Updated: Aug 15
I’ve always loved a good middle-grade novel. When I was a young, dyslexic student, I favored fantasy fiction, where even misfits could somehow save the day—often after passing through a magical doorway or two.
Now I see that these books were the magical doorways.
Beginning alchemy focuses on the handling of rare salts and sulfur, at first in stone bowls—but soon the students are told to sit on their hands and repeat the experiments using only the chanted word. They generally cannot. Magic takes a long time to learn.
Being held back and subjected to years of tutoring and summer schools didn’t ‘fix’ me—when I’m tired I still muddle words and can’t remember important phone numbers. But I did manage to read myself out of my dyslexic corner and I graduated from Harvard and built a career doing what I love. (Yes, there are dyslexic writers—Agatha Christie being a notable example.)
My latest books—magical mystery adventures about Silent Lee and her unlikely friend, Raahi—have doors on their covers. Silent just happens to have a key that can open doors to parallel worlds. But that’s not the only magic she possesses, as this incident from her schooling demonstrates:
Silent closed her eyes and her ingredients swirled into a tall tree of gold. Soon the rest of the class fell silent, staring.
“Stop that at once!” the instructor cried, hurrying toward her from the front of the alchemy lab. “That’s far too advanced for this level!”
I now find myself assigned to write a teacher’s guide for the Silent Lee stories. Apparently, they work well for class reading—I think it’s both because of what they have and have not. They don’t have teen sex, addiction, or abuse. They aren’t very controversial in schools (except of course where diverse protagonists and un-Christian magic are forbidden).
What they do have is all the elements of fun storytelling that drew me into my lifelong love of books in the first place. I wrote them for the fun of it, and I want readers to enjoy them too.
But there’s the rub, as the Bard put it. (“To sleep - perchance to dream: Ay! There’s the rub!“ Hamlet). Turning my fun stories into instructional material risks taking the fun out. And it brings into focus a bigger problem that is fundamentally related:
Why do contemporary students largely abandon reading during or right after their middle-school years?
As a teacher and parent, I see plenty of enthusiasm for good stories. Kids are intellectually curious and intrigued by many things—but with so much else to focus on in the media world, not as often by books.
Silent would have waved a hand to dissipate the tree and let the golden dust rain down into the chipped bowl. Would have. But a crow’s rude call from just outside the heavy windows, combined with something mean in the instructor’s tone, triggered a spark of anger in her as well. And so the tree continued to grow until students had to duck and cover their heads as the golden branches spread and the golden twigs broke off and tangled in their hair.
I can’t help thinking about one middle-grade student in a classroom where I substituted last spring. I was pulled aside and warned up front that she had “a learning problem”. My antennae tingled, being someone who used to get unfairly labeled too, but I bit my tongue and went into the classroom.
The student was not paying close attention to the elaborate worksheet in front of her—because her nose was buried in a teen vampire novel!
Once most of the class was working on the assignment, I went over and had a chat about her book (which I’d also read). I could go all lit-crit here about the tropes and the helplessness of the female lead, who is swept away by a strong, silent male ten times her age. But I won’t, because this was that student’s magical portal to the joy of reading, and it was doing far more good than any worksheet could. I told her to keep reading as long as she wanted to, and that I’d be happy to help her with the worksheet once she was ready.
The trick, I believe, is to help students discover the joy of reading—and then try not to take that joy away.
However, I’ve studied the Common Core objectives for language arts and literacy, grades four through seven, and guess what’s missing? Anything about the joy of reading. Having fun. Finding voices that speak to you. Learning to love literature.
So my goal as I tackle an instructor’s guide is to help teachers and students enjoy reading about Silent Lee and her adventures.
Experienced readers take pleasure in the use of literary devices, smile at good plot twists, and love it when characters feel real. I’m hoping that I can help teachers with their wonderful work of opening young minds to this wealth of literary understanding. My goal is to deepen the enjoyment of reading, not sour it.
Another thing my stories lack, by the way, is tragedy. We tend to buy into the myth that to be great, literature must be deeply tragic. In books for young readers, this means the dog must die. Then we move them on to stories in which the main characters are fated. The Fault In Our Stars. Of Mice and Men. I understand that ELA teachers crave good writing. Lightweight writing about so-and-so’s summer camp adventures can be deadly, but there is also good writing that doesn’t make middle graders sob into their pillows.
A short while later, Silent Lee found herself sitting in the straight-backed ‘trouble chair’ as students at the Girls’ Academy of Latin and Alchemy (GALA) called it, just outside the headmistress’s office. She ignored the comments of the older girls on their way to class and kept her eyes on the note the alchemy instructor had given her. It was folded over, but she could guess what it said: Disruptive. Disobedient. Flagrant misuse of magic, etc., etc. What would the headmistress do? Would Silent be sent home?
I mentioned Shakespeare partly because it’s interesting that he wrote nearly equal numbers of tragedies and comedies. A fun book can be well written and can be used to teach literature just as well as a tragedy. Or so I hope!
With that goal in mind, I guess I better get back to work on the instructional guide. No, wait. First, let’s find out… Does Silent Lee get expelled?
The heavy oak door creaked and the headmistress with her curly gray hair and wrinkled smile leaned out. “Silent Lee,” she exclaimed—and to Silent’s surprise, she sounded pleased to see her.
Silent cast a rueful glance at the note in her hand.
The headmistress raised an eyebrow, then waved a hand and the note disappeared in a puff of shredded paper. “Come in, dear. I’m just about to have tea and scones. Do you like scones?”
Silent did. Very much.
After they’d dispensed with a warm, buttered scone each, Silent said, “I’m sorry I disturbed the class, Ma’am.”
“By showing them how it’s really done? Don’t let that old crow discourage you. You’ve got real talent.”
“Well, I think this should be long enough to satisfy decorum. Why don’t you finish your tea and pop off to your next class…Unless you prefer to be expelled?”
Silent smiled. “Not today, Ma’am. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Make it next week, if you don’t mind? I’m busy tomorrow.”
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, available on paperback and kindle at Amazon.com His literature curriculum based on Silent Lee's story and other popular middle grade novels is now available at www.websterpress.com