in the wilderness? Could he have survived? Why or why not?
- This story is about man vs. nature. Find three examples where Brian had to overcome nature to survive. Find three examples where Brian worked in harmony with nature to survive.
- This is a very short book. Why did Gary Paulson write such a short book? What are the advantages and disadvantages if he had written a much longer book?
- Predict what would have happened if Brian had not had a hatchet with him.
- What does Brian learn about himself during his fifty-four days in the wilderness?
Overall evaluation of this book: A solid adventure book. Four Stars ★★★★
Summary: This is the story of what happens when four kids from a blended family become shipwrecked on a small island in the Pacific Ocean. Vanessa and Buzz’s father has recently married Carter and Jane’s mother. Consequently, the kids hardly know one another. A sudden storm crashes their uncle’s boat on the shoals. They barely escape with their lives but their uncle and his deckhand are nowhere to be seen. The kids must learn now work together and get along because their very survival depends on it. As they explore the surroundings on their island, they must solve the problem of food, fresh water, and shelter. This book is the first in a series chronicling their adventures on the island so there won’t be any resolution to any problems until the series is finished.
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book is short and sweet and the plot clips along at a fairly rapid pace. There is no rough language or inappropriate scenes so you won’t have to worry about that. This book may be better suited for a younger middle school child. This isn’t the best book about young adolescents being left to their own devices—Hatchet, The Cay, and Island of the Blue Dolphins are far better—but the fact this book has the words “Host of Survivor Jeff Probst” on the cover will probably steer your modern middle school child toward this book instead.
Why middle school kids should read this book: Kids who have difficulty reading may find this one to their liking. The plot is engaging and Chris Tebbetts is a good writer—you didn’t really think Jeff Probst wrote the book do you?—so the action moves along at a brisk pace. And of course, the eternal question—will they make it off the island alive?—will cause kids to want to read the second and third and then the next book in the series, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
Discussion points with kids:
- Look at a map of the Pacific Ocean and try to guess the location of the island on which the kids are stranded. Use clues from the book to make your guess more accurate.
- Imagine you are deserted on an island by yourself. Think about what you would have to do to find food and water and shelter. Where would you look? What would you look for?
- What would happen if you had another brother and sister in your house or apartment and they were your same age? What compromises would you have to make? Would you be able to make these compromises to help your new brother and sister feel at home? Would the compromises you make be easy or difficult to make?
Overall evaluation of this book: A well-written and short thriller with more to come. Three Stars ★★★
Summary: Young Billy Colman has a problem. He desperately wants a pair of hound dogs but can’t afford them. So what does he do? He takes on all sorts of jobs and picks berries which he sells for a few pennies to accumulate the money necessary to purchase the dogs. Of course, it takes him two years to earn the money, but eventually he is the proud owner of two coon hounds he names Old Dan and Little Ann. Billy trains the dogs himself and spends many a night in the Ozarks of northeastern Oklahoma getting the dogs ready for competition. He also desperately wants to capture the most wily raccoon in the woods, known as the ghost coon. The dogs win an important coon-hunting award but just when you think things are going Billy’s way, he encounters a mountain lion. The dogs stay and protect Billy but will they survive the encounter? What follows is one of the most memorable endings in children’s literature.
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is considered to be a modern classic. You may even have read this book when you were young. Kids today still read this book and many teachers will use the novel in the classroom, but it won’t be the most common book flying off the shelves in your local media center. Still, the themes found in the book are still applicable today. And who doesn’t like a good dog story?
Why middle school kids should read this book: The story of a bond between boy and dog is hard to pass up—unless, that is, your kids hate dogs and don’t get into Billy’s character or the Ozark setting. The story does reinforce the importance of hard work, patience, and loyalty—all traits we want middle school kids to possess.
Discussion points with kids:
- Find three examples of how the setting in the Ozarks adds to the storyline.
- The ending of the book is famous. How does the author use the Native American legend of the red fern to generate an emotional appeal in the reader?
- Rewrite the ending of the book, using another legend, saying, or quote, or myth.
- Could this story happen today? Why or why not?
- Would most kids work as hard and as long as Billy to accumulate $50? Would you? What is the difference between working for the $50 and being given $50 to purchase the dogs?
Overall evaluation of this book: A great story which appeals to all ages. Five Stars ★★★★★
Summary: Stanley Yelnats has been unjustly sent to the boys’ detention camp at Camp Green Lake. In addition to being wrongly imprisoned, Stanley has the misfortune of belonging to a family who has a lengthy history of bad luck, beginning with his great great grandfather. Every day, Stanley and the other inmates dig a hole in the ground exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. The warden claims it is part of their rehabilitation training but Stanley eventually begins to suspect otherwise. He escapes the clutches of the warden but soon finds he has bigger troubles than the warden finding him—namely how to stay alive. Fortunately, there are lots of onions at his disposal to eat. Will he manage to stay alive long enough thwart the warden? Or will he fall victim to hunger and dehydration?
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a fun book to read and has characters which are slightly off-center. In addition, lots of onions are consumed by the characters in order to stay alive. How can that not be interesting and amusing? It has serious themes but it’s not really a serious book. The novel is reasonably short and is probably best suited for younger middle school kids.
Why middle school kids should read this book: Kids will resonate with the theme of evil adults mercilessly enslaving innocent kids and forcing them to do backbreaking manual labor—a somewhat common fantasy fear amongst middle school kids. But look at it this way—if they read the book, maybe they will get it out of their system and not be paranoid about what your motives may be when you ask them to complete their chores.
Discussion points with kids:
- What other books have you read which are similar to Holes? How are they similar? How are they different?
- The main character is worried about the perception that his family has a reputation of being rotten and that he is somehow tarnished by the misdeeds of his great-great-grandfather. Is Stanley responsible for what other people in his family have done or believed to have done? Why?
- Imagine you were writing this book. Would you have written it differently? How? Would you have changed the ending? What about the beginning?
- What should happen to middle school kids who break the law? Should we send them away to places like Camp Green Lake—with hard work and a rigid structure—or should we do something else with them? What?
- Stanley Yelnats is forced to live and work with a group of boys he doesn’t even know. What specific things does he do to ensure his survival?
Overall evaluation of this book: Boys and kids who don’t like to read especially seem to love this book. Five Stars ★★★★★