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Find more Reid-Aloud Alert
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of children’s literature throughout the ages has been its impressive cast of memorable characters (in this case, nonanimal characters). From the classics that have been around for more than 50 years, we have Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Bartholomew Cubbins, Dorothy Gale, Kay Thompson’s Eloise, Mary Poppins, Madeline, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and Pippi Longstocking, to name just a few. From my own childhood, in the 1950s and ’60s, I discovered Encyclopedia Brown, Harriet the Spy, Henry Huggins, and Maurice Sendak’s Max. As a librarian and a parent, I was happy to share the exploits of Amelia Bedelia, Bud Caldwell, Cassie Logan, Esperanza Ortega, Gary Paulsen’s Brian, Gilly Hopkins, Grandma Beetle, Grandma Dowdel, Harry Potter, India Opal Buloni, Jeffrey Lionel Magee, Joey Pigza, Junie B. Jones, Miss Nelson/Viola Swamp, Miss Rumphius, Stanley Yelnats, and Strega Nona. In the last few years, Hugo Cabret and Katniss Everdeen have become young people’s favorites.
The following read-aloud chapter books all have strong, memorable characters who may one day join the ranks of the above. The chapter books featured in this column work as read-alouds for both individuals and groups of children, such as in a classroom setting. For those who don’t have the time to read the entire book, a “10-Minute Selection” feature has been added. These pieces work as stand-alone selections that require little or no introduction. They may, in fact, be anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes in length.
Warp Speed, by Lisa Yee (Gr. 4–7): Marley Sandelski feels that he is invisible at school, except to his friends in AV Club and a group of bullies. In Marley’s universe, the popular kids are Mercury, while Pluto “has an eccentric orbit—inhabited by AV Club (a collection of nerds, dorks, and geeks). Sadly, Pluto is no longer even considered a planet.” The track coach is impressed when he spots Marley running away from bullies, and he invites Marley to try out for the track team. Despite some hard-to-believe secondary characters (the history teacher, the principal, and members of the PTA group) and the fact that two of the bullies make confessions to Marley, the book holds up as an entertaining read and provides more than one solution to handling bullies.
10-Minute Selection: Read chapter 7. Marley is with his friend Ramen and the new kid, Max. They all argue about what’s better: Star Trek, Star Wars, or Batman. Marley and Ramen tell Max not to wear his T-shirt tucked in because it makes him look like a girl. Max explodes: “Is that what you think? That I look like a girl? . . . For your information, you dweebs,’ Max yells, ‘I AM A GIRL!’” Ramen and Marley are stunned. Continue reading chapter 8. Marley crosses paths with a boy named Digger, who tells him, “You’d better not cross me again. I’ll be watching you.” The chapter ends with Marley imagining his funeral.
One Dog and His Boy, by Eva Ibbotson (Gr. 3–6): Hal is excited when his rich, spoiled parents finally bring home a dog. The mutt-terrier Fleck bonds immediately with Hal. However, Hal is betrayed when he learns his parents merely rented Fleck for the weekend from a corrupt company called the Easy Pets Dog Agency. Hal steals Fleck, and the two run away to Hal’s grandparents’ cottage, miles away. They are joined by a girl named Pippa and four unique dogs that Pippa released from Easy Pets. A reward has been posted for their capture, and they are in danger of being caught. This is Ibbotson’s final book, and all of her works make wonderful read-alouds. Booklist reviewer Kara Dean was spot-on when she called this book a combination of Lassie and Roald Dahl.
10-Minute Selection: Read the short chapter 6, “The Trick.” Hal is enjoying playing with Fleck, but Hal’s mother, Albina, is disgusted. “She could see a hair on the half landing, and something—possibly a speck of mud—on the bottom stair.” Albina gets into an argument with her husband over whose responsibility it is to return Fleck to Easy Pets. The next day, Hal returns from the dentist and learns that his parents had tricked him. “Not a trick, Hal. We just wanted you to have a dog for a little while. You know how I feel about animals in the house. And I’ve bought you a present.” Hal throws the present across the room. When Albina shrieks, “Look what you’ve done,” Hal tells his mother—in a grown-up voice that she is not used to—that “it’s what you’ve done. That’s what you want to think about.”
Earwig and the Witch, by Diana Wynne Jones (Gr. 2–4): Earwig prefers to stay at the orphanage where she was raised. Instead, she is adopted by a large man who turns out to be a mandrake and a witch known as Bella Yaga. Bella soon has Earwig doing mundane chores for her when the young girl would prefer to be an apprentice and learn magic spells herself. With the help of a talking cat named Thomas, Earwig is able to outsmart Bella and make the best of her new household.
10-Minute Selection: Read chapter 1. The orphans at Saint Morwald’s Home for Children are put on display for prospective foster parents. Earwig is chosen by a frightening man and woman. “‘We’ll take this one,’ she said, just as if Earwig were a melon or a joint of meat on the market.” Earwig decides to think of her new life as a challenge. Move on and read the first half of chapter 3. Earwig learns that there are no visible exits out of the house except to the garden, where she is sent to pick “nettles or bryony berries or deadly nightshade” for Bella Yaga’s potions. When Earwig gets too inquisitive about the house, Bella warns her to mind her own business. Bella is surprised when Earwig asks, “What will you do to me if I don’t?” Bella tells her that she’ll give her worms. End the selection with the sentences, “Great big blue and purple wriggly worms. So take care, my girl!”
