Teen Librarian Toolbox
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Middle Grade Monday – the DNF Debate

As you may have read here, next week we are doing a Second Chance Challenge – we are challenging you to pick up a book that you didn’t finish and try again. Thus the DNF (did not finish) debate. For those of us who are school librarians, it can be a challenge to help some students find a book they can engage with and finish. When it’s for a class assignment, though, it can be crucial. Many of their teachers may be stuck in the ‘completist’ mode, thinking that a student should finish every book they start. I find this to be one of the surest roads to killing a student’s love of reading.

When I do book talks, I try to work in this idea – for my teachers’ benefit as well as my students’. Some books are ‘almost everybody’ books (Harry Potter) and some books may have a much narrower interest base. It’s important that you find books with which you can engage and sustain your interest throughout. One way we try to foster this is by doing interest inventories with the students so they are aware of what topics they do and don’t find interesting. I know it sounds like a simple thing, but I’ve found that there are a good number of students this age who’ve never been asked to self-evaluate in this way. Another method we use to enhance student engagement with their chosen books is equally simple – we give them an extended amount of time to read once they’ve chosen a book during their class library time. They know if they get several pages into it and it hasn’t grabbed them, that it is okay to look for another.

I have a rather long list of DNFs, mostly due to certain topic sensitivities that seem to pop up regularly in Middle Grade and YA fiction. They include kidnapping, underground settings, and any book where an adult uses their power to manipulate or harm a child. I know…what can I read? That last one has to be integral to the plot. It’s why I’ve never bothered to start The Hunger Games. I watched the trailer for the first movie with my students and almost threw up. So…yeah. My other issues tend to be more stylistic. I rarely engage with books that have footnotes. They tend to draw me out of the story. There are certain exceptions, but I will, for the most part, only make it through if I ignore the footnotes (Colin Fischer is a good example.) I also have issues with books that focus too strongly on plot and don’t develop their characters well. It’s one of my rules of thumb to DNF any title I get half way through if I don’t care about the main character.

On the other hand, knowing what your topic sensitivities are can give you the ability to power through a book that includes them if it’s good enough. In my case, that book was Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. It took me 4 tries to get past the point where the children are kidnapped. The first couple of times I didn’t even get that far – I could see what was coming. At that point as a reader, though, I wasn’t self aware enough to see that it was the kidnapping that was the issue. Once I worked through that, I was able to really engage with the book (it’s amazing.) Most of your students won’t have these same sensitivities (although some have been through fairly traumatic episodes and may need to avoid certain topics.) I’ve found that the things that bother me as an adult who is specifically tasked with caring for the welfare of children are seldom issues that bother students. They didn’t bother me at that age either.

So, TL;DR – let your students DNF if they need to. Help them find a book with which they can really engage. Don’t be a completist.

Also, for the record, the book I’m going to try is one I almost finished, put down, and never opened again – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I know.


  1. I don’t have a problem with students who DNF (books, at least. Cross Country is a different issue!) There are many that I don’t finish, so it would not be right to make the students stick with something they don’t like!


  1. […] Libraries give free access to information, Sabina Khan discusses diversity in writing, and Robin Willis explores the Did Not Finish debate. […]

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