Posts Tagged book clubs

Promoting Summer Creativity: The Historical Fiction Premise for Middle Graders

Most middle grade readers will soon have a months-long opportunity to reboot their imaginations after a busy school year. Summer is a great time to offer up creative writing activities to MG readers: through summer programs at the local library, at camps or enrichment workshops, in the homeschool activity center on a rainy day, or as a mid-summer pick-me-up when boredom starts to creep in. Many kids pursue their own writing projects when on break from school, free of classroom guidelines and assessment rubrics… but others might need an idea or two to ignite the creative fire. This post details a writing activity for middle grade readers and writers that has worked well for students in my 5th through 8th grade classes—and it can be adapted for younger or older writers as well.

Your group might include middle graders for whom the task of writing a whole tale is too daunting, along with those who would happily write an entire novel if given the chance, as well as everyone in between. Here is a plan and suggestions for kids of varying interests and language skill levels: Creating historical fiction premises.

Just a cautious word before we proceed: Kids generally don’t want to hear assignment or work while on break from school, and even activity and writing can send up flags of alarm. So take care with the pitch (story crafting, authoring, and premise design are upbeat and interest-piquing descriptions) and the stakes (no grades…no deadlines…sharing aloud is completely optional).

Step One. Explain that a premise is the idea behind a story, without the details or the actual words of the tale. Premises can take lots of shapes, such as the blurb on a paperback, or the inside jacket copy on a hardback. In a short form, writers try to sum up the premise of their story in a logline or “elevator pitch.” A tagline on a movie poster or book trailer can serve as a hint of the story’s premise.

However, a good premise reveals attention-grabbing info about each part necessary for a well-developed story. These parts are the story elements: Plot (Conflict), Character, Setting, Theme, and Point of View. Middle grade readers will be very intrigued at the notion of dreaming up a story idea…without having to write the story itself. (Of course, there’s nothing to stop those interested in penning the actual tale from doing so; it’s summertime, after all!)

Step Two. Provide a quick rundown of the story elements:

Plot (Conflict): Remember, it’s just the idea of a story, so no need to get bogged down in plot details or structure! Just an explanation of the big conflict the main character faces: what’s the problem? How does it worsen?

Character: A brief character design is enough for a premise: age, gender, name, background, occupation or talents; any character traits that are important to the conflict.

Setting: Here’s where you get to add a bit of history! Have writers brainstorm historical events they recall from recent studies, movies, documentaries, or books. Then they can narrow their list, and choose a time, place, and historical event for their premise. This is a great chance to do a bit of searching or use library resources for research, depending on skill and interest level. Let your MG-aged writers know that a historical element can add to (and not limit) speculative genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and action/adventure (examples include The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, historical fantasy set in 1242; and several superhero blockbusters in recent years set during historical wartime).

Theme: In language arts classes, students learn about theme topics (“love,” “friendship,” “loyalty,” “pride”) and their more didactic accompanying theme statements (“True friendship can withstand tests over time.”) Simple, one-word theme topics work well for premise design.

Point of View: Remind middle graders that some stories are best told in the “I-voice” and others in 3rd person. As the premise designer, he or she gets to choose.

Step Three: How will your middle graders note their ideas and communicate their creative, original premise? This depends entirely on the size and abilities of your group. A handy activity sheet that you type up for distribution could list the story elements and allow lots of room for writers’ ideas, sketches, lists, and notes; this might be most efficient.  Some writers might prefer to design their premise on blank, oversized paper, sans “worksheet,” keeping in mind the story elements.

Don’t forget that middle graders can also communicate a story premise without writing a single word: they can cut and paste magazine images in a collage to represent each element. Drawings, iMovies, storyboards, and photo-journals all lend themselves to story premise design as well.

Step Four: Middle graders can share the premise aloud to the group, if they would like.

