Being an eighth grade Language Arts Instructor has its advantages and disadvantages.

On the plus side, my students are on the cusp of adulthood, still highly impressionable. They’ve arrived at the stage in their lives where they seek a leader, someone to guide them in the right direction, someone to help them with their tumultuous transition into young adulthood. I’m lucky to be one of those mentors and I take my job very seriously.

On the other hand, middle-schoolers can be a tough crowd to teach. After eight years of schooling, students tend to lose their outward enthusiasm for learning. Eighth graders can sometimes be mistaken for lazy, sleep-deprived, cell phone junkies who would rather watch hours of uninterrupted internet videos (while drinking an oversized energy beverage) than do just about anything else.

This is a sad misjudgment of the age level.

Often tweens’ and early teens’ lack of exuberance is just a way of blending in, a way of not sticking out as they deal with the internal firestorm of emotions that tend to come along with puberty, the loss of childhood, and the figuring out of who they are. Do not mistake their new quiet nature for lack of passion or boredom. Believe me. I’ve seen their writing.

Inside they burn. They struggle. They fight. They live. They die. Then, they quietly go to bed (after three or four hours on their phone), wake up, and do it all over again.

With close to 20 years in the classroom, I’ve learned to never underestimate these students in the middle. In some ways, I envy them. For these young men and women, life is all so immediate and emotional. Every decision is life or death. From their writing and journaling over the years, I know that these young adults are deep, provocative thinkers, thinkers with much to say and share about the world, inquisitive ruminators and prognosticators who often feel shut out and silenced by all the noisy adults around them. Adults who they feel only talk to hear themselves talk. Adults who ask questions and don’t wait for answers. Adults who won’t hear them out because “Teens are too young to have anything worthwhile to say (but too old to say something cute or clever).”

We must not forget as teachers and parents of kids “in the middle” that what we see on the outside is not always a clear representation of what is happening on the inside.

When my eighth graders enter my classroom on the first day of school in September, they tend to be a bit turned off to reading. I can’t say I blame them. I mean, think about it: their books in elementary school were hard covered and short, full of big glossy pictures, talking creatures, and large, bold words. These books could be started and finished in one sitting and there were so many books to choose from! Plus, these books were often read out loud by an enthusiastic teacher with great facial expression and voice inflection.

In middle school, books change. No more pictures. Smaller words. Deeper, less apparent meaning. Now the teacher expects the student to read on their own, make their own pictures (in their heads), and create the meaning that the author intended from the clues in the text. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? It’s no wonder kids often write “I hate reading!” on the student survey I hand out on the first day of class.

No more choice. No more pictures. No more fun.

It’s because of this that I have implemented a picture book unit of study into my eighth grade reading and writing curriculum. When I first tell the students that we will be studying picture books, they scoff and roll their eyes. Voices come from the back of the room: “We’re too old to read those books!” “Picture books are for babies!” “I ain’t reading no picture book!” “Picture books suck!”

I persist. I check out nearly 100 of my favorite picture books from our middle school library. For one entire class period, I spend the 45 minutes doing lightning book talks – fast overviews of as many of the picture books as I can get through in one class period. I spread the books out all over my room so that the covers and titles can be seen by all from anywhere in the room (“I’ve read that one!” “Oh, I remember that book!” “My Dad used to read that to me every night!”).

I have the students bring in one of their favorite picture books and tell a partner their happy reading memories with that book. I talk about some of my favorite reading memories from early on in my life. I poll all of my classes and read aloud from some of their favorite classic picture books: “Chicka-Chicka Boom Boom,” “The Giving Tree,” “A Chair for My Mother,” “Goodnight Moon,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” “The Snowy Day,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” “Fox in Sox,” “Madeline.”

It takes a few class periods, but suddenly the energy returns and their eyes begin to light up. They’re reading again! We all are. Holding up the big books in front of our faces, we flip the pages with smiles of remembrance, turning from the first page to the last and closing the book satisfied.

Then they get up to get another. Year after year I see this happen. For four or five weeks we flashback to younger days, when reading was not so much of a chore and when we truly read for pleasure.

