TEN AMAZING MG NOVELS…FOR READ ALOUD
Think about your absolute, most favorite adult novels. Are they literary classics? Page-turning legal thrillers? Hilarious insider tell-alls? And how’s about your YA? Dystopian high-stakes adventures? Paranormal romances? LGBTQ awakenings? Heartfelt struggles to cope with impending adulthood? All of the above? If you’re like me, you remember the first time you read those favorites. You probably know where you were when you flipped the final page, closed the book, held it to your chest, and sighed.
Now think about your absolute, most favorite middle grade novel. Remember where you were when you came to the end of that particular adventure? Think about it as a setting, that hallowed time when the story reached its end. Were you alone? Or was there someone else there with you? Someone reading it to you, perhaps?
Though read-aloud is certainly not exclusive to the picture book and middle grade novel, it is (I think it fair to claim) our territory. When we as middle grade authors write, that possibility – that our work will be read aloud to children, in bedrooms and libraries and classrooms throughout the world – needs to be high on our list of considerations. Indeed, it’s at the top of mine. This is likely because I have the incredible fortune of also being a 5th grade teacher. Read-aloud is an integral part of our schedule, a shared celebration of literature that I consider the most sacrosanct part of our day.
Admittedly, this is due in no small part to my own remembrances of my childhood interaction with books. You will see first on the list below Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It is my favorite book, full stop, as it is for many people of my generation. I will freely admit that a goodly portion of my bias towards it comes from my first encounter with the text: my father reading it aloud to my brother and me when we were young. Do you have similar memories? Is your favorite middle grade novel so precious to you (yeah, that’s a Gollum reference…couldn’t resist) as a result of its centrality in a shared literary experience? I’m betting that for many of you, it is.
The following is my list of favorite read-alouds. They are the books that inspire me to pay careful attention to what my own writing sounds like, how my own characters rasp, and grunt, and chortle, and giggle, and growl. They are books I’ve read aloud to my classes, to my child, and, when I think nobody else is listening, to myself. Of course, I make no claim that these are the best read-alouds of all time. Nor will I attempt to put them in some sort of order. Yes, I’m including ten of them, but I stubbornly refuse to rank them. They have different effects on different audiences. I play up different parts depending on the listeners’ responses. I get different things out of them each time I act as their conduit. As a result, the list is as fluid as they come, and has infinite space to include more (please, recommend more!). Still, these will always hold a special place in my heart as a writer, as a reader, and as a teacher:
The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien does his read-alouder (can I coin that term? I’ma go ahead and coin that term) tremendous favors here. He writes in a folksy, narrative style. He occasionally addresses the reader directly. His characters, especially Bilbo, are intensely relatable, and they speak in rich, meaningful ways, even when complaining about pocket handkerchiefs. There are myriad challenges for the reader, too: poems and songs (yeah, you’ve got to sing them!) to keep you on your toes, and you’re going to have to inhabit the voice of everything from an elf to a dragon to a king of the goblins. However, Tolkien never leaves us completely out to dry, because in each case, he describes how they sound. Indeed, he takes great pains to do so, from the goblins’ “stony voices” to Gollum’s “horrible swallowing noise in his throat,” from the devastating sound of Smaug’s laugh to the croaking of Roac, son of Carc. Combine all that with the quintessential fantasy journey, and you’ve got a – perhaps the – read-aloud for the ages.
James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl
Sometimes in lists, there are entries which are meant to stand for an entire body of work. This is one of those entries. Dahl’s writing is lyrical, poignant, and invariably filled with wonder. The characters are quirky and delightful, and he is another author unafraid of the occasional song or poem. He blends the serious with the ridiculous (James’s parents are dead/eaten by a rampaging rhino) in such a way that younger audiences are afforded the luxury of being permitted to dwell in dangerous spaces without being dragged down by them. This is a children’s book that does not pander to children, but rather seeks to inhabit their world, and in doing so retains great appeal for both audience and reader. Also, Sponge and Spiker are phenomenal characters to voice. I challenge you to read aloud their back-and-forth without smiling.
Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan
Stories set during the American Depression of the 1930’s have always captivated me. Whether it’s Annie or Grapes of Wrath, Raiders of the Lost Ark or the Untouchables, the time period brings an equal sense of hardscrabble desperation and dignity in the face of difficulty that naturally appeals to me. Esperanza Rising conveys those themes and does so in a lyrical way. Reading it aloud offers the reader and audience a history lesson wrapped in a fairy tale wrapped in a deeply human story. Be prepared to play with language, and to shift as seamlessly as you can between English and Spanish, but don’t be intimidated – you’ll get so lost in the little moments (shelling almonds; noticing the Native American woman on the train…) that by the time you’re done, you’ll want to squirrel the book away and re-read it on your own, just to live a little longer in Esperanza’s world.
