Ahhh, nothing compares to the pleasure of getting lost in literature. "When I used to read The Incredible Journey aloud," says reading comprehension expert Jeffrey Wilhelm, "the room would be silent and kids' eyes would just be glistening." That "glistening" told him that children were in the imagination zone. Their minds were off in an amazing place — detailed, alive, intriguing, Technicolor! No question, reading is among the most exhilarating of all human endeavors. Have your students sampled every genre?
1. Appetizing Alphabet Books
Alphabet books aren't just for the PreK crowd! Alphabet Mystery, by Audrey Wood (Scholastic, 2003) is an inspired selection for any age group. In it, the letters of the alphabet — each with a distinct personality — get worried when little x disappears. Use this title with your young learners to boost phonemic awareness, or use it with older kids as a model for generating imaginative story ideas.
2. Books With Spicy Characters
It's essential for kids to encounter a variety of characters with real flaws and foibles, such as the mischievous lead in No, David! by David Shannon (Scholastic, 1998) or, for older kids, the ever-curious Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (Yearling, 2001). Both books present offbeat, imperfect characters who are sure to spark important conversation about right, wrong, and what's in-between.
3. Refreshing Books about Courage
Just as it's important to show kids examples of not-so-perfect protagonists, it's equally essential to expose them to bona-fide role models. Characters with courage have the power to inspire greatness. A winning example is Teammates by Peter Golenbock (Harcourt, 1990), about African American baseball player Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, his friend and teammate who stood up for what was right.
4. Cool Comic Books
Although sometimes given a bad rap, comic-style and graphic novels are a great motivator for kids who tend to get a bit intimidated by page upon page of neatly stacked sentences. Pictures give them a welcome respite from all those words, as well as visual cues for interpreting the text. In the Amelia's Notebook series by Marissa Moss (Pleasant Company), Amelia draws and writes diary entries about the ups and downs of her nine-year-old existence. Boys will love the super-silly Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey (Scholastic). Truth is, crunchy underpants are pretty funny — not to mention a great incentive to turn the page!
5. "Olden Day" Books
As a kid, my brother's favorite book was Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater (Little, Brown, 1938). I adored Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace (HarperCollins, 1979), a "best friends" book long before Lizzie McGuire. Did these books feel dated? Yes, and that was the point. We loved reading about earlier generations to see just how different — and surprisingly similar — their lives were to ours. No doubt, some of your students will relish these authentic gems of yesteryear, too.
6. Eye-Popping Picture Books
Ever happen upon a book with illustrations so gloriously vibrant you had to do a double take? No question, a story's words are important, but so are its pictures. Last year, a friend gave my twin sons Janell Cannon's Crickwing (Harcourt, 2000) for their birthday. Granted, the story about a cockroach that plays with its food is pretty cool, but it doesn't hold a candle to the dazzling, eye-popping, how-the-heck-did-she-do-it renderings of carpenter ants, lizards, and leopards. Wow! (I sneak the book off the shelf every now and again just to take a peek.)
7. Pop-Up Surprises
Who says touchy-feely books are just for babies? Pop-up books have the power to captivate older kids, too, by breathing kinesthetic life into all sorts of topics-including geography. Pull out The Amazing Pop-Up Geography Book by Kate Petty (Dutton, 2000), and watch students touch, twist, turn, and take a tour around the fascinating features of our decidedly 3-D planet.
8. Really Real Books
Certain stories are so realistic, readers can practically step inside a character's shoes. Eve Bunting's picture book Fly Away Home (Clarion, 1991) is one such example. It's the moving tale of a boy and his dad who take up residence in an airport because they have nowhere else to go: they are homeless. The story is never sensationalistic; instead, it stays utterly true to life. Allowing kids to experience "really real" books builds empathy and grants them a safe place to explore complicated issues and emotions.
9. Cliffhanger Books
Looking for a sure-fire heart-pounder? Try The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford (Random House, 1999). This 1961 classic focuses on a trio of lost animals — a Lab, a bull terrier, and a Siamese cat — who battle starvation, brutal cold, and vicious predators as they make their way home to the family they love.
