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These books will capture and hold their interest, encouraging them to read during the long break. Teachers, your students are never too young for summer reading assignments; third through sixth graders could read one of these over the summer. Best of all, the books all deal with topics that would be ideal for discussion, whether in the classroom next September or between parents and children during the summer. Assign the books to parents, too and have families read together all summer long.
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Coraline by Neil Gaiman
The film version of this award-winning book may make parents want to sleep with the lights on, but children seem to be drawn to the film “Coraline." Perhaps the age of Lalaloopsy has lessened the fear of people wanting to replace our eyes with big buttons, but the book and the film truly are the stuff of nightmares.
The idea of an “other mother" and “other father" who understand you when your parents do not will appeal to those children who are just starting to see that they cannot be the center of the universe all day every day. The repercussions of visiting that other world are both vivid and frightening, though, with ghosts locked in a mirror, parents trapped in a snow globe and the seemingly benign “other mother" transforming into a spider-like witch. While not a cozy bedtime read, Coraline is an excellent book for parents and children to read together, teaching kids to appreciate the family they have.
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Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
The story of the friendship between Jess and Leslie is perhaps one of the best stories ever written for young children. Together, they create the magical kingdom of Terabithia, a woodland kingdom where Jess is King and Leslie is Queen. These two children, who revel in the world of imagination, have a bond that will bring tears to your eyes as you read with your child. To give fair warning, this book deals with the topic of death. If you assign it, you do need to let the parents of the children know this outright.
One rainy morning Leslie visits Terabithia on her own and drowns. When Jess finds out, the true emotion of the story comes into play. A great book for discussing that disturbing yet necessary topic of death and dying, this book also shows children how to celebrate the gifts others bring to their lives. If you think this book is too sad, another option to bring about that conversation is Charlotte’s Web. Perhaps after they read and discuss the spider’s death, they can take a visit to the world of Terabithia.
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Number the Stars by Lois Lowery
This short novel by Lois Lowery tells the tale of friendship during the Holocaust. Describing the plight of the Jews and those who were sensitive enough to help them hide, it (thankfully) does not go into any great detail about Concentration Camps or the Final Solution. However, it is a serious enough novel to raise some questions in the minds of children about hate, Hitler and that question none of us can truly answer: “Why did this happen?"
It is the perfect read for ages 8 to 10 and will help children gain an understanding of a historical event without overwhelming them with all of the grim and graphic details of the Holocaust. The lessons you want them to take away from this moving book are its two most empowering themes: bravery and friendship.
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The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Wren Wright
Once a popular book for the 9 to 12 set, this mystery novel about an unsolved murder from years past is still a fun read for middle school students. Enter two sisters, one with Down’s Syndrome, who notice the murders being reenacted in the haunted dollhouse in their aunt’s attic. It takes several midnight trips to the attic including a memorable one during a thunderstorm for the mystery to be solved.
The details of the murder are unsettling and the scenes describing the haunting are chillingly written, but the real area of discussion in this book is the relationship between older sister Amy and her sibling, Lou Ann who has Down’s Syndrome. Amy, first resentful of her sister, begins to learn to appreciate Lou Ann’s uniqueness and rare bravery in the face of fear. This is a great book for discussion about how all people are special in their own way.
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The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
It is hard to say what specific book of the series to assign because they are all wonderful reads. For middle school students, the best bet might be to assign “On the Banks of Plum Creek," which is the fourth book in the series and the one that deals with Laura’s first school experience, being teased on the playground, giving a picture of what life was like on a farm in the late 1800’s. However, an even better idea is to give students a list of all the titles and have them choose which one they want to read.
Chances are good that students will become so caught up in the stories they will read more than one book. For parents who grew up on 1970’s television, revisiting the Ingalls clan through the pages of the book will be a welcome walk down memory lane.
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New Boy by Julian Houston
This moving novel tells the story of a 15-year-old African American boy living in the south in the 1950’s. He is intelligent, hardworking and looking for a chance to fulfill his future dreams. However, education is hard to come by in Virginia and opportunities for a young black man are rare. His loving parents take an almost unheard of step and send him to a Connecticut boarding school. He will be the first black student in the school’s history. This book will give students a look into the world of segregated education, color barriers and an overview of the civil rights movement.
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My Mother, the Cheerleader by Robert Sharenow
Going hand-in-hand with the previous book, this deals with the subject of race relations and civil rights as well. This time, we are looking at the issue through the eyes of a young girl who learns words of hatred against other races from her mother’s alcoholic rages. A new guest at the boarding house where Louise lives is the only person who can truly teach and explain to young Louise the harm that racism causes. The friendship between Ruby and Louise is in itself an act of courage that will fuel discussions about bravery in your classes.
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The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
What better to inspire students to read than a book about reading? Set during World War II in Germany, this novel, narrated by Death, brings readers into the world of Liesel Meminger, a foster child who lives just outside of Munich. Her life is hard, her profession is thievery and she is in love with reading.
Books are the one thing she cannot live without, and as the story progresses, she learns to share her love of reading with others in her falling apart world. Perhaps most poignant, she shares books with a Jewish man who has been hidden in her basement…until the day comes that he is sent to Dachau. Books about the Holocaust can be harsh for middle school students, but this one is readable, worthwhile and sure to spark conversation.