Writing JournalExtensions and adaptations:

  • Pose the premises of popular books or movies and have readers deduce the title. Or, have the readers tell a premise of a popular book or film (without character names or giveaway details) and see if others in the group can guess the work.
  • After a read-aloud session of famous opening lines–and the fun of guessing the book that is opened by it—have middle graders write the opening line of the story for which they have designed a premise.
  • Early finishers can dream up multiple premises while they wait for the group to finish. More methodical writers, ELLs, or anyone who finds the premise-design task too daunting might try focusing on just one or two story elements.
  • Story premises can easily drive drama exercises in the form of scene tableaus, character creation and development, monologue writing, or (if you provide plenty of guidelines) improv activities.

I hope you have fun adapting these ideas for your needs, whether that means a writing workshop of 25 student attendees at a library or camp, or your own child’s picnic blanket afternoons. Thanks for promoting inspiration and creativity in the sunshine of summer.

More Than a Middle Grade Book Club

For Narnia!

Jonathan Robbins Leon, Osceola Library Youth Specialist, gets into the spirit for book club meetings. Photo by: Osceola Library. Used with permission.

I sat down this week to chat with Jonathan Robbins Leon, a youth specialist at the Osceola Library, about how he incorporates STEM and history into his book club for middle graders, and he passed along some great ideas for parents, teachers, and librarians who want to add a little something extra to their middle-grade book discussions.

MP: Tell us a little bit about how you started the book club?

JRL: We started this last August. The sessions run from August to May. It started out as a home-school book club to tie books into home-school lesson plans. Last session, I chose 8 random books, but this year, I decided to do a series.

MP: Why did you decide to do a series, and which series are you focusing on this year?

JRL: This year, I did the Chronicles of Narnia. It has worked out well. It gives the kids a goal to work toward, finishing the series, and we’ve had a lot more regular participation than just choosing different books for each session.

MP: So, the kids read along with each session. What if they haven’t finished a book yet?

JRL: The activities that I chose go along chronologically with the events of the books, but the kids don’t necessarily have to have read the book in order to enjoy the activity or participate.

MP: That sounds interesting. Can you give us an example?

JRL: In The Magician’s Nephew, there’s discussion about the dying sun on Charn. So, we talked about the life cycle of a star and built solar K’nex machines. Also, we talked about World War II, which is the setting for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. We talked about what it was like during World War II. The kids planted mini victory gardens and learned how to sew a button. We also handed out recipes for war cakes that would have been made with what was given on a ration card.

MP: Have any interesting observations come out of these sessions?

JRL: During our World War II session, we talked about the roles of women during war time and how some women fought during the war, and one girl raised her hand and asked “Then, why does Lucy get told that she needs to wait during the battle?” It led to an interesting discussion about gender roles.

MP: Any tips for teachers, parents or librarians thinking about coming up with their own extension activities?

JRL: This first one is obvious but read the books. The first session of the book club, I’d read the books, but a long time ago. So, the meetings weren’t as detailed as they were for this session because I read the Narnia series knowing that I was going to be planning the book club around them. I made pages of notes as I was reading. Also, break it down into how many meetings you’re planning to hold. Make sure the final meeting of the book club has all the fun stuff so that it’s a reward for finishing the whole session.

MP: Were there any other lessons that you learned from planning this session that you’d like to pass on?

3-D Printed Narnia Charms

3-D Printed Charms that correspond with each Narnia book were incentives given to kids who finished a book. Photo by: Osceola Library. Used with permission.

JRL: This session we added an incentive, a little 3-D printed charm, for each book read. This has helped to keep the kids reading along with the activities.

MP: Are there any resources that you can recommend to help planning a program like this?

JRL: Think outside just what goes on in the book, and find ways to connect the time period of the book, the culture, and the author’s background. Teacher’s guides are incredibly helpful for this because they’ll often have extension ideas. Also, consider inviting guest presenters to add depth to the meetings. We’ve Skyped with Big Cat Rescue about lions, and had a magician come in and teach some beginning magic tricks.

MP: Any other suggestions?