10. Sorta Spooky Stories
Most kids love being scared, but not too scared. The trick is finding books that will raise the hairs on their arms without inspiring nightmares. One great choice is Bill Martin's marvelous The Ghost-Eye Tree (Henry Holt, 1985). In it, two siblings must summon the courage to creep past the sinister, craggy ghost-eye tree to fetch a pail of milk. Turn the lights down low and share this tale with your class — it's safe, spooky fun for all.
11. Fascinating Fact Books
Nonfiction can be eyes-wide-open engaging! George Washington's Teeth by Deborah Chandra and Madeleine Comora (Farrar Straus, 2003) tells the true story of our first president's dismal, decaying choppers. In it, kids learn that his teeth were not fashioned from wood, but from hippopotamus and walrus tusks.
12. Switch On Your Feelings Books
Some books can flip an emotional switch, allowing kids to access industrial-strength feelings such as anger, jealousy, shyness, and fear. One such title is the fabulous Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst (Atheneum, 1992). This hero's misery is sure to ring bells with youngsters and help them to voice their own frustrations.
13. I Can't Believe I Read the Whole Thing! Books
I still remember how I felt when I completed the last sentence of my very first chapter book: proud, empowered, and ready to experience the adventure all over again. Well-crafted early chapter books like Betsy and Cynthia Rylant's wonderful Henry and Mudge series (Simon and Schuster) have all the right tethers — including very short stories and lots of illustrations — to help new readers successfully navigate their first "big kid" titles.
14. Just Jokin' Books
Joke books might seem corny, but don't overlook this age-perfect genre. Jokes can boost vocabularies, knowledge of idioms, and essential critical-thinking skills. So don't despair if a student makes a beeline for The Mighty Big Book of School Jokes (Price Stern Sloan, 2003) or The Everything Kids' Joke Book by Michael Dahl (Adams Media, 2003) during independent reading time. It's very likely they will learn a thing or two!
15. Poems to Remember Books
Poetry books are like gifts that keep on giving. How? Invite children to read one today — such as Beast Feast by Doug Florian (Harcourt, 1994) — and I'll bet they remember a few of his clever animal poems for years. When kids forget everything else, they remember their favorite rhymes. So they'll always have a verse to recite and savor on the walk home from school.
16. Vocabulary S-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g Books
A new breed of books takes on the serious task of vocabulary building with a playful sense of purpose. Take Miss Alaineus: A Vocabulary Disaster by Debra Frasier (Harcourt, 2000), a chuckle-inducing tale full of great new words and their definitions. Kids get an amusing story and tons of fresh verbs, nouns, and adjectives to enliven their conversations and writing.
17. Marvelous Multicultural Books
Multicultural books provide windows into the diverse lives of children. Today, in New York City at least, classes might be comprised of kids hailing from five or ten countries. It's important to celebrate each one's unique heritage; the range of multicultural titles has grown to help us do just that. One gem is the exquisitely illustrated Frida by Jonah Winter (Scholastic, 2002). It offers a glimpse into Frida Kahlo's life with insight into her paintings and the Mexican culture that shaped her vision.
18. Mega Fun Math Books
Who said math doesn't make for a riveting read? Look for this hot genre to expand exponentially. Top titles include Mathematickles, by Betsy Franco (Simon and Schuster, 2003), filled with poetic math riddles. For students struggling with multiplication, check out Greg Tang's inventive The Best of Times (Scholastic, 2002). It's packed with mnemonic rhymes for mastering the tables!
19. Short Reads for Tall Kids
Older kids, even those who can tear through a 300-page novel, love to indulge in the occasional picture book. A prime pick is Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange (Simon and Schuster, 2004). In it, Shange recalls her childhood visits from musician Duke Ellington, actor Paul Robeson, and other artists. It's a meaningful springboard to a study of these African American visionaries.
20. Off-Kilter Fairy Tales
Fairy tales are among the oldest literature in existence, handed down and revised over hundreds of years. Some gifted authors are rearranging the puzzle pieces of these beloved tales with hilarious results. Off-kilter favorites include The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka (Viking, 1992) and Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted (HarperCollins, 1998).
