Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Great Middle Grade Read Alouds for the Summer

Does your summer vacation include a long car trip with the kids, with possibly a dog thrown in for good measure? Are you dreading the inevitable whining? Well, with the right "book on tape," six- hour car trips can actually be manageable, (and a lot of fun). One year, when my kids were around 8, 10 and 12 we had a long drive up to Canada. Luckily we had the great fortune of having two of Christopher Paul Curtis's books on tape with us, and because of that, the time flew by.

Christopher Paul Curtis writes books for the middle grade reader (ages 9-12 ). In Bud, Not Buddy, the story is set in the Depression. Ten-year-old Bud is fed up with the abusive foster homes he keeps getting placed in. Convinced that his mother left him a clue of who his father is before she died (a flyer of Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators), Bud runs away to find his "father" Herman E. Calloway. Armed with the flyer, a beat-up suitcase and the maxims he lives by ("Bud Caldwell's Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself,"), Bud makes his way through the shanty-towns of the 1930's. Along the way he encounters others like him who have little in the way of material goods. Told with a lot humor, you'll find yourself rooting for Bud on his journey. His "rules" are funny, with a touch of truth in them: "Rules and Things Number 87: When a Adult Tells You They Need Your Help with a Problem Get Ready to Be Tricked-Most Times This Means They Just Want You To Go Fetch Something For Them," and "Rules and Things Number 39-The Older You Get, The Worse Something Has to Be to Make You Cry."

Bud, Not Buddy is a remarkable book. It's a great way to learn about the Depression, and Bud is a character that stays with you long after you've turned the last page. He is tough, smart, and persistent. His views on life are humorous and spot on, and kids will identify with him. When he finally meets up with Herman Calloway and his band, jazz permeates the story and the itinerant musicians start to provide the stability Bud is seeking. Although it's geared for middle grade readers, younger children (3rd and 4th graders) will enjoy Bud, Not Buddy too.

In The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, the story shifts to a different era--the 1960's. Here, in a fast-paced and well-told story, readers learn about the civil rights movement. Told from fourth grader Kenny's point of view, the "Weird Watsons" decide to leave Flint, Michigan and travel south. Kenny's older brother Byron is on the verge of becoming a juvenile delinquent, and his parents think that spending time in the south with grandma (a disciplinarian) will be just what's needed.

The family immediately notices that there's a difference between Michigan and Alabama in 1963, with racism and the civil rights movement hovering in the background. The climax of the book is the burning of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church with four little girls inside. The Watsons think that the little sister, Joetta, is there. Once they realize, she is safe, they decide to return to Flint. The Watsons Go To Birmingham is a humorously told, yet deeply moving book, that all the while stresses positive family relationships.

A heads-up for younger readers: There are a fair amount of swear words laced throughout The Watsons Go to Birmingham.

Finally, although my family listened to both books on tape, all of my children went back and read the books on their own. Both of these books are sure bets for good summer reads, whether hearing it via tape, from a parent, or reading it directly from the book.

BookNosher Tidbits: Bud, Not Buddy was a Newbery winner in 2000, and a Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham was a Newbery honor book in 1996 and a Coretta Scott King honor book.

BookNosher Activities: A word about books on tape (or rather books on cd). Besides the aforementioned activity of enduring long car trips by listening to books on tape, they can also be a wonderful way for the reluctant or struggling reader to follow along. By tracking the words with their eyes as they listen to the tape, readers feel a strong sense of accomplishment as they tackle books they normally wouldn't try. Summer is a perfect time to introduce books on tape to your readers.

Most libraries carry many books on tapes. My local library carries multiple copies of both Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham. They each run about five hours long.

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