Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbitt

tuck everlastingReading level: 5.9
Lexile: 720
Genre: Fantasy, classics
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Doomed to – or blessed with – eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less a blessing that it might seem. Complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune.

Tuck Everlasting is as beautiful and sweet as the cover portrays. Somehow I’d never read this classic until now (I mean, the audiobook was only 3ish hours long). My favorite part was definitely the poetic language, and lots of teachers read this book as a class and teach it because of the language. Plus, it’s a short read.

The message of the whole book was beautiful too, and it makes the reader think about whether or not you would drink the spring water and live forever. The point is that, no, you probably wouldn’t. Then  you’ll stop and think about life – how everything has a purpose and eventually lives out that purpose, not to mention how hard and lonely it would be to stay the same while everybody and everything changes.

This book was also kind of weird. Like, Winnie falls in love with her captors pretty quickly. Sure, she didn’t love her home that much, but she’s a little girl! Sounds a little like Stockholm Syndrome to me.

The weirdest part was Jesse falling in love with Winnie. He had JUST met her, and she’s, what, 10 years old? Stop it, Jesse. You’re desperate. Before it could get too creepy, though, the book had a lovely ending. I won’t spoil it, but I was very pleased just as I was thinking, “Winnie, you best not spend eternity with a boy you don’t know.”

Read aloud as a class, I think ELLs would be alright. However, the regional dialect spoken by the Tucks might be confusing for low level students. That said, Scholastic has determined that the interest level is 3rd grade, and it’s definitely a middle level book and too young for high school…unless the readers are quite low and need a short, simple book with complex themes.

Wealth Distribution in America: A Video

Here’s a 6 minute video about wealth distribution in America. It’s got some useful graphs that show the information being discussed in a variety of ways. It could be a good introduction to economics or anything having to do with poverty, wealth, money, jobs, etc. The video doesn’t address why the distribution is so skewed, so it’s a good way to get kids interested and asking questions.

Maniac Magee – Jerry Spinelli

Maniac MageeReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 820
Genre: Realistic Fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak accident hadn’t made him an orphan. After living with his unhappy and uptight aunt and uncle for eight years, he decides to run–and not just run away, but run. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.

I might be a little bit in love with this book.

In particular, I loved the whole “race” bit – as in skin color, not the actual racing. Maniac Magee’s city is divided into the west and east side, with Blacks and Whites on opposite sides. As a young child, he truly is “color blind,” a word many of us educator folk cringe at. Color blindness means one does not see skin color and race (okay, yes, I know race doesn’t exist and is a social construct…), which is a large part of many people’s lives. Not seeing color means not seeing a huge part of people’s identity. But Maniac does not see color in a very innocent way, which is why he has no qualms about living on the “wrong” side of town.

Although the book is now categorized as a “classic,” it’s also relevant in that it can evoke conversations about segregation, racism, and lack of understanding between people of varying backgrounds:

  • Why do Whites and Blacks live in separate parts of town?
  • Are cities still segregated like that? (Spoiler: yes)
  • Why do the twins’ dad create the “bomb shelter”? (I can’t remember names when I listen to audiobooks!)
  • Why did some Blacks not want Maniac to live in their part of town?

Despite this book having insights into race, Spinelli surprisingly made at least 3 derogatory references to Natives. Very disappointing. However, if this book were to be taught as a class text, that’s something that could be dissected – why was that language offensive? How can the author, a White man, portray one racial group in a positive light but say such negative things about another?

I loved loved loved that Mars Bar, the bully, becomes friends with Maniac Magee. We’re able to see that Mars isn’t a bad kid and is just putting up a front – which also can create conversations about acting cool, manliness, integrity, and bullying.

Maniac Magee as a character isn’t very dynamic. In fact, he’s a rather flat character. But I almost think that, in this book, having a flat main character fits because we need to focus instead on the kid’s situation rather than how he changes throughout the story (or doesn’t change).

The reading level is pretty low, but I wouldn’t suggest it to ELLs because it’s got lots of Black English that could be confusing if they were to read it. I think that if it were read aloud to them and they were able to follow along, it would be easier. The Black English could also be used as a lesson on Ebonics and “standard” English. How does Maniac Magee talk compared to Mars/Amanda? Why do they talk differently? Is there a “right” way to talk? (Spoiler: no)

Over all, this book would be fantastic as an all-class test at the lower middle school level and lower.

Other People’s Children – Lisa Delpit

other people's children Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom begs to be read slowly and discussed in depth. It really made me reflect on my teaching as an intern, my teacher preparatory program (in which a vast majority of students and professors are White), and my decision to intern in the largest and most diverse district in my state.

Here are some bits I flagged along the way:

African-American teachers are more likely to see their Black students’ fluency with the English language than non-African-American teachers. The latter are more likely to find that their Black students have not yet mastered command of English, when, in fact, they have, although they show it differently.

The next step for these Black students is to teach them “skills” to communicate in the most socially acceptable way: the discourse of the majority and of White people, essentially. It must be taught not as an oppression tool but as a tool to liberate them, as a way to “cheat the system” in order to be successful in our White-dominated society.

Some ways to help students learn the skills of communicating in the code of the White majority include creating bidialectal dictionaries, role-plays, and creating a news show.

It is imperative that in our schools (and elsewhere) we hear the voices of minorities. Furthermore, it is the job of the majority to seek out those voices if they are not coming forth or being heard.

This quote (pg 26): “For many who consider themselves members of liberal or radical camps, acknowledging personal power and admitting participation in the culture of power is distinctly uncomfortable. On the other hand, those who are less powerful in any situation are more likely to recognize the power variable more acutely.”

White teachers (and adults in general) tend to give commands in the form of questions: “Can you hand that paper in now?” Black teachers and adults tend to be more clear and may say: “Turn in that paper now.” Black students, then, may not respond in the “correct” way to their White teachers due to cultural misunderstanding.

Hatchet – Gary Paulsen

HatchetReading level: 5
Series: Brian’s Saga book 1
Genre: Adventure
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Since it was first published in 1987, the story of thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson’s survival following a plane crash has become a modern classic. Stranded in the desolate wilderness, Brian uses his instincts and his hatchet to stay alive for fifty-four harrowing days.

Somehow I don’t think I’ve ever read a Gary Paulsen book until now. This book didn’t “wow” me, but it certainly was interesting. I listened to the audiobook (which I thought was pretty awful), but the poetic language came through quite well. The short sentences and repetition are beautifully simple, not to mention good for ELLs.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t like survival stories very much (which is probably why Life of Pi was such a fail for me) , but I happen to know some middle schoolers who love this book. It’s a quick and exciting read. Even though it’s a classic now, it’s perfectly relevant to kiddos today.

I found it oddly convenient that Brian’s mom just so happens to give him a hatchet. Seems like a weird gift for a kid to be bringing around. Also, the ending is annoyingly vague in the description of what happens to Brian after his rescue, but now I really want to read the other books in the series.

More than a survival story, Hatchet is a story of a kid dealing with divorced parents. He bears a heavy burden for any 13 year-old, and kids whose parents are divorcing or have divorced may be able to relate to the pain Brian feels. While he’s feeling the tug between his mom and dad and what is right for him to do and say, he becomes a remarkably skilled and confident young man as he learns to survive in the wilderness.

Due to the low reading level, I recommend Hatchet for middle school. It’s also a great book for ELLs because the language is simple and repeated. In addition, the poetic language and sentence fragments could be used in a lesson on author craft and sentence structure in some sort of narrative (or even poetry) unit.