I thought it would be helpful to readers to get an inside perspective on middle grade books. What are middle schoolers reading? What holes are there in the market? And, with the holidays coming, what should you consider when buying a middle schooler a book as a gift? I wanted to utilize a great source to answer my questions: a middle-school librarian! Erin Wyatt is not only the librarian of my own children’s school here in Illinois, but we both used to work at the same school in our previous lives. I knew she could offer great insight to my questions for writers, parents, and teachers!
Hi Erin! I’m excited to pick your brain. Tell us a little about your background as a librarian and learning center director for a middle school.
I started my career in education as a high school English and social studies teacher where I spent four years in the classroom. I went to library school and have been working as a middle school librarian ever since. I have an MLIS (Masters of Library and Information Science) from Dominican University and a Ph.D. in information science from the University of North Texas. This is year 24 of my time working in libraries. It’s hard to believe it has been so many years. Being a school librarian is an amazing job!
What are the typical struggles middle schoolers have when choosing a book?
I think a lot of the struggles are the same for lots of people, kids and adults alike.
There are so many of choices of books that sometimes it proves an obstacle. At Highland, we’ve organized books by genre to make the library more browsable, utilized displays and rotating dynamic, face out shelving, and do lots of recommended reads.
There is sometimes a reluctance to try something new and a gravitation to the comfort of the familiar. Creating opportunities for students to recommend books to each other and doing things like low risk book tasting activities where students just spend a minute or two exploring a book to see if it is one they’d want to read can help connect students with new books and authors. During these types of activities students build their criteria to see what they are looking for in a book and strategies for looking at a book to see if it matches what they want and need in a read at that moment.
What is the most popular genre in your school’s library?
The most popular format the last few years has been graphic novels. Graphics are written in every genre, and there has been a lot of student demand for all kinds of graphics including nonfiction and manga.
The last couple years, there’s been a rise of popularity in students seeking out scary stories and mysteries. But certainly there is readership among all genres and my colleagues in the English Language Arts department encourage their students to read widely.
What books are very popular with this age group (at least at your library)?
I noticed the other day that our state readers’ choice shelves were nearly bare of the multiple copies the library owns of the books on the Readers’ Choice Lists for the state of Illinois. At Highland, we include the Illinois Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award Program nominees for grades 4-8, some of the books from the Bluestem list for readers in grades 3-5, and the Lincoln list for grades 9-12 in our yearly Readers’ Choice offerings.
When books are made into TV shows and movies, there is usually been a bump in demand. That’s certainly been the case this year for The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han.
I looked at our top 50 books circulated so far this year to help respond to this question. This year we’ve seen a Hunger Games resurgence. Certain authors have been popular like Kwame Alexander, Alan Gratz, Barbara Dee, and Stuart Gibbs.
Our all school read this fall was House Arrest by K.A. Holt. We were lucky enough to have Ms. Holt do an author visit. That is always impactful in terms of readers’ gravitating to an author’s books that they’ve had a chance to meet.
What is a book you often suggest?
Oh, this is a tough one as so much often depends on the reader too!
New Kid by Jerry Craft
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman was a wow from me from last year. Plus it is a genre (historical fiction) that I don’t always gravitate toward.
Legend by Marie Lu
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
I could really go on and on…
What holes do you feel are still in the middle school market?
There are so many great options being published. However, working in a middle school and thinking about 7thand 8th grader readers, it seems like there is a gap of books for those readers who are upper middle grade or lower YA.
As I try to build an inclusive collection of diverse books, there is an increasing number of stories from different perspectives and experiences in realistic fiction. However, in genre fiction (like fantasy, scifi, mystery, thriller), there is a need for more stories being published with characters who are Black, Indigenous, People of Color, LGBTQ+, disabled and the need for more stories in these genres being written by authors from historically marginalized groups.
What do you consider when looking at middle-grade books to purchase for your school library?
Lots of factors. First I consider the students at my school and the potential readers of the books. I think about the connection to other books and the ways those move or don’t move off the library shelves. I consider the subject, genre, and who’s voice is featured in the book. I think about the curriculum at the school. I look at book reviews and listen to student requests. Budget is also a factor because there are a finite number of resources to build and maintain our library collection.
When you’re reading through a middle-grade novel, is there anything that writers do that you feel may be a turn-off to middle schoolers?
In book clubs, students often comment about the way the characters talk. When the voice doesn’t ring true to them, that’s usually seen as a problem with the book.
For many student readers short chapters and use of cliff-hangers are a hit to make them pick up a book and keep reading.
How can parents help children who say they don’t like to read?
Read together and carve out time for reading, for both the parents and children. Having reading role models is important. Reading out loud or listening to books is a way to have that reading time together and create that culture and habit of reading in your family.
Having parents know and believe that listening to books IS reading. Graphic novels are REAL books. For some readers, these things might grow and sustain their interest in books and stories.
Parents can also help their students discover stories! They can connect to libraries and give their children access to materials to read whether those are physical books and reading material or linking to online resources.
I know as a parent, if I see a sports-related book, I assume my sporty son will like it, which, of course, isn’t the case. With the holidays approaching (books make great gifts!), any tips for picking out a book for someone else?
Books do make great gifts! We want to share stories that moved us with other people. I think it is so powerful when giving a book to someone to tell them why I gave that specific title to them.
When recommending books to people I think about ways to match their interests and what I know about them as readers to books by considering genre, style of writing, voice, format, main character, writer, and (for some) length. When buying books as gifts, I also consult gift guides, best of lists, and the work of other book people who share recommendations on social media or online.
Any suggestions for teachers wanting to bulk up their classroom libraries?
Talk to your librarian and build up that partnership! Both the classroom library, the school library, and the public library are important places for young readers to encounter books.
I would encourage teachers to think about voices that are not represented in their classroom libraries and make sure that all students in their classroom can see themselves in stories on the shelves.
Anything else you’d like to share with us?
In our recent author visit, I felt rockstar adjacent walking the halls with our visiting author. Thanks for writing and sharing your stories. It has an impact on your readers.
Thanks, Erin! It was really helpful to hear your answers as a writer, a teacher, AND a parent! (And I will definitely be putting a note on books I give as gifts, sharing why I thought it would be the perfect book.)
If you’d like to learn more about Erin and her library, check her out on Twitter:
Highland Middle School Library – @hlcD70
Erin Wyatt – @ejdwyatt