Once I have them hooked again, I introduce the idea that picture books, just like any great writing, seek to be all-inclusive. I teach them that great picture books (like all great writing) work on many deep and different levels, challenging the reader to travel further in thought. The best picture books present the most complex of ideas in seemingly simple, straightforward language and images. The best picture books remind us what it means to be human.

Below are six picture books that have continually captured the imagination and attention of my eighth graders for almost 20 years now during this beloved unit. Of all the pictures books I offer up to them each year, these six continue to stand out as favorites. After reading all of them, we can begin (I think) to understand what is happening on the inside of these young adults who are in the middle. Whether you pick these books up at your local library or buy them outright, I can assure you that these short (but powerful) reads will capture the interest of even the most stubborn non-readers in your family.

We can learn a lot about our kids based on what they read. What does my students’ fascination with these stories suggest about the middle-level learner and the middle-level brain? Read them all and decide for yourself!

Encounter

Encounter

story by Jane Yolen, pictures by David Shannon

The story of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of a new world has been told and retold, over and over and over again, but never like this. Written from the perspective of a Taino boy, this retelling of the most famous of encounters (along with the haunting illustrations) will linger long after the final page.


TheWidowsBroom

The Widow’s Broom

story and pictures by Chris Van Allsburg

A witch falls from the sky and into Minna Shaw’s garden. After nursing the witch back to health, Minna finds her gone one morning. However she has left a present behind: her broomstick. It looks like a regular broom, but Minna discovers that there is more to this stick and straw than meets the eye. What happens when the suspicious townsfolk find out about Minna’s unusual housemate? Let’s just say they don’t exactly sweep circumstance under the rug!


TheWretchedStone

The Wretched Stone

story and pictures by Chris Van Allsburg

The crew of the Rita Anne used to be such a jovial bunch, filling the deck of the sturdy ship full of song, dance, and storytelling. They used to be, that is, until they found the glowing rock on that deserted island. Now they seem disenchanted, lost, and overly-entranced with the incredibly heavy, magnetic object. The crew no longer tends to duties on deck. What will happen to a ship without a crew sailing into stormy seas? Just wait and see . . .   


ColdFeet

Cold Feet

story by Cynthia DeFelice, illustrations by Robert Andrew Parker

Willie McPhee, a fine bagpiper, is struggling to make ends meet. Fed up with a town that no longer seems willing to pay him for his musical prowess, Willie sets out into the cold, hoping that the next town over will appreciate him (and pay him) more. On his way through the woods, Willie discovers the body of a man (about his size) lying frozen in the snow. He’s at first taken aback by the dead body, but then notices the man is wearing brand new boots. Willie’s boots are so old and full of holes that his feet are freezing. Why should he let these new boots go to waste? DeFelice’s retelling of a classic ghost story is both humorous and horrifying all at once.     


LostandFound

Lost and Found

stories and pictures by Shaun Tan

In this book of three inter-related stories, Shaun Tan experiments with themes of emotional disconnect, loss, and recovery, and the relationship between people and their connection (or not) to the world around them.

Each of Tan’s protagonists seems to be struggling with the realities of the adult world and with finding their place and identity in it. Tan’s illustrations are spellbinding works of art, each image a complex assortment of sharp-edged shapes and contrasting colors, each image deserving a deliberate, closer look. Every picture tells a dramatic story and adds layers of meaning to the three central tales in the book. These stories and images are deep, dark, and complex, much like the minds of the middle-schoolers who so enjoy them.


ZOOM

ZOOM!”

by Istvan Banyai

What could be better than a book with no words? “ZOOM!” is an instant sell to middle school students who love the fact that they can “read” a story made up entirely of pictures. Upon further investigation, there’s more to this book than meets the eye. Starting with the image of a jagged red shape, the reader is taken on an adventure in perspective, each page backing away from the page (and image) that came before. It’s a startling experience from first page to last (and last page to first!) as the reader is left wondering how much we are truly seeing in the world around us each day.