Rachel Spinelli Punched Me in the Face, by Paul Acampora (Gr. 5–8): Fourteen-year-old Zachary and his father move from Colorado to a small town in Connecticut. He quickly becomes good friends with his neighbor Rachel, who has a trigger temper, and her brother Teddy, who is a musical virtuoso with an Asperger’s-like disorder. Zachary is upset about his mother, who abandoned Zachary and his father and has now shown up for a visit. The entire town is full of memorable characters, such as the ice-cream-store owners who keep their deceased, stuffed dog in the store; the school’s pregnant music teacher; and the appropriately named librarian, Mr. Fines, who looks like actor Bill Murray.
10-Minute Selection: Read the fairly short chapter 5. Zachary is in the school cafeteria lunch line with Rachel when Mike Kutzler, “football alpha dog,” taunts Teddy. Zachary yells at Kutzler to give Teddy a break. Kutzler replies, “I’ve got one retard in front of me and another one behind me.” Rachel walks up to Kutzler and slaps his lunch tray out of his hands. She then tips her own lunch tray on him. “A slice of pizza and an extra tall cup of ice tea poured onto Mike Kutzler’s pants like a science experiment gone bad.” As Rachel is being led away by Coach Behr, who tells her detention wouldn’t be the same without her, Zachary ponders, “What would it be like to kiss this ferocious girl?”
Marty McGuire, by Kate Messner (Gr. 2–4): Marty balks at playing dress-up and learning to dance the waltz with the other girls in her third-grade class. She would rather play in the woods and “pretend to be Jane Goodall, who is an amazing scientist.” Marty is upset when she is cast as the princess in the class production of The Frog Prince. Her teacher brings in a drama coach, who teaches the cast all about improvisation. Marty and her friend Rupert decide to “improvise” at the final production by substituting the prop frog for a real one.
10-Minute Selection: Read the first two chapters. Chapter 1 introduces us to Marty and her classmates, including Veronica Grace Smithers. “I’d call Veronica Grace Princess Bossy-Pants if I were allowed to call people names. But I’m not. So I won’t.” Veronica Grace takes over recess activities, and all of the other girls follow her, including Kimmy Butler, who eats a lot of cupcakes. “I’d call Kimmy Frosting-Face Messy-Mouth if I were allowed to call people names. But I’m not. So I won’t.” Chapter 2 finds Marty running off to help the boys catch a frog. She falls off a log and into “shallow, weedy water” but manages to grab the frog. The recess monitor makes her release the frog. The chapter ends with the frog disappearing in one leap and Marty thinking, “I wish I could do that.”
The Humming Room, by Ellen Potter (Gr. 4–7): Twelve-year-old Roo Fanshaw goes to live with her uncle after her parents are killed. Her new home is in an old children’s hospital on an island. Roo’s special ability is being able to hear nature at work under the ground. “The earth is humming to the seeds and the seeds are humming to the roots and the roots are humming to the leaves and each part is telling another part to stay alive.” She discovers a secret neglected garden that her uncle shut up after his wife died. Roo also discovers her cousin Phillip, hidden away in a wing of the house, and Jack, a mysterious boy who lives on the river. The book is inspired by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
10-Minute Selection: Read chapter 3. Roo is riding in a boat to her new home. As she approaches the island, she sees a large building that takes up most of it. “It looked like an old school or a factory. Someplace where no one would want to live.” Once on land, Roo notices how quiet the island is. She is shown her room and told that she is forbidden to go to the east wing. While exploring the house, Roo hears a humming noise, a tuneless human sound. Roo presses her ear against a wall and asks, “Who’s there?” The chapter ends with the line, “She was answered by a scream, so loud and piercing that Roo instantly crouched down, muscles clenched like an animal readying itself to escape, or, if necessary, fight.”
May B., by Caroline Starr Rose (Gr. 3–7): Twelve-year-old May is sent by her farming family to work for the Oblingers. When lonely Mrs. Oblinger leaves, her husband follows, abandoning May. Even though she is only 15 miles away from her family, May has no way to get back to them. It is the 1870s—there are no roads, no nearby neighbors, no form of communication. May’s food supply and fuel start to run out, and then a blizzard strikes, burying May inside the sod house.
10-Minute Selection: Explain to your audience that 12-year-old May B. has been hired to cook and clean for a newlywed couple at their sod house from the end of summer to Christmas. Begin this novel in verse with poem 16 and the sentence, “Once you unpack, / you can start in on supper.” May learns that Mrs. Oblinger is unhappy living on the prairie. When Mrs. Oblinger runs away, her husband sets out after her. May waits in vain for their return. At one point she panics and runs outside. “And around me, / the grass reaches in every direction. / There is nothing here to mark my place, / nothing to show me where I am. / No trees. / No stones. / No wagon ruts this way. / Just emptiness.” End the passage with poem 52 and the lines, “Pa doesn’t know they won’t return. / The nearest neighbor is gone. / I’m here until Christmas.”
Rob Reid’s newest book is titled What’s Black and White and Reid All Over? Something Hilarious Happened at the Library (2012). Visit Rob at www.rapnrob.com.
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