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I’ve always taken seriously the matter of choice in books, movies, music, all things cultural. Choice plays a great role in motivating readers; kids (and probably adults) want to read more if they get to choose. There is another angle to the choice factor though.
Linda Holmes’ essay on NPR, The Sad Beautiful Fact that We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything, puts another spin on choice. While not her point, it reminds me of my conviction that life is just too short to read baaaad stories. And for kids, surrounding them with good stories (that they can choose from) increases the probability that they’ll want to read another. A bad story leads to an unrewarding reading experience and can just prove their point–that reading is dumb, boring, and a waste of time.
So how does one determine if a story is good? Two factors are critical. The first is: Where is a child is developmentally (check under the tag Choosing Books to read more articles about this). And the second is: What critical elements does a story contain (or not)?
Kendall Haven in his book Story Proof: the Science behind the Startling Power of Story explains five key elements of good stories, whether for children or adults.
His five are:
- struggles, and
Good stories are character driven. A substantive character gives the reader a chance to judge relevancy, emotions, beliefs, actions, and attitudes–and a chance to create meaning. With a flat character, the story just “goes through the motions.”
Intent is about goals and motive, the what and why for the character. Actions are what the character does, the plot, the how. Actions give the story a way to explain and illuminate the characters.
Struggles, like plot or actions, are well known as a story element. The character’s struggles, though, need to be significant. Struggles are against something–a conflict, problem, something internal or external, something real, with something at stake.
Finally, details make all the other elements work. They provide enough concreteness that the reader can fit all the pieces together and remember them through mental imagery.
That’s an incredibly short summary of Haven’s work, and I can’t recommend his book highly enough. On so many levels, it will change the way you look at and evaluate stories. I encourage you, too, though, to take some stories you consider good and check them against that list. You’ll find they have all of the elements. Take some bad stories and check them; you’ll find they are missing one or more of the elements.
Here’s to all the goodness of life!
I’m not a big fan of interviews. They just don’t flip my switches. But I couldn’t resist this one with Beverly Cleary, author of the Ramona books (among many others).
I remember reading and loving Ramona when I was a kid. I remember even more vividly reading Ramona to both my boys. They are so different from one another, it’s amazing they are biologically from the same two parents (they are).
So what is it about Ramona that elementary aged children, even boys, like so much? Cleary says it well and I’ll say it a bit differently–they identify with her.
Around age seven, kids head into a new stage of development with new interests and new tasks. Many of those involve becoming competent, in kid-like ways.
That might mean learning how to be friends or how to sit still for a little longer. It might mean learning how to keep up with their stuff, make things be it a pinewood derby car or cookies. It might mean learning how to have a good fight and settle differences or how to play baseball or handle a paintbrush.
Ramona is a normal kid, going through normal kid stuff in this stage of growing competencies. It’s a struggle sometimes. It’s funny sometimes. Kids root for and identify with Ramona because that’s where they are at too.
It’s no magic formula. When stories meet kids where they are developmentally, kid and story go click–and said kid loves the story and the book and the reading. Beverly Cleary remembers and understands what it’s like to be six or eight or ten. And six or eight or ten year olds have loved her for a very long time because of it.
Thank you, Beverly, for Ramona and Henry and Ralph S. Mouse and all the other “kids” you’ve introduced us to!
I have to admit, I had no idea this was such a hot topic especially among writers.
But it’s one for parents, too, who want to help their kids grow in appropriate ways but without getting in over their heads.
R.L. LaFevers provides some solid insight and understandings about what makes teens tick and how that works in books for teens. It really is about more than word counts; it’s about how children and teens grow. Read her post here.
And if you missed my initial post about Young Adult vs. Middle Grade books, click here.
As children move past the preschool picture book and chapter book stages, their book choices broaden. While in grades 1-4, those choices feel fairly “safe” to most of us parents.
But somewhere around grades 5-8 a shift begins to take place on the shelves. And librarians like myself start to ask, “Does this book go into the Juvenile Fiction or the Young Adult fiction?” Sometimes the line gets blurry.
