During my thirteen years in a third-grade classroom, reading a book aloud has always been a favorite time of the school day—for me as well as for my students. As I strive to maintain the daily sort-of-order, luring my clan to sit quietly and enjoy the ancient art of storytelling provides all the relief you might imagine.
If I choose wisely (and with some luck) even the naysayers of a given book will fall under its spell. Aside from a chuckle at a goofy character’s quirk, or a raised fist at an evil antagonist’s action, engaged silence is the only sound in the room. During the best of times my students will scramble in from recess and push past classmates to be the first to sit down and lounge, draw, or both while I read a great story.
Here are a few books that have worked over the years for one reason or another. Some have been around a while; others are more recent. In this short list I’ve tried to represent an array of genres, styles and moods.
1. Ida B by Katherine Hannigan
Kids always appreciate a main character’s witnessing an injustice, followed by the character’s setting things right. Ida B has a lively spirit, a wonderful voice, and a sense of fairness to which all kids can relate. She’s a lot of fun. I have read this book aloud to a couple of classes and it is one of my go-to recommendations for a child who seems a little bored with early reader chapter books. It rarely disappoints.
2. Chet Gecko Mysteries by Bruce Hale
I started reading these aloud about a decade ago to prep my students for their student-led book clubs. These days when I want to lighten the mood I’ll pick up a Chet Gecko mystery. The key has been to read them in a private-eye film noir goofball voice. The students eat it up and discover the concept of strong voice. And, frankly, the stories are just funny. I haven’t read many of the later books of the series, but my personal favorite has always been the second installment, “Farewell, My Lunchbag.”
3. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier
I discovered this book through a blog interview with the author. My colleagues and I teach a unit on Roald Dahl and Auxier had mentioned Dahl as an influence for this book. I also thought the premise was super cool: a blind thief. The kids really enjoyed it and the icing on the cake was that Auxier sent a nice e-mail response. We learned that a writer often finds inspiration in other authors and that everyone struggles with the craft of writing (teachers included).
4. Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
This has been a go-to read-aloud every year since it came out. It has mystery, hilarity and heart, with space travel thrown in for good measure (I teach science, as well). Even those who grumble at the cover are fully invested as soon as they learn that the main character is thirteen, but continually mistaken for thirty. A kid who looks like an adult can get away with a lot.
5. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
Though I haven’t read this aloud to third graders, it is a personal favorite. There is no middle-grade book that moves me up and down the emotional scale more efficiently (except maybe Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee or Gary Paulsen’s Harris & Me and, most recently, Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy). The resonance from my first reading still lingers as I reread this book, even when I know the beautifully handled resolution. It’s an amazing book and one I will forever strive to match in my own work.
6. The Year of Miss Agnes by Kirkpatrick Hill
Ms. Hill, a thirty-year veteran teacher in Alaska, wrote this book some time ago, but when I want to get choked up about the inspiring teachers in my life, I’ll pull this off the shelf. It’s set in Alaska so you get a full color view into village life. It is also a great example of what adventures can take place in any classroom with a phenomenal teacher at the helm. It makes you either long for a great teacher, or appreciate the very few you’ve been lucky enough to experience.
7. The Pig War by Mark Holtzen
After six years of work on my own middle-grade children’s book, it was time to release it into the world. Since it’s a regional tale I took a chance on publishing it myself thinking it might interest local independent booksellers.
Letting my family and friends read my writing was one thing, but reading it aloud to my own class was a new level of terror. As sweet as third graders tend to be, when bored they are not subtle. Plus, you don’t mess with read-aloud time. They have a zero-tolerance policy. If a book stinks, it’s out—and quick (and I knew I could sniff out a fake compliment). Unfortunately for me, I had been sharing my writing woes and celebrations with them all year and as the last day of school approached, they wanted to hear it.
As I began to read I was all on high alert for telltale signs: a torso going “noodle” across a desk, or more-than-normal fidgeting. There is always the potential for the kiss of death for any lesson, the dreaded, glaze-eyed, “Can I go to the bathroom?” They may as well say, “Wandering snail-pace down that silent hall is better than suffering any more of your words, man.”
But as I reached page four I noticed the room had stayed reasonably quiet. I searched their faces for any inkling of an eye roll, “You sure you want me to keep going?”
“Mr. Holtzen. Just READ.”
Still wary I continued. Then I heard something I hadn’t expected—a laugh. My eyes darted to the transgressor. Seeing nothing but her invested eyes on me, I realized she had not laughed at her tablemate’s newest comic sketch, but at what I had just read. From my book. After countless revisions, I had forgotten there were parts in my story that could be funny. I penciled, “Laugh” in the margin (it’s still there). Soon after it was tensely quiet during a suspenseful scene, followed by more bouts of laughter—all at the right times.
“This sounds like a real book, Holtzy.”
I had a genuine positive response from a live audience—from “the” audience.
As I continued reading over the next few days, they went on to fret, laugh, and make connections right along with my characters. They caught some mistakes (which they loved).
It provides all the relief you might imagine.
Mark Holtzen grew up in the Pacific Northwest. At thirteen he took a bike trip to the San Juan Islands and has loved visiting ever since. He teaches at Seattle Country Day School.
The Pig War is available at many indie bookstores in the NW. Check here for a list.