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Going Back in Time: Middle School-Style – Booktalks by Kearsten LaBrozzi

This month, my middle school book club and I talked historical fiction, naming titles, authors, and six words or phrases to describe the books.  As we shared our past month’s reads, two themes featured prominently: required reading is not always their favorite (e.g., My Brother Sam is Dead and Hound of the Baskervilles) and yes, they, too, read fanfiction!   

Here are just a couple of the books we talked about.

Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, & Other Female Villains by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Rebecca Guay.  7th grader Galadriel recommends this collection of “bad girls” throughout history using these words/phrases: innocent or guilty, historical, women, interesting, and Typhoid Mary.  Each woman’s story is told, and then followed with a short comic of the writers, mother and daughter Jane and Heidi, arguing about each woman’s guilt or innocence.  Galadriel found Typhoid Mary’s story the most interesting: a cook who served up peaches and cream with a possiblyunintentional side of typhoid fever, and didn’t seem all that remorseful about the many infections (and several deaths) she caused. 

The Book Thiefby Marcus Zusak. Death, our narrator in The Book Thief, is tired. He’s carried many souls from here to…somewhere else, and doesn’t usually notice the survivors. Sometimes, however, the truly extraordinary make him care. Liesel, a young orphan in Germany in 1939, is one such case. Death checks in with her over the years, as she steals books and cherishes the words inside, and he collects the dead throughout Europe during WWII. Last month 7thgrader Annalise recommended that I read this one (I’d put it off for years, afraid I’d sob through it. I did), and I used these words/phrases to describe it: words, beautiful, World War II, fear, family, and devastating.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Maybe you have a hankering for the detective life, or are more than a little obsessed with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. If so, why not try the original Holmes?  In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes and Watson investigate the death of Sir Charles Baskerville. His death appears to have been caused by a very large dog, which family lore claims haunts the Baskerville grounds. But is that just a convenient cover for a more dastardly plot? 8th grader Ayonna, who read the story for class, started out with slow as one of her six words/phrases, but followed with mystery, surprising, murderous, moorland and convicts.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler.  Octavia E. Butler was a wicked good, award-winning science fiction author, and it shows Kindred.  In it, 26-year-old Dana is swept back and forth in time, from the present day to America’s slave-owning past. In the past, she struggles with life as a slave while trying to ensure that the slave owner, Rufus, survives…as she’s discovered that he’s her ancestor. The words/phrases 7th grader Jordyn used to describe Kindred were scifi, slavery, historical fiction and time-travel.

My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier & Christopher Collier.  Revolutionary War, death, family, taverns, grief, and Lobster Backs (the British); these are the words and phrases 7thgrader Annalise used to describe this story of the Revolutionary War. Tim lives a quiet life with his British-supporting family until 1775, when his beloved older brother leaves the family to fight against the British. In a bout of teen-irreverence, Annalise referred to this required read as “My Bro Sammy Kicked the Bucket.”

Bonus: while I’ve heard a lot about fanfiction from many of my high school teens (I’ve been handing out Rainbow Rowell’s fantastic Fangirllike crazy), I hadn’t realized how many 7th & 8thgraders were reading – and loving – fanfiction! The middle schoolers in my book club recommended I try out Wattpad (http://www.wattpad.com) for both fanfiction and unpublished works. The site also offers a free mobile app, so these kids can read their Hetalia(a manga/anime in which world countries are argumentative and very attractive teens) fanfiction anywhere.

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