Debbie Ohi’s blog post MG vs. YA compiles helpful answers from several sources.
I would push an answer just a bit more, though, into the developmental arena.
I believe the Young Adult categorization fits best those books that deal with the developmental issues of adolescence.
What are those? One is the search for identity. Young Adult novels have protagonists who are trying to figure out who they are as an individual. They try on this and then that, not sure what really fits them. Middle grade novel protagonists are developmentally more into the concreteness of life–friends, siblings, the mean teacher, the lost dog, fairly ordinary (to an adult eye) daily difficulties. Discrete episodes are strung together to form the whole.
Another major adolescent issue is that of finding a set of values one can call one’s own. It’s a time of questioning the family’s and especially parent’s values–just because. It’s a time of pushing the boundaries and going against–just because. Combine the values search with the identity push, and the two make for an “I gotta be me” mentality that shapes choices for years. Middle graders, on the other hand, generally want to please, and they worry about being wrong or doing it wrong.
Those broad developmental ideas help me to sort out the books between Juvenile and Young Adult sections. It’s not foolproof, there are exceptions, but it works most of the time. And the closer the book matches a child’s developmental level, the more they will enjoy the book!
Other factors that can influence or determine the placement: If I find a book has explicit sex, drugs, or foul language, though, it goes into young adult. Larger print books usually go into Juvenile. And Juvenile books generally are shorter with shorter chapters.
I also “start” my Young Adult section at about grade 9 or 13-15 years old because that’s when adolescence begins. I run mine a little further up as well, up to about age 20 to cover more of the “edgy” stuff. This is a bit unorthodox but my stats support the approach; it works for our community.
Parents, be aware though, as your child hits about sixth grade, your involvement in what they read is critical. It is a mixed bag between sixth and ninth grade, varying between authors, publishers, schools, and libraries. My 8th grader, now and for the last year, has read between the two sections, but if it comes home from the YA section, I look it over first. You, too, need to evaluate what’s appropriate for your child at each stage. There are bazillions of books out there and librarians who would love to help you find the right ones for your child.
So read on!
Yes, there is more to life than chapter books! They are only a stepping stone on the way to fluent reading. Certainly, none of us would want children to “get stuck” in chapter book land and never move on.
But what can we do to encourage that movement onward?
First, as adults, we need to relax a bit. If a child is reading chapter books and is enjoying them and wants more of the same, find them! Even if they are “on the same level.” Developing reading fluency is hard work. Kids need to spend some “down time” with books. If they pick it a book and they are enjoying it, life is good. Their reading will develop. At this stage, it’s the number of words read that’s the critical factor, not the level. And never, never, never forget how important the enjoyment factor is.
(As an aside, since I can’t remember the source, a study was done that showed that older gifted students who were extremely proficient readers had pretty consistently all read some “fluff” stuff extensively in elementary grades–Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, comic books, etc.).
Second, during this stage it’s an immeasurable help to read aloud. Great stories are extremely motivating. Yet most great stories cannot be written in simple early reader language. You fill that critical gap by reading aloud those great, marvelous, fun, engaging stories to your child. They hear what awaits them. They want to keep working so they too can one day read those stories. But they have to hear them to know what lies ahead.
So what can you read aloud during this in-between stage? Here’s a few ideas:
- The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander (The Books of Three is the first)
- Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry
- The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
- The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (my teacher read this aloud to us in 5th grade)
- Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder (yes, the same Little House author but boys love this story)
- Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
- Frindle by Andrew Clements
- Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum
- The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Banks
- Redwall by Brian Jacques
And finally here are a few series other than The Magic Tree House:
- Time Spies by Candace Ransom
- Encyclopedia Brown by Donald Sobol
- Soup by Robert Newton Peck (these are hysterical!)
- Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew
- Chet Gecko by Bruce Hale
- Calvin & Hobbes (yes, the comic, I know many a child who developed fluency, and a great vocabulary, reading these)
Finally, if you have an older elementary aged child, you might want to read about the differences between middle grade and young adult fiction.
Let me know what I’ve missed or if you need more!