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Friday, April 22, 2011

Transitional Novels: The Best of Both Worlds

New blog follower Maddie recently contacted me to say this:
You need another blog. I enjoy Teach with Picture Books and also your novel blog, but I've got a number of students who fall between these two categories. They want to read novels (always the ones being made into movies) but their skills aren't equal to the task. What would you recommend?
To begin with, I recommended that Maddie write that blog! She seems to know a niche group that needs to be reached. But my other recommendation to her was to get a hold of some transitional novels.

In a June, 2009 post on transitional books at my Teach with Picture Books site, I said:
It's not a bad place to be: stuck between the vast and varied worlds of the picture books and the worlds of the novel. That's where many children find themselves at age eight (give or take), when they're trying to make the independent reading leap from picture books to more difficult chapter books. Is the language in chapter books that much more complex? Not necessarily. But gone are the beautiful contextual clues provided by picture books' illustrations. Fortunately for these readers, we have what can be called transitional books.
I recommended Lincoln and His Boys by Rosemary Wells as an example; Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton (see my post) would also satisfy the requirements of this category.

Let me now share a few more books that I highly recommend for getting this group of students excited about reading, and moving toward more full-length, sophisticated novels.

The Memory Bank by Carolyn Coman and Rob Shepperson is a cool hybrid for the age 8 and up group; like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it's equal parts text and illustration. Note that I didn't say it's illustrated. That's because a good deal of the story is told only through pictures, and it's up to the reader to make sense of what those images tell.

Inside spread from The Memory Bank.
The narration follows Hope, whose mother and father have abandoned Honey, Hope's little sister, on the side of the road. "I've told you a thousand times," Father said, "No laughing." And as the tires squeal, leaving Honey in a cyclone of dust, Father warns Hope, "Forget her." But of course Hope can't, and when a mysterious visitor invites her to leave home, Hope feels that somehow this new adventure might lead her back to her sister.

Meanwhile, Honey's story is told entirely through pictures. We're given quite detailed events, but still... What's going on? The fact is, the World Wide Memory Bank and the Clean Slate Gang are at war, and somehow Honey and Hope are stuck in the middle! The two surreal, parallel stories eventually collide in a surprising and satisfying turn of events.

Me and Rolly Maloo is at first glance just another easy-reader novel, but author Janet S. Wong and illustrator Elizabeth Butler combine traditional chapters and paragraphs with graphic-novel conventions such as frames and speech bubbles, which place the reader more immediately into the action.

What's the action? A moral dilemma, really. When popular Rolly Maloo asks Jenna's help to cheat on a math test, what is Jenna to do? This book provides students with a multiple-perspective look at a common problem, while introducing them to internal and external conflicts. What should you do when the act itself is so simple, yet goes against everything in which you believe?

Me and Rolly Maloo provides several wonderful models for writing which students could try out for themselves. Identify a character in another novel who is also facing a difficult situation. Then, choose one of the portions of Me and Rolly Maloo to read aloud, pointing out that Jenna (or another character) is always careful to weigh all options before choosing a plan of action. That being said, however, is she always honest with herself? How does she sometimes twist facts to choose one option over another? Or, show one of the novel's many interactions between characters via a series of emails, phone calls, letters, or texts.

For those interested in transitional nonfiction chapter books, Usborne publishes a series of Books for Young Readers, which are written at Lexile ranges ranging from 800 to 1000. I'm in no way an expert on this, but by identifying the levels of some books I know, it gives me an idea of the reading difficulty. Ramona Quimby, Age 8, for example, is Lexile Level 860; the slightly higher levels of nonfiction titles are due to the inclusion of proper nouns of places, people, and historical events.

The books are perfect for this group of readers, since they're in a smaller (6 x 8 inches) hardcover format. The text is reader appropriate, not just in skill level but in approach to topic as well. The Holocaust by Susanna Davidson, for example, is one of the most complete, yet age-suitable, titles I've seen on the topic, and I've even made plans to incorporate it into my curriculum when reading The Devil's Arithmetic with my sixth graders. It not only provides much-needed background knowledge to read about this horrific time, but it also leads readers to want to learn more.

Other nonfiction titles in that series include The Story of Spying, Gladiators, The Story of Pirates, The Story of Slavery, and Vietnam. Another terrific title for hard-to-teach topics is The Story of Islam, which provides key understandings into a religion which is making history even today. Every volume contains full color pictures on every page, plus important nonfiction conventions such as captions, table of contents, index, and Internet links. At about seven or eight bucks a book (hardcover!), these can easily supplement any fourth through seventh grade curriculum.

Readers will also enjoy Usborne's Young Readers library of biographies. As a teacher and parent, I've always noticed a pretty huge void between biographies for young readers and those for middle and high schoolers. Students would typically need to make a big leap, of a couple grade level equivalents, to "read up." But titles such as Anne Frank, Florence Nightingale, Marie Antoinette, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, and Martin Luther King, Jr. bridge this gap, offering readers enticing anecdotes and facts at an independent reading level of Lexile 700-900.

I'm really impressed with the quality and readability of Usborne Books, but until just recently I mistakenly thought that they could only be purchased through the random Tupperware-like parties. But you can purchase them through Amazon and many independent Internet sellers. Scholastic Book Clubs have also begin carrying some titles in their monthly offerings. If you're an online seller of Usborne books, feel free to make a comment below and leave us your link.


Megan said...

Ordered several of these from . Thank you for providing such wonderful suggestions!

Patti Zambardino said...

I am so glad to see such great information about Usborne books. My family and I love them so much that I sell them as a business. If anyone is interested in checking out these and many other great Usborne titles, please look at my website where these books can be purchased and sent directly to your home.
Any questions or interested in finding out ways to save money on your purchases feel free to reach out to me @
Thanks for allowing me to share,
Patti Zambardino

Elizabeth said...


I am one of the participating blogs and wanted to stop by to say hello.

silversolara AT gmail DOT com


I have two separate giveaways going on…one is for NIGHT TRAIN and one is my Blog Hop giveaway of HOW TO READ THE AIR.



Cozy in Texas said...

I love The Memory Bank pictures - talented artist.

World Famous said...

I really love to read this kind of stories, Thanks a lot for this wonder story.

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