JRL: Make sure that you have enough copies of the books for everyone to read. Also, if you can, find young reader copies for younger siblings that may want to participate. Finally, at least in a library, if you are having guest presenters, advertise them separately from the book club as well to get more interest. For example, our meeting with the magician was bigger because some people only came to see the magician, but we had several people join the book club afterward and stick with it.

MP: This sounds awesome! Do you plan on repeating the program with other series?

JRL: We’re definitely going to continue this next year. I’m thinking about doing either A Series of Unfortunate Events or Harry Potter.

For more information about Osceola Library’s home-school book club, visit their page here. Or for more ideas to pump up your own middle grade book club, check out our list of Author Websites with Discussion/Activity Guides as well as our reference page For Teachers and Librarians.

United Nations (of Books) Day

We have a calendar at From the Mixed-Up Files. It gives us members the dates of the upcoming posts, who is assigned to a particular date, and lists if something special is celebrated on that date. My assigned day was today, October 24, 2018, and the something special celebrated on October 24, 2018, was listed as United Nations Day.

United Nations Day?

How in the wide world of sports was I going to find one of my usual go-to middle-grade sports book topics to fit with United Nations?

It’s World Series time! College and professional football have hit their full stride. College and professional basketball have started. Volleyball! Local high school fall sports! All this plethora of sports-related fall activities and not one is United Nations related.

Oh well, so much for working in United Nations Day into a post.

But then…

I started thinking.

Dangerous, I know.

Yet, the wheels in my distracted brain turned. The gears whined and squealed and smoke billowed out of my ears.

United Nations.


What unites us? A lot of things, that’s for sure. My guess is that we have more things in our human existence that can work to unite us rather than tear us apart. Two things, though, kept appearing on my mind’s horizon.

United by sports.

United by books.

Think about it? The World Cup. Harry Potter. The Winter Olympic Games. The Hunger Games. The Summer Olympic Games. Ghost by Jason Reynolds. Baseball. Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park. NBA. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

Book fandoms unite!

And then books as a unifying force streamed into my feeble brain…

How about some global book unity in Pernille Ripp’s Global Read Aloud? 

  • 2017 Middle Reader Selections
    • Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe
    • The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
    • A Long Walk To Water by Linda Sue Park
  • 2018 Middle Reader Selections
    • A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold
    • Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed
    • Refugee by Alan Gratz

Nerdy Book Club and the nErDcamp Movement

The Nerdy Book Club blog is a daily dose of this book unification theory. If you haven’t treated your book-lover soul to a nErdcamp yet, I suggest you get yourself a free ticket and make the plans to catch one soon. Here are a couple of links to my favorites.

Classrooms & Libraries UNITE with a book!

  • Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
  • Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt
  • The Night Gardner by Johnathan Auxier
  • How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle
  • Monster by Walter Dean Myers
  • Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
  • Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams Garcia
  • The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt
  • The Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan
  • The Amulet Series by Kaz Kabushi
  • The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

I could go on forever listing books which have united me in brotherhood with fellow readers, young and old. How about you? What books have brought you a sense of community and shared experience?

Books are powerful elixirs.

Reading is a superpower.

Books have the inherent ability to attract like-minded humans. Carry a beloved book, like your tattered copy of Coraline or Hogfather, around in public and see what reactions this incites. My guess is there will be comments or, at the very least, a shared smile in appreciation of the book. Just as a sports jersey of your favorite team pulls together other fans like moths drawn to the porch light, readers are held in orbit around their favorite books by literary gravity.

Wouldn’t it be cool to see the UN General Assembly set aside a month for a book exchange? All the countries exchange a book from their country with a polar opposite country. Bond through books. Peace one page at a time. Words for a wise world.

Imagine a class, a library, a town, and a nation enjoying the camaraderie of a single book. Not quite magic, but something really close. Something that has the potential energy of a lightning bolt wrapped between the front and back covers of a book.

Like with our favorite sports teams, we are passionate about books.

We are united by books and that, my friends, is a powerful medicine.