Tween Book Club: Realistic fiction

I’ve been doing some version of a tween book club for several years now, at two different library systems. My book clubs are designed for fourth to sixth graders (with the occasional ambitious third grader), and we usually get anywhere from six to twelve kids. We meet once a month for an hour, with the first half dedicated to discussing the book and the second half to an activity related to the story.

Here are my favorite realistic middle grade fiction books we’ve done over the last few years.

Full Cicada Moon, by Marilyn Hilton

This is a beautiful novel-in-verse, a historical fiction piece set at the time of the Moon Landing. Main character Mimi is moving from a more progressive Berkeley to Vermont, where in 1969, there are no other mixed-race kids like her. The book covers her first school year, where she fights to get girls allowed to take shop and dreams of becoming an astronaut, while navigating the sometimes fraught racial politics of her small town.

As an adult, I loved this book, and my bookworms loved it too. We got to show our kids the moon landing, which lead to a discussion about whether the landing was fake, because some of our kids had heard that urban legend. It was a great learning experience, and of course a wonderful chance to build their empathy skills.

The Green Bicycle, by Haifaa al Mansour

Eleven-year-old Wadjda lives in Saudia Arabia, where she desperately wants to earn enough money to buy a bicycle, even though girls aren’t allowed to ride them in her culture. She comes up with a variety of tricks, schemes, and money-making opportunities to get there, and although her cultural setting may be unfamiliar to a lot of American kids, her drive to achieve her dreams is universal.

This is actually the novelization following author al Mansour’s film, Wadjda. We showed pieces of the film after our discussion, which our kids loved – they would have watched the entire thing if we had time. We got a chance to talk about lots of deep issues, like sexism, cultural differences, and religion, and our kiddos totally groked it despite their age. That said, there were also a couple of issues that went over our kids heads (for example, it’s mentioned in the book that some people think that riding a bike can damage a girl’s virginity, and there are also two female characters who are vaguely accused of being in a relationship). We decided to wait and see if the kids had noticed these things before bringing them up – if they had noticed them, we could have opened up the discussion to these issues, too, but since they hadn’t, we let those slide.

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, by Dana Alison Levy

This one is like a modern-day Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. It features a family of four boys, all of different ages, and their two dads. Each boy has his own storyline – one boy is struggling to find a way to make sense of his warring interests in both sports and acting, another has started a competitive private school and isn’t loving it the way he hoped to. This is very warm-hearted, positive family story with bits of humor throughout.

The nice thing about each of the four boys having their own storyline is that the book can appeal to a variety of readers, because if one storyline doesn’t speak to them, the odds are another boy’s storyline will be up their alley. One of the boy’s has a storyline where he has to talk to the crotchety neighbor next door for a project about veterans, and so for our project we Skyped with a real veteran to connect that storyline to real life. This lead to a A LOT of questions, because our friendly service person mentioned being in the same area when Sadam Hussein was killed by the U.S. military. The kids had never heard of him, and also didn’t really realize that military conflicts were still on-going.

Because of Mr. Terupt, by Rob Buyea

Do you have fans of Wonder? If so, this is a great book to pick up because it has the same structure of multiple narrators, and kids this age love to hear the story from different points of view. It follows seven kids through their year of fifth grade with their teacher Mr. Terupt. The year is having its typical ups and downs until a tragic accident happens, and the kids have to work together to make meaning out of it and move forward. This book gives you lots of opportunities to talk about empathy, guilt, and making amends.

For this book, we actually got the kids to recreationally do math – and they loved it! In the book, Mr. Terupt gives the kids a project of find “dollar words” – if A is worth $.01, and B is worth $.02, etc, what words are worth exactly a dollar? Our kiddos had been in school all day before book club, and they still leapt into this activity and spent the whole half hour engaged in trying to find the best words.

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

This was our Community Reads for kids book this year, and it was a hit. Set in California in the 90s, Front Desk is about Mia, whose family are Chinese immigrants. They start working for a man running his motel, but are caught in his predatory practices when he exploits their immigration status to weasel money out from them. Mia and her parents turn around and make the motel a haven for other immigrants who need help, and Mia begins a campaign to get her own motel and improve the lives of not just her own family, but everyone they meet.

Although this book sounds really heavy, the way it’s written makes it really accessible and enjoyable for young readers and not overwhelmingly depressing. It’s written in relatively easy language, which meant it was a great pick for our variety of reading levels in our area. The kids had so much to say about this book, we didn’t even get to my planned activity!

Have you used any realistic middle grade fiction in a book club? What were your favorites?

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