Two great books that are worth (re)exploring | Mentoring in the Middle

Two great books that are worth (re)exploring

There's nothing better than a good book.  Even better than that is a good book that's been recommended by a student!  

A few years ago, one of my students had two penpals.  She would often share their letters with me, so when she heard me talk about this new book I'd purchased, she grabbed it up immediately. And then she bought copies to send to each of her penpals.  How sweet is that?

Book cover of I Will Always Write Back

Why read this one to your students?
  • It's informational and most of us read fiction
  • It's a great opportunity to build knowledge for your students about Zimbabwe
  • The contrast between Caitlin's and Martin's lives is dramatic and would allow for exploration of first- and third-world countries.  
  • Compare and contrast as a teaching tool?  Yes!
  • The chapters alternate between Martin's and Caitlin's point of view
  • Martin exemplifies a growth mindset
  • You could help your students find penpals 
  • Your students might want to start a service project
Caitlin is required to write to a pen pal, and she can choose from a long list.  Most kids pick pen pals in Europe, but she picks Martin because she knows nothing about Zimbabwe.  Martin gets to write back because he's the top student in his class, and only ten students get to have pen pals.  Writing back and forth, they forge a friendship that lasts into their adulthood and changes them in ways neither imagined.

Frankly, Caitlin comes from privilege and many of your students might not connect to that.  She's telling the story from her point of view as a white, suburban teenager.  And she and her family reach out to Martin in ways far beyond what they needed to.  They went out of their way to help him with their time and money. There are some powerful lessons here!
Book cover for Serafina and the Black Cloak

Why read this one to your students?
  • It combines several different genres - fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction
  • It has elements of Harry Potter in it (shape-shifting and cloaks that hide you)
  • It takes place at the Biltmore mansion in North Carolina, and you can find tons of pictures and videos for background knowledge
  • It's a great way to learn about life at the turn of the century (1899)
  • It's very suspenseful and some of your more reluctant readers may get drawn in
  • It's the first in a series so some of your students will keep going
  • There are great lessons in text structure (If you only teach text structure as a nonfiction skill, this still can be a great way to review it)
  • Fiction story elements like setting and characterization are excellent
  • Use the story to map out the plot line and have students determine the rising and falling action, climax, and resolution
There are many things to like about this book.  Serafina is an unusual, likable, courageous girl who can see things other people tend to overlook.  She lives, hidden from the owners, in the basement of the Biltmore Estate in 1899, so there's lots of good historical fiction (and some Downton Abbey/Bridgerton-like living from the owners.)  

This book is part magical fairy-tale, part historical fiction, part courageous girl wins in the end.  Children at the Biltmore Estate are going missing, and only Serafina knows what's happening.  It has to do with the man in the black cloak who roams the corridors of the great building late at night. Taking every ounce of courage she has, Serafina enters the woods to solve this mystery, the very woods she's been told to stay out of.  

The book is recommended for grades 5-7 and I have to agree.  There are spooky parts that might be too scary for children younger than that.  But I was surprised at how many of my sixth graders loved it! There was just enough suspense to keep them going, and Serafina and Braeden, her friend, make very believable female and male protagonists.

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