Bud, not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis
Did I mention a predilection for Depression-era literature? This is another novel that inhabits that time period, but I’d be selling it short if I lingered on the setting. The allure here for the read-alouder is Bud himself. Curtis’s protagonist provides a master study in middle grade voice; from the first page, the reader is allowed to slip into Bud’s frame of reference, and the way he sees the world, the way he narrates his experiences, is an absolute delight to perform. There is authenticity here, and not just in Curtis’s portrayal of the era. Bud is authentically ten years old – resourceful, imaginative, terrified at times, but profoundly relatable. You may want to read it to yourself first, though, lest you laugh out loud at some of Bud’s asides and interrupt the flow. That’s the challenge when you’re reading a story with great voice, which brings me to…
Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage
Mo LoBeau, the protagonist of Turnage’s Tupelo Landing novels, is one of the finest narrators I’ve had the pleasure to voice. Having lived and taught in rural North Carolina, I immediately gravitated to Mo’s twang, which comes through not in a labored attempt to chop or prune dialogue into dialect, but rather in Turnage’s careful word choice and phrasing. Mo’s voice rings true because of her earnest sincerity and quick wit – it’s not just how she says things, it’s what she’s saying, and the two blend together seamlessly, whether Mo is riffing on her archenemy Attila or the certainty that she’s going to marry her best friend Dale’s older brother. The entire series is in first person perspective, too, so the read-alouder best come prepared with a healthy dose of Appalachia and be ready to manifest a dozen equally-enchanting secondary characters. You might even need to bark like a dog named Queen Elizabeth II (on account of Dale’s family being particular to naming after swanky celebrities).
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne Valente
While we’re on the subject of careful word choice and phrasing…Valente’s Fairyland books exist both as compelling fantasy reads (bravo for heroines with efficacy!) and as love letters to the English language. Valente borrows in all the best ways from Victorian flights of fancy, the whimsy of The Phantom Tollbooth, and even a bit of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and the combination is both achingly nostalgic and decidedly unique. September herself is a pleasure to voice, but the real joy for the read-alouder comes from the fascinating friends (and enemies) she makes along the way. Yes, you’ll need to decide what, precisely, a half-wyvern, half-library sounds like, but once you do, you’ll feel like you’ve discovered a secret spell capable of opening gateways to entirely new worlds…and, perhaps, for your listeners, portals to some old favorites as well: Wonderland, Neverland, Oz…
The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman
Interested in a vocal challenge? Try conjuring a talking goose, an armored bear, a grizzled aeronaut from Texas, a witch, an effete aristocrat, and an eleven-year-old orphan from Oxford, England, all in the span of a chapter or two. Got it? Oh, and don’t forget – they’re from a parallel dimension, so you might have to wax eloquent about anbaric energy in a Southern drawl. Don’t worry too much, though…by the time you get there, you’ll be so deeply immersed in Lyra’s quest that you’ll welcome the next new voice with greedy, reckless abandon. This is a “one more chapter, please!” kind of read-aloud; the stakes are immensely high, the characters complex, and the surprises some of the biggest bombshells in all of middle grade literature.
Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Not only is the prose here gorgeous, but it holds up in a way many turn-of-the-twentieth-century novels don’t. That’s due in no small part to Anne herself, who affords the reader an incorrigibly upbeat and irrepressibly talkative lens through which to view Avonlea. Unlike Bud or Mo, Anne delivers her takes exclusively through dialogue (the novel is in third person omniscient), which, in turn, affords the listener a chance to consider her from a distance as well. Montgomery uses this to build sympathy for her protagonist, and it also allows the read-alouder to really dig in and highlight those opportunities to give voice to Anne’s phenomenal perspectives on life, beauty, and friendship.
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
Like Dahl and Pullman, Gaiman does not seek to undersell a middle grade reader’s ability to deal with danger, death, and deep questions of morality. Pick this one up to read aloud, and know that in the first three pages, you’re going to grapple with murder at a level of intimacy that few other children’s books dare to approach. It is also going to set the tone for one of the great inversions in modern children’s literature: the graveyard as a safe space, the dead as protectors, and the mundane world as the mysterious “other place.” Combine that with a spectacular cast of characters (Silas, Ms. Lupescu, and the Sleer are my three favorites to perform), and Gaiman’s work is a great choice, whether for a teacher looking for a Halloween read-aloud or a parent searching for a way to introduce their child to upper middle grade literature with more complex themes.
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White
You want fantastic characters? Some of the greatest descriptive paragraphs in all of literature? Emotional heft? Look no further. I desperately wanted to quibble with the School Library Journal’s Top 100 Children’s Novels list, just because I love quibbling about those sorts of things. Before I saw it, I had already begun grumbling, “If Charlotte’s Web isn’t #1, then I’m gonna…” Then I saw the list; no arguments here. One of the reasons I believe White’s novel is ranked so consistently highly is that it is a book to share. It is a book that children want to talk about. They need to talk about it. Having it delivered as a read-aloud allows for those conversations to happen in real time, and they are every bit as cathartic for the reader as they are for the listeners.
So there they are – ten phenomenal middle grade novels for read-aloud. And yes, they’re all great novels anyway; there are, perhaps, no surprises here. My intent was not to unearth as-yet-undiscovered diamonds, but rather to polish these ones up so that folks could see a facet or two they might have missed before.
My own upcoming novel, Greetings from Witness Protection!, pays homage to all these books and more, and that’s due in no small part to the unique connection I’ve made with them, both as a reader and a performer of the text. It’s a singular challenge and opportunity we middle grade authors have – that somewhere, a parent might tuck her child in with our words, or a teacher might seek to impart his lesson in a more meaningful way by presenting our protagonists and their adventures. I hope this list, as well as all the novels that readers of this blog might suggest in the comments below, serve to remind us of those opportunities these books afford and lend us the courage to strive to see our work do the same.
Other online resources for read-aloud:
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