Hello, my name is Betsy and I am addicted to book shelves. Let me clarify: Not MY bookshelves (although they are wonderful), but rather those found in a library, book store, Target….I always let out a quick “whew!” If I’m able to pass the book section without tiptoeing in, for I know it will not only devour my time, but my budget. The power of the printed word, AMIRITE? The butterflies in my chest flutter their happy wings every time I meander through the aisles of Barnes and Noble, and don’t even get me started on those cute little Main Street book shops (I would send Kathleen Kelly a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if she opened The Shop Around the Corner in my town).
Maybe you’re with me on this, or maybe you get the same warm fuzzies but in other venues, like museums, craft stores, concert halls, or sporting venues. Regardless, I’m sure I’m not alone when I profess just how difficult it can be for me to narrow down my book selection. For me, I just keep a constantly growing list of books I’d like to read nearby, adding to it every time a new title peeps out to say hello. When I’m selecting novels to read with my students, however, that tends to be a different story.
Not only are we trying to find novels that are available, but we also need to consider our kids, our schedules, our objectives, and our parents – A far more serious task than selecting for ourselves. There are plenty of novels I would love for my students to read, but it doesn’t mean they should or could. There’s also that little issue of time. Mainly, there’s not enough of it for me to read every novel in advance in order to discern which I should teach. Some of you may not have a choice when it comes to novel studies – you may have the titles chosen for you, or may be limited to whatever you have at your disposal. Others may have never planned for or led a novel study. Maybe you’ve done it countless times, but with the same novels and would love to bring something fresh back in to devour. Whatever the case, I’d love to dig a little deeper into novel selection in grades 1-5, primarily for the purpose of novel study and analysis (however, these guidelines would be great for independent reads just as well, depending on the student and his/her needs). We don’t just want to find those novels that will seamlessly intertwine with our content – we want our kids to bury their noses, feel all the feels, and truly cherish the words they’re reading. Difficult, but not impossible!
There are plenty of ways to break down the selection process for finding those true gems, but I’d like to focus on three primary criteria: Appropriateness, Relevance, and Quality. The order is irrelevant, for priorities and needs shift from one group of students to the next. In addition, I’ll illustrate each factor with an example from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to give it some context.
NOVEL STUDIES IN GRADES 1-5: FINDING THE BOOK YOUR STUDENTS WILL CHERISH
It likely goes without saying, but one of the most important factors we should consider is age appropriateness and readability/Lexile Range.
Common Core clarifies appropriateness through the following expectations:
The Lexile ranges aligned to College and Career Readiness Expectations are as follows:
2nd-3rd grades : 450-790
4th-5th grades : 770-980
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Novels with a higher readability, if appropriate, could of course be read with teacher scaffolding. We know all students benefit from this, even those who may be proficient readers and on track for college and career readiness. Mastering higher levels of text complexity requires guidance. Period. We’d likely be doing our students a disservice to simply hand them a rigorous text and assume they have the skills and motivation to read and analyze it in depth. That’s not to say there isn’t value in literature circles, book clubs, or independent studies. We know those benefits all too well! I would just suggest selecting the first novel of the school year as a whole-group read, for it allows you to model the heck out of it while giving your students expectations, practice, and skills for implementation through think alouds and discussions that can easily reach all learners.
Novels within your students’ Lexile ranges (or even below depending on the text and your students) would certainly be preferred for independent study or book clubs. The challenge here would be ensuring the right books are getting into the right hands. Pre-reading these titles is probably best to ensure content appropriateness, as well as the likelihood that your students will connect in terms of their cognitive abilities, background knowledge, and motivations.
For example, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has a Lexile score of 580L. Although the syntax is generally considered to be of lower demand, in the 2nd-3rd grade range, the semantics are of a much higher demand. Thus, as indicated in Common Core’s Appendix B of the ELA standards, it would be appropriate for a 4th-5th grader. I chose to read and study this whole group with 4th graders towards the beginning of the school year. I toyed with the idea of allowing them to study it in book clubs; however, I’m glad I made the choice I did, for we were able to reach depths that the students would not have had the skills to reach alone, and I was able to model appropriate pacing, questioning, and discussions (among other things).
Whether you’re teaching in a state that follows Common Core or not, we’re all held accountable to standards and thus are likely to merge our content through cross-curricular activities as often as possible, knowing that it is best practice for higher order thinking, connection, and application. Novel studies are no different, for if we’re spending a significant amount of time on their content, then they need to be relevant to our educational objectives. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves in terms of educational relevance:
Does the novel provide opportunities for specific standards to be addressed and learning objectives to be explored?
Is critical thinking encouraged regarding age-relevant, conflict-driven situations and diverse points of view?
Are voices from different eras or cultures presented?
Are there applicable and appropriate paired texts (news articles, websites, videos, blogs, or scholarly articles) available?
We want the novel to be relevant in multiple areas (educational objectives, student interests and needs, etc), but we also want it to remain relevant – will they think about it? Talk about it? Connect with it?
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, there really weren’t many opportunities for cross-curricular connections, aside from research into the era and setting for context and insight into Carroll’s and Alice’s motivations. However, we hit plenty of ELA standards in all strands. Critical thinking was certainly encouraged through conflict-driven situations, diverse points of view, and voices from different eras. Additionally, we referenced applicable paired texts frequently, from articles to poetry.
