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Middle Grade Monday – Frame of Reference

It’s finally summer break, and I’ve started to move books from my To Be Read pile to my Read this Summer pile (so I can take a picture and do a display for the students in July.) I decided to begin this summer with one of the Hatchette titles I bought in a show of solidarity against Amazon, Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger. I’d been wanting to read it for some time. A novel about a Victorian Era finishing school that is a front for training young women of ‘qualit-tay’ to become spies? With supernatural beings and a steampunk twist? I AM IN! And it is wonderful, by the way – highly recommended.

You might be wondering why I’m referencing a novel that is generally considered YA for Middle Grade Monday. SLJ gauged it’s recommended interest level at 6th through 9th grades; Booklist recommended it for 9th through 12th grade. I’d actually say 4th grade and up. But part of that comes from my frame of reference, which is what I really want to discuss today.

Like most of you, probably, I read all of my MG and YA choices with an eye towards collection development and readers’ advisory. I very quickly ran up against and interesting conundrum with this title. Would my middle school population have any frame of reference for what a ‘dumb waiter’ or ‘India rubber’ might be? Could they figure it out from the context clues? Would their lack of a frame of reference for these concepts distract them from their enjoyment of what is a very engaging story? I’m just not sure.

You see, I think it’s very difficult to (as an adult) remove my appreciation for a story from my frame of reference. Or, to remove my innate understanding of certain concepts from my frame of reference and see the title as my students will see it. It might help if you understood the background of what I read as a middle grader. I didn’t learn to read successfully until 3rd grade, but after that I practically inhaled all the novels I could get my hands on. These included the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, everything ever written by Louisa May Alcott (well, everything widely published), the Five Little Peppers books by Margaret Sidney, the All of a Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor, everything by Frances Hodgson Burnettcan you see where I’m going with this? I have no issue with the concept of dumb waiters and India rubber. I would have LOVED this book in 4th grade. And I would have had the frame of reference to understand it. Or, at least, I would have been acquainted with much of the terminology. But how will today’s students, with their reading preferences, fare with this novel?

It might be easier to understand with a more contemporary history example, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. I happen to think it is genius (and I’m obviously not alone…) but I find it a really hard sell with most of my middle school students because it is set in 1978. There are a lot of cultural references within it to things the students have no understanding of, and it puts a lot of them off. Now, if I can get them past the beginning of the book, they get caught up in the story and it’s all good from there, but these are the things I worry about. 

And, in the end, how can I help them get past these roadblocks that might interfere with their enjoyment of really excellent stories? Something to contemplate.

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