Friday, October 15, 2010

Middle School Required Reading

I was browsing through a local bookstore this week, and realized that they had a table with the books that were required reading for nearby middle schools.  So I examined the books to get some ideas about what fiction middle schools were studying these days and to see how my son's reading compared to that. 

The table had the books required by six different middle schools, four of which were private and/or religious schools, and two of which were public schools.  However, out of the 49 books on display, there were no overtly religious tracts.   Looking over the selections, I had some surprises as well as some books that were expected.

What author would you think would be most represented among middle school reading lists?  In this case, at least, it was Newbery Medal Winner Jerry Spinelli, who had three separate books on the table (a couple of which were in different piles, which I assumed meant that different schools had required the same book).  Following Spinelli's record three novels, there were three authors that each had two books on the table--Newbery Winner Avi, Newbery Winner Lois Lowry, and ALA Best Books for Young Adults Winner Roland Smith.  There were multiple other Newbery and ALA Best Book winners, and many of the titles were other books with good reviews that may not have quite made it up to the top competition level.  But, after all, that is pretty much to be expected.

There was definitely an emphasis on multi-cultural literature.  There were books about young people in Communist China, Nazi Germany, Africa, the Amazon, living with the Taliban, and trying to escape the war in Cambodia.  There were a number of books on both Native Americans and on blacks living during the great Civil Rights tumult of the 1960's.  I wasn't familiar with quite a few of those, and wrote down their titles as books to explore with my son.

On the other hand, there was few of the most popular contemporary literature.  I didn't know ALL the books, but I saw very little science fiction or fantasy, and NO vampires.  One school had City of Embers, and another had Hunger Games, but there was no Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Kane Chronicles, or Ranger's Apprentice.

What I was really shocked by, however, was the complete dearth of older works that might be considered "the classics."  Again, one or more less familiar books might have slipped by me, but the oldest book I saw was the 1944 Newbery Winner Johnny Tremaine.  But there was no Jules Verne, no Mark Twain, no Mary Shelley, no Robert Lewis Stephenson,  no Jack London, or any of the other 18th or 19th century writers I recall reading in middle school (although, admittedly, my memory could be confusing middle school books with high school). But surely there are SOME authors who wrote prior to the 20th century who belong on a middle school required reading list.  There certainly will be some in our middle school literature classes.

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