A novel may be appropriate and relevant, but if it is lacking in quality, it may not be the best choice for analytical purposes. When evaluating the quality of a novel, there are a few elements worth considering:
Levels of Meaning – Essentially, texts that leave various elements open to interpretation, meaning not everything is linear in meaning, will be ranked higher in quality for they engage readers in actively interpreting the story verses simply reading it. If we want students to develop into critical readers and thinkers, then we need to provide them with tools that challenge and exercise those mental muscles.
Complex Structure – The plot of the novel, while the essential substance of the story, is only as good as it’s presented. Some plots require linear, chronological structures to be told effectively; however, as students develop as readers, they require exposure to more diverse, unconventional structures to master higher levels of text complexity. Consider this, and how students would do when analyzing how various structural elements are at work within the story, when selecting your next novel!
Sophisticated Graphics – If a novel has graphics, of any kind, consider how they interact with the story. Ideally, a novel’s graphics, like a picture book’s, would serve a dual purpose – to support the text with additional meaning and to stand alone as an analytical entity. If you really want to explore novels with sophisticated graphics, consider a graphic novel. There are plenty to choose from, some of which have recently won Newbery Honors!
Figurative Language – Obviously it would depend on the age and learning objectives, but typically figurative language is a huge plus in the literary world! I know you lower elementary teachers get me when I say that even our youngest learners love connecting the dots and discovering new intricacies of our language! They would need more scaffolding, but MAN is it beneficial.
Multiple, Complex Themes – Keeping age in mind, the stronger (yet more implicitly) a theme is portrayed, the higher the level of potential discussion. We already know the value in these themes – they have the power to both connect with our students and expose them to the new and unfamiliar.
Multiple, Differing Perspectives – Many of our students, especially our younger ones, are still learning to see and handle themselves within their world, among their peers. Featuring these perspectives within contexts that they understand can help develop their own perspectives, empathy, and awareness.
Awards and Acknowledgments – While not a deal breaker, it certainly doesn’t hurt. The selection process for many of the more prestigious awards is as rigorous as it is unforgiving. For a novel to be acknowledged as a winner, or even an honor book, it had to pass by some very critical eyes. Award winner lists make a great starting point, too!
While there are a crazy amount of high quality novels that are as entertaining as they are complex, a novel need not make students laugh to hook them in. They look to us more than we all realize, don’t they? A novel that carries some weight, although seemingly abstract and dry, can almost instantly hook our students with the right framing. If you find the right novel but are concerned about your students’ reactions to the lack of humor, don’t give up on it just yet! Consider spending more intentional time during pre-reading, think alouds, discussions, cooperative learning, and cross-curricular activities. Your students may just surprise you with their depth of engagement and interest.
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, levels of meaning, sophisticated graphics, figurative language, complex themes, and differing perspectives are all interwoven in a complex plot with imaginative characterization. The structure is primarily chronological; however, it isn’t necessarily linear as Alice travels through different planes of reality. The symbolism, imagery, and language alone are enough to consider this novel rich in depth and complexity. I mean, a book can be written on orange marmalade!
HOW TO FIND WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR
So you know what you’re looking for…now you just need to find it! Ha. Easier said than done, right?
First, ask around. What’s available to you? Are there class or small group sets in your library? In another classroom?
If you have the option to purchase class or small group sets (either with permission, a grant, fundraising, Donor’s Choose, or for your personal collection), try a simple search for “middle grade novel reviews” and trust blog post reviews over Amazon. They’re more likely to be objective with the the skill set to support their reviews (librarians, teachers, book store owners, English majors, authors, etc.). Of course you can also narrow your search by grade level; however, just be sure to run additional searches for reviews of specific novels. Be discerning if you’re unable to read the text prior! Also, while Teachers Pay Teachers has a plethora of novel study units available, don’t just assume that a novel is a good fit for your kids simply because you see it’s popular with your grade level on TpT. There are PLENTY of excellent novels less commonly studied that could be perfect fits.
The idea to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland came to me before I had the novels in my hands. My desire to read it was so strong that I planned on opening a Donor’s Choose project, or even purchasing a class set myself to keep on hand, if the need arose. Just in case, however, I wrote up a rationale and asked my principal first. Thankfully, she fully supported my unit and agreed to purchase a class set of the novel. It makes me SO HAPPY knowing that the school’s library now houses such an incredible story for students to experience for years to come! Just ask. You ever know!
Ultimately, you know your kids best – choose with them in mind. When I taught 4th grade (my former 2nd graders), I knew I had a very imaginative, highly vocal group on my hands! Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the perfect fit. As a follow up, I wanted another coming-of-age tale with a strong-willed female protagonist, similar to Alice, that we could compare Alice’s Adventures to. After some extensive searches through a sea of middle grade novels, Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again came out victorious. Neither of these novels were the on the list of titles referred to me when I came upstairs to 4th grade, but I knew my kids, and you know yours!
Lastly, be sure you can defend your decision! Complex literature will typically have some depths that are a bit controversial, especially in middle grade fiction. I would suggest typing out your rational with learning objectives and applicable standards and, if you don’t send it to parents initially, have it prepared in the event you need to defend your decision. It certainly won’t hurt!
Whether your state follows the CCSS or not, their website provides additional resources on text complexity and selection that are worth taking a look at:
On assessing a book’s complexity, go HERE.
For a list of suggested texts and performance tasks by grade level, go HERE.
For additional information and research on text complexity, go HERE.
And because I can’t help myself, here is my free Novel Selection Guide (this information, just a bit fancied up)! Display it, distribute it to parents, or file it away for your own personal use.