The Lit Test
The books we teach have tremendous influence on our students. We want them to be memorable as good experiences. But how do we find those special books?
First, Ask These Questions:
- Is the topic of this book of real interest/concern to children or is it an expression of adult/author angst?
- What are the main goals for teaching this title? If one of them isn't pleasure, consider another book. Literature is for enjoyment; textbooks are for instruction.Can I teach this book in 5 to 10 lessons or fewer? (Even War and Peace can be taught in that time.)
- Is this book relevant to my students' experience or can I make it relevant through teaching?
- When finished reading, will students want to read another book on this topic, or by this author?
- OR...are we reading this book purely for fun? If so, just have fun. Kids need to learn in school that reading for pleasure is as important as reading for information.
Next, Consider The Following:
Theme:A strong book has a strong, universal theme. In my book, When The Boys Ran The House, the story shows how successful children can be in difficult situations, if given the chance to prove themselves. In Aunt Morbelia and The Screaming Skulls, the theme is overcoming a disability through perseverance.
Language:A strong book has clear, eloquent language. To test a book, read the first few chapters and consider: Are there memorable word pictures? Vivid analogies? Just-right adjectives, but not too many? Excellent verbs?
The overall style should seem relaxed, not consciously arty..
Characters:A strong book is character-driven, not plot-driven. The plot develops because of who the characters are, unlike stories in mass-produced series fiction. Will your students believe the characters in the book you're considering?
Pacing:Books for today's TV generation need to move right along. Give a book you're considering about three chapters to pull you in. If it hasn't grabbed your attention by then, try another book. OR...read students into the book you want to teach until they're hooked, and will willingly read on their own.
Setting/Time:Setting and time may be critical to a story, as in Stolen Bones, set at a dinosaur dig in Montana. In Howling for Home, my short chapter book, the setting could have been any urban area with any family unfamiliar with owning a dog. In A Ghost of a Chance, the setting absolutely had to be Beaufort, NC, where Blackbeard lived for a short time near the end of his notorious career as a pirate, and where regular dolphin sightings occur. You can have good discussions about the importance of time or setting in many books.
Plot: Plot is "the story," and it's important to most readers, but quite insignificant if the characters in a book are well done. Remember Ramona? Blossom Culp? Marty in Shiloh? And Alice from all the Alice novels? With writers like Beverly Cleary, Richard Peck, and Phyllis Naylor, the characters are so well drawn that we go along happily for the ride, enjoying these new people we've met in books.
Mainly, ask about the plot: Will it keep my students' attention? Is it logical or is it manipulated by the author?
While few books score 100% in all categories for everyone, really successful children's books appeal to lots of us in lots of ways. Kids become good readers when they have repeated, successful experiences with books. Of course, you are reading aloud to them every day. ONE-THIRD of all people learn best through their ears.