21. History Gives Me Goosebumps Books
Now I'll plug my favorite series: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books (HarperCollins). These stories of frontier life — peppered with bears, possums, and Pa's fiddle playing — had me reading till all hours. Girls still love this remarkable series. For boys, try Jean Fritz's humorous books, such as Where Do You Think You Are Going, Christopher Columbus? (Puffin, 1997).
22. Let's Talk About the Ending Books
In real life, not every story ends joyously, with a big bow on top. The same rules should apply to children's literature. Yet sometimes students are upset when the books they read don't end with the traditional "happily ever after." One such title is The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson (HarperCollins, 1978). In this engaging tale, plucky, hard-luck Gilly bounces around in the foster care system, then fails to land in the home of her dreams. Are kids incensed by the "unfair" ending? Usually. Seize the moment to explore their feelings and opinions.
23. Please Pass the Kleenex Books
Don't be afraid of sad novels that make students cry, such as Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson (HarperCollins, 1977). This story of a boy-girl friendship that ends in tragedy grants kids safe experiences with the complex emotions of love, loss, regret, and grief. Just writing about the book puts a lump in my throat, and no doubt many other readers feel the same: Amazon.com features nearly 550 heartfelt reviews of it by young readers. Clearly, this book has struck an important chord.
24. Knock-Your-Socks-Off Funny Books
There's funny, then there's knock-your-socks-off funny. On the heels of a particularly taxing test, only the latter will do. Calef Brown's Polkabats and Octopus Slacks (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) is funny enough for even your toughest critic.
25. Spill-Free Science Books
Science sometimes can get pretty sloppy. That's where spill-free science books come in — the exciting world of science without the gloppy mess! A favorite is Brainstorm! The Stories of 20 American Kid Inventors by Tom Tucker (Farrar, Straus, 1995). This riveting read shows how creative kids were responsible for the invention of earmuffs, the resealable cereal box, and the Popsicle. Who knows? Maybe one of your students will be inspired to invent their own frozen taste treat!
26. Whodunit Books
Since Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys burst on the scene in the 1930s, mystery novels have been a staple of many a young reader. And why not? In addition to promoting fluency, whodunits train kids to think critically and creatively. The inheritor to Donald J. Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown (Yearling) is James Preller's Jigsaw Jones (Scholastic), which offers intriguing, energetic reads with no hint of violence.
27. X-Ray Specs Books
Sadly, x-ray glasses have yet to be invented! Still, a number of great reference books enable young readers to see through steel girders or layers of skin, such as The Coolest Cross-Sections Ever! by Steven Biesty (DK, 2001).
28. Gross-Out Books
Harness kids' fascination with all things "yucky" with books like Rita Goldman Gelman's Body Battles (Scholastic, 1992), which introduces young learners to the body's immune system by featuring its gross-out stars: mucus, pus, earwax, stomach acid, and more. Kids may scream "eeew!" but they'll be glued to the pages.
29. Down the Rabbit Hole Books
Ever read a story that was so wildly imaginative that you felt like you'd fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole? In Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2003), 11-year-old Gregor and his two-year-old sister drop into an amazing underground world inhabited by giant talking bats, cockroaches, and vicious warrior rats. Will Gregor and his sister ever get back home to their apartment in the "Overland"? This awesomely odd adventure stretches the reader's mind like Silly Putty!
30. Shhh...I'm Reading a Movie
Text versions of popular films are sometimes maligned as not "real" literature. But don't worry when a child reaches for Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., or Freaky Friday. Books based on movies — or the other way around — can build essential reading skills. When kids are actively engaged in the reading process, they're busy building fluency.
31. Zapped to Another World Books
Last but not least, let's not forget fantasy. Although there are hundreds of fabulous titles for children at every age and stage, no list would be complete without a mention of the groundbreaking Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic). I'm sure you've heard tell of them! To date, they've inspired hundreds of millions of kids to part the pages of books and, in so doing, soar in reading. Now, that's what I call a constructive revolution!