The Power of Reading Time: Books Between, Episode 1

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Episode Transcript:

One of the most important things that we as educators or parents can do is make sure we provide kids with time to read every day – a non-negotiable part of your daily schedule.

Let’s talk about WHY that reading time is so important.

Firstly, kids (just like many adults!) are incredibly busy and often don’t know how to make time for reading. So if they aren’t reading in school, they’re likely not reading AT ALL.

Another huge reason that we need to make time for reading every day is that it builds their endurance for reading. Especially if kids are coming off a long break, they may need some time to work up to those long focused stretches of in-the-zone reading time. Unless we help them with practice at school, their stamina for reading at home just won’t be that great.

Frankly, any other attempts at reading accountability (like reading logs) are often faked. Even strong readers with supportive parents do it – they’re viewed as a nuisance and just one more piece of paperwork that gets in the way of natural reading time. But it’s a lot harder to fake those reading minutes when they’re done in the classroom.

Reading time during the day is correlated with academic achievement. The statistics nerd in me is reluctant to say “caused by” but there is a lot of evidence to show that daily reading is best practice.

The bottom line is that children NEED practice time – just like children in chorus, band, athletics need time to DO THE THING they are trying to get better at. And opportunities to practice with a competent coach available to help them. It’s sort of like kick-starting that motor, giving them a push on that swing to get their momentum going – it WILL translate into longer reading time outside of school. They just need the time and space to get into that flow state – where they are fully immersed in a great story or some fascinating non-fiction book.

So – whether you are a teacher or parent – definitely schedule in that reading time and let me know how it goes for you!

Three Fantastic Fantasy Books

It is time to talk books! This week I have three amazing fantasy books that I loved this year and were some of the most talked about books among my students. There is the classic fantasy trope of seemingly “good” characters turning out to be bad and “bad” characters turning out to be really on the side of the protagonist. And all three of these books accomplish that in unique ways that are really well-written. Plus all three feature a prophecy, a betrayal, and an unlikely and sometimes reluctant hero.

Gregor the Overlander
by Suzanne Collins

First up – Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins who you know from her more famous series The Hunger Games.  But this series is geared toward a bit of a younger crowd – a little less dark and violent – definitely fits more squarely in the “middle grade” category.  So this novel is about a boy, Gregor, who’s about 11 and his little 2 year old sister nicknamed Boots. (I LOVED Boots!) They fall through a grate in their apartment’s laundry room and find themselves deep underground and surrounded by giant cockroaches. And not only is this land populated with giant talking cockroaches, but they also have to contend with oversized and aggressive rats, giant bats, huge spiders, and the mysterious humans with white hair and violet eyes that take in Gregor and his sister.

Throughout the book, Gregor has to decide who he can trust and how far he wants to get involved with the Underlander’s conflicts. It’s about war, loyalty, trust, and destiny with a final punch of a twist at the end. It really is phenomenal, and I have to say…. Suzanne Collins actually made me cry over a cockroach. Truly!

So – if you know a child who likes adventure and books about a quest – this one is a great pick, and it has 4 more books in the series to keep them reading.  It’s a bit like Journey to the Center of the Earth meets The Chronicles of Narnia with a twist of the Hobbit.

Warriors: Into the Wild
by Erin Hunter; Owen Richardson(Illustrator); Dave Stevenson (Illustrator)
Turtleback Books

#2 – Warriors: Into the Wild by Erin Hunter  This book I read at the insistence of my 5th grade students. And the 5th grade students in the class down the hall – it seemed like every kid in my school was pressuring me to read the Warriors series. I gotta say – I didn’t want to. I thought…. Battling Clans of Cats? Not my thing….  But. I read it and I ended up loving it.

It’s about a pet cat named Rusty who leaves behind his tame “kittypet” world for new adventures in the wild forest with the feral Thunder Clan. He earns a new name – Firepaw – becomes an apprentice warrior and trains to hunt, defend the clan’s territory, and follow the Warrior Code. Well – at least SOME of the time he follows the warrior code.  But – not everyone is glad that Firepaw has joined their clan and he has to deal rough treatment by Tigerclaw – one of the older warriors and the suspicion of some of his fellow apprentices. By the end of the book, Firepaw is discovering where his loyalties really are, and when disobeying orders might actually be the right thing to do.

One of the things about these books that I loved was how well Erin Hunter has captured the perspective of cats. Humans are called “Two-legs” and the highway is the “Thunderpath”, and there are mentions of mysterious vet trips.  The author also really NAILS the signature movements of cats; the slow stretch of the back legs, the rocking of their haunches before leaping on prey. It just adds an element of light humor woven through some surprisingly intense and emotional scenes.  

Like other fantasy series, keeping the characters’ names straight is a challenge at first but there’s a guide in the front and not one but TWO maps – one from the cats’ point of view and one from the humans’ point of view. It’s really clever and well-done.

If your middle grade reader likes a book with lots of action and drama – definitely recommend the Warriors series. And there’s also 5 other spin-off series to enjoy as well.

Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy
by Tui T. Sutherland
Scholastic Press

My 3rd fantasy recommendation is Wings of Fire, Book 1: A Dragonet Prophecy by Tui T. Sutherland, who is incidentally also a writer for the Warriors series.

The plot centers around 5 young dragons – called “dragonets” – who have been told they are destined to end the war raging between the 7 dragon tribes. But they were stolen as eggs to fulfill some prophecy and are being held by guardians in an underground cave for their protection. Or… as prisoners, depending on your point of view. Each dragon type has unique characteristics – like Sea Wings breathing under water or Sand Wings breath fire.

Like a lot of fantasy, the first two chapters were a bit confusing trying to figure out names and the relationships between the different types of dragons – but PLEASE encourage and support your readers to stick with it because IT. GETS. GOOD. Suddenly the guardians have turned on some of them, the dragonets escape the cave – barely, they meet a fierce new dragon who chomps the head off a human in one bite, and then they’re taken hostage to fight to the death in an arena in the Sky Kingdom.

Book 1 is mainly about Clay – the Mudwing dragon and his struggles with the expectations for him to fight and fight and FIGHT – when what he really wants to do is to be more nurturing – to protect his siblings.

For me, I rarely read a second book in a series. As a 5th grade teacher with limited time – I usually read just the first book which gives me a sense of the series and helps me know what kind of reader would be a good fit for this series. BUT – I finished Book 1 (which LITERALLY ended with characters hanging off a cliff) and I HAD TO immediately start Book 2 – The Lost Heir, which centers around Tsunami and the Sea Wing Kingdom. The general consensus in my class was that it was actually better than first book.  

You can’t go wrong with the Wings of Fire, Warriors, or Gregor the Overlander. So pick them up for your classroom library or share them with the middle grade readers in your life – all three are great picks.

Q & A

Our third and final segment today is a Question & Answer time.


So I thought it would be fitting for this inaugural episode to delve a little bit into a question that I get asked a lot – “What is the difference between “middle grade” (often abbreviated MG) and “young adult” (abbreviated YA)?


Alright – there are several ways to look at this distinction, target age, length of the book, and content.

First off, let’s talk about age. A middle grade book is typically marketed to preteen kids ages 8-12 with a main character being about that same age. So that’s roughly about grades 3rd -6th.  A young adult book is marketed for readers 13-18, usually with a teenage protagonist. So that’s roughly 7th – 12th grade and up. And I purposely say “marketed to” – we all know that lot of teens (and adults!) “read down” and  LOVE middle grade books and there are some younger kids that eagerly “read up” into YA.

A second way to think about MG vs YA, is the length of the book. Middle grade is typically shorter – 30,000 – 50,000 words with simpler sentences and vocabulary. And Young Adult is generally 50,000 to 75,000 words with more complex writing styles and more sophisticated vocabulary.  The next time you’re at the library or bookstore, just visually scan the chapter book section and the Teen/YA sections and compare the width of the books. You can see right away that Young Adult books are on average a lot longer.

A third lens with which to view Middle Grade books vs Young Adult books is content. Middle Grade books are generally more “clean”. There’s no major profanity – maybe one or two very mild curse words. And if there’s a romance – it’s pretty tame, maybe a date, holding hands, first kiss, crushes are described as “cute” – but that’s about it.  On the other hand, some YA (but not all) can contain some stronger profanity and more explicit sexual content specific for the people interested in this kind of material and content they can also find online with services as Zoom Escorts and others.

The level of violence is another factor that can set MG apart from YA. Young adult books tend to be more gory and edgier than middle grade fiction.

Some have also said that in Middle Grade books, the characters are often dealing with conflicts outside of themselves – they’re reacting to external forces and events.

And middle grade themes tend to be about how to fit in with friends and family. On the other hand, Young Adult themes are more about how to break free from friends and family and establish a unique identity. They tend to have introspection and analysis of the world around them.

But with ALL categories – there are rough guidelines and there are plenty of books that defy easy placement.  I think of Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover or his latest, Booked. Those novels can not be pigeon-holed into MG or YA. They are perfectly suited for all kinds for readers.

When you make a book suggestions, recommend for the child in front of you – not necessarily their age.

There are some great articles about this Middle Grade vs Young Adult topic, so I’ll link to a few of them in the show notes. And please let me know what your thoughts are about this topic.

Thank You

Alright – that’s it for the Q&A section this week. If you have questions about how to connect middle grade readers to books they’ll love or thoughts on anything we’ve discussed today, please email at or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

That wraps up our show this week – thanks so much for listening. You can find a full transcript of the show at our website –  with links to every book I talked about today. And, if you like the show, please subscribe on iTunes, and I’d love it if you left a good rating.

Thanks and see you in a couple weeks!  Bye!

About the Author

Corrina Allen

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Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York. She hosts Books Between, a bi-weekly podcast to help teachers, librarians, and parents connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love. You can connect with Corrina on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.

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